While dealing with his Cold War nemesis the Soviet Union, U.S. President Ronald Reagan said he liked to employ the aphorism “trust but verify.” I thought at the time that saying was nonsensical. The essence of “trust” is not needing to verify. And how could two rival superpowers with competing goals, visions and interests ever “trust” each other? As a citizen of one of those countries, would I feel safe to hear that my government had learned to “trust” the other government?
Great-power rivalry is still with us, now in the form of a confident, assertive China rising in a region long dominated by a United States that some observers believe is declining. Although China is different from the Soviet Union in important ways, the issue of peace versus conflict between the two big powers is again the central strategic concern of our time. And again, both governments speak of a fundamental need for “strategic trust” in U.S.-China relations.
For about a decade, top U.S. officials and military leaders have repeated an argument that can be summarized this way: China’s rapid military modernization and buildup cause Americans and others in the Asia-Pacific region to have suspicions about China’s intentions. Outsiders see no need for China to bulk up so heavily to protect itself, so they wonder if the Chinese are planning wars of aggression or other challenges to the status quo. Consequently, more transparency in U.S.-China relations is needed to allay these suspicions. Increased communication and getting to know each other better will create “trust,” and trust will lead to peace.
In a 2011 rendition of this argument in the New York Times, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen used the phrase “blind suspicions” to describe the bilateral relationship, succinctly making the point that familiarity and suspicion are inversely related. “Bluntness and honesty are exactly what’s needed to create strategic trust,” he added. Hence the emphasis on China clarifying its intentions, asking the Chinese to reveal more in their defense White Papers, deepening U.S.-China military-to-military contact, and so on.
The argument that trust leads to peace is built on the premise that the suspicions between China and the U.S. are unfounded and would evaporate with more and deeper dialogue. Unfortunately, however, at least some of these suspicions are all too warranted. China and the U.S. have irreconcilable differences over several fundamental strategic questions. One is whether modern international law should govern regional affairs, as opposed to a return to the “historical” arrangement of a Chinese sphere of influence.
Another is whether China can legitimately make expansive sovereignty claims (the South China Sea, Taiwan, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, Arunachal Pradesh, etc.) that impinge on the vital interests of neighboring peoples. Another is the future strategic roles of Japan and South Korea. Diplomatic niceties aside, most serious observers can see that as each other’s two most dangerous potential adversaries, the U.S. and the PRC are preparing to go to war with each other if necessary. These are not misunderstandings that would be cleared up if the right group of Chinese and Americans had drinks together.