Why America and China can’t trust each other
April 23rd, 2013
09:27 AM ET

Why America and China can’t trust each other

By Michael Mazza, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Mazza is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are his own.

The release of China’s biennial defense white paper has been getting some press for its revelations about the People’s Liberation Army’s force structure. Chinese media outlet Xinhua, for example, reported that “the Chinese government on Tuesday declassified the designations of all 18 combined corps of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as the latest step to increase transparency of its armed forces.”

While it is difficult to applaud the PLA for declassifying information that was already common knowledge (see, for example, the sinodefence.com page on army organization, last updated four years ago), more transparency is certainly better than less. Still, the American focus on Chinese transparency is misplaced. Of course, the Pentagon would like to see its Chinese counterpart be more candid about PLA capabilities and investments; to the extent the United States can coax China towards such candor, it should do so. But disclosures like those in the Chinese white paper do little to address the underlying problem in the U.S.-China relationship: a dearth of strategic trust.

Although more Chinese transparency can enhance that trust on the margins, it cannot by itself redress the bilateral relationship’s great deficiency. Nor is it possible for that deficiency to be satisfactorily redressed, at least not in the near- to medium-term. Why not? American distrust of China is intimately linked to the very nature of the People’s Republic, and the reverse is true as well.

Because the Chinese political system is a closed one, foreign observers can never be sure that Chinese pronouncements on foreign policy, strategy, and intentions are genuine. There is no free press or independent legislature to call Chinese leaders to account or challenge their public statements. Unlike in democracies, it is much easier for China’s leaders to keep the results of their internal deliberations secret and to control the message that is delivered publicly. Due to the nature of the Chinese political system and Beijing’s propensity for secrecy, it would be folly for any country – let alone the United States, which China clearly views as potential adversary – to take Chinese words at face value. Indeed, in his 2011 book, A Contest for Supremacy, Aaron Friedberg quite clearly explained the link between transparency and China’s closed political system:

“Even if Beijing were suddenly to unleash a flood of information, American analysts would regard it with profound skepticism, scrutinizing it carefully for signs of deception and disinformation. And they would be right to do so; the centralized, tightly controlled Chinese government is far better able to carry off such schemes than its open, divided, and leaky American counterpart.”

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Nor is it easy for Beijing to trust Washington. While America’s open political system makes it difficult for the United States to pull off any sort of strategic surprise – consider how far ahead of time the Bush administration began preparing the American public for the 2003 invasion of Iraq – China’s leaders believe their U.S. counterparts have already aired their malign intentions in public. Successive American presidents have consistently stated their support for the spread of liberty globally and for the development of democracy in China in particular. One of President Bill Clinton’s main arguments for supporting Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization was that trade with China would, over time, lead to greater political freedom in that country.

American leaders cannot trust Chinese leaders because the latter’s long-term designs are difficult to discern and clouded in secrecy. Beijing cannot trust Washington because it believes Washington has already made clear U.S. opposition to the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party, even if America’s ultimate plans for bringing down the CCP are unclear.

If Beijing felt so inclined, it could publicize all PLA unit designations down to the platoon level, while Americans cheered China on for increasing transparency. Even then, each country would continue to look at the other through a glass, darkly. For the foreseeable future, true Sino-American trust will remain illusory.

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Topics: China • Military • United States

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