Sino-US trust: from deficit to surplus

By Shen Dingli
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, February 14, 2012
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Domestic politics in all countries, including those in China and the U.S., continue and change over time. The policies that governments formulate are based on their individual country's interests at any particular time. Because national interests often change incrementally, their interests at different periods tend to be linked.

The succession of national leaders may change how interests are perceived. The term of office for U.S. and Chinese leaders is different: the term of the U.S. Executive Office is four years, while that of China is five years. Although law or convention allows for the opportunity of an additional term, their span of office does not completely overlap – creating global political diversification.

In 2012-2013, political power in the U.S. and China will shift once again. In the fourth quarter of this year, China's ruling party is expected to elect its new top leader, and the election for the top public office job in the U.S. will also be held. In the first quarter next year, the National People's Congress of China will elect a new state president, and the new U.S. president will then take his oath of office.

In this circumstance, Sino-U.S. relations will involve both steadiness and variation. Their cooperation and competition will continue, with cooperation expanding and competition becoming more entrenched. Leadership change in one or both countries may affect their mutual cognition and interaction. If the change can be handled well, relations between the two countries will be advanced; otherwise bilateral relations may become more complicated.

The issues standing in front of present and future Chinese and U.S. leaders involve balancing the two countries' benefits over the short-term, and throughout the medium/long-term. Within the next half-year and given their political cycles, and especially given the expected declining growth of global economy, it is crucial that both countries reach a mutual understanding to guarantee mutual development. Otherwise they run the risk of shifting one state's trouble to the other due to narrow-minded development goals. This tests the wisdom of politicians and elites in both countries. Over the next one or two years, the question of how to reach a strategic common view on Iran's nuclear weapons issue will be a pressing concern at the decision-making level in Beijing and Washington. If properly dealt with, these three countries will all benefit, else the misunderstandings between China and the U.S. will become deeper, and global strategic management will be futile.

Over the next ten years, the rankings of major indices of these two countries' economic scale are expected to change. Such changes will occur during the tenure of China's next leader and within the next two or three presidential electoral cycles in the U.S. This is an inevitable consequence of globalization, whether one country desires it or not. In other words, by 2020 China will have spent two centuries turning itself back into a leading state after losing its world economic weight of the past. This economic inevitability will happen during the term of the next Chinese leader elected in 2012-2013.

Therefore, it's obvious that there are multiple possibilities for the Sino-U.S. relationship over the medium run, as the United States with its realist foreign policy stance will make corresponding adjustments based on its measurement of China's development. The U.S. will show more respect towards China, as China is gaining more strength from rapid development. At the same time the U.S. will remain wary and resistant as it is hard to accept such changes due to this realist foreign policy viewpoint. What is certain is that in the next decade, the U.S. will not change its habit of viewing China as the "not us" counterpart of the world. Consequently, not only is it difficult to attain harmony between these two states, but their peaceful relations, reluctantly established on the basis of mutual interest, could become more turbulent.

It's possible to forecast parallel trends in bilateral relations. However, the key to this issue lies in how we can bring order out of confusion. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping started his visit to the United States on Monday with the aim of advancing strategic communication between the leadership of these two states at this critical juncture in history. His visit also shows that potential future American and Chinese leaders are making efforts to create a trust surplus for the years to come. As stated in the West, if leadership meetings generate a "chemical reaction", cooperation will be easier in the future. It should be noted that both China and the United States need to get their brains in gear to ensure that Xi's visit generates positive results.

The United States' concern is not solely focused on a faster appreciating yuan, but instead is fixated on the rough imbalance of bilateral trade. The exchange rate between U.S. dollar and yuan is only one of the tools used when creating a trading balance. As far as Iran's nuclear program is concerned, if one can hope to prevent the West from taking military action or imposing oil sanctions against Tehran, the best alternative is to create a plan that stops Iran from pursuing its nuclear development. In this respect, the United States and China should work together to take measures to end Iran's nuclear weapons development, rather than continuing to say "no" to one another.

It's plain to see that China and the U.S. suffer from a trust deficit. In order to turn this trust deficit into a trust surplus, these two countries must establish a reliable level of trust, specifically based on concrete actions between their leaders and nations. Regular and institutional exchange visits at the top level will help China and the U.S. create a trust-based cooperative model. By balancing their trade deficit and thwarting the development of Iran's nuclear weapons, Chinese and American policy-makers have an opportunity to offer one another strategic reassurance. China and the U.S. will develop mutual interests and defend regional stability hand-in-hand. When they expand the scope of their mutual strategic interests, China will be more likely to ride out the next ten years smoothly. This mutual cooperation will allow China to implement an important CPC directive introduced at its 16th National Congress: focus on strategic opportunities during the first twenty years of the 21th century.


This author is a columnist with For more information please visit

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of

This is article was first published in Chinese and was translated into English by Xu Lin and Zhang Junmian.


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