Summit Framed by Beijing’s Desire For Great Power Status
A recent headline in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, reads: “Scholar says that establishing a new great power relationship requires abandoning the Cold War mentality and not contending for hegemony.”
Readers of the People’s Daily will be very clear about who, precisely, has to abandon its Cold War mentality, and who must stop proclaiming itself as hegemon: that would of course be the United States.
The last few weeks have seen daily additions to the collection of theory and analysis on the relatively new doctrine of new great power relations. It is as yet unclear whether this will be empty sloganeering, or a concerted effort by the People’s Republic of China to establish its relationship with the United States on what it says is a fairer and equal footing.
One thing is clear, though: The Party’s mouthpiece media channels, and their theoretical enablers, are reporting and editorializing about the concept aggressively in the lead up to the new Party leader’s visit to California.
“They want to be acknowledged as a superpower, alongside the United States,” says Chen Pokong, an independent analyst of Communist Party affairs, based in New York. “It serves as both domestic propaganda, and as an open gambit to gain a stronger status in its relationship with the United States.”
One of the key components of the new great power relations (NGPR) theory is that it should be based on “equality, mutual trust, inclusiveness and tolerance, learning from one another, cooperation, and win-win.” This is expressed in a 12-character slogan in Chinese, and appears in nearly every editorial about the topic. (In fact, the phrase had actually appeared before it was slotted into the emerging NGPR theory, in former Party leader Hu Jintao’s valedictory speech to the 18th Party Congress, before he handed power to Xi Jinping. Similar ideas have also been expressed for a long time.)
The slogans that lie at the heart of the theory, and the PRC’s new expectation of the United States, require some explanation.
According to Chen Pokong, the part on equality and mutual trust means the United States should not interfere in regional affairs, such as the regime’s expansionism in the South China Sea.
The part about inclusiveness and tolerance means the United States should “acknowledge the Party’s political system, and its persecution of human rights. Even though the Party does not tolerate its own people holding different views.”
The part about cooperation and win-win is an attempt to have the United States give a stronger emphasis to its economic relationship with China, to the hopeful exclusion of its security protection for countries in the Asia Pacific region.
All of the explications of the theory in the PRC-state press and ideological journals skew toward a stronger position for China in both its relationship with the United States and its standing in the world. “The new great power relations are equal relations,” says a long People’s Daily analysis.
Alongside gaining an equal status with the United States in the world, the People’s Daily says: “In the new model of great power relations … countries should respect other’s chosen social systems and paths of development, and not try to force their own value systems, social systems, and economic systems on others. And even less should they use all kinds of excuses to interfere in the internal affairs of others.’”
The discussion in the United States on the eve of the visit is being conducted along rather different, less ideologically fervent lines.
In a call with the media, a White House official said that by bringing Xi Jinping to a comfortable California estate for a couple of days, President Obama hopes to get to know the new leader through an “informal format that will allow for real conversation and some candor.”
Issues to be addressed, the administration hopes, include North Korea, maritime security and territorial disputes in the South China Sea (which the PRC is often at the center of)—as well as the series of major cyber-incursions into U.S. government and business institutions that no one now doubts come from Chinese state-affiliated actors.
But the Chinese Communist Party’s response to a large body of evidence that its military has been leading the cyber-attacks has simply been to deny it, and instead claim that China, in fact, is the victim.
Randall Schriver, the president of the Project 2049 Institute, a Virginia-based think tank that focuses on security in Asia, said during a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., on June 4 that the regime’s response has been “just completely unsatisfactory.”
“It will harm the relationship if we can’t have an honest, candid, straightforward discussion about it,” Schriver said.
But after calls in April from U.S. Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats that China and America need “cooperation rather than confrontation” on the issue, the mouthpiece of the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army Daily, responded with a blistering editorial.
“Whether the United States is talking about cyberspace cooperation or promoting the development of Internet tools, it cannot disguise the fact that its purpose is to maintain hegemony in the name of cooperation,” said the editorial, signed by Zhao Shixing, who holds a position in military strategy at the National Defense University in Beijing.
The piece, which was posted across well-trafficked Chinese Internet portals, added that U.S. efforts to control cyberspace are “an important part of the U.S. consolidating and protecting its global hegemony.”
Despite the vastly different readings of the current state of affairs in the United States and China, both seem to agree that the relationship is not as cooperative as it ought to be.
The People’s Daily quoted Wu Xinba, the vice-president of international relations at Fudan University: “China and America always say they need to cooperate, but the way relations have developed over the last few years is not ideal. There’s more competition than cooperation.” He goes on to suggest that the new model of great power relations might help “turn things around.”
Randall Schriver remarked that in general, much of the discussion about the United States and China’s relationship is “at its core dishonest.”
“We don’t actually work with one another,” he said. “We can have a relationship that is entirely transactional in dealing with conflict avoidance, and that’s fine. But there’s an opportunity cost.”