Chinese President Xi Jinping pictured with U.S. President Barack Obama at a bilateral meeting during the Nuclear Security Summit at the U.S. Ambassador's Residence in Amsterdam, Netherlands on 24 March 2014 (U.S. Embassy The Hague, Flickr Commons)

In an interview with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the newly appointed director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings reflects on the evolution of U.S.-China relations on the 35th anniversary of full diplomatic relations between both countries. Can Beijing and Washington forge a “new type” of relationship aimed at developing “win-win” cooperation and circumventing major conflict despite the tension and mutual mistrust that permeates their relations?

A version of this interview appears in issue 15.2 of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. To purchase the complete issue 15.2 - Destabilizing Demographics, click here.

GJIA: During the U.S.-China presidential summit in June 2013 at Sunnylands, California, Chinese President Xi Jinping asserted that relations between China and the United States were at “a new historical starting point” and he called for a “new type of major-power relationship” as a framework for future bilateral relations. Looking back on U.S.-China relations since President Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972, to what extent did the Sunnylands summit mark a new turning point in U.S.-China relations and what is the meaning and significance of the “new type of major power relationship” concept?

CL: Nixon’s visit to China and the U.S.-China rapprochement was historically important in the context of the Cold War. It marginalized the Soviet Union, dramatically changed the global political and strategic landscape, and one could argue that it was not Ronald Reagan that ended the Cold War but rather Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s visit to China. Since rapprochement and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between China and the United States in 1979, there have been some important changes such as China’s emergence as a major power and the second largest economy in the world.

When one thinks of an emerging power challenging an existing power in world history, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but even as far back as the time of Thucydides, this has always caused some tension and a certain degree of uneasiness. It has resulted in what some international relations scholars call “hegemonic war,” namely a major conflict between an emerging power and an existing power. However, prominent strategic thinkers such as Henry Kissinger argue that the world has changed and a Cold War mentality or a nineteenth-century mindset should not dominate our thinking. There are several reasons for this but most importantly we have entered an era of economic globalization that is unprecedented in terms of its scale and scope. This was not the case during the Cold War or in earlier periods of history. China is very much linked to the international system unlike during the Cold War era when it was very much separated from the rest of the world.

This is precisely what Xi Jinping is also arguing and what he means by a “new model of major-power relations,” essentially that China and the United States should avoid conflict, cooperate, and develop a win-win relationship in this age of economic globalization. The concept was actually initiated by Dai Bingguo, the State Councilor under the Hu Jintao administration, which signifies a degree of continuity in China’s foreign policy thinking. So in a way the concept is good: it is a challenge to realist thinking and a Cold War mentality. In saying this, not all leaders or public intellectuals in China believe in the concept—that is to say they think that there is a conspiracy against China led by the United States. Some Chinese military figures dismiss the concept and view so-called major-power relations as fundamentally conflictual rather than cooperative.

GJIA: You mentioned continuity between the Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping administrations. What are the major foreign policy implications of China’s leadership transition and to what extent does the change in leadership represent change or continuity in Beijing’s foreign policy orientation?

CL: I think change and continuity are two parts of a country’s foreign policy and in most cases a change of leadership involves a change in policies, but at the same time, for historical and geopolitical reasons, you will see some continuity. China is certainly not an exception in this regard. There is continuity, particularly in the cultural realm, from Mao’s time and before the Communist revolution. In terms of change, the Xi administration’s policy towards North Korea has been tougher and far more critical. This is partly related to Xi’s personality and partly because of recent events such as when Pyongyang completely ignored China’s concerns and almost hijacked its foreign policy.

China’s stance towards North Korea also applies to Japan. You can criticize China’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) as provocative but you can also argue that the ADIZ was a reaction to Japan’s provocative behavior, particularly Tokyo’s claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ignored Japan’s role in the historical animosities of World War II. While Xi Jinping’s approach to Japan and North Korea has been tough and critical, he continues Hu Jintao’s soft approach towards the Taiwan issue. There is a possibility that both sides will establish a mid-term peace agreement. If this materializes it would be a very important development in terms of cross-strait relations.

China’s relationship with South Korea has improved dramatically under Xi Jinping’s tenure. He established a very good relationship with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her visit to China resonated well. The improvement in relations is related to Xi’s personal style but we should also look at the relationship in the context of broader changes on the Korean peninsula.

