Yuwen Long | April 26, 2017
Responding To: U.S.-China: Addressing and Building Strategic Trust
Moving Beyond "Win-Win"
“Win-win.” “Mutual cooperation.” “Harmonious society.” I cannot tell you how often I heard these words during my summer interning in the political unit at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. But to be frank, I’ve growing increasingly numb to what I view as empty clichés that prevent direct and meaningful dialogue. While working with U.S. diplomats on issues such as human rights, the South China Sea, and climate change, I was amazed by the lack of honesty, transparency, and directness demonstrated in our interactions with our Chinese counterparts. Instead, our dialogue was consumed with talk of “win-win” and “mutual cooperation.” What a bunch of malarkey. Perhaps this stemmed from diplomatic protocols of individuals reading from the script. Nevertheless, the repetition of certain diplomatic phrases such as “win-win” and “peaceful development” soon rang hollow. In fact, after my three months at the embassy, I soon felt that the words meant nothing and have actually contributed to an increasing trust deficit between the United States and China. I believe that for the United States and China to effectively build long-term strategic trust, both countries must drop hollow diplomatic clichés and pursue honest, direct, and transparent dialogue with one another.
In July 2015, the Chinese government detained hundreds of Chinese lawyers on a day that soon became known as “Black Friday.” The allegation most commonly used against these lawyers was “subversion of state power, picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” When we met our Chinese counterparts in diplomatic meetings to discuss this matter, the way they explained the event was China’s efforts to promote a “harmonious society.” When we pressed for them to elaborate how does cracking down on lawyers contribute to a “harmonious society,” they deflected the question and said this was an “internal matter.” That was the end of the discussion. Coming out of the meetings, I wondered to myself why the United States and China couldn’t be more frank with each other about our true intentions. For the United States, I genuinely believe the reason why we continue to press China on human rights matter is because human rights is a core value in our foreign policy framework. On the other hand, on the Chinese side, I want to dig deeper behind what exactly does “harmonious society” and “internal matters” means.
While attending the World Peace Forum in 2015, I had the opportunity to meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi and hear him deliver a speech on U.S.-China relations and the future of the international world order. During his 20-minute speech, he probably said “win-win” at least five times and “peaceful development” equally as much. As I heard his speech, I could not help but contemplate the gap between his utopian rhetoric and the reality on the ground. The reality is that there are serious tensions, concerns, and difficulties in the U.S.-China relationship and China’s rise on the global stage. Looking to the South China Sea, countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines are increasingly concerned about the militarization of Chinese-built islands. Such actions do not seem “win-win” from their perspective. Looking to One Belt, One Road projects in Sri Lanka, in January 2017 violent protests broke out against to the Chinese takeover of the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. The violent protests were one of the first times opposition against Chinese investments turned violent. “It’s been 69 years since we got our freedom. We don’t want to be under any other country,” said D.V. Chanaka, a Parliament member for the district who helped organize the protests. A violent protest against Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka does not seem to be “win-win” or “peaceful development.”
To long-term strategic trust, let us leave behind empty diplomatic rhetoric and pursue honest, frank, and direct dialogue. Looking to an analogy, when we talk to strangers, we most often use polite and courteous language. But when we talk to family or friends whom we trust deeply, we are wiling to be vulnerable, frank, and direct. That is how it is we should be with China. Direct and honest language demonstrates deep trust, not suspicion. Yes, it makes us vulnerable, but if we truly trust the opposing partner, then such dialogue would only bring us closer. Moving forward, let’s pursue honest dialogue in the U.S.-China relation to develop deep, strategic trust. After all, we need each other and neither of us is going away soon.
Richard Chang is a senior at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
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