‘New Model’ US-China Relations: Maybe, Maybe Not

February 17, 2014 Updated: February 17, 2014

Secretary of State John Kerry completed a two-day trip to China on Feb. 15, where he met with Communist Party chief Xi Jinping and other top officials. But the trip seemed conspicuously short on results: There was much discussion, and little new agreement, on the perennial issues that characterize the relationship. 

At the conclusion of the trip, Chinese news reports declared that the communist leadership kept its “firm stance” in the face of American pressure on contentious territorial issues in the South and East China seas. 

Official reports also said that the Americans had agreed to the Chinese leadership’s characterization of the relationship between the two countries—represented by the catchphrase “a new model of great power relations”—whereas Kerry’s public statements gave no such indication.

The one major note of cooperation related to climate change, but this did not appear to contain much that was new or concrete. “So we need to implement the initiatives that the climate change working group has already identified” last April, Kerry said.

After the meetings in China were over, Chinese state-run media took the opportunity to assert its own version of events.

Xinhua News Agency, the official mouthpiece of the regime, for example, declared that America endorsed its official description of the relationship—that of the “new model of great power relations.” 

Xinhua said that Kerry “hoped for real progress” in constructing the “new model” with China. 

It also said that Xi Jinping and President Obama had come to the same conclusion during the summit in Sunnylands, Calif., last year— “deciding to construct” the “new model” together. 

But in neither case did American public statements suggest this.

‘New Model’ Not Shared

Kerry, in fact, appeared to seek to subtly reframe the idea in recent remarks. “As President Obama and President Xi made clear at Sunnylands last year, they are committed to building an historic bilateral relationship based on two most critical elements: one, practical cooperation, and two, constructive management of differences.” 

Kerry added: “There are differences, and we were honest about that today.”

The significance of the “new model” language relates to who decides the terms of the relationship. 

Analysts said that the “new model of great power relations” is an attempt by China to have the United States acquiesce to its version of sovereignty in the East and South China seas—waters near China that it lays claim to.

China’s maritime claims are a source of intense contention and potential conflict with its Asian neighbors. 

Kerry said that it was a topic of the meeting—but it appears that little progress was made. 

“I also expressed our concern about the need to try to establish a calmer, more rule-of-law-based, less confrontational regime with respect to the South China Sea, and the issues with respect to both the South China Sea and the East China Sea,” Kerry said. 

Chinese authorities have not backed away from their unusual claim that a huge swath of the South China Sea, and parts of the East China Sea—for decades either international waters or part of the exclusive economic zones of a handful of countries—are actually all part of Chinese territory.

Xinhua, the state mouthpiece, said that Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, “explained China’s solemn stance on the issue, emphasizing that China resolutely walks a peaceful path of development, resolutely holds a policy of friendly neighborly relations, and resolves disputes by discussion.”

However, Xinhua intoned, “No one can sway our determination to defend China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The United States should accept China’s territorial claims in the South and East China seas, Xinhua said, in order to “protect peace in the region.”