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April 25, 2017

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

Talk Less Mutual Trust, Do More Confidence Building

Amy Duan

The issue of mutual distrust of long-term intentions—termed here “strategic distrust”—has become a central concern in U.S.-China relations. Many in the two countries are well aware that lack of strategic trust poses an obstacle. Both Beijing and Washington seek to build a constructive partnership for the long run. The two sides understand well each other's position on all major issues and deal with each other extensively. The highest level leaders meet relatively frequently, and there are more than 60 regular government-to-government dialogues between agencies in the two governments each year.

These extensive interactions have not, however, produced trust regarding long-term intentions on either side, and arguably the problem of lack of such trust is becoming more serious. At the same time, “building and enhancing trust” continues to be a hot topic and an approach highly regarded. On the contrary, “confidence” is almost absent from the current discussions on Sino-U.S. relations.

In international relations, “confidence” is quite different to “trust,” although the Chinese translation of the two terms is usually confusing. “Trust” is a very positive concept referring to “a feeling of confidence in someone that shows you believe they are honest, fair, and reliable” (MacMillan English Dictionary definition), which sets a high threshold in relations and cooperation. Comparatively, “confidence” is more a neutral term meaning “a belief that you are able to do things well.” Although in nature they both refer to certain psychological feeling or belief, “trust” emphasizes one’s sureness on other people’s “intentions” (good ones), while “confidence” is more about beliefs on certain abilities of oneself or others. In international relations (IR) realism theory, the strategic intention of a country is hard to discern, while state power/competence is relatively easy to observe measure and estimate. Offensive realists even assert that “states can never be certain of the intentions of other states.”

Another more specific and exercizable concept than “confidence” is “confidence building measures” (CBMs). Compared to “mutual trust building” (MTB), CBMs have three features. First, low threshold for cooperation. There are low psychological expectation and demands from each other when trust is not emphasized. CBMs had been a very popular term in the Cold War period, which was used frequently in the American-Soviet relations, arms control, nuclear disarmament, and deterrence theory. As hostile as the United States and the Soviet Union to each other during the Cold War, CBMs were applied. Following such logic, competitive superpowers like the United States and China, whose conflicts are of a far lesser degree, can also seek help from CBMs.

Second, it’s a bi-dimensional term conveying both positive and negative messages. In international political psychology, “trust” is only about positive emotions or signals, while CBMs includes “beneficial” interactions concerning both positive and negative signals. When Country A has confidence in Country B about its desirable commitment such as being honest, fair, and reliable, there is “trust.” When A has “confidence” in B’s certain undesirable warning, for example: “I believe what you have said is not just bluffing, and I know that if I violated it I would end up in punishment and damages.”—“confidence” forms deterrence. A typical example is the effective nuclear deterrence during the Cold War. In some cases CBMs work better than MTB in balancing superpowers.

Third, “confidence” can be attributed both to oneself and others. Having confidence in oneself is as important as having confidence in others in IR theory. The United States is the current greatest hegemonic power in the world, while China is the biggest rising power. As the economic gap between the United States and China is narrowing, U.S. decision-makers, the academics, the media, as well as the people, see China’s future as very undetermined, and there are worries and anxieties. America tries to prepare to defend its interests against potential Chinese efforts to undermine it as China grows stronger. Meanwhile, America's democracy promotion agenda is understood in China as designed to sabotage the Communist Party’s leadership. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, despite vastly improved cross-Strait relations—and close-in surveillance activities off China's coasts, contribute to Beijing's deepening distrust of U.S. strategic intentions in the national security arena.

Although officials of both sides have claimed over and over that they never intend to damage the benefit of the other parties, it’s hard to defuse the long established and ongoing suspects and worries. Maybe the distrust is not about hate, it’s about fear—fear of the unknown.

There is a lack of confidence on both sides. If China has more confidence in its own strength and feels more secure in the international environment, it will be more likely to stick to “ peaceful rising policy”; if the United States keeps basic confidence in its power and the ability to control the international regime and order despite its declining economy and strength, it would not be oversensitive and wage “preventative” wars on an imaginary enemy.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used his first official visit to China to call for a "constructive and results-oriented relationship" between the two countries based on the spirit of “non-confrontation, no conflict, and mutual respect.” President Xi also stressed that “the common interests between China and the United States far outweigh their differences.” This should not only be the direction of China’s foreign policy, but also the basis on which the United States and China decide each other’s strategic intentions. Xi has warned that “great powers put themselves into the ‘Thucydides's trap’ when they make a strategic miscalculation.” One of the leading factors to strategic miscalculation is the lack of confidence, both in overestimation of the threat of other countries and the underestimation of one’s own power.

Under the ongoing trend of a polarized world, building confidence is more feasible and imperative than building trust. On the one hand, too much emphasis on trying to build Sino-U.S. mutual trust may drive up the expectations of the governments and people of the two countries, as they wish the other sides to do things in ways they desire. On the other hand, the success of any proposition depends on whether it has substantial contents. Shallow slogans and propaganda will only deepen mutual distrust, so let’s talk less mutual trust, and do more confidence building first.

Amy Duan is currently pursuing her master’s degree in translation studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

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