According to an English-language report on the speech carried by all of China’s major state media providers, Foreign Minister Wang Yi indicated that China will prioritize ties to great powers during 2014.
“China will further build a framework for its relationships with big powers, which should feature positive interactions and healthy development,” Wang was quoted as saying in the report. “China will build a new type of relationship with the United States with increased results of cooperation, and expand cooperation with Russia in various fields.”
The report indicated that China considers the U.S., Russia and the European Union as the big powers of the world, other than itself.
A Chinese international relations analyst quoted in the report said that the decision to focus on ties with other major powers was based on Beijing’s determination to avoid the “so-called fate of conflict between emerging powers and the existing ones.”
Ye Zhicheng, a professor of international relations at the Beijing University, was also quoted in the report as saying that China-Russia ties provide a model of how that can be accomplished.
As The Diplomat has reported extensively over the past year, Xi Jinping’s tenure as the head of the Communist Party has been marked by strong and growing ties with Russia. Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met on numerous occasions and the two sides have inked a number of important economic and defense deals, including long-term energy contracts. The Russian and Chinese militaries have also cooperated at unprecedented levels over the past year.
China’s relations with the European Union have been a bit more complicated. Throughout much of the year, China-EU relations have been tense, although some European nations have maintained more positive ties with Beijing than others. However, the last few weeks have seen a push for improved China-EU ties and Beijing has also apparently moved past its diplomatic spat with the United Kingdom, which is a member of the EU but not part of the Eurozone.
Except over the past month, Sino-U.S. ties have been largely stable during Xi’s first year in power, meaning that the two sides have sought to cooperate in certain areas even as both sides deeply distrust the other country’s long-term intentions. Roughly around the time Xi took the helm of the Communist Party, China began calling for a “new type of great power relationship” with the United States. Although the phrase’s public expression has been fairly vague, U.S. leaders have cautiously come to state they are seeking the same goal.
Toward that end, 2013 saw a number of positive developments in U.S.-Chinese relations. Perhaps most notably, Presidents Xi and Barack Obama held a two-day informal summit in California in June that was supposed to signify a closer, more candid bilateral relationship. It’s unclear how much impact the summit had but military cooperation between the two sides has reached an unprecedented level.
More negatively, relations have badly deteriorated over the past month or so. The first strain in the relationship came when China announced an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. More recently, a near naval collision in the South China Sea has soured relations for now.
Wang’s suggestion that China will prioritize great power relations in the coming year suggests there could be a quick improvement in Sino-U.S. ties.
In his most recent book, George Washington University Professor David Shambaugh writes that there is a distinct group of foreign policy analysts in China today who advocate prioritizing ties to major powers. Scholars within this group thus argue that: “China should concentrate its diplomacy on managing its relations with the world’s major powers and blocs—the United States, Russia, perhaps the European Union—while paying relatively less attention to the developing world or multilateralism. Daguo shi shouyao (major powers are of primary importance) are their watchwords.”
Shambaugh notes that scholars who adhere to this thinking tending to be experts on the U.S., Russia, or the EU, and stress the importance of maintaining strong ties to each of these countries and institutions. “Analysts in this group often see the Sino-U.S. relationship as the ‘key of the keys,’” Shambaugh writes, “thus arguing that maintaining harmonious ties with Washington should be the number one priority in Chinese diplomacy.”