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The Need for Trust in the U.S.-China Relationship

By: Lauren Webb In April of 2012 a new scandal seemed to threaten the U.S.-Chinese relationship. Chen Guangcheng, a blind dissident and advocate against forced sterilization and China’s one-child policy, escaped house arrest in China. When he reemerged into public view, he was sheltered in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, begging the question—did the United States assist in his escape? The prospect of such a violation of sovereignty could pose a problem to even a less tenuous diplomatic relationship, particularly on the eve of high-level negotiations. Yet neither leaders in China or the United States commented on the case and it was ultimately resolved through the issuance of a visa to the United States for Chen and his family.

The peaceful resolution of this would-be scandal could be viewed as the sign of an improved U.S.-China relationship, with many other signs pointing to a bilateral relationship prepared to address potentially contentious issues. Visits by President Hu Jintao and Vice-President Xi Jinping (the expected successor to the presidency) in 2011 and 2012, respectively, were successful. High-level diplomatic meetings, which are vital for a dialogue capable of addressing the daily needs of an economic and political relationship and weathering the storm of more sensitive issues, are at an all-time high between the two countries. The US and China have engaged in sixty regular meetings between agencies of both countries occur each year, including regular meetings of the U.S.-China Strategic and economic Dialogue and the U.S.-China Joint Committee on Commerce and Trade. And Brookings analyst Kenneth Lieberthal has described the U.S.-China diplomatic relationship as one in which “they actually take up the toughest issues across the board.”[1]

However, the actual results of this increased dialogue paint a more dismal picture of the U.S.-China relationship. Despite an ever-growing bilateral trade relationship, both countries seek to form multilateral organizations which exclude the other—ASEAN+3 for China and the Trans-Pacific Partnership[2] for the United States. Within the past month a Chinese official was arrested for allegedly working as a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency. And a May 2012 State Department report criticized the human rights situation in China, stating that “repression and coercion, particularly against organizations and individuals involved in rights advocacy and public interest issues, were routine.”[3] Such reports are issued on an annual basis and the Chinese government often responds with its own human rights reports against the United States and other Western countries. The 13th annual “Human Rights Record of the United States” report was released by the Information Office of the State Council in May. This report cites the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Patriot Act, and the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010 as examples of human rights violations by the U.S.[4] And it boldly reaffirms its distrust by stating, “The United States has been pursuing hegemony in the world, grossly trampling upon other countries’ sovereignty and capriciously committing human rights violations against other nations.”[5]

These issues reflect a critical problem in the U.S.-China relationship—a lack of trust in intentions, information, and follow-through, termed “strategic distrust” by Lieberthal and Wang Jisi. One can of course see this in writings by think-tanks and pundits, who call for “a stronger focus on hedging against China’s power”[6] or refer to China as a “military threat.”[7] But more importantly, the actions and rhetoric of the governments themselves demonstrate and reinforce this mutual strategic distrust.

Most recently, the United States publicly aired its concerns regarding Chinese transparency during China’s Trade Policy Review under the World Trade Organization. China responded by levying its own accusation: “We hope that the U.S. could give more attention to honoring its own transparency obligations,” while claiming that the United States did not provide ample time for responses.

US efforts to scale-up its military presence in Asia have also been met by China with concern and skepticism. The self-proclaimed “first Pacific President,” President Obama has publicly called for a shift in US defense policy towards Asia, including deployments of U.S. Marines to Darwin, Australia and a public proclamation by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in support of freedom of the seas in all international waters (the South China Seas are heavily disputed by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei).  Moreover, the new defense strategy announced in January 2012 referred to “states like China and Iran” and a need for “greater clarity of [Beijing’s] strategic intentions,” highlighting distrust within the American defense system.

Since the end of sanctions enacted by the U.S. following Tiananmen in June 1989, the U.S.-China relationship has improved dramatically, but a great deal more must be done to build trust on both sides in order to foster a truly productive bilateral relationship. In the Brookings Institute report “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust,”[8] Lieberthal and Wang recommend a series of actions to improve strategic trust, including promoting foreign direct investment, increasing transparency in the Chinese political process, and reconciling differences regarding acceptable levels of military influence for both countries in the region. These and the other suggestions in the report address trust issues in economic, military, and diplomatic spheres, all necessary components in the relationship’s development, and will require a long-term commitment by both countries to resolve distrust.

It would be overly optimistic to think that either country will hold absolute trust for the other government any time soon. It is likely just as overly optimistic to think that all of the suggestions in the Brookings report will be adopted by the American and Chinese governments. However, it will be necessary for the long-term prosperity of both countries to foster an increased strategic trust. As the two largest nominal economies in the world, their economic prosperity is intertwined. As two of the most powerful countries in the world, politically, their influence is most poignant when used for the same gains. And neither country benefits from expensive military developments aimed only at preventing the influence of the other. If China and the United States can find a way to resolve their strategic distrust and move towards a more cooperative relationship long-term, both countries—and their citizens—will win.

Lauren Webb is a junior at Emory University majoring in Political Science and History. Her research and academic interests focus on India, China, and Japan, with a particular interest in the U.S.-Asia relationship. Lauren is spending the summer as an Archive Intern with Southwest Airlines and will be studying at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata, Japan during the Fall semester.


[1] “The Future of China-U.S. Relations,” The Brookings Institution, February 15, 2012, http://www.brookings.edu/research/interviews/2012/02/15-china-xi-lieberthal.

[2] Although the Trans-Pacific Partnership has not been completed and ultimately members could change, China was not included in the initial negotiations.

[3] Josh Rogin, “State Department: China Deteriorating on Human Rights, Repressing Its Own People,” Foreign Policy- The Cable (May 24, 2012), http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/05/24/state_department_china_deteriorating_on_human_rights_repressing_its_own_people

[4] “China Issues Report on Human Rights in the U.S.,” Xinhua English.news.cn (Beijing, May 25, 2012), http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2012-05/25/c_131611391.htm.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Managing the U.S.-China Relationship,” The Brookings Institution, n.d., http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/03/16-china-lieberthal-pollack.

[7] Glenn Beck, “Op/Ed: The China Threat”, January 2, 2012, http://www.glennbeck.com/2012/01/02/oped-the-china-threat/.

[8] Kenneth Lieberthal and Jisi Wang, Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust, John L. Thornton China Center Monograph Series (Brookings Institute, March 2012).

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