Modeling a “New Type of Great Power Relations”: A Chinese Viewpoint

Forging a “new type of great power relations” is a novel foreign relations concept that China has proposed and emphasized of late, drawing widespread attention. It has taken shape mainly in the process of conceptualizing and operationalizing policy toward the United States. According to Western international relations theory, as a new great power arises, it needs to change the existing order, resulting in conflict between the powers. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, a continuously rising China and the United States intent on maintaining its superpower status must experience a similar collision. Yet, is this an unalterable historical axiom? In response to such thinking and widespread foreign suspicions, China at the beginning of the century introduced the concept of “peaceful rise.” If this is taken only as a notion about how China will go forward, then concretely, people will naturally still be paying attention to how China will get along with the United States. China is disavowing confronting the United States, and sees the United States as having no need to dwell on a conflict with it, but can the two avoid confronting the fate dictated by this historical axiom? This train of thought has led to the idea of a “new type of great power relations,” and makes it important for academics in China and elsewhere to look closely at the idea.

In this article, I trace the history of the concept, discuss how its contents have been depicted, consider what makes one think that this is a realistic notion and steps for realizing it, proceed to modeling this type of relationship, and, finally, respond to the questions being asked about the concept in various circles, especially in the West. In this wide-ranging coverage, I weigh heavily what Chinese leaders have said and how Chinese writings are presenting the idea of a “new type of great power relations.”

The introduction of this concept came, at the latest, in May 2010 at the second Sino-US strategic and economic dialogue. In a relatively early usage of the concept, State Councilor Dai Bingguo asserted, “China and the United States should initiate an era of globalization with a new type of great power relations of mutual respect, harmonious coexistence, and win-win by states with different social systems, cultural traditions, and levels of development.” In February 2012 when Xi Jinping, then vice-president of China, visited the United States he stated, “China and the United States should establish a ‘new type of great power relations,’ which is unprecedented and informs the future.“ On this basis, at the fourth Sino-US strategic and economic dialogue on May 3 the same year President Hu Jintao’s opening speech included the words “advance mutually beneficial, win-win cooperation, develop a new type of great power relations.” He proposed “creative thinking, mutual trust, equal tolerance, positive acts, and establishment of friendship” as five concepts, for realizing for the first time the concrete contents of a “new type of great power relations.” In this way, how to conceptualize the development of a new type of Sino-US relationship has entered the joint consciousness of the high leadership of both sides, becoming a new objective of bilateral relations in 2013. On this basis, various discussions arose in China, both in government and research circles, on how to explain this concept.

How Are the Contents of a New Type of Great Power Relations Depicted?

From the government’s point of view, prior to the Xi-Obama California summit, China’s newly appointed ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai at a joint interview with representatives of China’s major news media in the United States said that both sides should take the core interests of the people of the two countries and the world as their starting point, keep their eyes on the big picture, look to the future, and follow a new path for developing great power relations suitable to these times. Repeating the usual ideals about equality, mutuality, and win-win results, he spoke of building a foundation on which China and the United States can realize long-term stable development of their bilateral relations. On June 7-8, 2013, in meeting with Obama at Sunnylands, Xi Jinping summarized the contents of the “new type of great power relations” with three phrases: 1) neither a confrontation nor a conflict; 2) mutual respect; and 3) win-win cooperation. This is a further step in the Chinese leader’s clarification of the concept and can be called “Xi’s three points.”

From an academic’s viewpoint, a “new type of great power relations” means not playing a zero-sum game and not sticking to the pattern of an established power and a rising power competing, opposing each other, and coming into conflict, even to the point of war as their political destiny, but rather establishing a new type of twenty-first century great power relationship. In pursuing this, they should respond to new tendencies of this century, reflecting changes in how the international environment is developing, finding ever-increasing shared understanding, taking the big picture into account, viewing questions from a long-term perspective, while in this manner finding beneficial ways of managing concrete, bilateral problems.1

The main characteristic of traditional great power relations is differentiation into friend and foe as well as confrontation and conflict. “You win and we lose,” “you rise and we fall,” a zero-sum framework of bilateral relations is the principal pattern. In the new concept, the main characteristic is the simultaneous presence of challenges and interests, competition and cooperation coexist, resulting in a cooperative win-win framework of mutuality as the principal pattern. The former type emphasizes power and force, while the latter type puts more stress on strategy and intentions. What China is striving to communicate is that its strategy of peaceful development will not change as its national power grows stronger. Factors such as strategic culture, time-sensitive conditions, restraining interests, and personal exchanges are more far-reaching forces in determining relations between states. Traditional great power relations often revolved around wars or conflicts between the rising and established power, while the new type of great power relations places emphasis on consciousness of being in a community of both shared destiny and shared interests.2

What Makes One Think that a New Type of Great Power Relations Is Realistic?

