Why U.S.-China strategic distrust matters
January 30th, 2013
04:28 PM ET

Why U.S.-China strategic distrust matters

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.

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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.

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Topics: Asia • China

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. JAL

    In my experience, distrust begins with one side not "owning-up" to the other sides' valid arguments. A genuine apology can go a long way and doesn't cost a freakin dime.

    January 30, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Reply
    • MAD

      If someone peeks into your house with a binocular everyday, waves a gun near your house frequently, will you trust the guy?

      January 31, 2013 at 1:58 am | Reply
      • JAL

        Trust is irrelevant because he is not at the talking table. Now, the question you should ask is: Do I fear this guy? My answer is nope.

        January 31, 2013 at 6:44 am |
    • Elizabeth

      It's not about arguments, not about apology. Chinese are all about "non-America". Help British win back Hong-Kong, and the West will be one success again.

      February 1, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Reply
    • bing520

      Apology? We are about strategic planning, economic interests, domestic priorities, geopolitics and etc. Ours and Chinese are on a course of collision. What kind of long-term planners are going to be affected by an apology? Besides, the sincerity of a verbal apology is always followed by concrete action. Chinese long-term planners are very un-sentimental when it comes down to evaluating their strategies. So do their counterparts in Washington and Tokyo.

      February 2, 2013 at 11:24 am | Reply
  2. HI

    I don't think the Chinese have plans to apologize any time soon.

    January 30, 2013 at 7:56 pm | Reply
    • MAD

      China to apologize for what? Didn't find WMD? Isn't successful in Afghanistan? Sandy Hook massacre?

      January 31, 2013 at 1:55 am | Reply
  3. hary

    US need to apologizes for all the lies it told to the world. From the displacement and million in Iraq that American people seemed to forget. Can't blame the MSM for their China bashing but people need to get their head check if they thing the US is the good guys in all of this.

    January 30, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Reply
  4. 100 % ETHIO

    Better to be cautious to:
    Russia China Iran North-Korea ....

    The consequences of having more enemies are.......to US.

    January 31, 2013 at 2:53 am | Reply
  5. 100 % ETHIO

    Trust no-one, except the everlasting Almighty God!

    All things are changeable, but Almighty God is the constant.

    T : truth
    R : ruined,
    U : united
    S : states
    T : tighten.

    January 31, 2013 at 3:24 am | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    Let's hope John Kerry would handle China better. Beijing didn't shed a tear that Hillary Clinton stepped down.

    January 31, 2013 at 6:34 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    Chinese media maintained, Clinton were responsible for the mutual distrust.

    January 31, 2013 at 6:38 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      China's Global Times wrote last September: "Many Chinese people do not like Hillary Clinton. She makes the Chinese public dislike and be wary of the United States, which does not necessarily serve U.S. foreign policy interests.”

      January 31, 2013 at 6:39 am | Reply
  8. Jonquil

    It's that "victim mentality" which will cause the most problems. China hasn't even been a solid, economic power for a decade yet and what's the first thing they do with their confidence? Insult Europe - one of their biggest trading partners - and lay claim to islands that have long not been theirs.

    This chip on the shoulder has justified all kinds of bad behavior; theft of intellectual property and attempts at hacking into systems to steal State and military secrets, poor dealings with vulnerable trading partners, massive abuse of our shared environment and strategic investments that result in China financially benefitting and gaining the "spoils" from war or upheaval, while pretending to wash their hands of involvement and remain neutral on The World Stage.

    The CCP is callously opportunistic and for some reason, simply because the rest of The world has better manners, they assume we all can't see what is going on. When anyone brings attention to it, they whine and feign helplessness and powerlessness. Is it really a question that they should be distrusted? It would be existentially destructive and unhealthy not to distrust The CCP.

    January 31, 2013 at 8:47 am | Reply
    • Really???????????????????/

      You can say the same and worse for the US government. Meddling into the Middle East for fake WMDs, spreading "democracy", while supporting dictators, allowing GMI corporations to take advantage of people in the developing world, refusing health care to it's own citizens.... I could go on all day.
      But the point is the US as a sole world power isn't all that the American media is propagandizing it to be.

      January 31, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Reply
    • Gordon

      Jonquil: By your opinion, there are few countries in the world that can truly be trusted, save for neutrality nations such as Switzerland perhaps. I certainly don't really understand the phrase 'callously opportunistic' that you brought up. Since the end of WW2, weren't we the number one offender when it comes deposing of governments (even democratically elected ones) and propping up dictators (only to denounce them later), all in the name of advancing our ideology and agenda? In terms of foreign policies, I think we invented the very behavior of being 'callously opportunistic' long before the recent economic ascension of China.

      January 31, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  9. zaeed

    what is usa going to do usa has entered its 2 recession in 2 years and britain has entered its 3 recession if usa wants a fight then come on china is going to end all of you i 2 and a half minutes.

    January 31, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Reply
  10. rightospeak

    So much written and so little said. We are borrowing money from China and they are buying our government bonds which means that they have a say in our politics -not the other way around. We shipped them our jobs and capital because our selfserving congressmen do not seem to have a clue that they are traitors to their own people.We are bankrupt and can not do the imperial thing to our banker- he can drop $ 3 trillion and make Obama and us sweat. I say stop endless wars and bring all troops home so we do not pay the Communist Chinese any more interest on borrowed money. Then bring the jobs back from China -we need them to keep our people employed.

    January 31, 2013 at 7:39 pm | Reply
    • matchsix23

      Bring back those slave wage jobs that pays you only bread and water? Even the Americans decide to reallocate those jobs away from China, it's most likely they are going to give it to another third world country. Ever wondered why we pay immigrants to pick our strawberries and pay them nothing? Same reason, we simply can't do it. Those jobs are not coming back.

      February 2, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  11. Michel

    USA lost many US businesses and industries, and was not successful in competing with Chinese. USA cannot successfully compete against Chinese, if USA does not change the Business Strategies. Block Chinese before they strike, defend and move on. Do not allow Chinese winning important businesses in USA. There is no advantage doing business with Chinese, if USA loses money, loses jobs, loses industries, loses reputation. Start winning, stop losing!

    February 1, 2013 at 7:48 am | Reply

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