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Foreign Policy

Trust between China and the United States Beset by Problems and Challenges

Feb 14 , 2011

Generally speaking, strategic mutual trust refers to a situation where a pair of countries with conflicts of interests calculates their bilateral relations as one of competition and cooperation instead of hostility, believing that the other party would never seek to harm its core interests. Obviously, strategic mutual trust does not mean the absence of competitions or conflicts. What is implied, however, is that these competitions or conflicts are preconditioned by the protection of one’s core interests and exclusion of any attempt to harm the core interests of the other. Strategic mutual trust is a concept that does not wholly hinge on the actions of the other party. It rests, to a great extent, on one’s purposes and judgment of the purposes of the other party. It is highly subjective, and subsequently flexible.

I. Formation of the basis of Sino-US mutual trust
Since China is the biggest rising star and the United States is the only superpower in the world, their relations naturally follow into the mode of ‘conflicts between a rising power and an existing one’ as envisaged by realists. Such a situation both poses the greatest challenge to Sino-US strategic mutual trust, and stands as the commonly acknowledged ‘structural contradiction’ in their bilateral relations. Viewed from the evolution of their relations over the recent 30 years, mutual trust and understanding have gained force, while hostility and suspicion have been losing ground.

Although China believes that ‘the world is still far from peaceful due to the existence of hegemonism and power politics’ and the US argues that China is constantly building up its military strength ‘to challenge the free maneuvre of its armed forces in Asia and to exert greater influences on its neighbours,’ neither counts the other as an inevitable enemy nor seeks to harm the core interests of its opponent, and both look at its opponent more as a source of opportunities than a mire of challenges. From a strategic standpoint, it can be said that the time was already over 10 years ago when people doubted whether China and the US were friends or enemies. Having come to realize the possible harm to any ‘double-trick policies’ to their strategic mutual trust in the past couple of years, in particular, both China and the US have tried efforts to overcome the predicament. Seen from a strategic level, therefore, Sino-US mutual trust has not taken root yet. The basis, however, is already there. With both sides cherishing a strong desire for it, the prospects are indeed bright.

II. Basic achievement of mutual trust on economic front
Over the past 10 years, there has developed a symbiotic relationship of lurking dangers between China and the US on the economic front: China relies heavily on exports to the US, while the US pins an excessively high hope on Chinese capital. From a long-term point of view, this economic imbalance between the two countries is dangerous and can hardly be maintained. It has not, however, given rise to any strategic distrust. On the one hand, neither China nor the US believes that this imbalance has been purposely created by either of them to strengthen any type of power. On the other hand, neither has exploited this imbalance or the disadvantage of the other party to force any political demands. On the contrary, both have agreed that elimination of this imbalance would be of vital importance to the world economy and to themselves. Such common understanding has provided the solid basis for achievement of Sino-US strategic mutual trust on the economic front.

Thanks to this foundation, no economic friction between them has ever risen to the level of strategic mutual trust. It is precisely because of this mutual trust on the economic front that the leaders of the two countries have been able to handle all kinds of challenges with ease.

III. ‘International issues haunting the United States:’ Inadequacy of Sino-US mutual trust
So far as the collision of Chinese and US foreign policies is concerned, the US has been most dissatisfied with China’s attitude to and actions in the handling of some international issues. For the US, the so-called core interests involve nothing else but major international issues with a direct bearing on its national interest, such as the nuclear development in Iran and in North Korea, anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, peace between Israel and Palestine, international anti-terrorist cooperation, crackdown on pirates, climate change, international disarmament, and the international financial crisis. We call these issues ‘the international issues haunting the United States.’

The game and cooperation between China and the US at the Copenhagen Summit has demonstrated the fundamental formula they apply to the solution of the issue of climate change: Since climate change is one of the major challenges in our era, powerful reaction is needed to cope with it and international cooperation is indispensible. Transition to a green and low-carbon economy is vital, and production of clean energies in the years to come will create lots of opportunities for the people of both countries. When it comes to non-traditional international issues such as the one about climate change, both China and the US believe that they will be nothing but win-win games, with the only difference lying in who will be the greater winner.

North Korea is China’s close neighbour and a traditional ally. Stability and development in North Korea is of direct concern to China’s core interests. As the situation stands, China takes denuclearization and stability on the Korean Peninsula as its most fundamental principle. So far as their policy targets are concerned, there is no big difference between China and the US. What differs is merely the sequence of priority and importance of the issues. Since China and the US follow basically similar policies, and the issues have a direct bearing on China’s core interests, China has been active in handling the nuclear issue in North Korea, demonstrating its role as a leading power in this region.

Compared with nuclear development in North Korea, Iran’s pursuit has no direct bearing on China’s core interests due to its long distance from Chinese territory. China has, however, some key interest involved in the Iranian nuclear issue and its policies on it are subject to influences from multiple factors.

It can be seen from our analyses of the issues of climate change and nuclear development in North Korea and Iran that China and the US both cooperate and fight over these issues, with the biggest dispute coming from the US criticising China for doing too little and demanding that it play a bigger role.

There have been many different answers in the US to the question why China has not gone all out as the US has when dealing with the issues mentioned above, which can be grouped into the leftist view, the middle-roader view and the rightist view. Some have believed that China and the US pursue the same strategic objectives when dealing with these hot issues, and have differences only in their sharing of responsibilities and benefits and application of solutions. Others have argued that China has been trying to get a free ride and that, for whatever end, China has objectively become ‘a part of the issues’ for its actions instead of a force for the solution of these issues. There have been still other people who have claimed that China has simply tried to exploit these issues to harm the strategic interest of the US or to create trouble for the US. Based on media reports, reports from think tanks, and speeches by officials available so far, the viewpoints of the first two groups of people constitute the main stream. Views may change, and at an extremely fast speed, though.

IV. Issues concerning China’s internal affairs: Lack of Sino-US mutual trust
What China feels most dissatisfied in its relations with the US is the latter’s stand and policies on issues concerning human rights, Tibet, and Taiwan. China doubts or believes that the US is attempting to use these issues to contain, split or westernize China. All these are issues concerning China’s internal affairs and with a direct bearing on its core interests. They are also issues concerning such sensitive matters as China’s sovereignty and political systems, and issues of top importance by which China defines its relations with the US.

So far as issues regarding China’s internal affairs are concerned, the US excuses for human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, regional peace, and protection of minority cultures basically enjoy no foothold in China. According to reports published in the Chinese media and viewpoints expressed by scholars and speeches made by officials, most Chinese believe that the US is doing nothing else but using these issues to contain and weaken China. In view of these facts, we can say that no basic mutual trust has been achieved yet between China and the US in these fields

V. The need for China and the US to face challenges together
Complicated and deep-rooted, the factors leading to mutual distrust between China and the US can hardly be eliminated in the short term. If the two take some corresponding countermeasures in the near future in light of the specific features of one field or another, however, it will surely be helpful to the gradual development of mutual trust.

Viewed from a strategic viewpoint or from the structural contradictions haunting their relations, China and the US should take control and handling of the negative impacts of nationalism as their most pressing task.

On issues concerning China’s internal affairs, the two should try to build mutual trust. As the first step, the US should drive home to China that its human rights policies are not designed to overthrow the Chinese government, and that its policies on Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang are not intended to split China. To do this, both China and the US should deepen their understanding of each other’s history, culture and politics, and list clarification of facts as their first effort.

When it comes to so-called international issues haunting the US, mutual trust should be developed between China and the US, with China driving home to the US that its policies on these issues are not intended to weaken the latter or create any anti-US alliance.

Niu Xinchun is senior research fellow in China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

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