What’s the truth about U.S.-China strategic mistrust? You can’t handle the truth

What’s the truth about U.S.-China strategic mistrust? You can’t handle the truth

By Oriana Skylar Mastro

Best Defense Office of Sinology

It seems like every week I go to a talk or some type of meeting in which the participants argue that if the United States and China could just sit down and talk to each other, we could dispel all misunderstandings and mitigate the tension that has been a central part of our bilateral relationship since 2009. If I’m lucky, it is usually an American talking about how our policies worry China and then a Chinese strategist that articulates what the United States could do to reassure China. The other day I went to one such talk at IISS in which Michael Pillsbury played the role of the American urging a deeper understanding of Chinese strategic thinking and Lanxin Xiang urged the Obama administration to take steps to address China’s concerns about the re-balancing.

While I believe that diplomacy and dialogue is important to the health of the relationship, many of problems the U.S. currently faces vis-à-vis China are not because of some miscommunication, but because of a serious conflict of interest. This is usually where someone chimes in that we have a lot we can cooperate on. Yes, fine. But the bottom line is this: China would feel less vulnerable if the U.S. reduced its presence and influence in Asia, and we aren’t going anywhere. This affects all aspects of the relationship. For example, when I tell my Chinese colleagues that the U.S. isn’t purposely creating conflict between China and its neighbors to undermine China’s rise, they don’t believe me. When Chinese interlocutors tell me that China would never use force to resolve its territorial disputes with Taiwan, Japan, India, Vietnam or the Philippines, I don’t believe them. And as long as Chinese behavior doesn’t change, my level of trust won’t either.

If Chinese strategists, academics, and public intellectuals are any indication, I shouldn’t hold my breath. Today, when Dr. Xiang was asked if China understands that the re-balancing was partly in response to an increase in Chinese assertiveness in Asia, he said it wasn’t convincing. I have never heard a Chinese strategist admit that concern about China’s rise is understandable, that maybe other countries have a point in their critiques of Chinese behavior. When meeting with a Chinese delegation just yesterday, I asked if there was anything China could do to mitigate regional concerns. Blank stares. And then the standard: ‘China is only being defensive, is peaceful, and any negative regional views are the result of malevolent U.S. re-balancing strategy.’

Exchange and dialogue are critical. I believe that my time living in China and the fact that I speak Mandarin help me better understand international issues from China’s perspective. But that doesn’t mean that I always agree with China’s policies or trust Beijing to do what’s in U.S. national interest. Enough already about how if we just exchanged views all would be well. If both sides truly were honest, we would admit that in a frank dialogue, we probably wouldn’t like what we heard anyways.

Oriana Skylar Mastro is a PhD candidate at Princeton university and a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). She also is an officer in the Air Force Reserve. In a previous incarnation, she worked for a hydroelectric valve company in Beijing as a translator. This is the standard disclaimer about how her views are her own and don’t represent those of any organization or government agency.