The Trust Deficit

How the U.S. 'pivot' to Asia looks from Beijing.


BEIJING — This is a crucial moment for Sino-U.S. relations, as heated debates about the future of this relationship rage in both countries — debates characterized by downright pessimism, with only a sliver of optimism. Here in Beijing, we are asking: Is U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy toward China undermining the already flimsy strategic trust between the two countries? Is it possible for China and the United States to build a new type of great-power relationship, one that can help us avoid confrontation and conflict? Can China and the United States work together to play a leadership role in global governance to meet such urgent global challenges as nonproliferation and climate change?

Obama’s "pivot" to — or "rebalancing" toward — Asia and the Pacific, in both words and deeds, has aroused a great deal of suspicion in China. These suspicions deepen when the United States gets itself entangled in China’s dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands and in the debates over maritime issues in the South China Sea. Should this ill-thought-out policy of rebalancing continue and the security environment worsen, an arms race would be inevitable. China, despite its intention to pursue a strategy of peaceful development, might be forced to revisit some aspects of its policy for the region. That is something China abhors. We understand that a peaceful and prosperous world starts with your neighborhood — just as a stable and good Sino-U.S. relationship also starts in our two countries’ neighborhood, the Asia-Pacific region.

From the Chinese perspective, the United States is the only power capable of creating a negative external environment for China. This is why China carefully scrutinizes what the Obama administration does and tries to understand what it will do. But we also understand that it is in China’s long-term interest — as well as that of the entire region — to develop and maintain stable, healthy relations with the United States. And we think that there are many common interests that should serve as a basis for a cooperative relationship.

It is clear to all that the world’s balance of power is shifting in favor of China and other emerging countries, though the United States maintains its strength in the economic, science-and-technology, military, and cultural fields. However, this "one up, other down" trend that has been accelerating since the 2008 financial crisis has intensified U.S. strategic uncertainty about China. We believe this is why the United States has been increasing its strategic hedging by deploying more and more of its military assets to the Western Pacific and by strengthening its military alliances with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and others in the region.

Clearly, a huge deficit of strategic trust lies at the bottom of all problems between China and the United States. Some scholars have hinted that U.S.-China trust is at its lowest since U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China. But history is a mirror. And from a historical perspective China and the United States, despite their differences, have many things in common, and there is no reason for them to distrust each other. Granted, China has achieved spectacular economic growth over the past several decades, which has made its military modernization possible. But isn’t this a product of the globalization espoused by the United States? Isn’t it a fact that China’s growth has contributed hugely to world peace and prosperity?

During World War II, China and the United States were allies, and together with others, they built the international system in which we now interact. A recent example is the joint efforts by China and the United States in tackling the international financial crisis within the framework of the G-20. We cannot claim that this cooperation between the two countries prevented the world economy from collapsing, but it would not be too off the mark to say that without such cooperation, the world today would be a totally different place.

Now, a new type of relationship between China and the United States requires changing the outdated view of a rivalry among great powers for spheres of influence and the inevitability of a confrontation between existing and aspiring powers. This relationship instead calls for dialogue and cooperation to expand common interests and reduce suspicions and vicious competition. China and the United States must try their utmost to avoid strategic quagmire and rivalry during this period of historic convergence and join hands in building a community of nations bent on peaceful development through cooperation and coordination.

The importance of such a relationship cannot be overemphasized, for both China and the United States. It is a road that has never before been traversed. To embark on such a road fully demonstrates that China has a historic vision and worldview and is working with other countries for peace and prosperity. It also demonstrates that China has full confidence in its peaceful development concept and has the moral integrity to maintain healthy, stable relations with other great powers. The United States has nothing to fear or worry about, and everything to gain, from a strong, peace-loving, and prosperous China.

True, there are structural differences between China and the United States with regard to geopolitics, political systems, and ideology. The debate on China in the United States is nonstop. But there is always something missing in this debate. Trust will not just fall from the sky; it needs to be built with real actions by both sides. As Obama enters his second term and China has completed its transition of power, we believe that hope has emerged and momentum is gaining traction.

