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Foreign Policy

Urgent Need for China-U.S. to Build Strategic Mutual Trust, But Still a Long Way Off

May 18 , 2011
  • Guo Xuetang

    Deputy Director, Shanghai University of Political Science and Law

In a survey of 259 students at my university less than two months ago about the future of China-U.S. relations, the answers to the question “What’s your list of six important factors which affect China-U.S. relations, from the most to the least?” were in this order: Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, military development, human rights, business and economy, appreciation of RMB, and global issues. When asked about main obstacles to the development of the relationship, more than 80 percent of students nominated the American containment of China’s rise and the Taiwan dispute. This survey questionnaire, although not so formal, gave warning in a sense to a crisis of China-U.S. strategic mutual trust after the turbulent 2010 when Beijing and Washington competed bilaterally and multilaterally in military, economic and political fields.

China-U.S. relations constitute a most unstable bilateral relationship while sharing a cooperative space with the most likely potential, It is easy to find evidence of the right intentions and measures for bilateral cooperation – energy security, economic and financial affairs, and non-traditional and trans-national problems such as anti-terrorism and climate change – in the last China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). Some experts have been arguing that cooperation in these areas would guarantee the stable development of China-U.S. relations because “there are inherent limits to their better relations and also inherent limits to their bad relations,” much the same as 20 years ago. However, their bilateral strategic mutual trust has been in crisis for one decade in which we find conflicts in military and political fields more relevant to hard concerns over sovereignty and national security. It has been lagging further behind than in dealing with soft concerns such as economic, financial and global problems. For this reason, from many Chinese perspectives, the Obama administration’s policy toward China in 2010 was much more aggressive militarily and politically, deploying forward and mobile movement of forces in Guam and other military bases in East Asia, intensifying territorial disputes over the South China Sea between China and some ASEAN countries, being partial to Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, sending aircraft carrier battle groups to the Yellow Sea without concern for the escalation of military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula, and criticizing Beijing over human rights violations.
The recent stagnation of China-U.S. relations since Chinese President Hu Jintao’s remarkable visit to Washington D.C. in January this year has made it very urgent to build bilateral strategic mutual trust. Although there is high expectation that after third round of China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), new momentum of stable and cooperative relations will be injected into bilateral relations, there is still a long way to go to build mutual trust between these two giants.
It is interesting to see so many surprises in bilateral conflicts in 2010. Some Americans say China has become very arrogant and “more assertive” diplomatically, and “less biding and hiding” strategically. Some Chinese say China’s growth doesn’t pose a threat to any country, but the United States is going to establish a C or U-style encirclement in order to contain China and Beijing is being forced to fight back. This is definitely a self-fulfilling prophecy when we put these opposite arguments together. But this psychological phenomenon is not at all surprising.

Briefly speaking, history teaches us: China is a newly emerging powerful country and, at the same time it was an old powerful country invaded and plundered by foreign countries for 100 years from 1848-1949. Even now, there are still some old “scars” on its body, such as Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands, Tibet, and others, waiting to completely heal. For Americans, the United States is the most powerful country in the world, maintaining leadership of a free world for almost 100 years, if counted from the birth of Wilsonianism, and it has held sole superpower status for 20 years since the 1990s. To ask Chinese to forget the century-long historical humiliation is not as easy as to ask Americans to abandon its century-long leadership of the Western world. The historical burden on both sides brings about the Mismatch of Mutual Cognition (MMC) of national interests, a mismatch that was the chief source of conflicts in 2010 and the misperceptions in the long run between the two countries.

Obviously, the MMC problem was profoundly manifested in historically-linked military security issues: from the Chinese perspective, China has lost a lot of territories, and doesn’t want to lose any more, which is why sovereignty is the most sensitive and most important issue in China-U.S. relations, especially the reunification of the Mainland with Taiwan. American arms sales to Taiwan are not acceptable because they make Chinese reunification more difficult, even impossible. From the American perspective, Washington is not only a leader of the Western world, but also works as a leader of the international community through expansion of its political system and values. It worries about its leadership, whether it is destabilized by China’s power or not. That is why China’s growth of national power is alarming and Chinese military supremacy over Taiwan and its neighboring countries is worrisome and the United States should take precautions to prevent any possibility of China gaining regional supremacy, let alone world leadership. All the Chinese government’s disputes over sovereignty are neither understandable nor even acceptable to the American side. This MMC of national interests frequently turns China-U.S. relations on and off in reaction to sovereignty issues and makes it relaxed and tense in relation to leadership questions. There is no doubt it has been undermining bilateral strategic trust.

As for the foreign policies of both countries toward each other in this regard, I would like to borrow a medical term, the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), to describe the inadequate adaption to each other in the process of building mutual trust. The GAS is used to describe how the body adjusts with an adaptive response to stress in both the short-term and long-term. It has three phases: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. In China-U.S. relations, the GAS finds expression in lack of psychological understanding of each other, irrational policy options, and unacceptable reactions. It takes time to overcome the GAS in the decision-making process of both Beijing and Washington. The bilateral relations might have ended the first phase, might be undergoing the second, and might take another decade or more to see the third.

Practically, the burden for change is on both sides. Both Beijing and Washington have to work together to eliminate the MMC and avoid policy misunderstanding and misperception so that they can gradually foster “habits of cooperation”, a term which Jon Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China, proposed.

First, China and the United States need to reach a tacit understanding in terms of China’s rise and American leadership. China should look at its economic achievements and growing power calmly because of its increasing domestic economic and social imbalance problems. The United States has to recognize a double-sided China, strong hard power on one side and weak soft power on the other. China has to share more international responsibilities under American leadership, but it also deserves America’s respect on its vital national interests.

Second, with regard to sovereignty and territorial integrity issues, China does not have enough space to compromise over them. The United States needs to understand the historical process of evolution in Chinese politics, its sovereignty and the interconnections between the East and the West. For instance, the adjustment of American policy toward Taiwan – from maintaining a status quo to supporting a peaceful reunification – will be very helpful for China to show respect and appreciation to American leadership. It will enhance fundamentally bilateral strategic mutual trust.

Third, the cooperative space in non-traditional issues is large enough for China and the United States to easily reduce the MMC dilemma. Both countries need to change their propensity to scheme the opposite side in order to solve global problems effectively and comprehensively.

Guo Xuetang is deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

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