It has been “normal” for China-US relations to suffer from turbulence over the past few decades. The two countries have often collaborated on common interests while advancing their economic prosperity and national security. But they have also experienced setbacks from time to time as their views on various issues differed.
This complex relationship has been typified by their contradictory mutual expectations. It is clear that China and the US have lacked deep trust of each other over many years. On one hand, they can hardly avoid hedging against each other in their national development and foreign policies. On the other, they still count on each other, betting that they are able to move responsibly when making major decisions. In fact, China and the US have managed their relationship over the past three decades, so that it would not be hijacked by any single event, large or small. They have managed incremental reconciliation through dialogue and communication, despite the severity of various challenges.
The fact that China and the US have to often deal with conflict or major crisis, however, has been harmful to their relationship, and hence has affected adversely their respective security and welfare. So, what has caused these mutual trust problems and can this change over time?
The reasons are related to differences in values and interests. Beijing and Washington might often not well understand each other’s intentions, or might not readily accept the other’s desired outcomes. Such problems have prevented them from building common values and sharing core interests based on an ideal foundation. Nevertheless, the seemingly obvious differences have often covered the real convergence between them. China and the United States have shared points of strong consensus in the past but both recently have been frustrated in reaching common understanding on some important issues.
The first barrier is distrust due to value divide. For instance, China has stressed its core national interests as institutional security, economic development and territorial integrity. Among the three, institutional security has been the foremost, and its primary tenet is to serve the people. From anti-feudalism, anti-imperialism, anti-warlordism, anti-colonialism, to anti-hegemonism, China has experienced quite a trajectory toward a democratic republic for the past 100 years. Though its path of modernization has been eventful, China’s overall growth has more than matched the global mainstream trend.
America may not recognize or agree with China’s interpretation of democracy, while China has been critical of US weaknesses such as its long-held racial discrimination through to the mid-20th century. This author believes that in time Americans are likely to understand China’s past criticisms as pressing the US to advance social reforms. Similarly, the US could be more objective in judging the performance of the Chinese system. While the Chinese government has achieved higher living standards for its people, it has also been more confident in accepting criticism from the other side of the planet about its deficiencies.
There is a Chinese saying, “Modesty helps one go forward, whereas conceit makes one lag behind.” Through criticism and self-criticism, China and the US are learning to treat each other more equally and respect the other’s institutions more generously. These phases of progress reflect the improvement of their relationship. And lately such progress is moving more speedily, as evidenced throughout the state visit that President Hu paid to America in January this year.
The second barrier is distrust due to different interests. Let us explore some “core interests” of the two countries to see whether they are compatible or not China needs more international exchange and cooperation to sustain and expand its growth. Also it has more need to protect its nationals abroad and its overseas investments. Under these circumstances, it stands to reason that China wants to build a more capable defense force to protect its off-shore interests. But to build trust with the US, China ought to explain its objectives and plans clearly to avoid misunderstanding and misjudgment. In fact, as the US has already experienced this stage of development in its own past, it might be more sympathetic understanding China’s needs.
Correspondingly, China might also need to better understand America’s legitimate desires, especially its long-held notion of freedom of navigation on the open seas. It should be recognized that while the US has been monopolizing the ocean, China could well have voiced more strongly its reasonable concerns. But China is now growing fast and is tapping the oceans increasingly heavily so the freedom of navigation that the US has long espoused is becoming less of a sole American privilege.
China has long been concerned that the US has been policing international waters for America’s own benefit. But now it is America that seems to be quite anxious about China’s claims over some of its Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Such mutual suspicions, if left unresolved, could lead to growing distrust between them with unwanted results.
So China and the US need to mitigate their suspicions through cooperative efforts. America should respect the legitimate rights of China and other countries to access the high seas and China should reassess its use of EEZs in accordance with the definitions of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). Through genuine cooperation, China and the US, as well as the rest of the world, ought to allow the open seas to be truly open to all and ensure that all states are entitled to the rights rendered by UNCLOS.
In July 2010, China and the US exchanged heated discussion in Hanoi at the ARF Foreign Ministers’ meeting over “core interests” concerning the South China Sea. The US seemed to assert, alluding to China’s historic claim, that the South China Sea should be largely open to all, with no single country having claim over its entirety. This has been the latest serious public show of distrust between the nation’s and an unfortunate barrier to cementing a partnership.
When China and the US differ in their respective interests, it is not wise to stress “core interests” to expand areas of exclusivity. China and the US, plus some ASEAN members if they so wish, should reconcile their positions by generating a regime in the near future which is not necessarily exclusive – facilitating free access to the South China Sea by all parties, while preserving China’s privileges in tapping the area for economic purposes. The Joint Statement released after the January 2011 summit seems to narrow the differences by emphasizing the parties’ “mutual respect and interests” in lieu of the “core interests” of any single state. This smart move, when substantiated, should boost mutual trust in a positive way.
Sino-US relations are always developing and in terms of their past history of cooperation and competition, it is advisable that they try to end many of their differences. As history shows, these have been caused unnecessarily through mutual misperception. Indeed one state visit may not easily remove all the problems between China and the United States, and one summit may not be enough to quickly ease all the strains. But, as long as China and the US can genuinely putsce themselves in the other’s position, they have a good chance of minimizing the difficulties to build a lasting and reliable trust and friendship.
Shen Dingli is the Director of Center for American Studies, Fudan University.