According to Vice President Xi Jinping in his opening remarks at the 2012 World Peace Forum held in Beijing, “Great power relations are the important factor that impacts on the development of the international situation. China and the United States are proactively exploring the establishment of a new type of great power relations of mutual respect and win-win cooperation, which is in the common interest of the two countries and the whole world, and this will be a creation in the history of international relations.”

The idea of a new type of great power relations aims to defy the traditional theoretical framework and framework of thinking as if rising powers will unavoidably challenge the existing international order and overthrow the status of the established power. Against the background of globalization, the argument can be made that there will be no need to struggle for hegemony, the proponents are insisting. There is a higher level of interdependence. A wider span of territory is involved in interactions of the established and rising powers. More urgent common challenges exist. Under these circumstances, there can simultaneously be competition, cooperation, and peaceful coexistence. On empirical grounds, surveying the way the world is evolving, the case can be made that conditions exist for a different pattern of great power relations.

On theoretical grounds, a similar case can be argued. Western realist theory still enjoys predominance in international relations theory. Its core is the argument that great powers rise and fall on the basis of their national power. Although this theory is already coming under reexamination, in the West and even in China it commands a wide market despite the fact it is based largely on the history of Western great power relations prior to the twentieth century. Now we are part of a new age, which calls for a new theory. China’s peaceful rise in world history is on a new path and of a new scale, which urgently requires theoretical reconsideration. Clearly, China has in mind a pathway that allows its rise to go forward unfettered, suggesting reasons for US acceptance, unlike previous established powers, and China’s reassurance, in a manner that convinces the United States that conditions warrant this response. For researchers in China, four reasons are the basis for supporting this conclusion. First, he principal great powers all have nuclear weapons or are protected by a nuclear umbrella. Second, taking ideological consciousness as the foundation, there is no longer a possibility of forging two blocs similar to those during the Cold War. Third, as economic globalization is continuously deepening, each country’s interests are more tightly bound together, as resolving global problems gains legitimacy. Fourth, the principal great powers have relations of close economic cooperation, and a high level of mutual interdependence causes great power relations to hover in the fuzzy zone between alliance and equilibrium.3 That is to say, now in the twenty-first century new historical circumstances make a “new type of great power relations” a distinct possibility.

How Can a New Type of Great Power Relations Be Established?

In the opinion of Chinese researchers, to make this new relationship a reality the two sides must positively expand cooperation in at least three directions. First, they have to control competition. Tao Wenzhao considers that in their existing mutual competition, the two countries should speak frankly, clearly exchange their points of view, and make mutual concessions. In other words, both sides should consider and reflect on the other side’s needs and concerns, and in this process, pursuing mutual compromise is a realistic choice.4 Second, they need to manage their divergence, compromising on sensitive questions that could result in conflict, including more concrete forms of military exchange to prevent latent dangers on sea, land, air, and in cyberspace. They need to establish effective ways of preventing and controlling potential dangers in order to keep the situation from getting out of control. Third, the two countries should expand their cooperation. There is lots of room for doing so. At the global level, they can use the platforms of the G20 and the United Nations on issues such as climate change, energy resources, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and cybersecurity, as each state works consistently with the other to forge a new world order. To get a Sino-US Asia-Pacific consultative mechanism to function well, overcoming unilateral actions in maritime security or on third-country matters is even more sensitive for dealing with the other side’s principal concerns.

