A New Type of Relationship between Major Countries and South Korea: Historical and Strategic Implications

After the Sino-US summit at Sunnylands on June 7-8, 2013, the Chinese idea of a “new type of great power relations” (xinxingdaguoguanxi, 新型大国关系) has, more than ever, attracted attention. During the summit Xi Jinping and Barack Obama emphasized cooperation for international peace and stability and jointly solving global problems. The shirt-sleeve diplomacy between them had some success in reaching agreement on issues pertaining to climate change and the North Korean nuclear threat. However, the meeting also exposed different views and conflicting national interests on a wide variety of issues, such as cyberespionage, arms sales to Taiwan, and maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Although the Chinese “new type of great power relations” stresses peace and cooperation based on equality, mutual benefit, and reciprocity,1 the divergent views and national interests that were exposed during the summit are indicative of serious obstacles along the new path. In fact, after the summit, the Snowden incident, the diverse approaches to resolving the Syrian civil war and North Korean nuclear threats, economic disputes, such as the reevaluation of the RMB, piracy, investment law, and a series of Chinese leaders’ speeches that explicitly reject Western political and social values and institutions have cast a dark shadow on future cooperation between the two superpowers.

While the two prepare for competition, neighbors of China have shown somewhat different responses to it, while struggling to maximize their own national interests through finding a strategic equilibrium between the two superpowers. Their basic strategies were very similar, recognizing the dual impact of China’s rise: both a chance for development and a possibility of a coming threat. Neighboring countries, first of all, want to have good economic relations with China but need the US presence in the region to ameliorate China’s potential threat, especially after the exacerbation of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Most want to enhance their political and security ties with the United States at least to some extent to cope with China’s growing regional influence, but not to the extent that US influence interferes in their internal affairs or that US partnership or alliance may harm fundamental economic cooperation with China.

This article focuses on how a “new type of great power relations” impacts South Korea’s foreign policy, especially its strategy to find an appropriate location between the established power and the rising power. The article has two goals. First, it attempts to figure out the nature of a “new type of relationship between major countries” from the Chinese perspective through three approaches: 1) seeking China’s definitions of a “new type of relationship” and “major country”; 2) focusing on the historical evolution of bilateral relations between the United States and China; and 3) examining the recent strategic competition between the United States and China in East Asia. Second, this article aims to analyze how the frictional factors of the “G2,” whether China likes this term or not, will impact South Korea’s relationship with China. For this, the article covers two main points: 1) neighboring countries’ perceptions of the balance of power between the United States and China in East Asia; and 2) the US-PRC competition for universal values, norms, and standards and the position of South Korea.

The “New Type of Great Power Relations”: Competing with the United States

“Major Powers” and a “New Type of Relations” in Chinese foreign policy
Although many Western scholars translate xinxingdaguoguanxi (新型大国关系) as a “new type of great power relations,” the Chinese government officially translates it as a “new type of relationship between major countries.” Leaders, including Vice President Xi (February 2012) and upper-level diplomats, such as State Councilor Dai Bingguo (May 2010) and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Cui Tiankai (with Pang Hanzhao, July 2012), have continuously explained the idea of a new model of Sino-US relations.2 A “new type of great power relations” was officially announced by President Hu Jintao at the opening session of the fourth round of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue on May 4, 2012.

According to the official documents of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, China has described Russia, India, Germany, Great Britain, France, and the United States as “major countries” (daguo, 大国). These documents also use the term a “new type of relations” (xinxingguanxi, 新型关系) with these major countries. For example, in the China-France Joint Communiqué of 1997, the Chinese government describes France as a major country and asks to establish a “new type of relations” between the two.3 The Chinese government also called Russia a major country, as in a lecture by Jiang Zemin on November 7, 2000.4 India was another state designated as a major country on an official foreign document, the “Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India” on June 23, 2003.5 In addition, the Chinese government also used the term a “new-type of relations (新型关系)” with Middle Eastern and European countries.6 Therefore a “major country” and a “new type of relations” are neither newly created concepts nor only used for the US relationship in the history of Chinese foreign policy.

