The US and China Are Right to Distrust Each Other


“There is a low level of strategic trust between the United States and China, which could make bilateral relations more turbulent,” warned a recent report jointly issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Beijing-based China Strategic Culture Promotion Association (CSCPA).

It was hardly the first such report to assess that the U.S. and China fundamentally distrust one another. Two years ago, Wang Jisi and Kenneth G. Lieberthal wrote a report for the Brookings Institution that warned, “Although both Beijing and Washington consider the U.S.-China relationship to be the most important in the world, distrust of each other’s long term intentions (‘strategic distrust’) has grown to a dangerous degree.” Two years before that, in 2008, Phillip Saunders spoke of the need to enhance trust between the U.S. and China; an argument picked up recently by Chinese academics and the foreign minister.

Although it would be preferable if the two countries trusted one another, this is an unrealistic goal. The U.S. and China are right to distrust one another and this won’t change anytime soon. Therefore, the goal should be to find ways to manage the bilateral relationship without strategic trust.

In general, trust is a rare commodity in the world of international politics, and for good reason. To begin with, it is impossible for states to know each other’s intentions. Even if a state is confident it knows another country’s current leadership’s intentions—which is unlikely in and of itself—it certainly cannot know what the country’s future leaders’ intentions will be.

Secondly, international politics is hyper-competitive. Although there are some issues like climate change that might be somewhat conducive to cooperation, the main realms of world politics—economics, politics, and military affairs—are based on relative power. Thus, each state has a strong incentive to gain an advantage over other ones. Even issues like climate change are ultimately about relative gains since there are strong economic advantages to be gained by having other states shoulder a larger share of the burden for addressing climate change. Hence why China and many developing countries argue that the U.S. and the West should bear a disproportionate share of the burden on climate issues, and why Washington and its allies refuse to oblige these demands.

Thirdly, the anarchic nature of the international system also incentivizes distrust. In most industries in the United States, individuals and countries can place a modicum of trust in one another to honor contracts because ultimately they know they can turn to the U.S. legal system to force compliance (or receive restitution). But in illegitimate industries in the U.S.—such as the illegal narcotics trade—the protection of the legal system is absent. Consequently, there tends to be a lot more distrust in the narcotics industry and other illegal enterprises. International politics is far more like the illegal drug trade in the United States than legitimate industries, at least in this respect.

Finally, international politics is a high-stakes game where getting burned has severe consequences. The U.S. promises freedom of navigation in the high seas, including to China which is increasingly economically dependent on its continuation. Should China decide to take the U.S. at its word on the matter and forgo modernizing its military, it would be helpless a decade down the road if a U.S. president decided to erect a blockade around China over a political dispute or simply to cripple its economy. And this blockade would have profound negative consequences for the Chinese people and ultimately for the Chinese Communist Party’s rule. It’s no surprise that CCP leaders aren’t appear anxious to make this gamble now that they have an economy capable of supporting a modern navy and air force.

Thus, at most states can trust other states to pursue their own interests (even this is not advisable since it assumes both sides are able to correctly identify that state’s interests). And this is preciously why the U.S. and China do not trust each other and aren’t likely to start anytime soon– namely because they largely have opposing interests in the Western Pacific. America’s interest is in preserving the current status-quo, which is a regional order built around the United States. China’s interest is in rebuilding the regional status-quo that existed before the arrival of the Europeans. That is, Beijing seeks a Sino-centric order.

True, neither side is eager for a war in pursuit of this aim. But both sides must first admit that they have opposing visions for the region’s future, before they can leverage their mutual aversion to war in reaching a negotiated peace.

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