A ‘Model’ Relationship Has US and China at Odds

February 20, 2014 Updated: February 26, 2014

WASHINGTON—The Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, does not usually turn up at any old think tank conference here and make a speech.

He made an exception on Feb. 20, though, for a conference centered around the theory of a “New Model of Major Power Relations.” The New Model is coming into focus as perhaps the central new Chinese foreign policy concept for how it wishes to frame its relationship with the United States.

A noted lack of enthusiasm on the part of American policymakers has not slowed down the Chinese from trumpeting the arrival of this new policy.

Cui Tiankai, the ambassador, said that “our two presidents have already made that important decision: that we should work together for this new model of relationship,” at his speech at the Center for American Progress on Thursday. 

In fact, U.S. officials have not been nearly as forthcoming. 

President Obama gave a guarded head-nod to the theory in June of last year, but subsequent U.S. statements have been cooler.

Indeed, the ambassador expressed his displeasure with remarks recently made by U.S. officials, who also declined to endorse China’s New Model verbiage. These include statements by Daniel R. Russell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Evan Medeiros, Senior Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, who both delivered the U.S. official position on maritime tensions in recent weeks.

Cui complained that the remarks used “coercive language.”

The Messenger

The group that organized Thursday’s event, the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation, is chaired by C.H. Tung, known as Dong Jianhua in Mandarin. He was the PRC’s first chief executive of Hong Kong, and is currently a vice-chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, essentially an advisory body to the ruling Communist Party. 

According to the Project 2049 Institute, a Virginia-based security think tank, the Exchange Foundation has a “close relationship” with the China Association for Friendly International Contact, a flagship of what are known as the People’s Liberation Army’s “influence operations.”

Influence operations, according to Project 2049, aim to “promote the rise of China within a new international order and defend against perceived threats to state security.” Also known as “political warfare,” these activities “employ strategic psychological operations as a means of leading international discourse and influencing policies of friends and foes alike.”

Whether the event at the Center for American Progress was carried out under this operational rubric is unknowable. When asked to comment on the connection, Rudy deLeon, a co-author of the recent report and a senior figure at the Center for American Progress, said: “I think each country brings its unique voice. These are Chinese voices speaking, and U.S. voices speaking. We each speak with our own voice.” 

China’s voice on this particular topic has been active. Chinese think tanks have been tasked with holding discussions with their U.S. counterparts since late last year, and former and current Chinese officials have presented or publicly promoted the idea since then, too.

Washington Wary

There are questions, however, about precisely what the New Model asks of the United States, and some wariness in Washington about embracing the formulation.

One of the key pillars of the New Model is “mutual respect.” Americans are sometimes wary of this locution, though.

“It would appear to be an unobjectionable phrase,” says Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, at the Wilson Center. “But Americans may not hear it in the way Chinese intend.”

Americans are apt to hear two things, Daly said in a telephone interview. The first is that “‘mutual respect’ means accepting China’s core interests” even when they conflict with what America considers to be its own interests.

“The other thing some Americans hear in ‘mutual respect’ is ‘shut up,’ meaning that, within the new model of major power relations, China expects the U.S. to respectfully remain silent about actions and policies the U.S. dislikes,” Daly added. While there may well be times when Americans should pipe down, Daly said, telling them to do so is unlikely to be a winning strategy.

He thinks that the discussion needs to be more anchored in actual scenarios. “For example, can we be specific about a security architecture in the western Pacific that both China and the U.S. could accept?”

When Xi Jinping first put the idea on the table in 2012, the U.S. reaction was favorable, because it amounted to an affirmation that the United States and China should not go to war. 

“Personally, I think that the U.S. and China should have stopped there, when there was agreement,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“But at Sunnylands, Xi insisted on putting forward a ‘positive definition’ which included win-win cooperation and mutual respect for each other’s core interests and major concerns. The latter is not something that the U.S. is willing to accept,” she said.

“So defining the concept remains a challenge.”

Expectations

According to John Tkacik, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, the idea for China behind the New Model is in part to have the United States cede to some of its interests.

“I don’t believe the Chinese have actually fleshed out what the ‘new model’ entails, except that the U.S. should respect China’s ‘core interests’ preferably at the sacrifice of America’s own core interests,” he said in an email.

Tkacik’s deduction is that, ultimately, the New Model would call for the United States to abandon key alliances in Asia—with Japan, Korea, and Philippines—as a precondition for effecting the model.

“I don’t see that Beijing has any changes in mind,” he wrote. “China is the rising power, and the United States must step aside in this ‘new model.’”

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