Three historical landmarks in China’s partnership with the United States
In general, neighboring countries in East Asia, have considered the “new type of great power relations” along with the US pivot to Asia, matters of great importance. The success of the Chinese new model of relations with the United States is a matter not only between the two countries but also among the neighboring countries. These days, many trace a “new type of great power relations” back to Hu Jintao’s opening remarks to the fourth Strategic and Economic Dialogue in May 2012. Hu emphasized mutual respect as well as mutual benefits and prosperity between the United States and China. Amid recurrent frictions and examples of distrust between the two countries, many wondered how this concept applies. At the same time, they raised questions about whether it can defy the understanding of international relations theories, including realist and transitional theories, and historical experiences.

To understand the nature of China’s concept of a “new type of great power relations,” we, first of all, should look back to the three landmark summits between the two countries. The “new type of great power relations” suggests a relationship that has evolved from ping pong games between the two countries preceding the historic detente in the early 1970s. After Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China in 1971, the summit between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in 1972 opened up a new era of strategic cooperation against the Soviet Union. Their strategic partnership was mainly brought about by security concerns. A threat from Moscow drove Mao to establish this new security partnership. About two decades later, the United States and China witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The major theme of the second historic summit was economics. In 1979, after his political victory over Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping made the first visit to the United States by a paramount Chinese leader, normalizing bilateral relations. After launching the open door and reform policy, Deng over the following year tried to show the sincerity of his economic reform in approximately eighty meetings and press conferences as well as visits to industrial areas during six days of his nine-day visit to the United States. Indeed, Deng established a new relationship of economic cooperation, and the US government, of course, welcomed it. On the contrary, within China, there were many disputes over Deng’s reform policy from its inception. Along with the end of the Cold War and the June 4, 1989, traumatic events, the ideological dispute over Deng’s policies inflamed Chinese politics. However, Deng suggested “taoguangyanghui (韬光养晦)” as China’s foreign strategy and reinvigorated his open door and reform policy through his “southern tour” (nanxunjianghua, 南巡讲话) in early 1992. Rapid economic development was further advanced by joining the WTO in 2001, understood as China accepting the economic institutions of international society. As a result, China became the second largest economic power in the world based on GDP about three decades after Deng’s visit to the United States, and many economic analysts expect it to take the lead before long, as one prediction argued that it will be the world’s largest economy by 2027.7

Third, the Sino-US relationship has recently entered a new historical stage of cooperation and competition between two superior “major countries,” with the Sunnylands summit as the third landmark event changing the focus of the relationship. In February 2012, Xi Jinping, as vice president, officially visited the United States and mentioned a “new type of relationship between major countries in the 21st century,” and repeatedly called for mutual respect of each other’s core interests. A year later, when Xi met Obama both agreed on cooperation for resolving the problems facing world society. As Ren Xiao points out, Xi emphasized again a “new type of great power relations” with three points: 1) neither a confrontation nor a conflict; 2) mutual respect; and 3) win-win cooperation.8 Yet, the two leaders did not have a roadmap in an era of strategic competition for 1) how the leaders of two countries can reach an agreement when their national interests collide; 2) how the two governments cooperate to solve regional issues with different values and norms; and 3) how the two countries establish international regimes and a legitimate rule-setting process to seek peace and stability in the world while they, as Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jixi argue,9 suffer from a lack of trust. At the third landmark summit and in regular dialogues of top officials, they are grappling with the establishment of a G2 (even if the term is avoided) economic and security arrangement.


