For decades, the United States has reserved the term "special relationship" for two countries, Britain and Israel, but Secretary of State John Kerry called for a new "special relationship" with China during his recent trip to Asia.
The U.S.-UK "special relationship" has been a hallmark of bilateral relations for decades. Kerry acknowledged it explicitly during his first trip abroad, which began in London, standing alongside British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
"When you think of everything that binds the United States and Great Britain -- our common values, our long shared history, our ties of family, in my case, personal and friendship -- there is a reason why we call this a special relationship, or as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron wrote, really, a partnership of the heart. It is that," Kerry said on Feb. 25.
Kerry again noted the U.S.-UK special relationship in an April 8 statement expressing condolences for the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
"We celebrate especially the way, with a hand outstretched across the Atlantic, Lady Thatcher strengthened the Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom -- a relationship that remains a driving force for freedom, justice, and democracy," Kerry said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted that the U.S. and Israel also have a "special relationship" on his way there April 21.
"I'm going to Israel first because it is a nation that has had a very special relationship with the United States," Hagel said.
But Asia hands were taken aback when Kerry used the term to call for a "special relationship" with China during an April 13 solo press availability in Beijing.
"I do think that today's visit makes it clear that the United States wants a strong, normal, but special relationship with China, and that's a special -- because China is a great power with a great ability to affect events in the world. And we need to work together to do that," Kerry said.
Robert Zarate, policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative, told The Cable that Kerry may not have realized that he was diluting the exclusivity of the term "special relationship," but that Kerry's overall tone reveals how he wants to position the United States vis-à-vis Asia's greatest rising power.
"By using that term ‘special relationship' to describe his hopes for the U.S.-China relationship's future, I think Secretary Kerry is, consciously or not, expressing the Obama administration's strong desire to accommodate China's great-power rise -- but, as America's allies and partners in Asia will tell you privately, that's a very, very problematic desire," he said.
The Cable also found an instance during the trip when Kerry called the U.S.-Japan relationship "special," although he was at that time referencing the gift of American dogwood trees to Japan in acknowledgment of Japan's gift of cherry blossom trees 100 years prior.
"At this point, the United States has a ‘special relationship' with two countries: the United Kingdom and Israel," Zarate said. "The next country we might want to add to that very short list is potentially Japan, but China, for very obvious reasons, shouldn't even be online for that list yet."
Yohsuke Mizuno-Pool/Kyodo News - Pool /Getty Image