By Yu Sui
When we talk about major power relations these days, we're talking not just about ties between major countries but major country alliances, such as the European Union. Looking back at the unstable and constantly readjusted major power relations since the end of the Cold War, we can see phenomena with broad implications.
First, all major powers have more or less accepted that peace and development are the main concerns of our times. They have, with almost no exception, adopted the strategy of building self-confidence internally and seeking coexistence while competing with others externally.
Internally, the major powers have made economic development their priority and are looking to science and technology to improve people's living standards as well as increasing national strength.
Internationally, they have been trying to improve their own standing so as to profit as best they can in the name of creating favorable external conditions for national development. Because of their extraordinary status, major powers' internal affairs more often than not affect the outside world.
Examples of this can be found in such domestic developments as the reelections of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President George W. Bush in 2004, the EU Constitution debacle in French and Dutch referendums in 2005, and the 2006 triumph of the Democrats in US mid-term elections.
Second, disputes between major powers will affect the rest of the world negatively, while their cooperation tends to benefit international affairs. For instance, the ongoing Iraq War and the decades-long conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians have profound major-power influences.
By the same token, the Korea Peninsula nuclear crisis could have developed into a global disaster had there not been all-out cooperation among major powers to contain it.
Third, competition among major powers over markets, natural resources, science and technology and human resources is escalating daily as the global market expands.
At the same time, the willingness to cooperate among nations is also gaining momentum as it is necessary for security and development, which require a balance of economic interests first.
As a result of adjustment and fine-tuning, a flurry of strategic cooperation partnerships, constructive cooperation partnerships, comprehensive partnerships and friendly cooperation partnerships have emerged.
A new product of the post-Cold War era, the strategic partnership without an alliance has become a transitional phenomenon on the way to building a harmonious world as well as a new international political and economic order.
Fourth, the possibility for major powers to engage in positive rather than negative interaction is growing. The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said during his meeting with then US President Richard Nixon that "a country should base its assessment of its relations with another country primarily on its own strategic interests. It should keep in mind its long-term strategic interests and respect those of the other side as well."
Deng's words laid the theoretical basis for positive interaction. By the look of it, so-called positive interaction should be a new type of relationship characterized by mutual benefit.
Positive interaction means the healthy nature of bilateral ties is seen in the fact that no third party is targeted and that at no time does a triangular relationship involve any two parties ganging up against the third.
Fifth, we can conclude that positive interaction has its own law of functioning, moving from beginning to process to fruition.
At the beginning, it is absolutely imperative that a country secure its own national interests while respecting those of the other side.
During the process stage, there will be competition alongside cooperation and conflicts alongside compromises. Cooperation must be based on sincerity and trust while compromise should be appropriate and disputes should never be allowed to grow into confrontation.
Fruition has to be win-win.
Now, what exactly do major power relationships look like in today's world? We might as well take China's relations with other major powers as an example.
First, China-US relations are characterized by ups and downs. The relationship has been able to develop because both sides need it for their own interests.
The reason that there have been so many twists and turns is that China follows the basic policy of enhancing confidence, reducing troubles, increasing cooperation and avoiding confrontation with the United States, in sharp contrast to the US principle of contact plus containment.
The main source of trouble has been the United States. Whether Sino-US relations will be able to maintain stability in the future depends on how the US proceeds.
The China-US relationship is like a coin with cooperation on one side and competition on the other. It is up to Washington to decide which side of the coin it wants up. When Bush became president, he initially flipped the coin to turn the partnership side down, making China a competitor of the US. Now he appears to be turning that side up again.
Despite such labels as "stake holder" and "responsible major power", which the United States has applied to China, the US will always try to play China for its own needs.
Second, China-Russia relations have more positive than negative factors.
This is a relatively harmonious relationship with unique characteristics. The two countries are close without either side having to rely on the other. They protect their own dignity with no intention to subvert the other; they manage to resolve their conflicts of interest through negotiations on an equal footing; both sides handle international affairs without resorting to double standards; and they are both keen on developing bilateral ties with the US the only superpower in the world today while opposing unilateralism.
That said, China and Russia need to further build mutual confidence, or there will be more wrangling over such issues as the so-called Chinese immigrants in Russia, energy export and arms sales to China.
Third, China-Japan relations suffer from too many nagging issues.
Economic ties between the two countries continue to grow and serve the interests of both sides. The two nations have managed to reduce some of the tensions straining their political relations, but relations remain weak and vulnerable.
Actions directly threatening Sino-Japanese ties include some Japanese politicians' no-holds-barred attempts to whitewash its atrocious war history, frequently provoking territorial disputes, and even poking its nose into the sensitive Taiwan question.
The core issue here is Tokyo's obsession with major political power status. Japan is determined to achieve this status by any means, such as ganging up with the United States to strengthen the containment of China.
It is unlikely that the ongoing issues over Japan's history of aggression will disappear. As long as these issues remain, it will be impossible for the two neighbors to improve bilateral ties.
Fourth, China-EU relations have been developing steadily.
However, otherwise harmonious relations have been damaged regularly by some jarring notes, such as the EU refusal to allow arms sales to China, issues of human rights, and tariffs on Chinese imports.
Fifth, China and India find their similarities useful. Sino-India relations are developing toward a mutually beneficial future. The two countries share the fact that both are ancient civilizations with huge populations. They are comparable in terms of development, which has led them to pursue similar goals.
Due to their different paths they have chosen to reach their goals and different pace of progress, they are not comparable in other respects. For these two nations the desirable guideline for bilateral ties is to be friendly neighbors, develop together, seek common ground without denying differences and forgo mutual suspicion and jealousy.
Other major-power ties affecting China include the unpredictable US-Russia relations (manic and illusive), the much-hyped US-Japan relations (taking advantage of each other with ulterior motives), and the treacherous US-EU relations (the odd couple arm-wrestling under the dinner table).
The author is a researcher with Beijing-based Research Center of the Contemporary World.
(China Daily March 14, 2007)