U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, March 2017.
Thomas Peter / Reuters

On March 18, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing, delivering some sparse public remarks. Tillerson characterized the U.S.–Chinese relationship as a very positive one built on “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.”

Although Tillerson’s statement seemed innocuous, American pundits immediately criticized him for “kowtowing” to China, because these three principles—mutual respect, win-win cooperation, and no conflict or confrontation—precisely match China’s proposed “new model of great power relations.” The new model, outlined by President Xi Jinping at a June 2013 summit with former U.S. President Barack Obama, conveys Beijing’s desire for U.S.–Chinese relations that would eschew the logic of zero-sum competition and build instead on a constructive spirit of peace and cooperation. Yet Tillerson’s critics argued that by borrowing the Chinese diplomatic language wholesale, he seemed too deferential and accommodating toward China. Even Michael J. Green, who interpreted the visit charitably, characterized Tillerson’s remarks as “a minor mistake” and advised the secretary to “find his own words” in the future. 

Such criticisms are common—Obama was similarly chastised in 2013 for using Chinese diplomatic language. Underpinning these accusations, however, are some deep-seated assumptions about U.S.–Chinese relations, which suggest that the U.S. foreign policy establishment is underprepared for its biggest challenge in the twenty-first century: dealing with a rising China. Reconsidering these assumptions will help remove some major stumbling blocks to better relations between Washington and Beijing.

LANGUAGE GAMES

The first among these assumptions is that the United States should avoid using China’s preferred language to describe the U.S.–Chinese relationship. Doing so, according to Green, would enable China to interpret the relationship in line with “the official narrative of the Communist Party,” which U.S. commentators condescendingly see as comprising “platitudes and propaganda.” By contrast, using the United States’ own language is implied to be the rule in managing the relationship. 

The problem is that China also sees U.S. language as propaganda. If both sides followed the same exclusivist logic, then Beijing would also be averse to accepting the United States’ description of the bilateral relationship. There would thus be no basis for meaningful communication. Yet the reality is that the two countries have always been able to find mutually agreeable language. 

Historically, it is the United States that has defined the narrative of U.S.–Chinese relations. American concepts such as “engagement” and the “responsible stakeholder” have profoundly influenced Chinese thinking. Although top leaders rarely reference these concepts in public, their speeches attempt to address the U.S. concerns behind them, and they form the central themes of Chinese academic and media discussions of relations between the two countries. More recently, China has been trying to gain some influence in this discursive contest with its notion of “a new model of great power relations,” the most notable product of these efforts. Although U.S. officials have been reluctant to adopt Chinese language, that doesn’t mean they have not been influenced by Chinese ideas. Indeed, as early as August 2005, China’s then-State Councillor Dai Bingguo had suggested to Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick the need to establish a new type of relationship between the two countries. And Zoellick’s famous September 2005 speech, which urged China to become a responsible stakeholder in the international order, owed in part to the first round of U.S.–Chinese strategic dialogues he had conducted with Dai one month earlier. 

U.S. elites often overlook the nuances of how their country’s relationship with China is framed in diplomatic discourse, but they do so at their peril. The most harmful consequence of such inattention is that Chinese elites will interpret an unwillingness to compromise on Chinese language as yet another indication of the United States’ arrogant hegemonic mindset—a persistent Chinese complaint and a significant obstacle to improving the relationship. 

A Chinese policeman stands guard in front of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's plane in Beijing, March 2017.
Thomas Peter / Reuters

A MATTER OF RESPECT

Language aside, a more substantive U.S. assumption is that accepting China’s new model of great power relations would be too accommodating. As Laura Rosenberger, a former Obama administration official, put it in Foreign Policy, “an accommodationist definition of U.S.–Chin[ese] relations will be read by Beijing as a permission slip for greater assertiveness.”

Such a reluctance to accommodate China, even over diplomatic language, speaks volumes about the unwillingness of many U.S. elites to truly accept the rise of China as a geopolitical fact in Asia. This is self-defeating: if the United States accepts China’s ascent to its legitimate position as a great power in Asia, then accommodation is the only realistic course for U.S. policy over the long run, short of an epic struggle, or even war, to arrest that rise. Despite that fact, policymakers in the United States still talk about accommodation as if it were little more than Munich-style appeasement of China, however untenable such a historical analogy might actually be.

U.S. elites have expressed particular concern about Chinese language on “mutual respect” of each other’s interests. They worry that Beijing is trying to deceive Washington into respecting China’s “core interests.” That would imply, as Simon Denyer argues in The Washington Post, that “the United States should stay away from issues such as Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong—and in principle almost anything China’s Communist Party deems a vital national security concern.” Such language is also seen as part of a Chinese plot to seek parity with the United States in Asia or to divide the region into spheres of influence. 

