New Chinese Thinking on Sino-U.S. Relations?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 15

Strategic and Economic Dialogue 2013

Chinese analysts have been assessing whether recent developments, especially the presidential and U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) meetings, have affected U.S.-China relations in major ways. Their general sense is that relations have improved significantly since the nadir of 2010. This assessment, however, downplays the fact that the improvements have been primarily at the declaratory level rather than in major changes to policy or underlying thinking. Some Chinese believe that these latter changes might occur, but would require prior changes in Chinese or U.S. conceptions of their national interests rather than simply changes in principles or concepts. Such a development may have occurred at the recent Sino-U.S. meetings regarding climate change and Chinese economic reform, but not North Korea, cybersecurity or most other issues. Chinese experts acknowledge that Sino-American differences over Japan, North Korea, Taiwan and other critical issues remain managed rather than resolved—priming the potential for a sharp downturn in ties should one of these issues explode.

This analysis also draws heavily on the author’s recent meetings going back to May with Chinese analysts and officials in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenyang as well as other venues.

Assessing Sunnylands and the S&ED

Chinese assessment of the Sunnylands summit between Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama has generally been favorable. For example, State Councilor Yang Jiechi said the summit was of “strategic, constructive and historic significance [and] will have a positive impact on the future development of China-U.S. ties and on the peace, stability and prosperity in the region and across the world as well” (People’s Daily Online, June 10, 2013). Li Jingtian, Executive Vice President of the Central Party School, writes: “A thousand mile-journey begins with a single step. At Sunnyland, Xi Jinping and President Obama have already started down the path toward new U.S.-China great power relations and clarified the goals and methods for achieving this end” (Study Times, June 24).

At the summit, Xi emphasized safeguarding China’s national sovereignty while calling for responsible action and constructive dialogue . He listed four core principles in implementing this new pattern of relations: use existing inter-governmental dialogue and communication mechanisms; open new channels of cooperation through technological exchanges and trade; coordinate policies more on international issues; and establish “a new pattern of military relations compatible with the new pattern of relationship between the two great powers of China and America” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 9). Chinese behavior during these meetings was a classic case of “accommodating while resisting”—acknowledging differences without making specific commitments or concessions. For example, while Obama made cybersecurity a focus of the Sunnylands summit, the two sides simply reaffirmed their earlier agreement to establish a working group on the issue and seek “rules of the road.”

The hope that the July 10-11 S&ED would transform the general declaratory agreements at the presidential meeting into concrete commitments and initiatives was realized in only a few cases (People’s Daily, July 9). For example, Beijing and Washington agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from heavy-duty vehicles and coal as well as to improve energy efficiency. Unlike in the past, the two sides agreed to prepare specific implementation plans by October 2013. The S&ED focused mostly on economic issues, reflected the shared desire to promote mutual trade and investment. The resumption of negotiations on their long-stalled bilateral investment treaty may prove to be the most important achievement of this S&ED round.

The Chinese government welcomed the candid, in-depth and constructive dialogue on issues like promoting a “New Type of Great Power Relations,” enhancing mutual trust, and global and regional hotspots (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 12). S&ED participant Vice Premier Wang Yang said the discussions “show the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation in a new-type of relationship between major powers” (Xinhua, July 11). Chinese media commentary was also favorable. For instance, one People’s University professor praised the “long term perspective and the will to deal with concrete issues” and the commitment “to a comprehensive agenda that serves the overall interests of both participants” seen in S&ED (People’s Daily Online, July 16). Other articles praised the proposed relaxation of restrictions on bilateral investment (Xinhua, July 22; China Daily, July 15; Guangming Daily, July 13).

Yet, in both meetings, the two sides failed to make visible progress on many security issues (e.g. China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors or U.S. rebalancing) because the underlying drivers of the Sino-U.S. competition persist. Chinese newspapers avoided discussions of these unresolved issues. For example, the coverage on cybersecurity merely noted that both countries suffer from Internet attacks and are addressing the issue by establishing a working group (People’s Daily Online, July 13; China Daily, June 5). The lack of explicit U.S. support for the concept of a ”New Type of Great Power Relationship” as specifically described by Beijing also did not appear in the newspapers. Instead, the Chinese press stated both governments had “an honest, in-depth and constructive dialogue on pushing forward” such relations (People’s Daily Online, July 13).

