This Chinese New Year started off with a bang. Not the typical symphony of fireworks you hear across China to mark the beginning of a new lunar calendar, but rather the explosion of North Korea’s third nuclear test, close enough to China’s borders that its vibrations greatly worried many Jilin residents.

The test, in direct defiance of Beijing’s appeals and ill-timed so as to interrupt the new Chinese leadership’s observance of China’s most important holiday, was one of several events in 2013 that highlighted the growing imperative of the United States and China to manage our inevitable disagreements and competition while deepening cooperation on common global challenges.

Paul Haenle
Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is a visiting senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. He served as the White House China director on the National Security Council staffs of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
More >

After his formal selection as China’s new president in March, Xi Jinping distinguished himself much like the newly re-elected U.S. President Barack Obama had four years earlier, with a distinctive rhetorical call. In his speech to the National People’s Congress, Xi vowed to achieve the Chinese dream of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. This vision includes domestic development goals to double China’s GDP and per capita income by the centenary of the Party in 2021 and become a modern socialist country by the centenary of the People’s Republic of China in 2049; and also aims to reestablish China on the world stage as great power. 

Xi and his leadership team understand that in this era of globalization, achieving the Chinese dream will depend on a strong and stable U.S.-China relationship. The Obama administration, likewise, believes a stable, cooperative, and constructive relationship with China is essential to achieving America’s domestic and foreign policy objectives. Our two economies, financial systems, and trade are increasingly interdependent and our interests and destinies are deeply interconnected, lending our leaders strong incentives to avoid confrontation and unhealthy competition. 

Despite these realisms, history shows that in eleven of fifteen cases since 1500 in which a rising power challenged a status quo power, destabilizing conflict resulted. China’s dramatic rise in economic power and international clout has presented Beijing and Washington with the challenge of how to manage relations between a rising power and a status quo power, amid increasing bilateral interdependence, tension, and strategic distrust. The opportunity to constructively confront this challenge and develop a strategy to prevent this trap between the US and China came to the fore in 2013 with the introduction of new leadership teams in both capitals.  

Presidents Xi and Obama made a wise and historic decision to meet for a no neck-tie summit at the Sunnylands Estate in Rancho Mirage, California in June, which provided a valuable and necessary opportunity for both presidents to speak candidly and openly with each other, and start developing the trust that can provide the foundation for an enduring and constructive U.S.-China relationship. The informal setting of the meeting offered a chance for the two leaders to begin building rapport, setting a tone for improved relations, and gaining a better understanding of each other’s domestic, bilateral, and global visions. 

At Sunnylands, Xi again put forward the idea of forging a new type of major country relationship between the U.S. and China, which he had first proposed during a visit to Washington in February 2012, when he was vice president. Obama responded positively to Xi’s proposal, explaining that the United States is willing to build a new model of cooperation with China based on mutual benefit and respect. 

While the American leadership viewed this statement as a positive gesture indicating a willingness to explore this new model of major country relations concept, some in China concluded that Obama had rejected Xi’s proposal simply because Obama did not use the specific phrase “new type of major country relations” in his remarks. Far from rejecting the concept, Obama and the overall U.S. leadership were signaling that they accept the need to seriously and vigorously work toward reaching the goal of a new type of cooperation. But instead of a narrow focus on the specific words to describe the new framework, the Obama administration was indicating that it was more interested in understanding  what specific actions the two countries could take to enhance cooperation, reduce differences, and ultimately achieve the theoretical model proposed by China. The U.S. was signaling it wants to explore this new concept with China, but only if the Chinese side agrees it can lead to greater cooperation.

This is exactly what U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice reiterated when she pronounced in her headline policy speech on America’s future in Asia in November, “we seek to operationalize a new model of major power relations” with China. Rice used the specific phrase proposed by China—new type of major country relations—but she added a caveat: operationalize. Rice’s careful choice of words were intended to send a clear message to the Chinese leadership that the U.S. is interested and willing to explore Xi’s concept of a new type of major power relations. But Rice’s use of the word “operationalize” was equally significant, signaling that the United States is foremost focused on determining how to turn this concept into a practical effort to enhance bilateral cooperation, rather than just coining a new bumper sticker or definition for the relationship.

