Friday February 21, 2020


November 7, 2014

In anticipation of President Obama’s trip to Beijing on Monday to attend the APEC summit, analysts and government officials from both sides of the Pacific have taken the opportunity to express their impressions on the state of U.S. – China relations. The APEC summit will be followed by a day of meetings between President Obama and President Xi Jinping, along with a host of other high-level officials from both countries. As U.S. – China relations have sunk to the lowest point in decades, those with a stake in the relationship place high expectations for the results of these talks. United States National Security Advisor Susan Rice visited Beijing in September to hammer out an agenda for the upcoming trip, but tensions over the interception of a U.S. patrol plane over Chinese airspace overshadowed the visit. Officials hope the meetings on November 12 will see the conclusion of concrete and pragmatic agreements between the two great powers. Obama and Xi last met in June 2013 at Sunnylands in California.

Among those with something to say is Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai. In a surprisingly candid 90 minute interview with Foreign Policy on October 29, Ambassador Cui discussed the disagreements and mistrust hindering smoother relations between China and the U.S. As former Vice-minister of Foreign Affairs and graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Cui is a seasoned expert on the U.S.-  China relationship. He expressed the belief held in Beijing that China has worked tirelessly to promote international cooperation and prosperity, while the United States is not doing enough to compromise in its relationship with China.

In this interview, Ambassador Cui reiterates the meaning of the phrase ‘Great Type of New Power Relationship,’ which President Xi first articulated as the goal for U.S. – China bilateral diplomacy. According to Cui, this new type of relationship relies on dismissing Cold War conceptions of conflict and multi-polarity, and focuses instead on promoting active membership in the international system and mutually beneficial cooperation. That being said, China is still working to define its role in the international system. “Domestically,” Cui says, “modernization is still our goal. Internationally, we want to make greater contributions to global peace and prosperity.” In order to pursue this prosperity, China is willing to shoulder more international responsibility. Cui is careful to draw a line between taking up responsibility and reorganizing the world order. China does not seek to upset the current order, but instead believes international organizations should adapt to reflect China’s great power status. “Since the world is changing in a very profound way,” he states, “international institutions also have to change.”

United States Secretary of State John Kerry and former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon also spoke this week on the topic of U.S. – China relations, Kerry at Johns Hopkins’ SAIS and Donilon at a conference at the Brookings Institution. Though speaking at separate events, both men seemed to be responding to comments made by Ambassador Cui Tiankai in his interview. Regarding the ‘new type great power relations’, Secretary Kerry stated that the U.S. and China “are working closely in order to avoid the historic pitfall of strategic rivalry between an emerging power and an existing power.” Tom Donilon addressed this as well when he explained that the rising and present power need not be in conflict as a matter of course. Instead, individual decisions will affect the nature of the relationship, and those decisions should aim to add content behind the phrase “new type power relations.” Both the Chinese and U.S. sides then, aim to continue to work to avoid the zero-sum game some worry might develop.

Decisions made during next week’s meetings in Beijing will illustrate how well the United States can accept China as a great power and work together with it. Obama and Xi will likely explore areas for potential greater cooperation, such as energy and climate change, the fight against Ebola, anti-terrorism campaigns, and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and Iran. The prospect of Chinese involvement in defeating international terrorist groups, ISIS in particular, has held the attention of the international community for months, particularly after ISIS, and then Al Qaeda, identified China as an enemy.

Thus far, China has not pledged itself to the U.S. led coalition against ISIS, but analysts see it as a prime opportunity for China to show its willingness to cooperate with the United States and other nations. Yet, Ambassador Cui remarks, China is already working against terrorism in providing material and humanitarian aid to Iraqi reconstruction efforts and in providing investment to the region, which promotes stability. Just because China is stepping up, however, “does not mean that the United States should have a shrinking responsibility.” This sentiment is reflected in the Chinese attitude towards the U.S. departure from Afghanistan.

