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.