Not-So-Empty Talk

The Danger of China's “New Type of Great-Power Relations” Slogan

Paramilitary policemen salute as they attend a flag-raising ceremony in Nanjing, October 1, 2014. Courtesy Reuters

Ever since his February 2012 visit to Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping has championed his vision for a “new type of great-power relations” between China and the United States. The Obama administration, in an apparent desire to avoid conflict with a rising China, seems to have embraced Xi’s formulation. In a major speech last November, U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called on both sides to “operationalize” the concept. And during a March 2014 summit with Xi, U.S. President Barack Obama declared his commitment to “continuing to strengthen and build a new model of relations.”

In uncritically signing on to the “new type of great-power relations” slogan at the Obama-Xi Sunnylands summit in June 2013, the Obama administration fell into a trap. It has what is most likely its last major chance to dig itself out when Obama visits Beijing next month for a follow-up summit. And he should make use of the opportunity. Although some U.S. officials dismiss rhetoric as insignificant and see this particular formulation as innocuous, Beijing understands things very differently. At best, U.S. acceptance of the “new type of great-power relations” concept offers ammunition for those in Beijing and beyond who promote a false narrative of the United States’ weakness and China’s inevitable rise. After all, the phrasing grants China great-power status without placing any conditions on its behavior -- behavior that has unnerved U.S. security allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific. At worst, the formulation risks setting U.S.-Chinese relations on a dangerous course: implicitly committing Washington to unilateral concessions that are anathema to vital and bipartisan U.S. foreign policy values, principles, and interests.

Already troubling, each additional invocation of a “new type of great-power relations” grows more costly. Instead of reactively parroting this Chinese formulation, Washington must proactively shape the narrative. It should explicitly articulate and champion its own positive vision for U.S.-Chinese relations, which should accord China international status conditionally -- in return for Beijing abiding

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