So what does it mean then, to operationalize a new model of major power relations? The below four characteristics should serve as the core of this new practical cooperation:

First, the U.S. and China need to start actively cooperating together on global challenges where we have mutual interests. In the past, our countries have focused on bilateral issues. Today, however, the major challenges and opportunities for the U.S.-China relationship will come in working together to address critical global challenges such as nuclear proliferation, energy and food security, terrorism, climate change, Middle East instability, cyber security, and global financial reform and recovery. 

The need to find tangible ways to work together constructively on global challenges was evident at Sunnylands. Obama and Xi concluded their discussions with an announcement to enhance cooperation on combating nuclear proliferation by continuing to apply pressure on Pyongyang, and to work together to combat climate change by discussing ways to reduce emissions of hydrofluorocarbons. If we can engage in more effort together that produce real benefits for our peoples as well as the rest of the world, this will be an important step toward making the new model of major country relations a reality.

Second, Chinese and American leaders will need to resist the expectation that either side will change the other side’s views on long-standing and historical areas of disagreement between our two countries—such as Taiwan or human rights— overnight. Many in Washington are concerned that the new model of great power relations concept is an effort by China to compel the U.S. to respect China’s core interests, create Chinese spheres of influence, and get the U.S. to accommodate China's interests on Beijing’s terms. This type of approach will not work, and making this a starting point for discussions on the new paradigm will only set this exercise up for failure. On many of these issues, including Taiwan, the United States and China have agreed to disagree since their first communiqué in 1972. But in a more positive context of greater cooperation on global issues, our leaders will be in a better place to work on and reduce these areas of long-standing disagreement. 

Third, our countries have new areas of tensions in the relationship that exacerbate mistrust and that we need to address with urgency. In 2013, these issues included revelations of Chinese cyber hacking of American commercial and military secrets to dangerous risks deriving from regional territorial disputes in the South and East China Sea, including Beijing’s recent announcement of a new Air Defense Identification Zone. These challenges, especially the latter, hold the potential for confrontation between our militaries if we do not renew our military to military efforts to increase transparency and cooperation. These important issues must be addressed head-on, not sidestepped. But as we work vigorously through these current disagreements, we should not allow these areas of friction to define or overwhelm our broad and robust relationship.  But we must address them with urgency and find ways to reduce these disagreements and enhance trust if we are to achieve a new type of major country relations.

Finally, in order to forge a new model of major country relations that is sustainable, we will need to convince our publics that it is in the interests of both nations. To do this, we should identify several mutually beneficial headline initiatives that demonstrate to our publics the value of a cooperative U.S.-China relationship in a very public way. The U.S. and China could work together to eradicate a major childhood disease or epidemic. Another idea could be a collaborative space exploration such as a joint mission to Mars. On this score, we will need to hear from Chinese leaders where they think cooperation is possible, but if we can capitalize on our national strengths and use them to operationalize practical cooperative projects, we can show the world the power for good that the U.S.-China relationship can bring. 

If we cannot find concrete ways to cooperate while managing disagreements and reducing differences, it’s an open question what will happen to this Chinese proposal. I am convinced the U.S. Administration will not be interested in simply inventing a new slogan for the U.S.-China relationship. Tangible areas of cooperation and concrete outcomes will be the most important features of this new framework, not the definition. After all, defining a new type of relationship is only useful if it actually achieves cooperation and prevents conflict.

If, however, we can find mutually beneficial ways to cooperate, this proposal holds great promise for both of our countries. But the lesson of 2013 is that the forging of a new model of major power relations does not end when both sides accept its premise, rather this is where our efforts begin. If we can shift our focus from whether the new definition of cooperative relations is accepted or not toward exploring ways to operationalize and achieve it, I believe the United States and China can pave a historic path to a prosperous future.

This article was originally published in Chinese in Phoenix Weekly.