China’s growing capabilities and resources enable the country to contribute more meaningfully toward solutions to the world’s most pressing security challenges. However, trends and influencing factors in China’s foreign policy continue to evolve, as does understanding about the type of great power that China will become.

The 2014 Carnegie Global Dialogue’s opening session centered on how the world order is changing amid a host of global challenges and how Sino-U.S. bilateral relations have evolved in response to China’s growing capabilities and assertiveness. The morning plenary featured remarks from Carnegie President Jessica Mathews and a discussion between Carnegie’s Douglas Paal and Carnegie–Tsinghua’s Yan Xuetong. Carnegie-Tsinghua Director Paul Haenle hosted and moderated the session.

Discussion Highlights

  • Resurgent Bipolarity: After a post–Cold War period of U.S. unipolarity, the world’s balance of power, panelists observed, seems to be shifting again. Emerging powers like the BRICS are competing more actively with established powers like the United States. While experts differ in predicting a shift to bipolarity or multipolarity, the panelists predicted that a bipolar shift is more likely given the amount of power China is amassing and the country’s growth rate. 
  • Redefining Great-Power Relations:  In the past year, the concept of a new great-power relationship between China and the United States has risen to prominence. One panelist noted that although this phrase—credited to Chinese leader Xi Jinping—likely served to rally domestic support behind a more active Chinese foreign policy, it is clear that both sides want to differentiate themselves from the previous U.S.-Soviet relationship. This policy is a step in that direction. Nevertheless, China and the West understand great-power politics differently. Panelists asserted that the West already views China as a competitor, but also expects Beijing to collaborate on emerging global challenges commensurate to China’s growing capabilities. China, meanwhile, expects more respect for its policy positions from the West. One speaker proposed that both sides create a common definition of “new great-power relations” to more effectively cooperate. 
  • Divergent Narratives: Panelists discussed why Chinese and U.S. narratives involving the Asian-Pacific region are conflicting. Washington views Beijing as increasingly assertive in its conflicts in the East China Sea. Meanwhile, China perceives the United States as trying to contain it through neighboring alliances. The panelists agreed that this was due to different conceptions of power. Because the United States already views China as a competing power, Washington interprets Beijing’s actions as being aggressive. On the other hand, China will not view itself as balancing the United States until Beijing considers the two countries to be on equal footing on a global scale.
  • A Globally Active China: Despite consensus that China and other major powers must collaborate more on new challenges, panelists admitted that it is unclear to what extent and in what areas China should take responsibility. They noted that China still views itself as an “incomplete power” and is only willing to involve itself in international cooperation proportional to its self-perceived power. That said, President Xi Jinping’s latest visit to Latin America marked the first time a Chinese leader claimed that China was ready to provide more public goods to the international community. Panelists agreed that this could mean that China is ready to take on a more active international role.
  • Beyond Bretton Woods: The panelists suggested that current international institutions were made for a world with a different balance of power. They agreed that the IMF and World Bank are not evolving quickly enough to meet the world’s needs. China has difficulty exerting its growing influence in institutions that are only slowly including it. In response, China is leading efforts to create new institutions like the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. These new forums prompted a Western debate about whether China is trying to fit into the existing order or change it. One panelist suggested that these newly formed institutions do not threaten the Bretton Woods institutions, but instead form a complementary and more inclusive institutional structure.