New Concepts Awaiting New Policies

Chinese academics generally downplay perceptions that the new Xi Jinping administration has (yet) made major changes in China’s foreign policies. They argue the changes are mostly stylistic. For example, while Xi and other leaders more openly express annoyance at North Korea’s provocative behavior, they also are blunter in criticizing U.S. policies, such as missile defense programs in Asia. Chinese experts did not anticipate any major near-term changes in their country’s actual foreign policies and suggested such changes probably would occur only in the context of a comprehensive and integrated revision in China’s foreign policies rather than piecemeal. These changes could aim to achieve major improvements in China’s ties with the United States, though they could also represent a more comprehensive effort to counter the so-called “pivot” (Global Times, April 24).

Chinese analysts continue to critique U.S. policies and Americans’ alleged Cold War mentality—at times suggesting Washington even seeks to subvert China (Global View, June 26). They oppose Washington’s meddling in what they see as China’s spheres-of-influence, especially by siding with neighboring countries in their disputes with Beijing (, August 11, 2011). They denounce Washington’s proclivity to use force without the approval of the UN Security Council, where Beijing enjoys veto power. They also dislike the U.S.-led military alliance network in Asia and call for an end to Washington’s “bloc” mentality (Global Times, April 24; China Daily, February 13, 2012). Chinese analysts continue to attack what they see as U.S. interference in China’s internal affairs. These analysts dismiss Washington’s claims to global stewardship in upholding benign principles of international behavior as hypocritical professions to pursue U.S. interests under the guise of defending universal values (East Asia Forum, June 14; PLA Daily, August 12, 2010). In his speech at Moscow’s leading international relations school earlier this year, Xi stated “We must respect the right of each country in the world to independently choose its path of development and oppose interference in the internal affairs of other countries.” Xi added ”Strong Chinese-Russian relations…not only answer to our interests but also serve as an important, reliable guarantee of an international strategic balance and peace” (People’s Daily, March 24; Reuters, March 23).

Chinese analysts are clearer in terms of what they want to avoid—confrontation with the United States—than what positive results they hope to achieve. They also focus on the process—the need for more dialogue—rather than concrete outcomes. For example, Ambassador Cui Tiankai said the Sunnyland summit had “clarified the direction” for a new era in U.S.-China relations but added that both sides needed more dialogue, cooperation and communication on the issues of cybersecurity and climate change (China Radio International, July 8). In his post-summit news conference, President Xi stressed that, “Both sides agreed to strengthen dialogue and communication at various levels, and continuously enhance mutual understanding and trust. I and President Obama will continue to keep close contacts through exchange of visits, meetings, telephone calls and letters.” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 8).

Related to the focus on avoidance rather than achievement, Chinese analysts place the burden on the United States to avoid the logic of confrontation and promote “mutual trust” by accommodating Beijing’s interests regarding territorial disputes, Taiwan, human rights and other issues. A common refrain in Chinese commentary on these contested issues is for the United States “to respect the facts”—that is the correctness of Beijing’s position (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 12; Xinhua, January 22, 2010). In addition, many Chinese analysts resist the great power label for their country and see themselves simultaneously as a developed and developing nation. This conflicted identity can sometimes make it difficult for China’s leaders to define their national interests and pursue a coherent policy. Furthermore, this Chinese reasoning is instrumental in nature. They believe China would benefit from having good relations with the United States. There was not an ideological conviction that good China-U.S. relations represented a value in itself.

Pivot Problems and Divergent Regional Security Concerns

These constraints are evident in how Chinese experts view the Obama administration’s rebalancing in Asia. Chinese experts appear more divided over the goals and effects of the U.S. rebalancing. When it was first announced in the context of the 2010 clashes between the United States and China over regional sovereignty issues, many Chinese analysts and officials saw strategic rebalancing as primarily designed to constrain China’s rise under the pretext of realigning U.S. attention toward Asia (“Fear and Loathing in Beijing? Chinese Suspicions of U.S. Intentions,” China Brief, September 30, 2011). More analysts profess to contest that view, with some accepting at face value the Obama administration’s argument that the shift represents a natural response to the changing global security environment. Some also do not believe the increased U.S. focus on Asia will result in a major elevation in U.S. influence in the region due to constraints on U.S. power. In fact, many Chinese analysts anticipate a weakening of the pivot as the dominant thrust of U.S. foreign policy due to the U.S. budget crisis, the inability of the U.S. to disengage from Middle East crises, and other factors.

