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Foreign Policy

Trust in a Troubled Relationship

Oct 23 , 2015

The China – U.S. relationship is like a troubled marriage. A long-term commitment, to be sure, but there are problems to work out, which often proves difficult because there is a lack of trust. At that point, what’s important is communication so we can resolve our differences and strengthen the relationship for a more optimistic future.

That clearly was the purpose of President Xi Jin Ping’s recent visit to the United States. The port of entry was Seattle, where he met with CEOs of the world’s largest high technology companies, nine governors, and other notables to underscore the economic opportunities, then on to Washington, D. C. to discuss the policy and political issues with American President Barak Obama; the final stop in New York, his first appearance at the United Nations to emphasize China’s emerging role as a global leader.

So did President Xi’s visit result in a stronger marriage?

For Xi and his delegation, Seattle was like a honeymoon. He was warmly greeted and praised, a highly visible tour of the area and a series of business meetings, all of which received favorable media attention.

His next stop in Washington, D. C. was not so romantic. It was touted as an historic Summit meeting of the world’s two most powerful leaders, but President Xi could not have arrived at a worse time. The religious icon, Pope Francis, was the center of attention with high profile appearances all over the city, a speech before the U. S. Congress, with unprecedented media coverage. Indeed, President Xi’s official visit received scant attention while in Washington, D. C.

What did get attention, at least among the policy wonks, was how the two leaders would address their multiple differences in the bilateral relationship, the toughest by far being the fears and tensions over cyber-attacks. Before the Summit, the White House had prepared a list of sanctions to be imposed on Chinese hi-tech companies believed to have engaged in cybertheft and hacking, but President Obama wisely put on hold until after the Summit.

Ultimately the two presidents announced an agreement not to direct or support cyberattacks that steal corporate records for economic benefit, but President Obama appeared wary, saying “the question now is, are words followed by action,” warning that “we will be watching carefully as to make an assessment as to whether progress has been made in this area.” Obviously this is a trust problem.

President Xi repeatedly gave assurances, in Seattle and Washington, that China was not guilty of the accusations of cyber attacks against the U. S., yet such assurances are doing little to relieve the U.S. government and businesses of these concerns.  This is a difficult issue, as noted by a former FBI cyber specialist who said, “Hacking is easy and cheap, preventing it is difficult and costly.”

That’s why it comes down to trust. China’s Internet Czar acknowledged this concern, stating in Seattle “we have to trust each other.”  Prior to the trip, Ezra Vogel, professor emeritus at Harvard University, observed “The boost of mutual trust may be the largest contribution of Xi’s visit to Sino-US relations.

The question remains, how do we establish trust in this perilous relationship? Both sides need to commit to reconciliation.

China’s best shot is President Xi Jinping himself. Not in recent memory have we seen a Chinese leader who has personality, charisma and a way to connect with ordinary people.  He is also blessed with a lovely and legendary wife, who adds greatly to his persona.

Former U. S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, who greeted President Xi in Seattle, said “I think what is most important for the visit is a chance that the Americans have to see President Xi in a more relaxed way.” He certainly accomplished this in Seattle, visiting a high school, watching football games, and the finely tuned personal touch in his major speech, quoting American writers and sharing about his earlier struggles during the Cultural Revolution days.

However, given the limited press coverage in Washington and New York, there was no opportunity for the American public to fully appreciate these qualities and start building trust.

China also needs to be more proactive in dealing with cyber-related charges and maintain reliable communication with U.S. government officials, and also the Congress, to avoid mis-steps that could lead to a cyber trade war.

For America’s part, it’s about the lingering perception of the Mao Zedong era, which prompts suspicion and distrust that leads to China bashing, which will be heighten in this year’s presidential election.  Trust is unlikely as long as America continues to politicize the relationship, often amplified by biased media coverage.

After New York, President Xi returned to Beijing where he is the uncontested leader and will continue to assert his influence around the world. Barack Obama will become a lame-duck president while his successor will preside over a divided country and dysfunctional political system.

Trust will remain crucial in this troubled relationship.

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