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April 19, 2017

Responding To: U.S.-China: Addressing and Building Strategic Trust

Moving Towards Trust

David Lysenko

In the United States, only 37 percent of the population has a favorable view of China, and the country recently elected a president who ran on a largely anti-Chinese platform. Meanwhile, 45 percent of people in China believe that “US power and influence is a major threat.”  Unfortunately, trust between two countries, as trust between two individuals, takes time to foster. Yet, through grassroots cultivation of an environment that encourages a shift from shared interests to shared values, it may be possible to slowly move towards a more trusting relationship.

The example of developing Africa epitomizes the difficulties that the United States and China face with trusting another superpower that has shared interests, but not shared values. A shared interest is a common intermediate-term goal, while a shared value implies common principles and long-term goals. In this case, both the United States and China want a strong, more developed Africa – a shared interest. However, the United States and China have radically different long-term goals. In addition to supporting geopolitical allies, the United States also ultimately wants to promote traditionally Western values, such as democratic ideals and free market. Meanwhile, China sees developing Africa as a way to fight back against Western influence. These ideas inherently oppose one another.

Acting on this value, China recently founded the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which will be sponsoring projects in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Collectively, the United States gives almost a billion dollars in foreign aid to these countries. So, if interests mattered more than values, the United States would be ecstatic about receiving more money to develop countries in need. This is not the case. Instead, the United States sees this act as a threat to itself and Western dominance. In fact, the United Kingdom’s support for the AIIB has strained tensions between it and the United States, despite the two remaining strong allies.

Yet, no one is concerned about a complete breakdown in Anglo-American relations because both countries recognize that the two have similar values. This allows the United States to take on faith that in its decision to support the AIIB the United Kingdom is not acting to hurt the United States – the definition of trust. On the other hand, the United States cannot make the same assumption about China. This is because the United States sees its relationship with the United Kingdom through the “growing pie model” and its relationship with China through the “zero-sum model.” In the former, a country benefiting itself also benefits others as the “pie” becomes larger for everyone. Conversely, in the latter, a country benefiting itself directly hurts others. Thus, zero-sum is inherently incompatible with trust because it is impossible, and even illogical, to trust a country that has every incentive to benefit itself at your expense. Without shared values, shared interests mean competing interests. So, a lack of shared values leads to a zero-sum mentality, which, in turn, hinders trust.

While some leaders in the United States and China may have a deep cross-cultural understanding of the other, much of the population in both countries does not. So, any approach to trust-building must start at the grassroots level. According to psychology, one of the best ways to create these shared values is through Intergroup Contact Theory. This theory posits that our dislike of an “other” often stems from a lack of understanding, and that positive exposure can humanize the other side, leading to acceptance, respect, and trust. In fact, recent studies have even suggested that positive exposure in media alone can lead to similar outcomes as those found with physical interaction. One common example of this has been dubbed the “Modern Family Effect,” and suggests that support for marriage equality ballooned in the US as viewers “got to know” the gay cast. Therefore simply promoting more humanized, fact-driven coverage of China may start to slowly shift public opinion.

Sports diplomacy constitutes the best example of Intergroup Contact Theory at work in international relations. According to this theory, athletes are uniquely positioned to shape public perception precisely because they are not politicians, but instead represent the “regular” person. In fact, this theory has already been applied to U.S.-China relations through the Ping-Pong diplomacy that led to opening China’s borders and Nixon’s visit to China. Most obviously, this suggests that doing things like boycotting the 2008 Beijing Olympics may not be a good idea.

 However, on a deeper level, it means that it is the duty of individual, non-political public figures to promote a positive relationship between the two countries. The United States and United Kingdom were once bitter rivals, but are now considered a model of trusting allies. While a “methodical, grassroots promotion of understanding” might seem like a disappointingly anticlimactic solution to the trust-deficit as compared to a top-down imposition, it is the only way to truly interweave the countries values.

David Lysenko is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University majoring in international political economy.

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