In October of last year, I had the privilege of spending several days at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy at Tsinghua University here in Beijing. At the time, I gave a speech on “A New Model of Great Power Relations.” In that speech, I tried to describe the basic characteristics of the “new model,” the reasons for thinking it could be achieved, why the effort might fail, and what steps could be taken to increase the likelihood of success. The speech seemed to be well received. Both the Chinese and American governments seemed committed to developing the concept. I strongly supported the effort and tried to contribute in a small way to it. I was optimistic it could be done. I am less optimistic today. Let me explain why.

My sense is that American officials and U.S. experts outside of government have lost some of their enthusiasm for the effort. America faces many challenges in its foreign policy. As a consequence, it has lost some of its focus on working to develop with China a “New Model of Major Country Relations” as proposed by President Xi Jinping. In addition, however, questions have been raised in the United States as to whether China is itself committed to the effort.

In his recent speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Shanghai, President Xi is quoted as saying: “Common security means respecting and ensuring the security of each and every country. Security must be universal, equal and inclusive. We cannot just have the security of one or some countries while leaving the rest insecure. Still less should one seek the so-called absolute security of itself at the expense of the security of others.”

That statement from President Xi seems a good start on a “new model” of major country relations. It is a formulation that could apply to the relationship between major countries and small ones as well.

But particularly in the last six months, from an American perspective, China has taken actions that seem inconsistent with this approach. Rather than “common security, “equal security,” and “respecting . . . the security of each and every country,” China has taken actions that its neighbors view as directly threatening their own security. Rather than acting on the basis of a 21st century “new model” of relations and “win-win” outcomes, your neighbors tend to see these actions as based more on 19th century notions of stronger states enhancing their security at the expense of their neighbors, and seeking “zero-sum” outcomes favoring the stronger state.

Let me offer a few examples:

  • The announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea without any prior consultation, with only 30 minutes advance notice, and accompanied by threats directed against those who refuse to comply.
  • Chinese coast guard ships blocking civilian Philippine vessels from routine resupply of soldiers stationed at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal for the first time in 15 years.
  • The China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) unilaterally and without warning deploying a deep-sea oil drilling rig into waters near the disputed Paracel Islands off the coast of Vietnam.
  • Harassing Japanese planes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyudao Islands.
  • Building artificial islands in the South China Sea near the Spratley Islands to enhance China’s claims of sovereignty.

I understand that China has its own explanations and justifications for each of these actions. The problem is that taken together, these steps raise questions in the minds of Americans and your neighbors. Is China sincere about wanting to achieve a “new model” of relations between states? Is China willing to act consistent with that “new model” even at the expense of its short-term interests?

I also understand that China has its own complaints about recent U.S. actions: that the United States has not lived up to the promise of the Sunnylands Summit; that the United States stirs up and emboldens China’s neighbors to confront China; and that the United States is hypocritical in its complaints about China’s cyber activities. These complaints come on top of China’s concerns about the U.S. “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia. So China is asking itself whether the United States is sincere about a “new model” of relations between states.

So where do we go from here?

I believe we need a renewed effort to develop a common understanding between China and the United States of the basic principles of a “New Model of Major Country Relations” and how they would be applied in practice. This effort needs to be conducted at the highest levels of the two governments, by the two Presidents and betweentheir trusted agents. It must be a strategic conversation beginning with how the two countries see the world and their respective roles in it. It should seek to identify the global trends that will affect that world over the next decade. It should focus on how the two nations can best respond to those trends to enhance the prosperity and security of their respective peoples.

As I understand it, the Sunnylands Summit between President Obama and President Xilast summer was a good start. But the strategic conversation we need between the two countries cannot occur just once a year. It needs to be pursued on a sustained basis, with intensive, day-long conversations among the same small group of interlocutors. There needs to be continuity, sustained focus, and follow-through.

I also believe that the strategic conversation between the two governments could be facilitated by a parallel conversation among a small group of influential non-governmental people from both countries—a small group of former government officials, academics, and business leaders. These non-governmental leaders might be able to discuss some of the difficult issues in advance of the official conversation among government officials and so make that official conversation more productive.

During this sustained strategic conversation between the two sides, China and the United States must each address some difficult questions.

For the United States:

  1. Is the United States ready to accept an increasingly powerful China playing an enhanced role on the world stage – perhaps ultimately a role on a par with that played by the United States itself?
  2. Is the United States ready to accept that as China’s economy grows, it will build a larger, more capable ocean-going naval forceto protect the sea lanes from which China receives the energy, resources, and global trade on which it increasingly depends?
  3. Is the United States willing to counsel restraint to its friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific region and urge them to make efforts to find a compromise with China on issues where China feels strongly that its interests are threatened?

I would hope that, as a result of the intensive strategic dialogue with China that I have suggested, the United States and most Americans would decide that the answer to these three questions isbasically “yes.”

As to the first question, the United States has been a strong supporter of China’s entry onto the world stage. We supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), the expansion of the G-7 to the G-20 to include China as well as other countries, and the revision of the rules of the IMF and the World Bank to give greater weight to China. China’s dramatic economic growth has been fueled insignificant part by American investment in China and China’s exports to the United States.

But more to the point, the global challenges that threaten virtually every nation on the planet—weaknesses in the global financial system, inadequate job creation, growing environmental damage, air and water pollution, potential health pandemics, inadequate or insecure food, water, and energy resources, terrorism, proliferation, transnational crime, narco-trafficking—can only be solved with the participation of China. So the world needs China to play an active, constructive role on the world stage.

