At his first meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered up a new approach to bilateral diplomacy—a new type of great-power relations. Though the rollout of the concept was accompanied by much hopeful rhetoric, the approach faces a number of hurdles. The primary challenge is the reality that the United States and China are still competitors. 

From behavior at the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting and East Asia Summit to tense debates over China’s territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, the two major players are jockeying for power and rallying support from other nations. Neither country is behaving like a neutral actor in East Asia. 

Chen Qi
Chen Qi is an expert on U.S.-China relations, global governance, and China’s foreign policy. Chen runs the center’s U.S.-China Track II dialogue.
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In a recent example, the United States, Japan, and Australia met on the sidelines of the October APEC meeting and released a joint statement on territorial conflicts in the South and East China Seas. The trilateral statement opposed “coercive or unilateral actions” that could change the status quo in the territories. 

Official U.S. statements like this one list as priorities the issues of maritime safety and freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas for trade purposes. Beijing agrees on these priorities. And both China and the United States are pursuing their own interests with regard to these issues in Asia, especially in the East and South China Seas.

In that sense, the statement was, in effect, a veiled accusation that China is the aggressor. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying responded that the trilateral alliance was an excuse for countries outside of Asia to interfere in Asian—namely, Chinese—affairs.

Indeed, Washington’s declared pivot toward Asia was a clear sign that the United States was not interested in remaining neutral. The persistent U.S. presence in the region has worsened tensions between China and its neighbors. 

A central point of tension in this area is that Washington has demonstrated the tendency to abuse rights like freedom of navigation to acquire intelligence on China, particularly the Chinese military. The most prominent example was in 2009 when the presence of the U.S. Navy’s Impeccable in China’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea resulted in a heated standoff with five Chinese ships. 

Though the United States claimed to have freedom of navigation, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ma Zhaoxu stated that a number of international laws clearly place strict limits on any U.S. vessels entering the Chinese exclusive economic zone. Specifically, he cited the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf of the People’s Republic of China, and the Regulations on the Management of Foreign-Related Marine Scientific Research. Since 2009, debates between the two powers about the parameters of exclusive economic zones and the presence of foreign vessels have become more hardline, hinting at the underlying concerns over U.S. espionage in Chinese waters. 

U.S. allies in Asia have also been making their own power plays. For example, just before the APEC conference, Japan invited key regional countries engaged in maritime disputes to attend the first International Seminar on Capacity Building of Maritime Law Enforcement Agencies in Emerging Countries. All the current claimants to disputed territory in the South China Sea were invited—except China. 

As these actions play out and the United States reinforces its support for its allies in Asia, Beijing has been responding by improving its own relations with its neighbors. At the APEC meeting and the East Asia Summit, Xi explained that China and Southeast Asia are a “community of common destiny,” emphasizing the importance of “diversity, harmony, inclusiveness and common progress” in both the East and South China Seas. In the aftermath of the summits, Xi stated that Chinese diplomacy would take on a “three-dimensional, multi-element perspective” toward neighboring countries with the intent of cultivating friendlier relations.

The exception to this approach is the Philippines. It is in Beijing’s strategic interests to isolate the Philippines because Manila has strongly spoken out against China on territorial disputes and in favor of ties to the United States. Though each conflict in the East and South China Seas is different, China’s preference to isolate the Philippines should be a warning to Japan—and the United States—that Japanese leaders should take care to not escalate tensions further.

Given these obstacles, if the United States and China are to succeed in building a new type of great-power relationship, they need to work together in areas where cooperation is possible. The two powers share common interests on issues of global concern, such as climate change and nonproliferation. By cooperating in these areas, Washington and Beijing can build mutual trust. 

And they can both have healthy competition and produce benefits for the region at large by supplying public goods. With its economic power rising, China in particular is ready to take a leadership role in stimulating development by investing in Asian countries as well as in providing security for the region. 

Pursuing these avenues is particularly important because the United States remains a polarizing actor in Asia. The long-standing issues of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and of Washington and Beijing’s disagreements over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea will remain in the immediate future. To mitigate some of these tensions, the United States should take steps to limit its interference in the region and to demonstrate that it respects China’s core interests on these issues. 

There are still significant challenges to overcome in U.S.-China relations. But focusing on areas of potential cooperation can help ease the tension between the two competing powers.

This article was published as part of the Window into China series