GJIA: What are the prospects for major political reform in China considering that the Chinese Communist Party has to contend with new societal forces that were non-existent or less prevalent for previous generations of Chinese leaders such as the Internet, social media, and a burgeoning middle class?

CL: Xi Jinping is not famous for his political reform agenda but rather his economic reform program, which was presented at the Third Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Central Committee last November. You can say that he is politically conservative and economically liberal. He has controlled the media from time to time, arrested some dissidents, and intellectual freedom has decreased in the past couple of years. This is worrisome and concerning. But you can also say that he wants to start with economic reform and if this is successful he will have the political capital to bring about political change. At the moment, though, he really wants to accelerate financial liberalization, market development, and crack down on state-owned enterprises, and whether he will eventually implement political reform we still do not know.

Xi Jinping presents a very interesting concept called the “Chinese dream,” which can be interpreted in different ways. It involves the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, which basically involves expanding the middle class, promoting a middle class lifestyle, and giving equal opportunity for poor people to enter the ranks of the middle class. These are linked to his Third Plenum economic reform agenda. During the Sunnylands summit Xi Jinping said that there is a linkage between the Chinese dream and the American dream. This is a fascinating statement from a Communist Party leader because usually Chinese leaders talk about different values or that Western values are not interchangeable with Chinese values, but by emphasizing the same dream he really emphasized some of the core values that are universal. This is another important development that we need to watch out for.

GJIA: Much of the recent debate over China’s “rise” centers on economic and military matters, and less attention is devoted to historical memory as a determinant of China’s policymaking. On 8 October 2013 the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, delivered a speech at John Hopkins SAIS where he stated that the historical legacy of China’s “century of humiliation” plays an important role in China’s decision-making process. To what extent does historical memory animate China’s domestic politics and impact its relationship with the outside world? 

CL: I think Ambassador Cui raises a very important issue that many people tend to overlook. Without a thorough understanding of China’s recent history we cannot make sense of China’s foreign policy behavior and so I think Ambassador Cui is absolutely insightful. The past humiliation is deeply rooted in the Chinese mind, and at a time when China has emerged as a major power and the second largest economy in the world there is a fear that the United States will encircle the country. A majority of Chinese leaders and even some liberal intellectuals in China think this way. It is linked to the historical ramifications and legacy of the past couple of centuries, which were really quite bad for China. Most Chinese also believe that Japan is envious of China’s rise or economic achievements and that as Japan’s leadership role in Asia diminishes it will consolidate its alliance with the United States in order to contain China. This helps explain why China acted so strongly over Japan’s recent provocative behavior. Whether a U.S.-led encirclement against China is real or just China’s own perception is a different matter.

GJIA: You mentioned Japan’s alliance with the United States. Some analysts maintain that U.S. treaty commitments to defend Japan represent the greatest challenge facing U.S.-China relations. Do you agree with this assessment?

CL: Well, this is a good question. First of all, United States policy towards two major powers in the Asia-Pacific region, namely China and Japan, is not symmetrical because of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The alliance certainly carries much weight, but the United States does not want to become drawn into a military conflict with China because of Japan. Borrowing from my Brookings colleague Jeffrey Bader, who was a chief advisor on Asia policy for the Obama administration, it is really unfortunate that the second largest economy and the third largest economy, China and Japan respectively, could engage in a war over “a bunch of rocks” with no natural resources or other considerations besides the concept of sovereignty.

Xi Jinping, for various reasons, also does not want to have a war with Japan. Firstly, one lesson from Chinese history is that war has sometimes caused domestic revolution and this has led to regime change. Xi is aware of this and is disinclined to risk such a scenario. Secondly, it is unclear whether China has surpassed Japan in terms of military strength despite China’s military modernization. The Chinese military’s morale is still quite low because of widespread corruption. Even Chinese military figures are sometimes quite cynical about their military capabilities. Thirdly, for the near future Xi Jinping wants to focus on China’s domestic economic development. This is why he proposed a deepening of China’s economic reform agenda at the Third Plenum.

Although no political leader in China, Japan, or the United States wants to engage in a war over “a bunch of rocks” in the East China Sea, history tells us that when policymakers are backed into a corner war can ensue. This is the danger at the moment. I think China and Japan should put aside their differences, disengage from this very dangerous game, and let history determine this issue.

