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Characterizing a new type of major power relationship

Updated: 2013-09-25 10:13
By Aaron Jed Rabena (

US-Sino ties are the world’s most important bilateral relationship, a relationship where many of the world’s bilateral and multilateral relationships depend on and are contingent upon. And being such, it is no surprise that the world’s systemic configuration would in one way or another always be affected by how the US and China relate to each other.

In an era of economic, technological, and cultural globalization, the ideal major power relationship is where war or conflict is absent. Because the old type of a power relationship, historically, is where great powers ended up fighting each other, especially when one power declines and another one rises. Incidentally, the rate of China’s rise is putting the US in a state of relative decline. And so, it is no surprise that President Xi Jinping broached the idea to President Obama that there should be a new type of major power relationship.

The rationale is obvious --to give a heads up so that the tragic relations and mentalities of great powers in the past would not happen again. China, for its part, is already doing its job of moving toward the path of a new major power relationship, by showing how different it is from other rising powers, through a foreign policy that is domestically based (economic development) and diplomatic engagements that are externally practical (cultural/economic diplomacy). The other 50 percent of the job then is left with the US, on how it would welcome and receive China as a rising power -- because China alone cannot make it happen.

According to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the defining features of the new major power relationship are: “non-conflict and confrontation, mutual respect, candor, win-win cooperation, wider cooperation, and mutual benefit.” Truly, it will be cooperative because one would need the other as an indispensable business partner; and competitive in a sense that there are disagreements in a range of sensitive issues that must be addressed, such as the US’ Pivot to Asia, Korean Peninsula, cyber security, Taiwan, Syria, Iran, East and South China Seas, human rights, and trade disputes.

In spite of these differences, the world is no longer what it used to be, where people rally behind political ideologies and flag political banners, coupled with an outright race for military-industrialization. The backdrop of the world now is an integrated globalized society due to greater economic interdependency and proliferation of international institutions, which thus make the call for a new type of major power relationship very much attuned to the trends of the times. In short, states and individuals alike now live a life of practicality as their behaviors and psyches have been shaped by modern times.

Witnessing this global evolution, the message that the Chinese leadership is sending to the world is clear: It is high time to veer away from Cold War mind-sets, and set the tone for pursuing a new century of peace and stability. And as the two most significant state actors on the globe, there is no more room for an antagonistic bipolar structure and ideological rivalry. Without a doubt, what is needed is a dual pole that can be collaborative in ensuring the global common good. Because the world has had “war fatigue” in witnessing how great powers challenged and competed to restructure international systems.

Therefore, it is essential for the US to prove that its alliances -- especially in East Asia --are not Cold War institutions for containment; and for China, that military build-ups are but part of a naturally growing security interest. Furthermore, the US should not imply that their values and ways of living are superior to the Chinese if they want to see eye-to-eye with China. They should treat each other as equals, because after all, states are equally sovereign in an international system.

So, being powers with immense capabilities, the US and China could serve as the world’s twin-turbines or dual-cylinders arising either out of a “practical cooperative partnership” or an “issue-based great power condominium” by jointly taking the initiative of leading or coordinating through international regimes, and engaging in a way that the world wants to see benignly, regionally, and globally.

This makes it very important that the Sino-American relationship should be one that knows each other’s sensitivities, and one that does not capitalize on each other’s vulnerabilities. So being the one that is facing the rise of a new power, the US should display political sportsmanship so that insecurities would not translate into misperceptions, stereotypes, or exaggerations.

Indeed, there is a need for a consensus, a “Major-Power Consensus” made by both Beijing and Washington. And it should be a 21st Century Consensus that can show how the Chinese Dream is parallel to the American Dream, and how ways can be paved for these two to coincide. This makes a great deal of sense to avoid the “tragedy of great power politics” as the American scholar John Mearsheimer would put it, but instead forge a --“victory of the new type of major power relationship.”

This is the greatest transformation that the world wants to see -- something that the best of both worlds can offer.

The auther is doctoral student from the Philippines majoring in international relations at Shandong University in China.