Recent strategic competition between the United States and China in East Asia

In December 2008, State Councilor Dai Bingguo delivered a speech at the Brookings Institution, which for the first time mentioned “a new type of relationship” (xinxingguanxi, 新型关系) between the two countries. At the dinner marking “the 30th anniversary of the establishment of China-US diplomatic relations” he stated that “the Cold War mentality and zero-sum logic have lost relevance and become outdated. It is not right to believe that ‘if you live, I will die; if you win, I will lose; if you rise, I will fall; if you prosper, I will perish; and if you are safe, I am in danger.’”10 Three days later, Dai said “China and the United States are partners rather than rivals, still less enemies. The China-US relationship is not a zero-sum game but a win-win relationship,” concluding that “Both sides should build between China and the United States, two big countries with different social systems and cultures and at different levels of development, a new type of relationship featuring harmony and common development in the 21st century.”11

The US government’s answer to China’s suggestion, influenced by perceptions of China’s policies, was the “pivot to Asia.” In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “Back in Asia” was a signal of a deeper US commitment to East Asia,12 as seen in a proactive approach to Southeast Asian countries through a series of visits by Obama and Clinton. The Chinese government showed its aggressive stance on the territorial dispute in the South China Sea as well as the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in 2010. Most East Asian countries who watched these reactions to the territorial disputes by and large welcomed the regional power balancing when Obama announced the “pivot to Asia” in 2010. In 2011, Clinton published her article “America’s Pacific Century” clarifying the US “rebalancing” policy.13 As noted above, Xi Jinping’s a “new type of great power relations” respecting each country’s core interests and Hu Jintao’s official announcement of a “new type of great power relations” followed.

Perceptions and Reactions to the “Strategic” Sino-US Balance of Power in East Asia

It is clear that the “rise of China” has impacted neighboring countries’ perceptions of the strategic balance of power in Asia. In 2008, China successfully hosted the Beijing Olympic Games, and the Lehman shock in the United States stimulated Chinese people’s nationalism and pride. The Chinese government showed more assertive, sometimes aggressive, stances on the issue of the territorial dispute of Diaoyu/Senkaku as well as the South China Sea.

The debates on the balance of power in Asia have been more heated after the US government employed the “pivot to Asia” as its slogan. Asian countries, which had watched the rapid expansion of China’s influence over the region as well as its aggressive diplomacy, largely welcomed this refocusing on Asia and enhancement of security alliances and partnerships, and Chinese sources condemned such moves as containment. Many experts argue that China’s comprehensive national power cannot now match that of the United States. Although China has its own stealth fighters (J-20) and an aircraft carrier (Liaoning), the US military power and defense budget (US$682 billion vs. US$166 billion for China, according to data from IISS and SIPRI) are far ahead. Although China is now the second largest economic power in the world according to the GDP index, the figure of China’s GDP was still half that of the United States in 2012, and China’s GDP per capita has only reached just over US$5,000.

Under these circumstances, most of China’s neighbors have taken similar stances to expand their economic ties with China while cautiously promoting military cooperation with the United States in order to cope with the rapidly increasing Chinese economic and political influence in the region. However, we should also note that most countries in this expansive neighborhood, especially India, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and the ASEAN countries, have hesitated to enhance their security cooperation with the United States to the extent that it might damage the equilibrium they are seeking in the US-China strategic competition. Due to different strategic calculations, neighboring countries have varied in their responses. For example, Japan and the Philippines significantly enhanced their alliances with the United States, seemingly against China. In contrast, Australia and South Korea have tried to promote economic relations with China without weakening their strong security alliances with the United States. Yet, China has been increasing its pressure against some alliance moves and lately US concern has been mounting over the security implications of Huawei gaining a major role in South Korean telecommunications.

Divergent Strategic Interests of the US and China

Although the “new type of great power relations” emphasizes cooperation and fair competition between China and the United States, strategic national interests as well as different values, standards, and norms may portend serious challenges in the future. The first issue is US security alliances and partnerships, which many Chinese leaders regard as containment. If the ROK-US-Japan collective security system is established, or if South Korea will participate in the US-led missile defense system, the Chinese government’s burden of defense expenditures will rise, and China may resort to new ways to pressure US allies. Second, the US extended nuclear deterrence may be negatively affected. In the Libyan, Iranian, and Syrian cases, the Chinese government put more weight on the sovereignty of the state than on human rights or current universal norms for the global order that has been led by the United States and Western powers for a long time. While some experts argue that China’s North Korean policy has fundamentally changed since the third nuclear test in February 2013, China seems still to support the Kim Jong-un regime. If it perceives “rebalancing” as containing China’s movements, the strategic value of North Korea will be higher to China and, as a result, resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue will be more difficult.