GJIA: What would you recommend as an appropriate strategic response by the United States to the maritime disputes in the East and South China seas?

CL: I think the general strategic point is quite clear. The United States wants Japan and China to negotiate their disputes peacefully. The United States should make clear to the Chinese that Japan is an ally and at the same time inform Japan that any irresponsible and unnecessary provocative behavior will not be accepted. It is in the U.S. interest to avoid a military conflict and pursue peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region in addition to maintaining its presence and leadership role there. This is, as I understand it, what the so-called “rebalancing” is all about.

GJIA: The U.S. “rebalancing” or “pivot” strategy towards the Asia-Pacific region has received a lot of attention in the United States but we hear less about China’s perspective on this strategy. Some Chinese policy makers and strategic analysts have characterized it as a form of containment and a renewal of “Cold War thinking.” Is there a consensus among the Chinese leadership that this is the case?

CL: The “pivot” has very negative connotations in China. For most Chinese it means a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and a reallocation of resources aimed at China. “Rebalancing” is less threatening. Some American leaders have said that the United States never left Asia and they highlight the region’s importance. In this regard the Chinese may not feel so threatened, namely that China and the Asia-Pacific have become increasingly important from a global perspective and, thus, broad cooperation makes sense.

I think the United States and China still have a lot of mutual distrust, therefore dialogue and avoiding miscommunication is very important. I have a view that if the United States and China engage in a war it will likely be driven not so much by strategic interests but by misjudgment, miscalculation, misperception, and misunderstanding. It is important that the leaders of both countries build mutual trust and confidence. For example, the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship is, relatively speaking, quite weak. Both countries should better articulate their policies towards each other and the Asia-Pacific region and also from time to time express mutual respect and goodwill.

GJIA: Public opinion surveys indicate that Chinese and American attitudes towards each other have soured in recent years. In a Pew Research Center survey the percentage of American respondents with a favorable view of China dropped from 49 percent in 2010 to 37 percent in 2013 and over the same timeframe the percentage of Chinese respondents with a favorable view of the United States dropped from 58 percent to 40 percent. To what extent does public opinion influence China’s decision-making and its relationship with the United States? 

CL: Chinese leaders constantly remind Americans that they also have to respond to public opinion, especially given the commercialization of social media. The encouraging thing is that if you look at surveys of American attitudes towards China, younger people such as college students usually have a more positive view of China than older generations. I think the difference is almost twenty percentage points, and that is very significant. This is encouraging because the future of the United States is also the future of China. At the same time, if you look at Japan it is a different story. Young Japanese people are very critical towards China, but it is difficult to explain why they have such negative views. The older generation in China tends to be more critical of Japan than the younger generation because of memories revolving around historical incidents.

GJIA: A contentious debate among scholars, policymakers, and analysts concerns the nature and implications of China’s re-emergence as a major power, most notably whether it seeks to challenge U.S. interests and become a hegemonic power in the Asia-Pacific region. Critics maintain that as China’s influence in the region grows it will seek to alter to status quo whereas Beijing maintains that its intentions are peaceful and non-revisionist. Where do you position yourself in this debate, particularly in light of China’s growing assertiveness in areas such as the East and South China Seas?

CL: I think that the key word here is uncertainty. This is the word that President George W. Bush used to describe the nature of China’s political trajectory and this is also a concern of the Obama administration. I usually have an optimistic view of U.S.-China relations. I recognize that there are huge tensions and problems within China and between the United States and China but these problems make me realize the sense of urgency and importance of addressing them so that we can avoid the U.S.-China relationship moving in the wrong direction.

The United States should continue to use its soft power, avoid a military confrontation, and not shy away from talking about its values such as democracy, rule of law, transparency, and human rights. In terms of how to communicate with the Chinese, especially those who think that the United States is trying to contain China, I think the best way is for Americans to share their own experiences and lessons from history and discuss why democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and religious freedom are important for China’s future development. By doing so Americans can tell Chinese leaders, especially the Chinese public, that U.S. criticisms of China are not driven by disrespect but rather by respect, sincerity, honesty, and good intentions.

Dr. Cheng Li is the director of the John L. Thornton China Center and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. He is also a director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and an advisor to the Academic Advisory Group of the Congressional U.S.-China Working Group.

To purchase the complete issue 15.2 - Destabilizing Demographics, click here.

Dr. Li was interviewed by Barry McCarron in March 2014.