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Foreign Policy

China-U.S. Relations are not about Building Trust

Sep 24 , 2012

When reading about China – United States (U.S.) relations or talking with Chinese interlocutors, the issue of “trust” often arises. While U.S. nationals occasionally raise this issue, usually it is the Chinese side that introduces the subject. Specifically, the thought is that if China and the U.S. could only “overcome the trust deficit” then their differences could be resolved. Unfortunately, this reasoning is mistaken and attempting to direct the dialogue toward trust is counterproductive because it undermines efforts to find near-term solutions to urgent problems.

Trust can exist between individuals, and perhaps even between small communities, but it has little significance in international politics. It is the national interests of states, and their accommodation through diplomacy, and occasionally and unfortunately through war, that defines interstate relations. Even between the closest of allies, such as the U.S. and Canada, or the U.S. and the United Kingdom (U.K.), relations are built on national interest, not trust. Occasionally, in grandiloquent verbal exchanges between heads of state or others the word trust sneaks in, but this is just rhetoric.

Accordingly, the U.S. State Department’s Fact Sheet for U.S.-Canada Relations and Background Notes: United Kingdom do not mention the word trust. Similarly instructive is the British Embassy in Washington’s account of the U.K.-U.S. Relationship. While it labels the U.S.-U.K. relationship a “partnership…without rival,” it never uses the word trust. The primacy of interest over trust also is evident in contrasting statements recently made by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Just before the U.S. blocked the Keystone XL pipeline, Mr. Harper said “…Canada is a democratic country, the ultimate friend of the United States…We don’t use oil or energy policy as strategic resources to achieve foreign policy or political ends, and of course we would never do that to our great friend in the United States.” But after the U.S. declined to license the Keystone XL, Harper said “…Canada’s interests here are a little bit different… our issue…is not North American self-sufficiency; our energy issue is…diversifying our… export markets…..We cannot be, as a country, in a situation where really our one and, in many cases, almost only energy partner could say no to our energy products.”

Although national interest trumps trust in the Canadian, U.K., and U.S. relationships, there are factors which make it easier for these countries to resolve conflicts, and these factors, or the lack of them, might be instructive in the China-U.S. relationship.

First, there is the common language, English, which makes communication easier and misunderstanding harder. Second, all three countries largely share a common political and cultural heritage which values transparency. Third, all engaged in decades of mutual support against common adversaries (i.e., Germany and Japan in the 1930 and 1940s, the Soviet Union after 1945). And finally, the balance of power between the two primary states, the U.K. and U.S., underwent a gradual, almost century long, power shift as the U.K. could no longer bear the burdens of empire and the U.S. gained strength. And this gradual transition gave the two countries time to work out their differing interests.

When one compares the Canadian, U.K. and U.S. relationships, with the China-U.S. relationship, there are not many similarities facilitating mutual accommodation. There is no common language or common heritage; except for a brief period in the mid-1980s there is little experience of mutual support against a common enemy; China’s lack of political transparency necessarily intensifies U.S. concerns over its objectives, and; while over the last two decades China has gained considerable power, the U.S. is many years away from exhausting itself, either physically or spiritually.

So, if trust plays such a negligible role in the Canadian, U.K. and U.S. relationships, and if the China-U.S. relationship has few, if any of the advantages of the Canadian, U.K. and U.S. relationships, then how should China-U.S. relations be pursued? The answer is with political realism and cold calculations of each other’s power and interest, not misguided platitudes about trust. Redoubled diplomatic engagement and clear communication that articulates each side’s interests is the starting point for this effort. Once these interests are articulated then the hard work of reconciling them and finding compromises can begin. All these wasted words on trust just confuse the dialogue, set unrealistic goals, misallocate valuable human resources, and make the search for mutual accommodation harder. Terms such as trust, and friendship or enemy for that matter, are just not appropriate for China-U.S., or any great power relationship.

If this all sounds cold and harsh, or fatalistic in so far as it consigns China and the U.S. to decades of struggle, one might recall that it was only a few generations ago, in the 1930s, when the primary U.S. war plan (“War Plan Red”) called for armed conflict with the U.K. And the opening phase of this plan (“War Plan Crimson”) called for a U.S. attack on Canada. It is amazing how countries that were once adversaries can, when guided by political realism, evolve into steadfast allies. By avoiding counterproductive conversations about trust and concentrating on realistic solutions to mutual concerns, this path can be repeated by China and the U.S.

Jonathan Chanis has worked in finance for 25 years. Currently he is Managing Member of New Tide Asset Management, a proprietary vehicle focused on global and resource investing.

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