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Foreign Policy

The Understanding Gap

Mar 11, 2021
  • Wang Jisi

    President, Institute of International and Strategic Studies, Peking University

[CropImg]China US.jpg

Speaking of rebuilding political trust between China and the United States, I recall the report I co-authored with my American colleague Kenneth Lieberthal in 2012, Addressing China-U.S. Strategic Distrust. We called for enhanced communication and mutual understanding to reduce suspicion. Nine years have passed since that writing. Regrettably, China-U.S. strategic distrust has deepened rather than diminished.

In politics and international relations, as in personal relationships, it is never easy to build up genuine trust. We witnessed the intensified contention between the two political parties in America last year, which reflected the deep gulf of distrust between them. If these people, in the same nation, don’t trust each other, how can China and the United States, with such different histories, political systems, commercial practices and cultural values, ever come to mutual trust? 

Over the past four decades, China and the United States have engaged each other in every dimension of social life. There was no lack of communication, talks, or visits until the COVID-19 pandemic. We know each other much better than before. China’s knowledge of America is probably broader and deeper than its knowledge of any other country in the world. And yet I doubt that this knowledge can be translated into trust of U.S. intentions toward China. 

To me, the real issue is not even so much how to rebuild mutual trust. The most daunting challenges, I think, are how to prevent the political distrust from accelerating decoupling in social, economic and technological terms, and how to avoid a head-on confrontation.

I would like to offer some thoughts in that direction. Of course, we should grasp the opportunities right now to resume communication. But this must be supplemented by comprehension of each other’s mindset.

One role model for U.S. scholars is Professor Ezra Vogel, who sadly passed away two months ago. In his numerous writings and untiring speeches, Ezra cautioned against making policy and taking action involving the United States and East Asian countries without first understanding the other side’s cultural traits. In his last email to me on Dec. 14, 2020, Ezra attached a draft document titled “Three Fundamental Differences That Need to Be Bridged” between China and America. He elaborated on the two countries’ deep-rooted traditions for promoting economic growth, maintaining cultural values and selecting or electing political leaders.

In my own experience, I find one difference between the two countries most illuminating. We in China like the idea of “seeking common ground while reserving differences.” We state that the common interests of our two countries far exceed our differences. We define common ground by a set of principles, including mutual respect and win-win cooperation. Americans, by contrast, tend to focus on hard issues, such as tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea.

So it appears that the Chinese want to set up principles before trying to solve specific problems, but the Americans are eager to address the problems before they are ready to improve the relationship.

It is, therefore, easy for the Chinese to complain that the United States is creating obstacles to improving relations, while the Americans criticize China for not taking their practical concerns seriously. 

I hope we will take actions to address such differences on the road ahead and avoid the confrontations that may arise because of a lack of understanding.

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