The focus on trust is justified. Trust is potentially a significant variable in the relationship. To be sure, the primary drivers of bilateral tension are structural: China has become strong enough to challenge U.S. pre-eminence in China’s neighborhood, and the United States refuses to yield. But the relationship is indeed substantially worsened by a lack of trust.
Cultivating even a modest level of what could be called trust, and realizing its potential to lower the chances of military conflict and to facilitate cooperation to solve common problems, will be exceptionally difficult for the foreseeable future because the makings of China-U.S. trust have decreased from scarce to almost non-existent.
What does “trust” mean in international relations? There is a higher level and a lower level. At the higher level, two countries see each other’s international agendas as benign, believe that both want basically the same kind of world order, and expect that they will peacefully and fairly settle any bilateral disputes. This kind of trust prevails between the United States and Canada and between Australia and New Zealand. It enabled a peaceful transition from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana.
As scholar Alexander Wendt pointed out in 1995, the United States feels far more threatened by a small number of nuclear weapons in North Korean hands than a large number in British hands. Australian and Japanese officers are imbedded in the staff structure at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, but Iranian and Russian officers are not. These are practical examples of how the United States views trusted versus non-trusted countries.
That level of trust between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is presently unimaginable. A more realistic objective for this troubled bilateral relationship is a much more limited definition: trust as the belief that a government’s stated intentions match its actual intentions.
The history of PRC-U.S. relations is not conducive to trust. In the Chinese Communist Party’s Marxist-influenced historiography, the United States was one of the “eight imperialist powers” that plagued China before the revolution. Now the U.S. is the leader of a capitalist bloc that allegedly sees socialist countries such as China as natural enemies. Washington is committed to maintaining what the CCP government considers an illegitimate hegemony in Asia. Beijing blames Washington for blocking the PRC’s conquest of Taiwan, and thereby preventing China’s unification. The PRC government also calls the U.S. a “black hand” that stirs up unrest inside China and frequently “smears” China’s reputation internationally.
For the United States, the PRC government is despicable not only for being authoritarian, but also for being “communist,” invoking a deep reservoir of U.S. antipathy dating back over a century. Americans understand the PRC to be fundamentally hostile to liberal values. They see the Chinese government as dishonest (denying big misdeeds such as the mass persecution of Uyghurs as well as small misdeeds such as the spy balloon); dismissive of its international obligations (the WTO, U.N. resolutions and treaties, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the Sino-British agreement on Hong Kong); untransparent (sometimes dangerously so, as in the case of COVID-19); a bully toward smaller countries; a state that uses its economic might to punish trade partners over political disputes; and a regime that engages in surreptitious activities that include cybertheft, bribery of foreign politicians, and operating undeclared police stations in foreign countries.
The high level of bilateral engagement prior to the Xi Jinping era was not based on trust, however. U.S. policymakers had faith in the liberalizing power of wealth. They bought the theory that foreign investment and trade would transform China even against the will of the CCP government. For their part, CCP leaders such as Deng Xiaoping believed that despite the risks, participating in the world capitalist economy — while continuing to resist political liberalization inside China — was the best and perhaps the only way China could achieve rapid economic development and catch up with the industrialized major powers.
One possible cause of a trust deficit is misunderstanding because of too infrequent communication. If two governments are not talking, one of them might cling to the most threatening of several possible explanations of the other’s behavior. Given the chance, the other state might be able to plausibly explain why its behavior fits non-threatening intentions. Trust might increase, at least until further aggressive behavior invalidates the assurances.
Washington and Beijing, however, are well past this stage. After many years of extensive communication through various channels, each is so familiar with the other’s stated rationale for its behavior as to be able to recite that rationale from memory.
Rather, the China-U.S. relationship lacks trust for reasons other than insufficient communication.
First, both Washington and Beijing think the other’s statements of intent are willfully deceptive. Xi’s government has repeatedly said “China will never seek hegemony, expansion, or a sphere of influence” and “does not seek to challenge or displace the United States.” The U.S. government flatly rejects these assurances. The Biden administration’s National Security Strategy says “Beijing has ambitions to create an enhanced sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific.” Biden’s National Defense Strategy identifies China as the country posing the most “serious challenge to U.S. national security” because of its “coercive and increasingly aggressive endeavor to refashion the Indo-Pacific region and the international system to suit its interests and authoritarian preferences.”
Similarly, Beijing disbelieves U.S. assurances. Biden administration officials say, “We don’t seek to block China from its role as a major power, nor to stop China … from growing their economy or advancing the interests of their people.” They also say U.S. policies “are not designed for us to gain a competitive economic advantage, or stifle China’s economic and technological modernization.” Chinese believe the opposite: that Washington is committed to weakening China because Americans cannot tolerate a strong and prosperous China that rivals U.S. influence in the region. After years of leaving the accusation to PRC media and other officials, Xi now says openly that “Western countries, led by the United States, have implemented all-round containment and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to the country’s development.”
Another cause of the trust deficit is that both sides interpret specific reassurances differently. For example, according to the PRC government, Biden offered Xi the following assurances when they met in Bali last year: “The United States does not seek a new Cold War, does not seek to revitalize alliances against China, does not support ‘Taiwan independence,’ does not support ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan,’ and has no intention to have a conflict with China. The U.S. side has no intention to seek ‘de-coupling’ from China, to halt China’s economic development, or to contain China.”
From China’s standpoint, several aspects of U.S. foreign policy seem inconsistent with these commitments, including AUKUS, the rejuvenation of the Quad, surveillance of China by U.S. ships and aircraft just outside China’s territorial waters and airspace, U.S. support for Taiwan, and what U.S. officials call economic “de-risking.” For the U.S. government, however, there is no contradiction between the aspirations mentioned by Biden (even as understood by the PRC government) and the U.S. approach of dissuading conflict by maintaining a capacity to defeat aggression by a country such as China.
Some of what Americans view as duplicity on the part of the Chinese government might also be a difference in interpretation. During a visit to the White House in 2015, Xi said “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of its artificial islands in the South China Sea. Anti-aircraft guns, artillery, missile boats, anti-ship missiles, and military aircraft later appeared on the islands. Many observers took this as proof that Xi had broken his promise. The entirety of PRC official commentary on the issue, however, reveals that the Chinese government understands “militarization” to mean building up military forces beyond a reasonable self-defense capability. Furthermore, Beijing argues that China’s “defense” needs in the South China Sea are increased because of U.S. freedom of navigation operations, surveillance missions, and military exercises in the area.
In a sense, this PRC position is reminiscent of U.S. policy toward Taiwan. Beijing complains that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan violate the statement in the 1982 U.S.-China Joint Communique that the United States “intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan.” The U.S. government, however, has subsequently interpreted the 1982 Joint Communique differently than China does, arguing that the pledge to phase out arms sales is implicitly conditioned on China not threatening to use military force against Taiwan to compel unification.
Historical experience, both distant and recent, have primed the U.S. and China more for an adversarial than an amicable relationship. Whether because of deception or misinterpretation, the Chinese and U.S. governments do not believe each other’s assurances. In such an environment, both will gravitate toward worst-case scenarios. Trust would be a valuable resource for helping the U.S. and China through this crisis. Lamentably, it won’t be available.