As we have watched in the recent Syrian case, divergent strategic national interests as well as different norms and values have become serious obstacles against cooperation between the the US-led “Group of Friends of the Syrian People” and the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. Furthermore, as long as Chinese leaders uphold socialism with Chinese characteristics and refuse to recognize the current universal norms and standards, as they clearly do not in “Document No. 9,”14 the competition over values and norms with the United States will be heated, and the soft power dispute between the two superpowers is bound to intensify.

The Implications of a “New Type of Great Power Relations” for South Korea

South Korea has very carefully watched the Chinese “new type of great power relations” and US responses. It welcomes cooperation between the two superpowers for the peace and stability of Northeast Asia. Wanting to improve its relationship with China for economic development, it, however, does not mean to do so at the expense of the US-ROK alliance. Indeed, the worst nightmare for South Korea is to face a situation requiring a choice between the United States and China. As Scott Snyder and other experts point out, “a positive framework for US-China relations provides South Korea with an opportunity to establish much more comprehensive cooperation with China without feeling that it has to choose between China and the United States.”15

However, the current situation is different from searching for a proper strategic position between the two. The ROK-PRC relationship has been much better than it was under the Lee Myung-bak administration, and bilateral economic cooperation has improved through fast-track negotiations on the ROK-PRC FTA after Park Geun-hye’s state visit to China in June 2013. Nonetheless, there have been signs that South Korea’s position is moving closer to that of the United States. For example, after the ADIZ issues emerged, the South Korean government has shown interest in joining in the US-led TPP. Earlier it was very cautious because China was excluded from the TPP. Moreover, it announced the establishment of its own missile defense system (Korea Air and Missile Defense, KAMD), which will be partly connected with the US-led missile defense system, in which Japan has already participated. This may be interpreted by China as the first step in the ROK-US-Japan regional collective security system that the United States has longed to forge.

If there will be a competition of values, standards, and norms between the United States and China, South Korea would side with the United States because the two countries have shared (even when they were breached) the current universal values of democracy, a free market system, and human rights since the 1950s. Many South Koreans are aware of China’s extensive efforts to offer its own values and norms for world society, and Chinese traditional Confucian philosophy and other cultural achievements have permeated into people’s lives. However, recent efforts to disperse its values and norms, and soft power more generally, have not found wide acceptance, reducing the likelihood that China will successfully compete in this sphere.


While some labeled US-China relations the “G2,” hoping for peaceful cooperation to solve international problems and for fair competition for further development of the international community, there are major sources of strain in this relationship that stand in the way. In the short term, the two countries are making efforts to maintain their bilateral relationship for peace and stability because of serious domestic problems that they face as well as due to some limited successes they have realized on international issues, such as sanctions. China’s ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai announced in July 2013 that “China is working very hard to modernize the country to develop its economy and improve the livelihood of its people. So it’s very obvious that it is important for China to have stable and healthy relations with the United States.”16 However, China emphasizes socialistic and nationalist political ideas and values in the Xi Jinping era. When top leaders have mentioned “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” they have also often stated that they would not unconditionally copy the values and institutions of Western countries because China has its own traditional and cultural values and institutions as well as a unique history and contemporary situation.

