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Strategic mutual trust between China and the US can be accumulated and built through cooperation on specific issues
Back in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping observed that China-US relations must be based on mutual trust or they could not move forward. Thirty-odd years have passed, but the trust between the two countries still remains elusive. In March 2012, the Brookings Institute released a report by Ken Lieberthal and Wang Jisi entitled "Addressing US-China Strategic Distrust", in which they studied the two countries' mutual distrust of each other's long-term intentions. In May 2013, Vice-Minister He Yafei of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of China's State Council published in Foreign Policy an article entitled "Trust Deficit", pointing out that the root cause of China-US frictions and differences lies in their huge "trust deficit".
Many in the two countries are well aware that the lack of strategic trust poses an obstacle to China-US relations, and has become the biggest obstacle to their growth. Many issues have caused the lack of mutual trust. But the two countries also have a high degree of interwoven interests, as well as a real need to work together in addressing issues relating to the economy, environment, security and other common challenges to mankind.
Against such a backdrop, the Annenberg Estate meeting between President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Barack Obama has assumed far-reaching significance for strengthening trust between the two countries. The summit attracted worldwide attention, with some observers saying the meeting may have provided a roadmap for building a new model of major-country relationship. But whether this materializes or not will depend on whether the two countries can increase their strategic trust. The more China-US relations are looked at from an overall, long-term and strategic perspective, the more indispensable strategic mutual trust appears to be. But the more the relationship is viewed in this way, the more mutual suspicions there seem to be.
So can China and the US build up the strategic trust between them and, assuming that they can, to what level can they build their strategic trust?
The answer depends on at least three factors: First, the history of interaction between the two countries; second, the degree of mutual acceptance of their respective systems, cultures and international behavior; and third, their future expectations, such as what common issues they believe they need to address cooperatively and what common interests they must secure and preserve collectively.
The level of trust between the two countries determines their attitudes, policy decisions and behavioral patterns in handling bilateral relations or international affairs. However, China-US distrust has considerable support in both countries.
Trust, by definition, requires a deep-seated belief by the one side in the sincerity, fairness, friendliness and fine attributes of the other side. Building trust involves highly intricate social and psychological processes. Since the Communist Party of China successfully set up its political power, the history of China-US relations has been riddled with unpleasant experiences. Bringing about a regime change in China or altering its social and economic systems is what the US has long desired. The public diplomacy functions carried out by the US toward China, including the operations of US NGOs in China, have invariably smacked of such an intention. It is highly unlikely that the US will fundamentally change course with respect to human rights, Taiwan, Tibet and other issues. It will not give up condemning China in its annual human rights report. It will hardly end arms sales to Taiwan. And it will not stop playing petty tricks on Tibet. All this is determined by the international stature of the US, by its domestic politics and by its ideological biases.
Needless to say, the methodology and timing of handling these issues may change in light of shifting China-US relations. Yet systemic and ideological differences have put a limit on the scope of their mutual acceptance. This explains why it is so difficult for China and the US to build comprehensive and genuine trust between them. Though China has for more than a decade reaffirmed its commitment to peaceful development, many in the US continue to entertain deep doubts about China's path of modernization. Distrust has always been able to find sympathetic ears in the two countries. Noises against stronger China-US mutual trust have been heard time and again. While it is fairly hard to build and accumulate trust, it is easy to create and spread distrust.
Building strategic mutual trust in the near future will be difficult, but accumulating it by working cooperatively on specific issues is advisable.
One summit meeting alone is unlikely to resolve the trust deficit that exists in bilateral relations, but it is an important step toward building mutual trust between the two countries.
Building strategic mutual trust in the near future may be very difficult. Yet for policymakers on both sides, building a fair amount of trust on some specific issues and within a specified period could be relatively easy.
With their lack of strategic mutual trust, China and the US must, while continuing to build toward strategic trust, endeavor to accumulate trust by working cooperatively on specific issues.
For example, the two countries have become more interdependent economically and share a great deal of common interests, they are duty bound to work together for an early recovery of the world economy. They are also duty bound to work cooperatively to address the host of problems and challenges facing the international community, such as international terrorism, climate change, disease control and prevention, cybersecurity and other non-traditional security issues, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the Syria crisis and other traditional security threats.
Only by enhancing cooperation on specific issues, increasing mutual understanding and accumulating mutual trust step by step can the two countries bring about genuine strategic trust and build a new model of major-power relations based on harmonious coexistence, benign competition and win-win cooperation.
The author is a research fellow of Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. www.chinausfocus.com.
(China Daily 06/21/2013 page8)