Rex Tillerson is Right: U.S.-China Relations Need Not Be Zero-Sum

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses media in Beijing. Flickr/U.S. Department of State

Secretary Tillerson should ignore the criticism of the foreign-policy elites.

Only in Washington, DC could the suggestion that the world’s most powerful country and the world’s most populous country agree to avoid conflict, respect one another and pursue positive-sum cooperation be seen as controversial. Little did Secretary of State Rex Tillerson realize that when he announced America’s commitment to “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect [and] win-win cooperation” at a press conference with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi that he was violating a taboo jealously guarded by Washington’s foreign-policy insiders.

Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, opined that it was a mistake to use language originated by China. Ely Ratner, formerly Vice President Biden’s deputy national security advisor, fumed that Tillerson had made a “big mistake” and that by using the phrase, Tillerson had fallen for China’s “platitudes and propaganda” and bought into a “dangerous narrative.” And Daniel Drezner declared it a “problem” that Tillerson “pleased his hosts” in this manner, seeing the statement as emblematic of Tillerson’s incompetence.

Despite the umbrage of U.S. foreign-policy elites, criticism of Tillerson’s action is misplaced. Secretary Tillerson has not given the game away in one rash act, nor has he betrayed America’s values or interests. To the contrary, he has acted in a mature, statesmanlike manner that betrays the common sense and nonideological intuition increasingly found only among political outsiders. Here’s why the knee-jerk criticisms of his statement are unfounded.

Objection One: The New Model of Great Power Relations Is Only Propaganda

The first objection is that talk of “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” is merely “propaganda.” The United States and China don’t need heart-warming slogans; instead, the two countries need to focus on resolving the issues that divide them, which include North Korea, the South China Sea and China’s “unfair” trade practices. The implication of this argument is that the Chinese phrase is devoid of meaning: it is natural for great powers to compete with one another, for politics to be zero-sum and for fear of the other to define the relationship. Pretending otherwise will only distract from this reality and divert the United States from the conflict necessary to secure its interests.

This objection misunderstands Chinese culture. According to Chinese foreign-policy elites I have interviewed, Chinese believe that before detailed disputes can be resolved, the tone of the relationship needs to be agreed upon. As one influential intellectual recently told me: “China wants to start with the principle—is the relationship good or bad—and then work out the details. The United States wants to start with the details. In business, Americans make the agreement then make a toast; in China, first we have a drink, then we work out details of contract.” Far from being empty propaganda, from the Chinese perspective, agreeing that the relationship will be peaceful and positive-sum is a way to set the overall goal and assure China of America’s benign intentions. And in what world are peaceful and mutually beneficial relations between the world’s two most powerful states an objectionable goal?

Furthermore, it is simply not true that great powers are destined to zero-sum conflict and intractable security dilemmas. In the long nineteenth century (1815–1914), the Great Powers of Europe worked out a way to maintain generally positive-sum relations. As a result, the nineteenth century was for Europe the most peaceful of the modern states system. The great rule of this system? According to Paul Schroeder: “Thou shalt not threaten or humiliate another great power.” If that sounds remarkably like “non-conflict” and “mutual respect,” then perhaps this should not be surprising, as China’s leaders have studied the past looking for ways to avoid what has come to be called the “Thucydides Trap.”

Objection Two: Adopting the Phrase Puts China into a Position of Leadership

The second objection is that adopting a Chinese phrase surrenders America’s right to set the tone of the relationship in its own way.