When Xi Jinping arrives in California at the end of this week he will bring a new Chinese world view with him.
It has been five years since China in effect rejected the concept of a “Group of Two” relationship between Washington and Beijing, and the phrase is still dismissed out of hand by Chinese officials.
But as Mr Xi prepares for his first meeting as Chinese president with US President Barack Obama the idea has been quietly adopted and rebranded by Beijing.
The “new type of great power relationship” that Mr Xi will tout when he meets with Mr Obama is little more than a pirated copy of the G2 proposal that was tossed around at the start of the US president’s first term. But it marks a huge shift in the way China intends to deal with the world from now on.
China’s last administration, under President Hu Jintao, was criticised for being passive, reactive, isolationist and clumsy in its responses to the outside world, and even seasoned Chinese diplomats (quietly and privately) lamented the lack of foreign policy vision or co-ordination.
The reflexive response to any calls for Beijing to engage or show leadership on the world stage was to fall back on the mantra of the late Deng Xiaoping, who advised China to “hide its brilliance and bide its time”.
Even as Chinese trade, companies and investments spread throughout the world and its growing military flexed its muscles, Mr Hu and his administration continued to insist that China was still a poor developing nation with limited capacity to engage on international issues.
Since taking over as commander of the military and Communist party general secretary in November, and as president of China in March, the message from Xi Jinping and his comrades has been very different.
They seem to be saying that China has now arrived on the world stage and that a more coherent and assertive foreign policy will be part of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” – Mr Xi’s defining political concept at home.
“China is growing into a bigger and more far-reaching power,” crowed the Global Times, a nationalistic Chinese tabloid, as Mr Xi embarked on the tour of Latin American and Caribbean countries that will take him to California by the end of the week. “The surge of foreign visits shows the confidence and activeness of the new diplomatic initiative,” it said in an editorial.
US diplomats say they have had far better access to senior Chinese officials than under the last administration, but that their Chinese counterparts seem obsessed with getting the Americans to acknowledge that the “new type of great power relationship” is one between equals.
At the heart of this slogan, just as with the G2 concept it comes from, is the hope that China’s rise will not be accompanied by the friction and war that has marred almost every other moment in history when a rising nation has rubbed up against the incumbent superpower.
The danger is that focusing on this single relationship will create friction elsewhere because in unilaterally upgrading ties with the US to one between equal great powers, Beijing has simultaneously downgraded its relationships with everyone else.
More cynical Beijing-based foreign diplomats say that in keeping with the “great rejuvenation” theme, the new administration appears eager to re-establish the ancient tributary system that put China at the centre of the world and required all other nations to tremble and obey the edicts of the emperor.
At the same time these diplomats feel they have been treated to something of a charm offensive – the red carpet was, for instance, rolled out for French president François Hollande– by the new administration but they believe this better treatment is Beijing’s way of proving a point to the likes of Britain, Norway and Japan.
These countries have all been placed on the Chinese equivalent of the naughty step for transgressions involving the Dalai Lama, the Nobel Prize-winning dissident, and conflicting territorial claims in the East China Sea.
In the past Beijing would make a loud fuss about such issues and then quickly let them fade into the background.
But what everybody needs to understand is that under China’s new G2-inspired world view, all other countries besides America are by definition not great powers and are therefore expendable and can be ignored.
European countries in particular must realise that if they are unwilling to stand by each other when China decides to punish one of their fellow members, then eventually it will be their turn to be in the position that Britain now occupies.
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