It is unfortunate that these controversies over China’s core interests have taken such a heavy toll on U.S. thinking. The merit of the Chinese principle of mutual respect lies not in delineating spheres of influence based on the respective core interests of China and the United States, but rather in serving as an invitation to more constructively manage the bilateral relationship at a time when the two countries’ national interests in Asia are evolving. Such management will require careful and enlightened discussion between the two countries in order to define their respective and increasingly overlapping interests in the first place.  

It is therefore false to claim that U.S. rhetoric referencing mutual respect signals acceptance of a litany of issues that China views as non-negotiable. Nothing prevents the United States from challenging China’s definition of its core interests, or China from challenging the United States. On the contrary, such discussion and contention, constructively conducted, should be a central part of U.S.–Chinese diplomacy. Indeed, failure to conduct such a dialogue was a major cause of the two countries’ intensifying strategic competition during the Obama years.  

A reluctance to accommodate China, even over diplomatic language, speaks volumes about the unwillingness of many U.S. elites to truly accept the rise of China as a geopolitical fact in Asia.

GETTING TOUGH

This strategic competition has interacted poorly with a third assumption on the part of U.S. policymakers—that in response to Chinese competition, the United States should get tough on China and maintain strategic superiority through its military and security presence in the Asia Pacific. Accepting China’s new model, according to this line of thinking, would portend U.S. weakness and decline. By embracing China’s language, Washington will only encourage Beijing’s assertiveness and raise doubts among allies about the United States’ commitment to Asia and its leadership in the region.

Getting tough, however, is only a tactic. It is not a goal, much less a strategy. One does not need to adopt the Chinese worldview to realize that relative to China, the United States has been in decline for decades, although predicting the future balance of power remains difficult. Many Chinese elites believe that, however impressive Chinese economic growth and military modernization may be, it will take decades for China to truly catch up with the United States—if it ever does. This, not a desire to deceive, is why Chinese officials deny that their country is seeking parity with the United States in a struggle for regional leadership. Yet such denial typically falls on the deaf ears of American strategists, who are too deeply immersed in the logic of great power competition. 

It remains to be seen whether Washington’s acceptance of a new model of great power relations would indeed encourage Chinese assertiveness. This is a possible but by no means certain outcome. It is equally possible that continuing to reject China’s formulation will prove even more damaging to U.S. interests by convincing Beijing that it has no other choice but to go its own way. Or, assertiveness may simply become part of China’s playbook as a rising great power, regardless of the language the United States chooses to use.

The Chinese idea of a new model of great power relations, moreover, is not mere propaganda. It is a serious intellectual and policy proposal from the highest level within the Chinese government, intended to further develop the U.S.–Chinese relationship. At its core is a desire to avoid the great power conflict so characteristic of modern international politics. It took Dai Bingguo, a sophisticated official whose strategic foresight has long been appreciated by top U.S. policymakers, nearly eight years to develop the idea in its current form. Such strategic thinking, and the considerable Chinese effort behind it, deserves American attention and respect, not dismissal.  

A WIN-WIN STRATEGY FOR TRUMP

Whatever his motivation for borrowing China’s diplomatic language, Tillerson’s debut in China succeeded in creating a positive atmosphere for U.S.–Chinese relations under U.S. President Donald Trump. This is useful especially in light of Xi’s visit to the United States later this week. Tillerson may have found merit in the Chinese idea, or he may have simply used it as an instrument to grant the Chinese leadership some dignity during the first high-level encounter between Beijing and the new administration in Washington. Regardless of the reason, such diplomatic finesse is welcome given Trump’s extensive record of criticizing China.

The idea of a new model for U.S.–Chinese relations is of special importance to Xi, who first proposed it as vice president in February 2012 and confirmed it as president in 2013. Indeed, it may even be seen as Xi’s grand strategy toward the United States. But although the goals of cooperation and accommodation are worthy, China’s strategy so far has been flawed, since its attempts at practical cooperation with the United States have been inadequate. As Xi meets with Trump later this week, he may give the idea another try, albeit with more policy coherence and strategic foresight. If Trump shows interest, this will send an important signal that he indeed has “great respect” for Xi and China, as he said in a recent interview. Such mutual respect may lay the foundation for serious cooperation on major strategic challenges such as North Korea.

No matter how the Trump administration proceeds, its China policy will benefit from drawing lessons from the Obama period. Among these is the crucial importance of managing the increasingly complex relationship between the two countries and their evolving interests in Asia. During the Obama years, the United States was insufficiently sensitive to expanding Chinese interests in maritime Asia, whereas China failed to appreciate the United States’ enduring interests in this region. The Trump administration must take the geopolitical fact of China’s rise more seriously, and show a real commitment to finding a strategic modus vivendi with it. Starting with some assessment of the Chinese proposal of a new model of relationship would not be a bad thing, especially for an administration that has yet to develop a coherent China policy. 

  • FENG ZHANG is a Fellow in the Australian National University’s Department of International Relations and an Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China. 

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