A New Type of Major-Power Relationship: Seeking a Durable Foundation for U.S.-China Ties

A New Type of Major-Power Relationship
Seeking a Durable Foundation for U.S.-China Ties

by David M. Lampton
July 15, 2013

In this advance Asia Policy 16 release, David M. Lampton (Johns Hopkins-SAIS) proposes measures to reduce mistrust in U.S.-China relations and build a new type of major-power relationship.



During his trip to Washington, D.C., in February 2012, Xi Jinping called for “a new type of relationship between major countries in the 21st century.” Over the last year, this vague but potentially useful concept has been generally endorsed by leaders in Washington. The core premises of such a relationship are that major conflict between the U.S. and China is not inevitable, that it would be catastrophic for each country and for the world should it occur, and that the opportunity costs of simple noncooperation on key issues are enormous. This essay argues that features of a new type of relationship based on cooperation include greatly expanding the number and scale of employment-generating enterprises that each country establishes in the other; developing better internal coordination of foreign and security policy in each nation; augmenting crisis-management capabilities; broadening, deepening, and institutionalizing military-to-military cooperation and strategic dialogue; and building economic and security institutions in Asia that include both countries, rather than each side trying to build organizations that exclude the other.


Leaders in both the U.S. and China should take the following concrete steps to build a new major-power relationship:

  • Encourage greater employment-generating FDI in each other’s country and knock down roadblocks to investment, in part by bringing to fruition a bilateral investment treaty
  • Rethink the U.S.-China bilateral dialogue mechanism and appoint a very senior official on each side to be clearly in charge of relationship management
  • Institutionalize and broaden military-to-military cooperation and exchange to all levels and all services and emphasize strategic discussions
  • Improve each side’s management of key third-party actors Avoid gratuitous acts that alienate citizens in the other country
A New Type of Major-Power Relationship: Seeking a Durable Foundation for U.S.-China Ties

David M. Lampton is Professor and Director of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. In 2010, he won the inaugural Scalapino Prize awarded by the National Bureau of Asian Research and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Dr. Lampton’s latest book is entitled Following the Leader: Ruling China, From Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping (forthcoming in 2014).

Note: The author wishes to thank the anonymous reviewers of this essay for their suggestions, as well as the Institute of American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, and its Director Huang Ping, for facilitating interviews in January 2013. A significantly different version of this essay will be published in Chinese by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The phrase “a new type of relationship between major countries in the 21st century” (xinxing daguo guanxi) is a key and useful concept proposed by then vice-president Xi Jinping in his February 15, 2012, speech in Washington, D.C. Sketching out what he had in mind, Xi said that such a relationship would be characterized by “mutual understanding and strategic trust,” “respecting each other’s ‘core interests,’ ” “mutually beneficial cooperation,” and “enhancing cooperation and coordination in international affairs and on global issues.” [1] Subsequently, at the fourth U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing in May 2012, then president Hu Jintao and state councilor Dai Bingguo proposed to discuss the joint development of a new type of relations between major countries, a call also made by then state councilor and defense minister Liang Guanglie when he visited Washington the same month. Thereafter, at the June 2012 group of twenty (G-20) meeting in Mexico, U.S. president Barack Obama and Hu met, with the Chinese leader reportedly proposing to deepen dialogues, seek win-win cooperation, properly manage frictions, and share global responsibilities. [2] China’s subsequently designated ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, elaborated at length on these themes with Pang Hanzhao in a July 2012 document carried on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website and in China International Strategy Review. [3] In the current era of President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, Li responded to a question posed at a National People’s Congress press conference on March 17, 2013, by saying: “I don’t believe conflicts between big powers are inevitable…. Shared interests often override their disputes….We’re willing to construct, together with the Obama Administration, a new type of relationship between big powers.” [4]

As these Chinese statements rolled out, the Obama administration reacted positively in a series of comments made by then secretary of state Hillary Clinton in March 2012 and reportedly by President Obama in June of that same year. A week prior to Premier Li’s remarks in March 2013, Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, summarized the administration’s general reaction at some length:

I disagree with the premise put forward by some historians and theorists that a rising power and an established power are somehow destined for conflict. There is nothing preordained about such an outcome. It is not a law of physics, but a series of choices by leaders that lead to great power confrontation. Others have called for containment. We reject that, too. A better outcome is possible. But it falls to both sides—the United States and China—to build a new model of relations between an existing power and an emerging one. Xi Jinping and President Obama have both endorsed this goal. [5]

In the past, Washington has urged Beijing to advance a comprehensive vision of the two nations’ respective regional and global roles in the era of interdependence and growing Chinese strength, a vision that hopefully can advance cooperation. This Chinese initiative to start a dialogue on a new type of major-power relations is thus a development that Washington should, and seemingly does, welcome. To date, however, the initial suggestions from both countries have predictably focused more on what each side wants the other to do rather than on what China and the United States both must do. This essay aims to move the discussion forward by specifying the economic and security domains in which cooperation needs to be initiated or enhanced and by making specific policy proposals.

There is some urgency for concrete thinking because there are worrying developments, both in bilateral relations and in the level of tension in some parts of Asia today. China’s spring 2013 defense white paper, approved by the highest levels of the Chinese party-state, makes clear the dimensions of the problem:

China still faces multiple and complicated security threats and challenges. Some country [the United States] has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser. On the issues concerning China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some neighboring countries are taking actions that complicate or exacerbate the situation, and Japan is making trouble over the issue of the Diaoyu Islands. The threats posed by “three forces,” namely, terrorism, separatism and extremism, are on the rise…. Changes in the form of war from mechanization to informationization are accelerating. Major powers are vigorously developing new and more sophisticated military technologies so as to ensure that they can…

[1] Xi Jinping (speech at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and U.S.-China Business Council Luncheon, Washington, D.C., February 15, 2012), http://www.ncuscr.org/programs/luncheon-honor-vice-president-xi-jinping.

[2] Zhang Tuosheng, “Developing a New Type of Major Power Relationship between China and the U.S.,” China and U.S. Focus, January 4, 2013, http://www.chinausfocus.com/print.?id=22800. See also Michael S. Chase, “China’s Search for a ‘New Type of Great Power Relationship,’ ” Jamestown Foundation, China Brief, September 7, 2012.

[3] Cui Tiankai and Pang Hanzhao, “China-U.S. Relations in China’s Overall Diplomacy in the New Era: On China and U.S. Working Together to Build a New-Type Relationship between Major Countries,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), July 20, 2012, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx/t953682.htm.

[4] “More Opportunities for Sino-U.S. Trade, Investment: Premier,” Xinhua, March 17, 2013, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-03/17/c_132240139.htm.

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