In the view of Chinese academics, Xi Jinping’s proposal at the Sino-US summit can be the starting point for pursuing three levels in establishing a new type of great power relations. “No opposition, no conflict” is a low-level goal, for which the two countries already have a relatively good foundation. Raising this level of relations will require strengthening the existing strategic, mutually dependent relations. The middle-level goal is to enhance “mutual respect,” necessitating that both states respect the other side’s main concerns and core interests. Realizing this goal means striving for intermediate positions that both sides can accept, gradually advancing them, and increasing confidence, but not overreaching with expectations of a high level of trust. A “cooperative, win-win situation” is a high-level goal, which should be forged on the basis of Sino-US cooperation in providing public goods to the world. This can be realized as both countries together maintain, reform, and, finally, reconstruct the international system.5 Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also elaborated on the proposal in his September 20, 2013 speech delivered at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, suggesting five ways to attain this goal.6 He stressed that the Asia-Pacific region is an experiment field where the United States and China can try to work together for such a new relationship, in which China has no intention to drive the United States out while the United States really respects China’s interests. If they can successfully avoid confrontation in the Asia-Pacific, then there is no reason why they cannot achieve this in other parts of the world. Seen from outside China, the essence of the proposal is to counter the US offer for China to join the existing international system as a “responsible power” with an offer for the United States to join with China in rebuilding that system with mutual respect.7 This reflects suspicions, mostly from the United States, just as earlier suspicions arose in China with regard to the “responsible stakeholder” initiative.

This author considers that over the past few years as China’s national power has increased, the Sino-US gap has clearly shrunk, but in comparisons of GDP China is still only about half the level of the United States, and if one takes into account soft power appeal and other aspects of influence, then the gap is even larger. For some time in the future, owing to the existence of this power gap between the two states, the United States will still be in a relatively favorable position. China’s leaders are actually clear-headed about the fact that by itself starting from its own core interests, it is not in a position to challenge the US’s lone superpower position. Yet, inside China there is also nationalism, and outside observers can cite some Chinese publications or some comments as proof that nationalism is intensifying. This is a complicated problem to figure out how to assess this phenomenon, posing a test for the outside world. Some people seeking publicity shoot off their mouths, frightening people with their words. Some newspapers in order to expand their market sales shout loudly with sensationalism, drawing the attention of readers, including foreigners. Among them, some statements or opinion indeed reflect one type of nationalist emotions, but they have really not become the mainstream of public opinion, and, even more, they are not regarded as the main current of official policy.

Chinese analysis is focused on relative power, as many recognize that for some time to come the United States will remain in a superior position. Therefore, it is more likely that the United States will not respect China’s interests or will have the capital to cause harm to them. Moreover, in the case of core interests coming to the fore, this could lead to trouble for bilateral relations. This demands that both sides draw lessons from overall past experience and, then, act accordingly. China’s core interests, under the rubric of sustaining an overall peaceful environment, include maintaining national sovereignty and territorial integrity. People have different conceptions of core interests, resulting in debates in recent years. According to the opinions of some foreign observers, these are interests that are inviolable and cannot be subject to bargaining. They are concerned that China’s core interests are continuously expanding or increasing in number, leading them to conclude that China is assertive. For this English term it is very hard to find a term in Chinese that is completely suitable, but after detailed pondering, the compounds “zixin er qiangying” (self-confident and unyielding) are generally seen as relatively close to the original meaning. China does not consider its foreign policy to have undergone a big change, and on this issue a large gap can be found between Chinese and foreign viewpoints. On one side, Obama’s “rebalancing” coupled with policies in Japan and other states is deemed to have transformed the regional security scene, while on the other, Chinese assertiveness from 2009-2010 is seen as the driving force.

Modeling the Meaning of a “New Type of Great Power Relations”

Looking around the world of the twenty-first century, we do not see any other bilateral relationship that quantitatively can surpass that of Sino-US relations. If the two can break through the historical destiny of a rising and an established power, forging an unprecedented new type of relationship, it will have historic and global significance. It is noteworthy that the Obama administration, to some extent, has already accepted the initiative of China to make this a goal. In March after Xi Jinping took his new post, Obama stressed in his congratulatory call the importance of both sides striving to construct a new type of great power relations based on healthy competition and not strategic gamesmanship. Yet, American researchers seem to be more cautious, showing that they are not too willing to define a “new type of great power relations,” considering that its definition remains less specific than that of other terms and resulting in an attitude that they will take another look after cooperation has improved somewhat. This is a business-like attitude and also reflects some difference in the two states’ style of thought. The Chinese are happier in raising an optimistic tone, conveying a philosophical objective, an ideal and an aspiration, such as “harmonious world.” This style of speech often is a feature of Chinese culture, but as seen by Westerners, it can seem comparatively empty. Different styles of expression complicate understanding. As for the concept of the “G2,” some on the American side had raised, there was a lot of suspicion from China, which refused to accept it, and soon it disappeared. Before long, some fresh voices were discussing whether a “new type of great power relations” could follow again along the track left behind by this overturned cart, as a Chinese idiom puts it.

