The Missing Piece of US-China Relations: Trust


With Chinese President Xi Jinping set to visit the United States next week, the U.S.-China relationship is under close scrutiny. The Diplomat speaks to Michael Tai of the Center of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge, and author of the book U.S.-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century: A Question of Trust, about the state of the relationship and what both sides should try to achieve during Xi’s visit.

The Diplomat: In your book, you focus on the role of trust in international relations, arguing that such trust is crucial particularly between rising and established powers. But is it possible for the U.S. and China to build up trust, given the vast differences between their political systems and values?

Michael Tai: The problem lies not so much in differences in political systems and values as in Washington’s notion that no one should challenge U.S. supremacy. Washington applies morality selectively. Indeed, it has no problem befriending states with quite different political systems and values, even corrupt and repressive regimes, as long as they serve American interests. Its foreign policy is guided less by moral norms or the vision of a “shining city upon a hill” than by the self-interest of an elite class. While claiming to champion democracy and freedom, the U.S. has a history of subverting or overthrowing democratically elected governments (in Indonesia, Iran, Guatemala, Chile, etc.) who choose not to toe Washington’s line. It uses its power in institutions like the IMF and the World Bank to advance American corporate interests against those of developing countries. Trust is based upon the record of a person’s words and deeds. When it comes to trust, history matters.

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The Chinese government (the Chinese Communist Party) is not without blemish either. Economic experimentation and power struggle during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution led to famine, social upheaval, and the tragic loss of millions of innocent lives. Since market reforms began in 1978, however, China has gone from being a poor, backward country to become the world’s biggest economy. Living standards have risen dramatically but so too have pollution and corruption. These are, one might say, the growing pains of an ancient civilization building in 50 years what took the West, with its vast colonial resources, 500 years. China’s external relations, however, have been guided largely by a doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, a principle conceived by India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, in 1954. The Chinese conduct foreign relations with no reference to political systems, and whereas the U.S. operates hundreds of military bases around the world, there are no Chinese soldiers on foreign soil (except on UN peacekeeping duty) and no history of overthrowing foreign governments.

But trust can be built through empathy. Empathy is the act of putting oneself in the other person’s shoes. We are more apt to trust those who show they understand us, especially when it is demonstrated through deeds. We win trust by showing empathy. Empathy conveys respect and has the power to turn enemies into friends.

You argue that China is generally more knowledgeable about the United States’ policies and actions than the U.S. is about China’s. Why is that? What impact do you think this knowledge gap has had on U.S.-China relations?

Knowledge has to do with a nation’s capacity to empathize. McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Starbucks, Nike, IBM, Boeing, and Apple have become household names in China, while Hollywood movies like Iron Man, Mission Impossible, and Harry Potter are box office hits there. But the reverse is rarely the case. Whereas Chinese children learn a good deal of American history, American schools teach little if anything about China. Many Chinese parents spare no expense to have their children master English, starting from third grade and some as early as kindergarten. There are 400 million Chinese (more than the entire U.S. population) learning English compared to the 200,000 Americans learning Chinese. Last year 274,000 Chinese studied in America (up 16.5 percent over the previous year) compared to 14,413 American students in China (down 3.2 percent from the previous year). On the whole, Americans know very little about China. The asymmetry is problematic. How we construe ourselves and the world matters because our intuition shapes our fears, impressions, and relationships.

There is also plenty of disinformation which the Chinese are unable counter because of Western control of the international media. For instance, Chinese efforts to export development to the Third World through building much-needed infrastructure are dismissed out of hand as self-serving neocolonialism. When the U.S. condemns the Chinese for this or that human rights violation, it takes no account of the fact that the Chinese government has succeeded in lifting over 500 million of its citizens out of extreme poverty in the last 30 years, nor of the fact that the average Chinese today enjoys more basic human rights like food, shelter, schooling, and health care than at any time in history. Harvard scholar John Fairbank warned early on that Chinese society is very different from America, and that U.S. policymakers would fail unless they took the differences into account. Chinese issues should be evaluated in the context of the country’s culture and history, he urged, but few in Washington pay heed.

What issue areas provide the most fertile ground for cooperation and trust-building between the United States and China? Is it possible for cooperation on climate issues, for example, to counterbalance negativity in the security realm?

Climate mitigation offers a historic opportunity for cooperation. Global warming is an existential threat. One would think that two people in a boat on rough seas would, for self-preservation’s sake, put aside differences and cooperate. High income countries, however, do not suffer as much from extreme weather and rising sea levels as poor countries (although the former is responsible for putting most of the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere the last 200 years). Despite being in the same boat, they do not share the same sense of urgency. The Chinese have made significant progress since the 12th Five-Year Plan was adopted in 2011, and according to a recent report by the London School of Economics, China’s greenhouse gases could start to decline within 10 years, five years earlier than previously expected.  Meanwhile, Washington dragged its heels even as many U.S. states and municipalities took bold steps to curb carbon emission.

Last November Presidents Obama and Xi together pledged to expand joint clean energy research and development, advance carbon capture and storage, and launch climate-smart city initiatives and other measures to tackle global warming. They also promised to address major impediments to a global climate accord. But Western oil companies continue to resist carbon legislation, and Obama’s decision to approve Artic drilling undermines his own climate message.

