by Xinhua Writers Wang Fan, Zhi Linfei
BEIJING/WASHINGTON, Dec. 16 (Xinhua) -- In 2001, when the United States started its war on terror while China focused on economic growth, few would have predicted that Washington and Beijing, now the world's two largest economies, will raise the prospect of building a new type of inter-power relationship 11 years later.
Historically, the rise of a new power has often led to conflict with established ones, as reflected in a grim account of world wars.
But China-U.S. relations could set a new precedent. While enduring frictions and tests in 2012 as usual, the two countries, with their economies increasingly intertwined, now realize they have too much to lose in a zero-sum game, and much more to gain to ditch the stereotyped pattern of power clashes.
Xi Jinping, newly-elected general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, then in the capacity of Chinese vice president, pushed forward the idea of building a new type of inter-power relationship between the two countries based on win-win cooperation, mutual trust and favorable interaction.
After the trip, the concept was reaffirmed in the fourth China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue held in Beijing in May, during which Chinese President Hu Jintao urged the two heavyweights to break from traditional belief and seek new ways to develop relations between major countries.
The U.S. side responded positively to the proposal.
"Together we are trying to do something unprecedented to write a new answer to an age-old question of what happens when the established power and the rising power meet," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Since then the intention to pursue a new type of inter-power relationship grew more evidently, as seen in a slew of high-level contacts, including the third meeting of China-U.S. High-Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange, a summit between Hu and U.S. President Barack Obama at the G20 summit in Mexico, and most recently, the talks between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Obama last month on the sidelines of the 7th East Asia Summit in Cambodia.
"It (building a new type of major power relations) is a newly proposed vision, which requires a lot of research," said Tao Wenzhao, a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' American Research Institute, told Xinhua in an interview.
"The continuing narrowing of power gap (between the two countries) may leave the two countries being pitted against each other, but raising the idea of building cooperative China-U.S. relations at this moment will help prevent the growing competition from hurting the bilateral ties," he said.
MIX OF RIVALRY, PARTNERSHIP
Indeed, the narrowing power gap has led to a complex mix of partnership and rivalry in the bilateral relationship. It also added concerns among Washington policymakers over the decline of U.S. global status.
With such worries, this year the Obama administration took a spate of measures to bolster the U.S. presence and influence in the Asia-Pacific region, meddled in maritime disputes between China and its neighbors, and moved to block some Chinese products and investments from entering the U.S. market, Chinese analysts said.
Commenting on Washington's plan to deploy 60 percent of its warships to the Asia-Pacific by 2020, Tao said "America does have an intention to counterbalance China's growing influence in the Asia-Pacific as it shifts its strategic center of gravity eastward."
"The United States wants to convince China's neighbors that Asia-Pacific needs Washington's presence and protection in order to 'unite' them to strike a 'strategic rebalance' against China in the region," security expert Wang Yusheng recently wrote in an article about the U.S. meddling in China's maritime disputes.
Moreover, the U.S. election-year politics has also added to the complexity of the bilateral ties. To sway votes in battleground states, Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney played hardball tactics against China, pinning some of the blame on Beijing for domestic economic woes.
Fortunately, for all the hawkish campaign talks, the U.S. policymakers are aware that putting such tough rhetoric into action is not a realistic option. The China-bashing has abated after the election in November.
On the economic front, businessmen have brushed the political wariness and trade disputes to build a web of ties in trade. Bilateral trade is forecasted to increase 9.1 percent in the first nine months of this year.
"Trade collision (between the two countries) in itself is not a big deal. For China and the United States, such frictions are relative small given that their bilateral trade nears 500 billion U.S. dollars," Tao said.
Direct investments by Chinese companies in the United States are likely to reach a new high of 6.5 billion dollars this year, according to Rhodium Group, which tracks Chinese investment.
Senior Chinese and U.S. officials have also frequently exchanged visits to avoid any escalation of conflicts.
Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie travelled to Washington in May, the first in nine years, to improve communication between the two militaries.
The two sides also found converging interests and vowed to enhance cooperation and coordination in a number of international issues such as climate change, global financial stability, nuclear nonproliferation and free trade, among others.
As both countries underwent leadership change this year, the world is closely watching what is next for the China-U.S. relationship, arguably the most important of its kind in the world.
Analysts in Washington and Beijing are generally upbeat about the prospects of the relations, as they see no substantial changes in both countries' foreign policies under the new leadership.
Jeffrey Bader, an expert of the Brookings Institution and a former national security official, said the U.S.-China relations are in pretty good shape right now, and the U.S. foreign policies and strategies toward China will not change significantly under Obama's second term.
The key issue will be how to react properly to China's continued rise and its increasingly important role in global society, he added.
The analysts also believe that with broad international visions (Xi's 1985 visit to Iowa and Vice Premier Li Keqiang's English fluency) and the knowledge to cope with global challenges, the new Chinese leadership is ready to foster a more cooperative China-U.S. relationship.
Bonnie Glaser, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Xinhua that Xi's U.S. visit was "extremely important," as it "began the process of laying some groundwork for the (bilateral) relationship."
Jonathan Pollack, acting director of the John Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, said Xi's visit was both important and successful as it helped build a personal relationship between Xi and Obama.
"There are going to be challenges to a relationship this big and this complex. So, if you can create something of a bond or a relationship between top-level officials, it is for the better," Pollack told Xinhua.
Tao agreed, and noted that "both Obama and Xi have voiced their determination to push for reforms and move forward. I think this bodes well for the China-U.S. relations."
Peering through historical lens, the pursuit of building a new type of China-U.S. relationship assumes great significance not only for the two countries, but for the world at large.
Just as Henry Kissinger, a famous U.S. diplomat and old "China hand" put it, "China and the United States will not necessarily transcend the ordinary operation of great-power rivalry. But they owe it to themselves, and the world, to make an effort to do so."