14 January 2014

(Re)Defining the “New Type of Major Country Relationship” between the United States and China

Ely Ratner, “(Re)Defining the ‘New Type of Major Country Relationship’ between the United States and China,” Center for Strategic and International Studies PacNet 4, 13 January 2014.

The US response to China’s call for a “new type of major country relationship” remains one of the most controversial and misunderstood components of the Obama administration’s China policy. An immediate problem is the glaring disconnect between the ways in which policymakers in Washington and Beijing are interpreting the concept. What the United States sees as a way to manage competition and encourage China to cooperate on critical geopolitical issues, China’s leaders describe as a framework for acknowledging China’s newfound status and respecting its core interests.

Elsewhere in Asia, particularly among America’s allies and partners, there’s a palpable sense of confusion and dismay that Washington appears to be embracing the notion of accommodation to China with hints of a G-2 condominium that leaves the rest of the region on the sidelines. Beijing has amplified these concerns by telling diplomats throughout Asia that they should no longer count on a Washington that now privileges US-China relations ahead of all others.

The cat is out of the bag in Washington as well. … National Security Advisor Susan Rice told an audience at Georgetown University last November that it was time “to operationalize a new model of major power relations.”

However, although the slogan is here to stay (for now), still to be determined are the ways in which it will shape the behaviors of China, the United States, and the region. The consequences could be dire if China continues to misconstrue Washington’s vision for US-Sino relations. Misperception in Beijing that the United States is ready to accommodate China’s core interests could likely lead to Chinese assertiveness and miscalculation. One could argue this is already occurring.

Similarly, if the region misreads US acceptance of the concept to mean that Washington will prioritize the US-China relationship above all others in Asia, allies and partners will be less likely to cooperate with the United States and will instead seek alternative means of ensuring their security, which would at once undermine US leadership and invite greater competition and conflict.

For a related argument that it is risky for the U.S. be perceived as embracing such a concept uncritically, see Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Naval Modernization: Implications and Recommendations,” Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, “U.S. Asia-Pacific Strategic Considerations Related to PLA Naval Forces” hearing, Washington, DC, 11 December 2013.

Read the complete oral testimony here.

Click here for additional information on the hearing.

The archived Webcast is available here.

For an article that builds on this testimony, see Andrew S. Erickson, “Deterrence by Denial: How to Prevent China From Using Force,” The National Interest, 16 December 2013.