Whether climate cooperation will counter negativity in the security realm is left to be seen as Washington appears determined to contain China. The campaign to stymie the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and American encouragement for Japanese troops to fight overseas in “collective self defense” present the Chinese with yet more evidence of U.S. hostility. It is hard to see how trust can grow when American leaders, despite polite statements about partnership and cooperation, regard the Chinese government as illegitimate and morally bankrupt, and wish for its downfall (regime change).

Your book came out in May 2015 – since then, the negativity surrounding U.S.-China relations seems to have reached new heights, particularly in regards to cyber issues and the South China Sea. What’s your take on the state of the U.S.-China relationship today, as we head toward Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States? Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about future ties?

There was a good discussion by Greg Austin on “American propaganda on the South China Sea and cyber space” in The Diplomat.

Alongside judgments about Chinese moral character, U.S. antipathy to China is rooted in angst about its rise and the prospect of American decline. But there are also powerful vested interests which stand to gain from war. Defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics and Raytheon received more than $286 billion in contracts last year alone, or over 63 percent of total U.S. government spending on contracts. This is happening at a time when the infrastructure badly needs renewal (in 2013 the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s infrastructure a D+ grade). Because the arms supply chain (and related jobs) is spread across practically every state of the Union, it is virtually incumbent on congressmen to vote for military spending.

During the Cold War, Soviet military power was exaggerated to warrant ever more generous defense outlays. But with the demise of the Soviet Union, a new justification was needed. China became the convenient foe even though the military balance remains overwhelmingly in U.S. favor. In 2011, for instance, the U.S. defense budget of $739.3 billion accounted for nearly half of total global military spending. Eight times bigger than China’s defense budget, it represented 4.91 percent of GDP compared to China’s 1.27 percent.

Entrenched interests preclude empathy for any state that happens to stand in their way. The U.S. is extremely fortunate to be bracketed by two great oceans protecting it from invasion. It has never suffered the kind of intense warfare it inflicts upon others from time to time. The Chinese, on the other hand, experienced brutal invasion and destruction on a massive scale. Japanese emperor Hirohito authorized sanko sakusen 三光作戦or the “three alls” warfare – kill all, burn all, loot all. Rana Mitter puts the number of Chinese killed in World War II at 15 million (compared to 500,000 Americans). In 6 weeks alone, Japanese troops massacred 300,000 civilians and raped 80,000 women after capturing the city of Nanjing in 1937. The war of resistance against Japan (1937-1945) was only the final act in a long series of crippling incursions, starting with the British a hundred years before in the Opium War (1839-42).

Imagine if all this had happened to the United States. The catastrophic levels of casualties had an enormous formative impact on the Chinese republic. The Chinese have repeatedly declared that they seek neither war nor hegemony, and on the 70th anniversary of the end of the bitter struggle for survival, President Xi pledged to trim the PLA by another 300,000 troops even as the U.S. “pivots to Asia” and fortifies alliances surrounding China. This will be the eleventh time the country has downsized its military since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949; the biggest cut being of 1 million officers and soldiers from 1985-1990, nearly one-quarter of the armed forces. Washington only has to put itself in Chinese shoes to better understand where they are coming from. Sadly, U.S. policymakers show little appreciation for history or penchant for empathy, preferring apparently to view the world in adversarial zero-sum terms.

If you were advising President Obama or President Xi, what advice would you give them about the upcoming summit in Washington, D.C.?

Last year China’s economy in real terms surpassed that of the U.S. to become the world’s biggest (over $18 trillion). It is simply not possible to contain the world’s largest economy, which continues to expand at a brisk 7 percent despite the global economic slowdown. This was amply demonstrated by the failed bid to scuttle the AIIB.

The economic and financial order that advantages the West against the rest is morally untenable. China’s rise threatens that order. America is resisting not just the rise of China but the rise of the rest.  It seeks to perpetuate the North-South balance of power but that is becoming more difficult. Along with the emergence of the BRICS, the infrastructure-building thrust in programs like the “One Belt, One Road” will speed up development in the Third World and fundamentally realign spatial, economic and political relations. High-speed rail links, for example, will open up vast areas of the Eurasian, African, and Amazonian interior, and facilitate large-scale transcontinental migration, undermining the Westphalian notion of the nation state. Climate change is exacerbating human dislocation and income disparity, and will increasingly call into question wasteful consumerism, and by extension, the legitimacy of capitalism. At the same time, the move away from oil weakens the dollar’s primacy and will lead to the rise of new monetary regimes. The tectonic shifts underway are very hard to hold back.

It isn’t so much that Chinese leaders are endowed with special insights, but like the Portuguese navigators who rounded the Cape of Good Hope and opened up five centuries of Western domination, China happens to be at the confluence of many factors that are bringing about the next age. In historical terms, China is the new instrument of change, and its incidental rise should not be treated as a threat but a chance to build a better, more equitable tomorrow. It would be wiser for the U.S. and China to work together to manage the change peacefully, with give and take from both sides. A clash between two continental nuclear powers over rocks and reefs in the South China Sea is not only too risky; it is the height of absurdity.

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