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April 20, 2017

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

When Can China and the United States Have Long-Term Trust?

Zhihang Du

In Chinese, there is a phrase “和而不同” describing the state of harmony in diversity. Meanwhile, there is also a phrase “物以类聚,人以群分” which states that similar entities will get closer to each other and gradually forms a group. The bilateral relation between China and the United States can be characterized by both phrases.

On the one hand, since their official diplomatic relationship resumed 38 years ago, the two countries’ economy and culture have been intermingled more than ever, and cooperation has matured in areas like climate change, healthcare, and cyber security. On the other, in terms of sensitive issues, the two sides still have very different opinions. China upholds the principle of non-interference, and the United States puts human rights in the first place. The United States has many allies while China has none. The gross national income per capita in the United States is $55,980, which is almost seven times more than that of China. Ideologically and historically, “Red China” and “American Imperialism” have been rivals for a long time.

Nowadays, the trust deficit can still be seen on different levels. In the U.S. media, what constantly makes the headlines in the international section is the East and South China Seas. Meanwhile, America’s intention towards Taiwan (whether officially confirmed or not) can induce fierce reaction on Chinese news sites. On the governmental level, apart from numerous lawsuits through WTO, Trump is set to rock the boat by trying to strike new trade deals with China. Meanwhile, China has just casted the seventh veto against UN resolution to impose sanctions on Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons. In his reply to the U.K. and U.S. delegates’ disapproval, Chinese delegate LIU Jieyi said: “We all remember that ‘the possession of weapon of mass destruction’ was used as the excuse to initiate war, and it brought disasters to the Middle East countries,” which is a clear reference to the Iraq War.

Though making two big countries whose interests and fears intertwine with each other to build up long-term trust will be difficult, a stable long-term bilateral relationship can still save their energies from unnecessary guesses and confrontations. As was said by another Georgetown fellow, Richard Chang, zero-sum game thinking arguably prevented the United States from joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. A long-term trust will also help the two countries to concentrate better on domestic issues, like China’s structural reforms and the fight against poverty and pollution, and America’s economic recovery and social equality improvements.

Concerning the changing status of international affairs, to build long-term trust, there should be constant high-frequency and high-level communication between the two sides. This is especially important when a new administration comes into place. Though it has been a roller-coaster ride for China in the last three months , communication gradually opened up, and tangible improvements began to show between the two countries. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis ruled out any American "dramatic military maneuvers" in East and South China Seas during his Japan and South Korea trip from February 3. On February 18, China announced that it would suspend all imports of coal from North Korea until the end of this year, which is a huge strike at North Korea’s financial lifeline. Though it is more difficult to predict in the long term as some of President Trump’s appointment are yet to be confirmed, high-level communication will help create tangible cooperation in areas like healthcare between China and the United States.

To build long-term trust between China and the United States, it also requires sufficient trust between China and its neighbors, and that between the United States and its allies. This might be harder to achieve as it is difficult to cater to all tastes. The U.S. presence in Asia is a great assurance to Japan and South Korea, while it is also a source of constant fear to North Korea. Georgetown senior fellow Dennis Wilder said in an interview with Chinese TV that America’s good alliances in East Asia actually help to build the relationship with China. I agree with that. I also believe that it is in the U.S. interest if history won’t be repeated when “smart power” was used to induce tension all around the Chinese border, which didn’t create much substantial benefit to people in this region. Putting aside the zero-sum game mindset might be the first step to build up long term trust in a multilateral relationship.

Judging from the status quo, there might still be a long way to go before a strategic long-term trust can probably be built between China and the United States, but I hope both countries will still try hard and employ their wisdom to avoid the Thucydides Trap, and hopefully one day they can reach a point when they not only know each other well but also trust each other and respect each other’ difference.

Zhihang Du is a senior of international journalism major at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

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