Xi Jinping: Chinese President Wants a "New Type of Great Power Relationship," Largely On His Terms


China is a great and rising power in the world and it wants more respect from the world's only superpower, the United States. After years of tension, China's President Xi Jinping has pushed for the start of a "new type of great power relationship" between the U.S. and Chinese militaries in exchange for a "big gift" in the form of North Korea's return to peace talks during talks with the U.S. national security advisor in light of the "critical juncture" that U.S.-China relations has reached.

Many experts from both China and the U.S. on Sino-U.S. Relations are unclear about exactly what Xi means by putting forward this deal, given the vagueness of the language. However, one can speculate that this offer will be used as a bargaining tool in Xi's talks with Obama at the California summit as there are other issues of contention that Obama will bring, including Chinese cyberattacks, siphoning of U.S.intellectual property, and the motives behind the deal.

The Chinese Offer:

During National Security Advisor Donilon's two-day visit to China, President Xi spoke about creating a new type of relationship between the two countries' militaries. The Jamestown Foundation identified four basic principles behind the proffered "new" relationship:

(1) The United States and China should continue to engage in a broad range of dialogues, strive to enhance mutual trust and continue to maintain high-level communication through senior-level visits, meetings, telephone conversations and letters;

(2) The United States and China should further deepen "win-win cooperation" in traditional fields — such as commerce, investment, law enforcement, education, and science and technology — while pursuing a similar level of cooperation in emerging areas such as energy, environment and infrastructure construction;

(3) The two countries should "properly manage their differences" and minimize interference or disruption from outside factors, such as by insulating the relationship from the U.S. presidential campaign;

(4) The United States and China should share international responsibilities to better meet global challenges, and maintain "a healthy interaction" in the Asia-Pacific region (Xinhua, June 20).

In short, Xi appears to be offering a quid pro quo strategic deal that advances Chinese national interests in gaining greater prominence through a more even footing relative to the U.S. military and thereby elevate China's perceived standing in the world.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University and adviser to the Chinese government, believes that by pushing for this new relationship, "[Xi] wants the American president to recognize that China is dramatically rising in military and economic ways, and he wants the president to know that he is active in world diplomacy. If the American president recognizes all of these things, then Xi can be nicer, nicer in his definition, in a very tense situation."

According to the professor, the promised Chinese pressure on North Korea is part of a steady policy being implemented by Xi as "[u]nder Xi, [China and the U.S.] can have some big gives and big takes."

To show good faith, the Chinese have closed a key account belonging to North Korea's Foreign Trade Bank. Top Chinese banks have ceased to do business with North Korea.

A senior U.S. Treasury Department official expressed appreciation for China's move to adhere to the United Nations sanctions by commenting that "[The U.S.] welcome[s] these steps to protect the financial system from illicit North Korean [nuclear] activity."

It's worth noting that this "new" Chinese policy is based on a age old pursuit of stability and constructive relationship can be traced back to the Nixon administration's so-called "opening" of China in 1972.

Obstacles to Acceptance

While the U.S. may be interested in fostering a more secure Asia through further talks with North Korea, it has a host of grievances against China that may prevent the enigmatic "new type of great power relationship" that Xi is pushing.

First, there is the laundry list of cyberattacks that the PLA has purportedly launched against the U.S., which remain under way even after the exposure of a PLA connection through a secret cyberwarfare unit based in Shanghai and a issue that Donilon brought up during his recent address at the Asia Society.

The secret unit has restarted its cyber operations after the heat in Western media has died down in recent weeks. This doesn't bode well as there is a deep-seated suspicion and animosity in the U.S. towards China's cyber activities, ranging from massive online campaigns to targeted attacks against U.S. targets for political and economic gain.

Cybersecurity is fast becoming a top national security issue and China is a primary adversary in this field. This course, on China's part, clearly does not contribute to the creation of a "new type of great power relationship."

Secondly, China is listed as the top source of theft of intellectual property, which is highlighted by the Intellectual Property Commission's recent report — which estimates that roughly 70% of all thefts of U.S. intellectual property can be traced back to China.

Why is this alarming? Because the loss of intellectual property costs the U.S. economy a great deal.

"The annual losses are likely to be comparable to the current annual level of U.S. exports to Asia — over $300 billion. The exact figure is unknowable, but private and governmental studies tend to understate the impacts due to inadequacies in data or scope."

Therefore, China's prominent role in this massive undertaking reflects poorly on Beijing and hampers its ability to seek a more equal footing with the U.S.

Lastly, there is a question of the motivation behind this offer from China. The purpose is to satiate a domestic need for strong public image of China as a great and rising power after being subjugated and abused by the West from the age of imperialism to recent times.

Michael Chase of the Jamestown Foundation characterized China's motive as follows:

"The most problematic aspect of Beijing's vision of a 'new type' of U.S.-China relationship is that it appears to require Washington to accommodate China's interests and to do so largely on Beijing's terms — apparently without reciprocal adjustments. Although some of the language that suggests it is the United States alone that needs to change its approach is perhaps intended, at least partly, for domestic consumption, it also seems to reflect China’s estimation of its growing leverage in the relationship."

In short, China is asking the U.S. to play by its rules and make concessions to even the playing field for itself, while the broader purpose is to satisfy a restless Chinese public.

Can this offer be a win-win enterprise for the U.S. and China? Yes, but with caveats and luck. China's assertive attitude is to be expected of a rising power and cooperation is likely the best course for the U.S., the established power, to resolve major differences. Engagement on the highest levels of government is natural and can be constructive and risky at the same time. The two countries will not see eye to eye on many issues and though they share similar goals of stability and security, the path to these broad ideals will diverge.

One thing is certain, getting North Korea back to the negotiation tables is a good start. But what happens at the talks and elsewhere is another matter. The California summit provides a chance for Obama and Xi to see if this "new type of great power relationship" has a future.