By Kelley Currie, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Kelley Currie is a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute in Washington. The views expressed are her own.
As President Obama’s second term gets underway, there are significant changes ahead in his national security team, including among those managing Asia policy. The imminent departure of the strategic-minded Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for Asia and the Pacific, is occurring at a time of growing tension between China and America’s historic allies in the region. Meanwhile, there remain questions about the sustainability of the Obama administration’s much-vaunted “rebalancing” or “pivot” toward Asia.
Amid these swirling issues, there’s a growing focus among China thinkers on the issue of strategic distrust between the United States and China – a fundamental driver that shapes both U.S. policy toward Asia and the region’s perceptions of its own security challenges.
From talk of “strategic reassurance” early in Obama’s first term, to the more recent attempts to explain “the pivot” as being about more than China, the administration has struggled to get the right balance in terms of its policy and posture. As the Asia commentariat has zeroed in on the issue of strategic distrust, both they and the policymakers responsible for this vital region are starting on a more honest discussion about the limits of the U.S.-China relationship. In particular, it was interesting to hear Assistant Secretary Campbell speaking on this subject at a recent forum hosted by the Carnegie Endowment. In his remarks, Campbell shared his view that issues of strategic trust operated on two levels: aspects that deal with matters like personalities and differing perceptions of history and culture; and deeper issues that are rooted in differences in political systems and values.
He acknowledged that most efforts at building strategic trust have been focused on this first level, which he identified as the easier of the two to tackle. Unfortunately, even the results on this more approachable element have been limited and may prove ephemeral upon the arrival of a new Asia team in the second term. As other commentators continue to observe, China remains mired in a victim mentality in its dealings with the U.S. and other Western powers – a posture that is increasingly at odds with its growing global power and authority.
The dearth of well-developed regional and bilateral mechanisms for dealing with this strategic distrust contributes to a situation where policy is managed via personal relationships, an endless series of formalistic dialogues, and ad hoc crisis response. While the Obama administration has made some progress in formalizing channels for dialogue, it remains unclear how much actual trust and cooperation can be institutionalized through these channels.
On the more fundamental question of how to deal with strategic distrust based on political values and systems, the Obama administration has been largely silent up to now. But while it is useful to hear the administration’s leading thinker on these issues acknowledge the challenges presented by our fundamentally different worldviews – even on his way out the door – it is worrying that there has seemingly been so little effort put into this essential aspect up to now.
For better or worse, whoever replaces Campbell is unlikely to share his penchant for “big think” strategy and his indefatigable commitment to shaping the U.S. presence in Asia according to his particular design. Yet there will need to be someone in the administration who is focused on developing these fuzzy yet foundational ideas about the basis for strategic trust with China, and what it is reasonable for us to expect from Beijing in this regard.
Without a serious understanding of our own limits in terms of accommodating China’s values and aspirations, the rebalancing will continue to rest on an extremely unstable equilibrium. Not only is this dangerous for the U.S.-China relationship, it keeps our friends and allies in the region from being able to make their own strategic calculus with any degree of confidence.