One increasingly prominent line of thought is that Japan, the Philippines and other countries are seeking to exploit the rebalancing to entrap Washington to support them in territorial conflicts with China. In the past, Chinese analysts had depicted cunning U.S. officials trying to manipulate regional rivalries to encourage local actors to confront Beijing (“Pivot and Parry: China’s Response to America’s New Defense Strategy,” China Brief, March 15, 2012). Some Chinese analysts now maintain that U.S. policymakers are allowing other countries to maneuver Washington against China. They argue that the pivot could cut short promising changes in China’s policy toward North Korea and other issues prematurely by requiring Beijing to reaffirm its own traditional regional alignments [1].

At both meetings, China and the United States advocated the denuclearization of North Korea, but Beijing did not commit to new and specific measures against the North. The recent visit by South Korean President Park Geun-hye to China gathered much favorable media coverage in both countries but also did not see a major shift in Beijing’s position. Chinese experts still oppose the efforts of Washington and U.S. allies to impose strong sanctions that could precipitate the North Korean regime’s sudden collapse—which they still see as a U.S. goal (China Institute of International Studies, May 28). Many Chinese would welcome a change in Pyongyang’s behavior, especially an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, but they oppose any harsh measures that could engender humanitarian emergencies, economic hardships or military conflicts. To avert these risky developments, Chinese analysts tend to downplay or overlook Pyongyang’s provocations even though they recognize North Korea’s confrontational policies complicate Chinese diplomatic outreach toward South Korea and entrench the U.S. military presence in northeast Asia.

The dilemma was most evident in my conversations in Shenyang, a large Chinese city close to the North Korean border. The local scholars were deeply frustrated with Pyongyang’s ingratitude for decades of Chinese support and North Koreans’ failure to take advantage of Beijing’s assistance to move along China’s post-Mao path toward more moderate foreign and domestic policies. They also regretted that China’s was allied with North rather than South Korea. Above all else, Shenyang intellectuals worry that their unwelcome neighbor would implode and dump a horrible mess on them—and that Washington was trying to maneuver Beijing into contributing to its demise [2].

While U.S. policymakers understandably are preoccupied with China’s policies toward North Korea, my Chinese interlocutors were fixated on Japan. In almost every conversation I had in China, including in the university classes I taught in Beijing and Shanghai, the Chinese academics and students faulted Tokyo for stirring up its territorial dispute with China by nationalizing the disputed islands and U.S. policy for contributing to Japan’s re-militarization through a combination of naïve indifference and a purposeful effort to rely on Japanese nationalists to reinforce U.S. power in the region.


The leadership transition in Beijing and the subsequent high-level China-U.S. meetings have yet to achieve a major conceptual or policy breakthrough in overcoming bilateral tensions. The meetings have certainly not established a “New Type of Great Power Relationship”—the declared goal of Chinese diplomacy. The new Chinese thinking has occurred, but has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. For example, previously Chinese analysts warned that the United States was using the pivot to embolden China’s neighbors to confront Beijing, now they warn that Washington naively is allowing Japanese rightists and other local nationalists to manipulate the United States into confronting China on their behalf. In addition, while many Chinese view North Korea less favorably in the past, and some would like to dump Pyongyang for Seoul, Chinese analysts see the main regional security as Japan’s remilitarization rather than North Korean provocations.

The author would like to thank Xiao Han, Man Ching Lam, Su Wang, Vicki Weiqi Yang and Shuyang Yu for their assistance with Chinese-language sources.


  1. Author’s interviews and roundtable with think tanks and academic institutions in Beijing, May 8-9, 2013.
  2. Author’s attendance at a conference, Shenyang, July 18, 2013.
  3. Su Hao, Presentation at Asan Forum, Seoul, May 1, 2013.