South Koreans anticipate that if the frictions caused by different values continue, then Beijing will probably enhance its strategic relationship with Pyongyang, while Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul will share their common ideas, values, and norms. If so, the South Korean people will regard China as another wall difficult to climb on the road to reunification. The US strategy toward Northeast Asia consists of two pillars. On the one hand, it wants to establish a ROK-US-Japan regional collective security system, but, on the other, it has also made huge efforts to establish cooperation with China, laying “the foundation for a new approach built upon 90-plus channels of communication.”17 In these circumstances, the impact is unclear of how South Korea may reduce its own values gap with China by reaching a high-level agreement on a bilateral FTA and establishing an historical, cultural, and Confucianism-centered value partnership for the 21st century.

1. People’s Daily, June 4, 2013.

2. Dai Bingguo, “Remarks by State Councilor Dai Bingguo At the Opening Session of the Second Round of The China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogues,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, May 24, 2010, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjdt/zyjh/t704804.shtml; Dai Bingguo, “Remarks by State Councilor Dai Bingguo At Joint Press Conference of the Second Round of the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogues,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, May 27, 2010, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjdt/zyjh/t705280.shtml; ; Cui Tiankai and Pang Hanzhao, “China-US Relations in China’s Overall Diplomacy in the New Era: On China and US Working Together to Build a New-Type Relationship between Major Countries,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, July 20, 2012, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjb/zzjg/bmdyzs/xwlb/t953682.shtml.

3. 中法联合声明 建立全面伙伴关系, May 16, 1997, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_chn/ziliao_611306/1179_611310/t7273.shtml.

4. 江泽民主席在俄罗斯国际关系学院的演讲, November 7, 2000, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_chn/gjhdq_603914/gjhdqzz_609676/lhg_610854/zyjh_610864/t5237.shtml.

5. 中华人民共和国和印度共和国关系原则和全面合作的宣言, June 23, 2003. http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_chn/zyxw_602251/t23718.shtml.

6. 中国同剧变后的中东欧国家发展双边关系, November 2000, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_chn/ziliao_611306/wjs_611318/t8994.shtml.

7. “Jim O’Neill: China could overtake US economy by 2027,” Telegraph, November 19, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/8901828/Jim-ONeill-China-could-overtake-US-economy-by-2027.html.

8. Ren Xiao, “Modeling a ‘New Type of Great Power Relations’: A Chinese Viewpoint” The Asan Forum, Open Forum (October 2013), http://www.theasanforum.org/modeling-a-new-type-of-great-power-relations-a-chinese-viewpoint/.

9. Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi, “Addressing US-China Strategic Distrust,” The John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings Monograph Series, no. 4 (March 2012).

10. The Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, “Dai Bingguo’s Address at the Dinner Marking the 30th Anniversary of the Establishment of China-US Diplomatic Relations Hosted by the Brookings Institution,” December 12, 2008, http://www.fmcoprc.gov.hk/eng/zgwjsw/t526066.htm.

11. Foreign Ministry of the PRC, “Dai Bingguo Delivers a Speech Marking the 30th Anniversary of the Establishment of China-US Diplomatic Relations at the US Brookings Institution,” December 15, 2008, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjb/zzjg/bmdyzs/xwlb/t526239.shtml.

12. “Hillary Clinton: Back in Asia—the US steps up its re-engagement,” US State Department, http://photos.state.gov/libraries/indonesia/502679/pdf/clinton-interview_strategic-review.pdf.

13. Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, November 2011, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/10/11/americas_pacific_century.

14. “China Takes Aim at Western Ideas,” The New York Times, August 19, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/20/world/asia/chinas-new-leadership-takes-hard-line-in-secret-memo.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

15. Scott A. Snyder, “China and the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” June 28, 2013, http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2013/06/28/china-and-the-denuclearization-of-the-korean-peninsula/?cid=nlc-korea-korea_update-link8-20130620&sp_mid=42238799&sp_rid=aGtraW1AYXNhbmluc3Qub3JnS0.

16. “A Rare Look Over The Great Wall,” CNN, July 8, 2013, http://amanpour.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/08/a-rare-look-over-the-great-wall/.

17. Hoang Anh Tuan, “The Fragile and Vulnerable Foundation of the Sino-US Relationship,” PacNet # 52, July 15, 2013.