In a broad sense, a “new type of great power relations” should indicate the relations between China and various great powers, but it essentially refers to relations with the United States. Whether in its importance or its frequency of mention, this is the pairing that stands out the most, drawing the most world attention, and for now and the future it can be said to be at the head of great power relations. As State Councilor Yang Jiechi asserted, “We want China and the United States to exert themselves side by side to construct a new type of great power relations…which should take respect as a precondition, take cooperation as a path, and take win-win as its goal.”8 Chinese officials, such as Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai, praised the outcome of the Xi-Obama June summit, calling it a new chapter in forging a new type of great power relations, beneficial for both global and Asia-Pacific peace and security.9

If this new type of relations proves successful, it will have at least three influences on great power relations in this century. First, it will demonstrate the sincerity of China’s peaceful development to the world, while creating new conditions for both understanding and respecting China’s distinct development path. Second, it will establish a new model for great power relations, relevant to future states. Third, it will become a new pattern for overcoming great power bilateral differences by way of cooperatively dealing with global problems.10 Sino-US relations over the past 30-plus years are proof of a kind of success, and future relations could be constructed on this foundation, serving a long-term transition in the balance of power.

In conditions when China’s leaders actively advocate a certain position, inside China one cannot openly express a contrary position or openly argue, but this does not mean that people’s opinions are completely in sync. Not only are views expressed with different terms of expression, but there are academics such as Zhu Feng who consider that Sino-US relations have turned into a strategic competition that cannot be overcome by the will of an individual, and they are now entering a new stage of more intense competition. Perhaps, they are strategic competitors, but that does not mean that China and the United States are enemies. In facing this new stage of strategic competition, the two countries need to deepen their “non-enemy” belief and consciousness. China and the United States have deep suspicions about each other’s strategic motivations and intentions, and this is not strange, but they should not treat each other as enemies. For a rising power and an established power that leads the international system to do so would be a strategic mistake. Moreover, for the established power to do so would be a temporal mistake, since time is not on its side. In this manner, even if it emphasizes that it does not mean that the two sides see each other as enemies, this is a kind of strategic, competitive relationship. This would not be entirely consistent with the notion of a “new kind of great power relations.” There are also some researchers who refer to this kind of relationship as a duality of competition and cooperation, casting more doubt on expectations raised for not only cooperating, but reaching a level of mutual trust lowering competition.

A “new type of great power relations” stresses the United States, but is not limited to it. For instance, the Chinese ambassador to Great Britain Liu Xiaoming, speaking in Belfast, applied this concept to Sino-British relations, calling for establishing this type of relationship. Some consider that this concept can be applied in diverse ways, and Sino-Russian relations represent a special case of recent times. China and India, the two largest developing countries, are also winding their way toward this type of relationship, representing another case. Some more optimistic Chinese academics see this new model as a great historical turning point for human society from war to eternal peace in international relations. We await proof for that sort of hope. Yet, it is not so far removed from the extravagant aspirations in China in 2013 that a basis is being proposed for a breakthrough, if not a panacea, in international relations.

1. Renmin ribao, May 31, 2013.

2. Renmin ribao, July 10, 2013.

3. Renmin ribao, April 17, 2013.

4. Renmin ribao, May 31, 2013.

5. Da Wei, “Goujian xinxing Zhongmei daguo guanxi de lujing xuanze,” Shijie jingji yu zhengzhi, July 2013, 59-73.

6. See

7. Da Wei, “Goujian xinxing Zhongmei daguo guanxi de lujing xuanze,” 59-73.

8. Renmin ribao, March 10, 2013.

9. Renmin ribao, July 8, 2013.

10. Yuan Peng, “Goujian xinxing daguo guanxi xu lilun chuangxin,” Cankao xiaoxi, June 6, 2013.

11. Renmin ribao, August 12, 2013.