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

March 23, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaRex TillersonXi JinpingDefenseSouth China Sea

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

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.

Amusingly, this objection conceives of international relations as a zero-sum game: accepting China’s phrase means losing out on an opportunity to hoist up some American phrase (never mind that so far no one has convincingly suggested one). To this, perhaps it is best to recall Deng Xiaoping’s memorable saying: “It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.” If it is in America’s interest to have a peaceful and cooperative relationship with China, then it doesn’t matter if the phrase is American or Chinese—that’s the point of something being win-win. To reject a phrase because you didn’t invent it is not just petty, it’s foolish. In the U.S.-China relationship, there are real stakes. As Henry Kissinger has remarked, a war between the two countries would result in “incalculable” consequences. If letting China take the lead in guiding the relationship in a positive direction makes such a conflict less likely, all the better. That the phrase originated in China is a feature, not a bug.

Objection Three: Adopting the Phrase Makes Concessions to China by Default

Inevitably, the response to the “feature, not a bug” argument offered above is that the phrase is a Chinese cudgel with which China will seek to bludgeon America into conformity to China’s “core interests.” This objection refers to the history of the phrase; originally “mutual respect” meant “mutual respect for core interests.” For China, those core interests typically consisted of Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong but which—to much American outrage—the occasional Chinese official has extended to the South China Sea (a position never officially and publicly endorsed by the Chinese government).

Three points need to be made in response to this objection. The first is that, with reference to the original Chinese proposal, this argument makes a meaningful point. If pledging “mutual respect” over so-called core interests actually meant that the United States would simply accept in toto whatever China declared to be “core,” then agreeing to the phrase without any reciprocal Chinese concessions (or limitations on the principle) would have been poor diplomacy.

But notice that this is not what Secretary Tillerson has done. He agreed merely to “mutual respect” between the United States and China, saying nothing of “core interests.” Respect merely means that the United States ought to take China’s interests into consideration, that the United States should seek to alleviate Chinese concerns wherever possible and that the United States should not seek to publicly humiliate China (as in Schroeder’s maxim above).

Notice that China is also bound by the same principle. It is perhaps not a coincidence that even as the Trump administration is pressing China to get tougher on North Korea, Secretary Tillerson publicly called for mutual respect. Mutual respect means that China considers not just its own interests, but America’s as well. If both China and the United States actually adopted this attitude, it is highly likely a mutually acceptable compromise could be arrived at over America’s deployment of Thermal High Altitude Area Defense in South Korea. Currently, China feels as if its interests have been totally ignored—which, incidentally, they have—while the United States feels as if China isn’t seriously assessing the risk North Korea poses to it and its allies—something that, once again, is true. Mutual respect isn’t something to fear, and it certainly isn’t one-sided. Smart U.S. diplomacy could use this principle to further U.S. interests just as well as China could use it to further its interests. The outcome? Win-win.

Objection Four: Adopting the Phrase Concedes America’s Decline

Finally, pundits insist that accepting Xi’s new type of great power relations signals America’s decline in the region and accommodation of Chinese power.

If foreign policy “consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation’s commitments and the nation’s power,” as Walter Lippmann once remarked, then recognizing that solving global problems today requires cooperation with other great powers is hardly transgressive. Furthermore, the reality of Asian politics is that the United States is no longer supreme. Cooperating with China is a fact of life in East and Southeast Asia. Pretending that the United States can, or should, lead the region by itself is fatuous drivel. Cooperating with China means recognizing its status as a great power. It is certainly true that China remains in many important ways a “partial power,” but for its neighbors, whose economies are intimately intertwined with China’s rise, this matters little.

Additionally, building cooperative relations with China could demonstrate America’s staying power in Asia and its leadership more generally. Leaders adapt to the times; hegemons rise and fall. The sort of diplomacy that pushes for a showdown between the United States and China displays American insecurity and uncertainty. Diplomacy that is calm, respectful and insistent shows that the United States is capable of leading even in a world where it is merely primus inter pares (something, admittedly, still years in the future, but towards which many trends point). The ability to cooperate with China diplomatically heralds not America’s decline but its reinvention.