On the second question, I believe the United States is ready to accept a growing Chinese open-ocean naval capability to defend the sea lanes. This can be of significant benefit to the United States by allowing China to share some of the responsibility that has up until now largely fallen on the U.S. Navy. But the United States and China’s neighbors will want to see greater transparency about China’s naval capabilities to give them confidence that sea-lane protection is indeed the purpose of its naval expansion. Naval expansion that seems directed at giving China the capability of excluding U.S. naval forces from the Asia-Pacific will give rise to great suspicion and concern not only among the American people but also among most of your neighbors, who are reassured by the U.S. naval presence in the region.

As to the third question, many Chinese see behind every dispute or challenge from one of its neighbors an American plot to create trouble for China. Like most conspiracy theories, this one has little basis in fact. China has many neighboring countries and it is only to be expected that disputes will arise with many of them in the ordinary course. It is the way of nations. The United States urges all parties to such disputes to resolve them peacefully.

I am sure many of you think that if the United States were not economically, militarily, and diplomatically present in the Asia Pacific, you would have fewer disputes with your neighbors. I think it is just the opposite. There would be more friction and challenges because without a balancing U.S. presence in the region, your neighbors would be even more afraid of China’s increasing power.

Which brings us to three questions for China:

  1. In his recent speech at the CICA, President Xi said that “security in Asia should be maintained by Asians themselves.” This statement was read as rather pointedly excluding the United States from any Asian security architecture. Does China really want America out of the Asia Pacific?
  2. Does China think it can improve its relations with its neighbors while at the same time increasing the economic, diplomatic, and military pressure on them to give up their territorial claims and compromise their interests?
  3. Does China believe that the existing international framework that emerged after the end of World War II – the United Nations, the global financial institutions, the international legal structures – does not serve China’s interests and needs to be overturned?

I would hope that, as a result of an intensive strategic dialogue with the United States, China and most of its people would decide that the answer to these three questions is basically “no.”

As to the first, China is deploying military capabilities—including aircraft, missiles, and submarines—that seem intended to deny other military forces access to the waters off China’s coast out to what is called the first island chain (Japan, Philippines, Taiwan) and well beyond toward what is called the second island chain (which includes Guam in the Mariana Islands). This is read in the United States and among China’s neighbors as seeking to prevent the United States from honoring its treaty obligations and other security commitments to American friends and allies in Asia.

I would submit that the uncertainty, suspicion,and apprehension that this effort produces in China’s neighborsis not in China’s interest.The American military presence in Asia has been a stabilizing force, reassuring your neighbors that they need not feel threatened by China’s rising economic and military power. Indeed, the American military presence could be said to have facilitated China’s “peaceful rise” and helped create the stable international environment that China needs in order to achieve its ambitious development goals. Take away that reassuring presence, and China runs the risk that its neighbors will increasingly band together against it. It runs the risk of creating the very “containment” strategy, undertaken by its own neighbors, that China so vigorously protests against in its conversations with the United States.

As to the second question, China’s reaction to the competing territorial claims of its neighbors seems to have changed from one of “reactive assertiveness” to what might be called “proactive assertiveness”—taking the initiative to put pressure on your smaller neighbors to abandon what China views as unreasonable demands and claims. This is how many people regard the Chinese actions in the South China Sea and the East China Sea that I described earlier in my remarks. As you all know better than I, these steps have produced a negative reaction in the region that has undermined China’s well-intentioned efforts over the last year to improve its relations with its neighbors. It has also led several of your neighbors to reach out to the United States for diplomatic support and to invite and facilitate an expanded U.S. military presence in Asia. To the extent this is a result that China does not want, it suggests that additional steps are needed by China to reassure its neighbors of China’s good intentions.

There are a number of steps China could take.

The most important would be simply to carry out the approach outlined by President Xi in his recent CICA speech in Shanghai. This means showing in China’s actions that it respects international law and the rule of law, that the same rules apply for both large and small countries, and avoiding unilateral action without prior consultation that will only surprise and unnerve China’s neighbors.

China’s good intentions in this regard could be given concrete expression by concluding soon the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea with ASEAN nations and thereby establish a preventive mechanism to reduce the risk of unintended conflict at sea. A similar Code might be appropriate for the East China Sea as well.

And finally, China could decide on its own initiative to submit one of its territorial disputes with its neighbors to international arbitration. This would give visible expression to its commitment to the rule of law.

As to the third question, I hope that China will conclude that the institutions of global governance established since World War II have in fact provided a framework that has facilitated China’s remarkable rise. China therefore has a stake in maintaining those institutions.

That said, China is right to insist that its role in these institutions reflect its increased weight in the international community. But with increased weight will come increased responsibility for the success of these institutions. China is fully within its rights to seek to revise those institutions pursuant to the processes provided for that purpose. The goal of such efforts should of course be to improve the performance of these institutions and their positive contribution to global peace and prosperityfor all nations.

What China and the United States need is a rich, intensive, strategic conversation to reach a better understanding of how they can cooperate in areas of common interest and manage successfully the differences that inevitably arise in the relations between major states. Out of this conversation could emerge the “new model” of major country relations of which the leaders of the two nations have spoken.I will have more to say about this “new model” in the panel on this subject to be held later this afternoon.