US-China relations need more positive messages

By Yaping Wang
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 2, 2012
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Rhetorically speaking, U.S.-China relations in the past two years can be characterized by two main allegations: From the American point of view, China is becoming more assertive; while according to Chinese rhetoric, by "pivoting" back to Asia, the U.S. seeks to constrain China's rise.

Treading carefully [By Jiao Haiyang/]

As much of these two allegations are still being hotly debated on both sides, the recent Brookings report by Kenneth Liberthal and Wang Jisi seemed to have put an affirmative stamp onto them, much at odds with the goals of the upcoming Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

The logic behind the report is that each side can better manage the issue of strategic distrust if its leaders have confidence that they have an accurate picture of the way the other side approaches issues that produce this distrust. Based on this logic, the core parts of the report try to explicate each side's thinking about the other side on an array of issues, intended to reduce the mistrust that exists between the two countries by promoting better mutual understanding.

However, if one looks closely into the issues discussed in the report, it is not clear whether it is a lack of understanding or distinct disagreement on these issues that are the root of this mistrust.

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan provide a salient example. The report listed this as a source of Chinese suspicion of U.S. intentions; it attempts to reduce mistrust by clarifying the positions on both sides:

"U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan are viewed in Washington and Taipei as a necessary ingredient for sustaining the confidence of U.S. support in Taipei necessary for Taipei to continue to develop wide ranging cross-Strait relations. Those same sales in Beijing are viewed as confirming American arrogance and determination to interfere in China's domestic affairs and to prevent peaceful unification from occurring, thereby harming a clearly-articulated Chinese core interest."

Be that as it may, these positions are not unknown to the leaders on both sides. In fact, after repeated wrangling on this issue, each side knows very well the other's thinking. In this light, mistrust arises not from a lack of understanding that can be resolved or alleviated through explication. Rather, mistrust arises from the fundamental disagreements intrinsic to the differences between the two countries' political institutions, value systems and geostrategic interests - obdurate differences more resistant to proactive solutions for alleviation.

Likewise, China's alarmed response to U.S. reconnaissance activities near China's coast, and U.S. suspicion of a Chinese anti-access and area denial strategy, is listed in the report as another source or display of mistrust. Despite claims of freedom of navigation, U.S. close-in surveillance activities along China's coast are largely driven by its suspicion of China's military intentions and capabilities. Chinese leaders understand U.S. thinking on this. U.S. leaders also know that China is sensitive to the security of its coastal areas. These "mutual understandings" can be attested by the official and unofficial pronouncements and publications on both sides.

Nevertheless, both sides still carry on their potentially provocative activities. This is clearly not because they are unaware of each other's thinking on the matter, but because they plainly do not agree with each other and instead want to change each other's behavior. In essence, their fundamental interests do not agree.

To be sure, misunderstandings, misconceptions or miscalculations between the two countries do exist to some extent and are something that could be worked upon. But mistrust between the U.S. and China, especially when stemming from military and security issues, is inextricably intertwined with history, differences in political systems and values, and sometimes irreconcilable conflicts of interests. Such differences defy resolution unless opinions or circumstances change over time. When the report asked the central question of "what array of military deployments and normal operations will permit China to defend its core security interests and at the same time allow America to continue to meet fully its obligations to its allies and friends in the region," its answer essentially implicates that no middle ground has yet been found.

However, such profound disagreements by no means indicate that the U.S.-China relationship is ultimately zero-sum. The competitive part of the relationship, especially the military domain, may in fact be zero-sum. However, this domain is only "part" of the relationship. There are so many issues, especially in the non-security arena, where the two countries leaders can find common ground to build trust and confidence. While continuing to work on the seemingly "unworkable" competitive part of the relationship, both sides can avoid focusing too much attention there, which would lead to an overall negative narrative.

Unfortunately, despite being well-intentioned, the Lieberthal and Wang report has been misinterpreted by alarmists as yet another manifestation of the troubling hostility between the two countries, and has been misused as an evidence for zero-sum thinking on both the Chinese and American side, calling for stronger "hedging" measures from Washington and Beijing.

Putting the report aside, mistrust has actually been a normal occurrence in US-China relations and appears unlikely to become extreme under current circumstances as long as both sides exercise prudent self-restraint. Long-time observers of U.S.-China relations know that there are always ups and downs in the relationship and mistrust that exists today does not nearly qualify as a low point in the history of relations.

Understandably, there is a stark contrast between today's frequent and myriad forms of communications between the two countries' leaders and the still-deepening mistrust that puzzles and worries people. Seen in another light, today's more frequent engagement and better understandings between the two countries might open more chances for frequent frictions between interests and hence deepen mistrust. Just like an imperfect couple - it is only after their understandings about each other deepen, their engagements with each other become more frequent and multi-faceted, their interests more intertwined, that frictions have the chance to exacerbate. Even so, some degree of friction is better than the close-to-nothing engagement of some 60 years ago. Taking into account the potential dangers of mutual mistrust, this state of affairs is actually a sign that the relationship continuing to mature. Given that these two large countries differ so much politically and culturally, what exists today might not be bad after all.

As U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton arrives in Beijing today to prepare for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, more dark clouds gathered over the talks as the drama over Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng continues to develop. More than ever, maintaining a positive narrative in the US-China relations is in dire need.

The author is the Asia Program Manager, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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

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