U.S.-China Relations: Stop Striving For “Trust”

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U.S.-China Relations: Stop Striving For “Trust”

The price of achieving trust in the bilateral relationship may be too high.

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.

The problem is not that each country erroneously perceives the other as warlike. Both want peace, but on their own terms. Some of what China calls “defensive” looks to others like aggression. What America terms “stability” is “containment” to China.

Indeed, more “bluntness and honesty” might bring out additional attitudes that are not often discussed publicly and that would drive Americans and Chinese further apart, such as the Americans hoping for the demise of the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese suggesting that all U.S. military forces in the Asia-Pacific should relocate to areas no further west than the Hawaiian Islands. More transparency would not dispel mutual suspicions, it would confirm them.

“Trust” applies to a situation where two or more people discover they wish for the same things. 

If there is something akin to trust in international politics, it occurs when states become convinced that they share important bedrock values and interests. As Alexander Wendt has pointed out, Americans are comfortable with Britain having 500 nuclear weapons but cannot accept North Korea having five. The United States has this kind of trust-like relationship with a few governments where there is a common liberal political ideology and democratic political system, long experience working together as allies, and a convergence of interests calling for the same kind of world. None of these factors exists in U.S.-China relations.

A second problem with the pursuit of “trust” in the world’s most important bilateral relationship is that is plays into the Chinese agenda of ushering U.S. influence out of the Asia-Pacific region. As PRC officials, diplomats and other messengers make clear, in their view the path to establishing “strategic trust” begins with each side “properly handling each other’s core interests.” That means Americans must stop selling arms to Taiwan, “intervening” in the South China Sea disputes, “encouraging” Japan in the East China Sea dispute by re-stating intent to fulfill U.S. treaty commitments, disrespecting Chinese feelings by holding naval exercises with ally South Korea in the Yellow Sea, allowing the Dalai Lama to visit the United States, and so on.

Surveillance of China from within the PRC’s exclusive economic zone (between 12 to 200 nautical miles off the Chinese coastline), although legal under the UN Law of the Sea Treaty (to which China is a signatory), is “unfriendly” and erodes trust. So does U.S. security cooperation with the regional governments that are worried about Chinese bullying. So does accusing the Chinese government of involvement in the massive, organized cyber-attacks that originate from China. If the price of “trust” is the cessation of all U.S. policies in the Asia-Pacific that the Chinese dislike, or an effective U.S. retirement from being a regional great power, the price is too high and the objective should be something different.

Strategic trust will not be attainable for the foreseeable future. The U.S. and China have many areas of fruitful cooperation, which can and should go forward without waiting for trust to break out. In other more sensitive areas, the two countries should strive to manage their inevitable bilateral strategic tensions by reaching agreements where both see a benefit and where compliance is measurable. Reducing the chances of unintended incidents at sea or over the sea between U.S. and PRC military units is certainly is a worthy example. For these inherent rivals and potential adversaries, the emphasis belongs on “verify,” not “trust.”

Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.  His book Return of the Dragon: Rising China and Regional Security was published this month by Columbia University Press.