Academic journal article Asian Perspective

China's Major-Powers Discourse in the XI Jinping Era: Tragedy of Great Power Politics Revisited?

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

China's Major-Powers Discourse in the XI Jinping Era: Tragedy of Great Power Politics Revisited?

Article excerpt

XI JINPING'S ADMINISTRATION BEGAN CHINA'S FIFTH-GENERATION LEADership transition in 2013 with a vision for a "new type of majorpower relations" (xinxing daguo guanxi) between China and the United States.1 While the United States has historically sought to shape China's worldview, this vision is notable as a Chinese initiative to reconstruct understandings of great-power politics in the twenty-first century. What does this concept mean and why is it important now?

I trace the current Chinese discourse on US-China major-power relations. A preliminary assessment of this discourse reveals more continuity than change in the orientation of China's international relations and relations with the United States. Specifically, China's major-powers model reinforces (1) "peaceful" intentions rather than hegemonic aspirations, (2) the primacy of promoting China's domestic development rather than its international position, and (3) tensions between China's dual identities as a rising major power and developing economy.

I begin by placing China's concept of major-power relations in the context of domestic debates on China's international power status since the 1990s. Next, I identify the spectrum of views characterizing the current Chinese discourse on major-power relations as they appear in official and scholarly accounts. I then assess the orientation of Chinese elite views based on interpretations of the proposed model. To conclude, I consider implications for US-China relations and the broader international order in the Xi Jinping era.

Emergence of the Discourse

Xi Jinping proposed China's concept of major-power relations during his February 2012 visit to Washington as vice president and heir-apparent to Hu Jintao. Supporting the January 2011 Barack Obama-Hu Jintao joint agreement on building a "cooperative partnership," Xi envisioned a new US-China relationship based on mutual understanding and strategic trust, respect for core interests, mutually beneficial cooperation, and cooperation on global issues (Office of the Press Secretary 2011; Xi 2012). State Councilor Dai Bingguo made a similar proposal in 2009 at the inaugural US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), where he pushed for "efforts to build a new model of relationship between two major countries, a relationship rooted in mutual respect, harmonious coexistence and win-win cooperation" (Zhang 2012, 1). Although Xi's remarks in 2012 initially drew little US attention as a new framework for US-China relations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton relayed a positive US response a month later (Clinton 2012).

China's promotion of its new model of major-power relations subsequently emphasized the joint development of such relations, as raised by Hu Jintao and Dai Bingguo at the fourth S&ED in Beijing and by Defense Minister Liang Guanglie in Washington in May 2012. The Chinese foreign ministry in July 2012 presented Beijing's first comprehensive outline of this model in an article by Cui Tiankai before his appointment as ambassador to the United States (Cui and Pang 2012). Cui framed the major-powers model not just as a US-Chinese joint effort but also as a response to what Hillary Clinton had raised as the need to find "a new answer to the ancient question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet" (Clinton 2012). At the May 2012 S&ED, Hu Jintao also stressed this need to "break the tradition of greatpower conflict and confrontation" (Hu 2012).

China's current major-powers discourse is thus more specifically about the relationship between rising and established powers, and can be placed within the context of China's domestic debates since the early 1990s on its status as a rising power (Yan, Yu, and Tao 1993). These debates have evolved through three stages, marked by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and the 2008 global financial crisis. In 1998, during the Jiang Zemin administration, China's Rise, by Yan Xuetong at Qinghua University and researchers at the Ministry of State Security-affiliated China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), represented one of the earliest works on the international systemic conditions of China's rise (Yan et al. …

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