Former U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski recently noted that the United States has accepted the rise of Chinese power. Chinese President Xi Jinping has noted on many occasions that the China-U.S. relationship is one of the world’s most important and vibrant relationships with the greatest potential and that there is enough space in the vast Pacific for both China and the United States.

On many issues, the United States cannot divorce itself from China’s helping hand. With regard to the North Korean and Iranian nuclear problems, the Syrian crisis, and other difficult issues, there is a need for China to play an important or even a key role. The United States also needs China’s help in tackling global challenges such as counterterrorism, nonproliferation, poverty reduction, climate change, and energy security. Faced with a continuing weak economy, Obama sets his priorities on job creation and economic growth, and here again, China can help. On the other hand, there are still neoconservative voices in the United States claiming that the peaceful rise of China is impossible. They even predict that the United States and China will engage in tense security competition and that as the aspiring power tries to surpass the existing superpower, war between the two is inevitable. These voices should not be dismissed lightly, and the two countries should be on guard against such erroneous thinking.

It is therefore of great urgency and necessity that the Asia-Pacific region become a test field for China and the United States to explore the possibility of building a new type of great-power relationship for the 21st century. The two countries need first of all to have their officials and academics concretize the concept — to put flesh on its bones. There is no room for procrastination. The cost of possible future conflict is simply too high to contemplate.

There need to be new perspectives and new thinking to address both old and new tough issues in China-U.S. relations. China-U.S. relations are well beyond the bilateral, if only for their sheer size. Whatever policy one takes vis-à-vis the other, the implications are multilateral and worldwide, for better or worse.

Consider, for example, climate change and world trade
. The global challenge of climate change is a top priority in the cooperation between China and the United States. Clean coal technology and renewable energy are only a few areas where the two countries have been discussing and collaborating in the context of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. The global market potential for green energy, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said, could be in the range of $6 trillion. That is quite positive.

On the other hand, there are troubling signs that cooperation is not what it should be on trade and investment, where cooperation is even more important — bilateral annual trade already exceeds $500 billion, and more than 89 percent of U.S. businesses in China are reaping profits. Unfortunately, with the United States on one front pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership — now encompassing 12 countries, including Australia and Japan — and negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union on the other, it cannot but give China the impression that it is intentionally being left out. Or even worse, that it is being isolated in international trade and investment negotiations, not to speak of numerous instances of failure by Chinese companies trying to invest in the United States. Here I tend to agree with former U.S. Rep. David Dreier when he said in an April commentary in the Wall Street Journal that "China and the U.S. are destined to be the two most important powers of the 21st century," that "the Trans-Pacific Partnership shouldn’t be about hedging," and that "[i]t is in the interests of the U.S. that China be part of this partnership."

So how can we improve things? We believe both countries need to rise above our bilateral relationship, that China-U.S. relations probably need to be "de-China-U.S.-ified." Instead, they should focus more on global issues and on making global governance work as the world enters a new era of reform and rejuvenation.

Cyberattacks are a prime example of a problem that should be treated as a global governance issue and not just a bilateral one (despite the recent bilateral exchanges between China and the United States on the contentious subject of who is to blame). The fact is: Cyberattacks take place everywhere every day, and it is a mounting challenge for all countries, including China and the United States. In other words, China and the United States are both victims, and there is no point in accusing each other.

What China and the United States should do is shelve the dispute, defuse the resulting tension, and turn it into an opportunity for collaboration to curb cyberattacks and protect the safety and security of this new common frontier. Bilateral discussions are necessary, and mechanisms should be established immediately for quick, efficient communication and problem-solving, with focuses on fighting cyberspace crimes in commerce, trade, finance, and counterterrorism. There is also an urgent need for the United States to overcome its suspicions and hesitations and join China, Russia, and others to negotiate and formulate an international "code of conduct for information security" in the context of the U.N. International Telecommunication Union.

Xi and Obama have agreed to continue promoting a cooperative China-U.S. partnership in the years to come, with an emphasis on building a new type of great-power relationship between China and the United States. We’re all for letting the policy debates continue, but what is needed right now are actionable policies on both sides — a road map to make them happen. The light at the end of the tunnel is visible already.

A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola