Paranoid Republic

No summit can bridge the political gap between Washington and Beijing.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

China and the United States simply don’t trust one another. And nothing seems to change that, no matter how many high-level exchanges, strategic dialogues, informal consultations, and summits the two countries hold.

Frequent meetings between senior U.S. and Chinese officials indicate the importance of the bilateral relations, but little else, and in fact, the imbalance between high-level engagement and actual output has grown worse in recent years. Meeting after meeting has yielded almost no progress on the most critical issues that undermine mutual trust and cooperation, such as cybersecurity, Chinese military modernization, Asian regional security, and China’s domestic economic policy.

So is there any way this weekend’s informal summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and new Chinese leader Xi Jinping in California will be productive? The media will understandably focus on whether progress is made on specific issues, such as the much-publicized cyberattacks on U.S. companies and government entities, allegedly perpetrated by the Chinese military, and North Korea, which has engaged in a series of provocations against South Korea and the United States in recent months. But as for the broader relationship, it will be hard for either country to accept the other country’s professed strategic objectives. Chinese political elites simply do not believe repeated declarations by U.S. presidents in that the United States does not seek to contain China, while Washington receives China’s pledge of "peaceful development" with incredulity.

The vast gap between the two countries’ political systems makes trust impossible. The Chinese Communist Party does not hide its hostility to and fear of the political values — freedom, human rights, political competition, and constitutional rule — that underpin American democracy. In the eyes of the Chinese ruling elites, the United States presents a political threat, even though they understand that a full-fledged military conflict between two nuclear-armed great powers is extremely unlikely. Chinese leaders feel so endangered by U.S. soft power that they are now even orchestrating a propaganda campaign against constitutionalism.

This threat perception has created its own reality. China’s ruling elites know very well that China’s economic rise would not have happened as fast or as successfully without U.S. help, which included bestowing Most-Favored Nation trading status on China, supporting its 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization, and awarding scholarships for hundreds and thousands of Chinese students, among other factors. Still, such awareness does not prevent them from insisting, almost daily, that "hostile Western forces" seek China’s destruction.

For the U.S. political establishment, a repressive one-party state is simply illegitimate. Its opacity, lack of constraints on its power, and capriciousness make it difficult to understand and even more difficult to trust.

Since the fundamental differences between the two political systems are almost certain to continue in the foreseeable future, the United States and China need to cooperate without the luxury of strategic trust. Most people might argue, understandably, that such cooperation is impossible. But this does not need to be the case.

To build a new strategic relationship, both sides should construct similar rules of the game in the national security arena — not ceremonial and unproductive military-to-military exchanges, but substantive and enforceable agreements governing the most important aspects of national security. A short list might include cyber security, nuclear weapons, naval operations, space weapons, and territorial disputes. This list, while ambitious, is not unrealistic. Both countries need such agreements (although China still needs the United States more than the other way around). These accords will also serve to moderate and even prevent frictions and accidents between the world’s two largest militaries.

The good news is that Xi has signaled that he wants a new relationship with the United States. He declared in May that the Sino-U.S. relationship is at a "critical juncture." Although he didn’t elaborate, he is probably aware of many of the downside risks of a Sino-American relationship left on autopilot.  But steadying a relationship adrift requires that Xi invest some of his political capital. As a more self-confident and assertive leader, now in control of the Chinese military, Xi should prioritize improving the security relationship with the United States and building on such improvement to show that U.S.-China cooperation on security issues is possible even without strategic trust. Besides pushing his colleagues to support a more wide-ranging and bold initiative on security cooperation with Washington, Xi must accompany this initiative with an immediate change of policy on territorial disputes. China will have to moderate its rhetoric and positions to reduce tensions with its neighbors. As long as such tensions persist, China cannot expect to have stable and productive ties with the United States.

Obama can provide valuable incentives for Xi to undertake such a reset. Fine-tuning the much-touted U.S. pivot to Asia to de-emphasize its military focus will be a good start. The reinvigoration of the U.S. strategic engagement in East Asia since mid-October has been a resounding success in reassuring Asian nations of the United States’ commitment to the region’s peace and stability, but it also has exacerbated tensions with China, where both elites and ordinary people view the move as an overt attempt to contain a rising superpower. Even though it may be difficult to persuade Chinese leaders steeped in realpolitik to view U.S. policy more benignly, complementing the pivot with more diplomatic and multilateral initiatives could ease tensions. Washington may want to extend an olive branch to Beijing by encouraging China to apply to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a new free-trade zone viewed in Beijing as a bloc designed to exclude China.

Obama must also make it clear to Xi, however, that the future of U.S.-China relations depends on the political evolution inside China. Progress on political openness, rule of law, and respect for human rights in China will lay the foundations of strategic trust in U.S.-China relations. The continuation of one-party rule will make such trust unattainable and strategic rivalry unavoidable. Is that the kind of tough message the president is prepared to deliver?

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