When U.S. President Barack Obama meets Xi Jinping in Beijing in November he may want to steer clear of a line that has become a favorite of the Chinese president: “new model of great power relations.”
After using similar phrasing in discussions with Xi in September last year in St Petersburg, the words “great power” were absent when Obama met Xi in The Hague in March and again in a July speech, as they were when National Security Adviser Susan Rice visited Beijing this month.
By avoiding Xi’s slogan the U.S. is signaling its reluctance to accept a world that sees China increasing its influence while weakening that of the U.S. and its allies in Asia. Xi is using the lure of trade and investment alongside the firepower of a more confrontational military to make inroads after decades of U.S. preeminence in the Pacific, to meet his stated goal of China reclaiming great power status.
“The Americans are realizing that it doesn’t work for them to use that language because the Chinese too willingly take that as indicating that America is actually prepared to see a significant shift in the nature of their respective roles in Asia,” said Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. “The Americans don’t buy that.”
The U.S. dilemma on how to describe its relations with China reflects the broader question of how it responds to that country’s economic, military and strategic rise: Cede dominance to China, resist its challenge or somehow share power in Asia.
If any U.S. officials have uttered the phrase in recent weeks, they’ve added that it’s undefined. “We are busy trying to define a new great power relationship,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in an August speech. Robert Wang, the senior U.S. State Department official for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, said Aug. 27: “That’s a term that the Chinese came up with, not the U.S. so I’m not sure whether we subscribe completely to the exact interpretation of that.”
While the contours of the relationship are still being defined, China is moving to craft an external environment it better controls in order to ensure its economic success at home. The result is increasingly toxic disputes with U.S. allies in the East and South China seas. Navy ships and fighter jets of the two countries are coming into greater proximity, risking a clash.
A crew member of the Chinese Navy looks out from the deck of Chinese navy ship Wei Fang as it approaches the dock at the Myanmar International Terminal Thilawa port on the outskirts of Yangon on May 23, 2014. China is increasing its military spending, developing its naval capacity and pushing its territorial ambitions.
At the same time China is working on warmer ties with Russia and South Korea, two countries that have testy relations either with the U.S. or its ally Japan. Xi is in India this week for meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Encouraging China is a perception the U.S. “pivot-to-Asia” policy announced by Obama in 2011 is losing momentum, victim to U.S. defense budget cuts, domestic political paralysis and distractions in the Middle East and Ukraine. Obama, who will travel to China in November for an APEC summit, said in May the U.S. would move away from direct military actions, focusing on a targeted approach to the threat of terrorism.
“Obama is in a no-war mentality,” said Rosita Dellios, an associate professor of international relations at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast. “So this could be China’s strategic opportunity to become the primary power in our region.”
Xi, who is in the midst of an anti-corruption campaign that risks hurting the reputation of the ruling Communist Party by exposing graft at the highest level, may also be playing to the home crowd. Greater international standing appeals to those eager to see China regain its primacy after a so-called century of humiliation that saw territory annexed after the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century.
Xi employed the phrase at his first meeting with Obama as China’s president at the Sunnylands estate in California in June last year, citing the historic risk of conflict between rising and established powers.
“The two sides must work together to build a new model of major power relationship based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation,” Xi said at a briefing after the meeting. Since then he’s used it on almost every occasion he’s met senior U.S. officials.
To promote domestic growth, China is deepening ties with countries from Sri Lanka to Fiji, spanning a region expected to continue driving the global economy. It held the first high level meeting attended by members of the Politburo Standing Committee -- China’s top leadership body -- dedicated to periphery diplomacy last October, which emphasized the need for a stable external environment to let neighbors take part in China’s economic growth.
Programs such as the development of ports and other infrastructure along a maritime Silk Road linking China to the Middle East and Europe, and goals such as more than doubling trade with Association of South East Asian Nations countries to $1 trillion by 2020 are part of the strategy. Total two-way trade between China and the U.S. last year stood at $587.43 billion.
“It is China’s intention to expand its influence over its periphery,” said Patrick Cronin, a senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “The one country they don’t want to have a confrontation with is the U.S., which is the reason why they want to have a new type of great power relations.”
As China focuses on Asia as a driver for its long-term growth, its leaders have looked at the existing U.S.-led order and concluded the system of alliances and security partnerships constructed in Asia during the Cold War cannot provide it with lasting security, according to Timothy Heath, an analyst for the U.S. Pacific Command China Strategic Focus Group, in a June article published in The Diplomat.
China’s concern is the alliances enable the U.S. to contain it, despite repeated denials by American officials, and embolden its allies to challenge China on security issues. This has been exacerbated by the U.S. rebalancing that envisages about 60 percent of U.S. naval assets will be in Asia by 2020, up from about 50 percent.
It is in this context that China is increasing its military spending, developing its naval capacity and pushing its territorial ambitions. In the East China Sea, China contests islands administered by Japan.
This photo taken on October 23, 2013 shows Chinese People's Liberation Army fighter jets leaving their base in Shanghai. Navy ships and fighter jets of the U.S. and China are coming into greater proxomity, risking a clash.
Of the South China Sea, China claims about 90 percent based on a map first published in 1947. The area overlaps claims from Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines, a country that has a defense pact with the U.S.
China has stepped up its activity in both seas, with the most recent incident the deployment of a deep-water oil exploration rig in waters disputed with Vietnam. Around the rig China enforced a multi-ring patrol of fishing, coast guard and law enforcement vessels.
“Clearly China feels little compunction in mobilizing instruments of state power to stake its claims,” said Cronin in a paper published this month. He cited tools such as trade, infrastructure investment, the buildup and centralization of coast guard forces, and a military modernization that includes missile, cyber and space systems.
The question facing U.S. policy makers is how to respond. Cronin argues the U.S. and countries in the region need to develop strategies designed to impose costs on Chinese misbehavior using a combination of military and non-military measures.
“In short, it will be important to impose meaningful costs that don’t bring about a backlash against U.S. leadership or U.S. allies and partners,” he said.
Other strategists are concerned about a potential backlash. Jeffrey Bader and Kenneth Lieberthal, both of whom served as a senior director of the National Security Council, and Michael McDevitt, a former U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, contended in an August report for the Washington-based Brookings Institution that the U.S. should be wary of signaling an incipient cold war with China.
They recommend the U.S. seeks to strike a balance with all actors in the South China Sea, according to the principles outlined by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at an Asean meeting in Hanoi in 2010: freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce, only recognizing maritime rights based on land features and delineated in conformity with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The risk of a U.S.-China conflict is resonating in Asia, giving impetus to coalitions that may exclude both countries, according to Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.
Asia’s “powers in the middle” – including India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam – are looking at ways to cooperate, he said.
“After decades of stability under unchallenged U.S. dominance, the Asian strategic order is changing and uncertain,” he said. “We all recognize there is a problem, but the responses are pretty different.”