Kerry emphasized many of the same possibilities for future cooperative ventures, lingering on the need for mutual environmental and energy policies. He also pointed out the need for deeper “people-to-people” ties. The Chinese and American people view each other negatively, a problem which must be addressed in order to promote a peaceful exchange of ideas.

Regarding the Obama administration’s rebalance towards Asia, Ambassador Cui’s comments were surprisingly critical. Typically, Chinese officials speaking publicly in the United States try to remain diplomatically ambiguous when it comes to answering questions on U.S.-China conflicts, focusing on general concepts and refraining from direct criticism. Although there are several instances in his interview where Cui avoids directly answering questions, he mostly pulls no punches. For instance, he states “The problem with this rebalancing is that it’s not balanced.” The U.S. should focus more on sustainable development and less on security. Though Beijing believes the U.S. wants a prosperous China, Washington’s current policies conflict with this goal.  Tom Donilon, an architect of the rebalance strategy, discussed the rebalance in his speech on Wednesday. He painted the rebalance as a success, having helped place the United States in the center of Asia Pacific affairs as a stabilizing influence, and making this U.S. initiated stability the platform for Asian development. The Chinese perception of the rebalance as a threat, he said, is simply not correct. He stressed that the rebalance is not a containment strategy, particularly since it focuses primarily on economic and diplomatic relations, as opposed to military affairs.

Ambassador Cui also expresses suspicion over U.S. government involvement in the Hong Kong protests, implying the U.S. State Department played a role in instigating chaos and disrupting rule of law. “Without rule of law,” he says “there’s no democracy.” Thus, according to his statement, the Hong Kong protests, which block the streets and hamper business from operating normally, only hinder the quest for democracy. This relationship between rule of law and democracy is one that Americans do not understand, he says. Secretary Kerry, in his Tuesday address, framed the situation in Hong Kong in terms of human rights, always a thorny issue in the U.S. – China relationship. In Kerry’s words, “We have seen again and again that respect for rule of law and the protection of human rights are essential to any country’s long-term growth, prosperity, and stability, and to their respect in the world.” Judging by these two statements, then, and two vastly different conceptions of “rule of law,” the U.S. and China should not expect any resolution on their disagreements over democracy and human rights.

According to Cui Tiankai, not only does the U.S. misunderstand China in critical ways, it tries to impose a double standard on China and reacts in anger when China refuses to play along. On the cybersecurity front, The United States halted the operation of the U.S. – China cybersecurity working group over concerns of cyber-espionage from China. At the same time, the U.S. has failed to provide satisfactory assurance to China that it “will not hurt China’s interest with this technological advantage.” In issues over visa renewal and issuance, too, the United States has taken a hypocritical stance. “Visas for the general public is a reciprocal process…If you deny a visa to some people, I could also do the same,” Ambassador Cui remarked, “this is certainly the case between us.”

Finally, Ambassador Cui criticized the American electoral process, finding it less demanding than the Chinese system. In the United States, a person might move from anonymity to major elected office within a few years, using the media and the support provided by Super PACS to gains support. In China, however, officials “have to convince the people that they are capable of doing the job.” Only after they have convinced people at every level of the process, usually over a period of decades, does a person in China reach high political office.

Cui’s comments present a good tool for measuring the current state of U.S.-China relations and the stance China takes on many of the issues creating tension between the two countries. Though critical of the United States, the interview also presents China’s willingness to continue to work with the U.S., if the U.S. is willing to make compromises. Furthermore, the shift in focus on the parts of both countries away from areas of conflict towards opportunities  for cooperation is a positive one that can benefit the entire international system, in addition to the U.S. and China.

For more information on this topic, please consult the following sources:

China Daily – “New relationship to advance”

Foreign Policy – “If You Want Rule of Law, Respect Ours”

U.S. Department of State-  “Remarks on U.S. – China Relations”

Compiled and edited by Molly Bradtke