Great changes have taken place in Sino-US relations after scores of years of development, as evidenced by frequent conduction of dialogues between the two countries and constant growth of their common interests. To be honest, however, their bilateral relations are still fragile and not so stable for one important reason – strategic suspicion of each other, a mentality that has never died out and tends to grow even stronger with China’s rise.
In their joint product Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust, Chinese scholars Wang Jisi and Kenneth Lieberthal looked at the perception by the two countries of each other, presented a list of their specific suspicions, digged into the root causes of the mentality, and offered some solutions to the improvement and reversion of such a situation, an effort that has started a big stir once made public in China and the United States. Viewed as a whole, their work has won positive acknowledgement from the majority of their audience, who have agreed that absolution of suspicion and boost of trust of each other by the two countries from a strategic perspective will be of positive significance.
Yet disagreements and even counterviews have been heard both in China and the United States, coming from people whose arguments can be generalized as follows:
l For the purpose of maintaining the momentum of development of Sino-US relations, it is advisable to remain ambiguous rather than become so straightforward when discussing the issue
l Since true strategic trust can never be achieved between China and the United States and strategic suspicion will always remain the reality featuring their relations, both countries should focus efforts on managing their rivalry against each other rather than attempt to absolve suspicion.
l The two scholars have sounded over-pessimistic because viewed as a whole, Sino-US relations have remained comparatively or even fairly healthy instead of falling into a historical abyss of mutual suspicion.
I disagree with the first viewpoint because, with or without any conclusive evidence, strategic suspicion of each other does have become a major obstacle blocking the in-depth development of Sino-US relations. Exposure of this issue, be it a showy spotlight or an undercurrent, will not only gradually relieve the two countries from their bewilderment in policy execution due to their play of a ‘double-dealing’ trick – cooperation in words but watchout against each other in deeds, but also bring them to act according to the real situation and lessen their misunderstanding of each other due to divergence of viewpoints and perceptions. In addition, it will facilitate their effective control of the structural dispute that can hardly be settled any soon. To face their strategic suspicion of each other and deal with it in an effective way will signify the maturity of their bilateral relations.
Neither do I agree with the second viewpoint, because it is a conclusion running counter to the original intention of the authors. The practical objective of fostering strategic trust between China and the United States is to bring them to value each other’s core interests, know their respective bottom lines, work out confidence-building measures, and enter into active cooperation in fields of common interests. This is an objective not so difficult to achieve. After years of communication and mutual adaption, certain strategic trust has already been founded between the two countries (even when it comes to issues relating to Taiwan). What is to be newly desired is their effort to extend its range and coverage. So far as their bilateral relations are concerned, it is of equal importance for China and the United States to step up their efforts in competition and crisis management, and to foster strategic trust of each other. Overemphasis of the former signifies excessive pessimism about Sino-US relations because it counts them as similar to those between the United States and the former Soviet Union, while overemphasis of the latter sounds a little bit too optimistic because it goes beyond the real situation. From a long point of view, to bring the latter into the fore will be the direction for both China and the United States to work into.
To some extent, I agree with the third viewpoint (as represented by Bader, a former official in the Obama administration) because it stands for a more positive evaluation of Sino-US relations and looks at them with a comparatively more realistic eye, an attitude that will lead to a more comprehensive and objective understanding of the bilateral relations between China and the United States. It is a pity, however, that lots of people in China and the United States, including some officials of weight, do not share this viewpoint and choose to embrace an extremely pessimistic attitude. So far as its basic analyses are concerned, this viewpoint does not run off the course taken by the two scholars, although it looks at the issue from a different point of view. As a matter of fact, it is a supplement to the conclusion made by the two authors
In one word, to face the issue of mutual strategic mistrust between China and the United States and handle it in an effective way under the present-day situation has become a task that must be entered into their work agendas. The governments and think tanks in both countries should enthusiastically engage themselves in dialogues on this issue, all for just one purpose: to manage the competition and conflicts between their countries, to lessen misunderstanding, to increase mutual trust, to strengthen cooperation, and to truly foster a new type of relationship of mutual benefit and win-win between the two big powers
The author is Chairman of the Academic Committee of China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies.