“Building a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation” is the core of Xi Jinping’s thoughts on diplomacy. “Win-win cooperation” (合作共赢) is presented as an alternative to the prevailing “old” (i.e. Western-dominated) type of international relations, which top Chinese diplomats see as dominated by a Cold War mentality and confrontational zero-sum game thinking. China argues that, instead, cooperation should respect the “diversity of cultures of development paths,” while international affairs should be handled through “policy coordination” on the basis of shared or common interests. Cooperation should be “mutually beneficial” and contribute to “common development.”
While in the UN’s discourse cooperation is understood as a means of pursuing an existing common goal, contemporary Chinese political thought views cooperation as a way to uncover shared interests and build “friendly relations” based on the principle of “seeking common ground while maintaining differences”. Internally, building shared interests is seen as key to “removing the obstacles to China’s peaceful development in the world.”
The narrative that cooperation between states should be friendly, mutually beneficial and promote common development has been central to China’s foreign-policy discourse ever since the founding of the PRC. This rhetoric of solidarity is not uniquely Chinese but is the rhetoric of the Global South. In China, however, it carries a particular connotation of relationality and reciprocity.
The Chinese international relations scholar Qin Yaqing argues that, in Chinese political thought, cooperation is understood as a means to find “common interests” in order to create relational power, which rests on the power of human relations. This is why summit diplomacy – such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summits or the various BRI fora – plays a central role in how China conducts foreign policy. The underlying assumption here is that shared interests always exist: they just need to be found. Therefore, “pragmatic cooperation” is always possible. Behind the language of mutual benefit, particularly in the context of “friendly cooperation” with countries of the Global South through foreign aid or loans, stands the belief that recipients will reciprocate with political support, e.g., by not giving Taiwan political recognition or by voting with China at the United Nations. Calls to “strengthen international cooperation” often come with a call to strengthen “multilateralism” (多边主义).
Beyond that, the Chinese term for “cooperation”, hezuo (合作), can refer to nearly any kind of transaction or interaction between two or more parties, which probably makes it the most mistranslated and misunderstood term in Sino-Western relations. For Chinese state-owned enterprises, participating in “international cooperation” means foreign trade and investment. “International cooperation departments” within ministries are mostly concerned with protocol and ceremony, maintaining liaison and organising conferences. “International cooperation centres” in Chinese provinces are mostly export-trade promotion organisations.
In the context of COVID19, “pragmatic cooperation in the field of health” with France referred to selling masks and ventilators. “Solidary cooperation”, on the other hand, was frequently used by Xi Jinping to highlight China’s support to the Global South and counter criticism of China’s early cover-up of the pandemic. “Cultural cooperation” has the goal of promoting “mutual” appreciation, understanding and respect, which in the official context is part of the effort to “tell the China Story well” (讲好中国故事). However, “cultural cooperation” can also mean providing digital TVs to African villages or establishing joint TV stations. China’s “international development cooperation” includes both foreign aid and development lending in the context of the BRI. Its purpose is to promote the construction of the “community of shared future of mankind” (人类命运共同体), that is, the Chinese vision of multilateralism.
 Y. Qin, A Relational Theory of World Politics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018, p. 258.
This definition was written for the Decoding China project. To learn more about Decoding China, visit the project website HERE.