"The relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century." -- Obama July, 2009
"Sound and steady growth of China-US relations will not only deliver real benefits to our two peoples, but also make valuable contribution to world peace, stability and prosperity." -- Hu Jintao May, 2012
Rise of China
But for China, it has been a rough time on the international stage. Many around it perceive it to be a threat to the status quo, and thus take a dim view of its actions. Perhaps such a view of China only really began to intensify in 2010, after the collision between the Japanese Coast Guard vessel and a Chinese fishing boat in the East China Sea.
Western critics declared that China is partly to blame for the growing acceptance of the “China threat” theory. According to them, after the incident in the East China Sea, China acted aggressively and belligerently; this only served to create disquiet and fear amongst China's neighbors. To them, China needs to change its attitude if it is to continue the trend of a harmonious entry onto the international stage.
Keynote speech by Admiral Bobby Inman
However, the rise of the “China threat” theory may also be due to the supposed novelty and perceived abruptness of China's rise. To outside observers, China represents something 'new,' something 'alien'. Its culture is ancient; its values are different; its history is complicated; its intentions mysterious, and its position sometimes ambiguous. And for China, the outside world is different from what it was like the last time China rose to preeminence.
The Rise of China has been the focus of much recent debate, but its rise was hardly a recent prediction. Li Siguang (李四光), a renowned Chinese geologist said to be a confidant of Chairman Mao, suggested over a half-century ago that Chinese history is distinguished by an 800-year-cycle of rise and fall. Over 800 years, China is said to be destined to grow from weakness to a position of strength, before declining again. China’s first rise occurred in 1042-996 B.C. (Zhou Dynasty), the second rise took place in 180-141 B.C. (Han Dynasty) with the famous Zhang Qian embarking on the Silk Road, the third in 627-649 A.D. (Tang Dynasty) and the fourth in 1403-1435 A.D. (Ming Dynasty) with Admiral Zheng He leading massive armadas on seven major voyages of exploration and trade around the world. And if this pattern repeats, we shall see China’s fifth rise fully realized by around 2200. Interestingly, at the rate China has been developing in the last 30 years, such a bold prediction may not be too off the mark.
In other words, if you think that there is a China Rise today, you have seen nothing yet. The best is yet to come.
Fear of American Decline and Washington’s "Pivot to Asia”
Coincidentally, after the 2008 global financial crisis, it was fashionable to compare the United States' predicaments to the decline of the United Kingdom a century ago. Of course, all discussions about the so-called American decline are pure nonsense. America is still the world's most vibrant economy, especially when one takes into account its economic influences and interests around the world. It has the world's most lethal military capability, considered by experts to be ahead of China’s by at least 20 years, and the world's most comprehensive sources of soft power. China may be the world's second-largest economy, by virtue of its overall GDP, but its power still trails the United States by a huge margin.
Certainly the Obama Administration, at least rhetorically, rejects any suggestion of America's decline, and nowhere is this made clearer than in his “pivot to Asia.” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta explains this shift best when he said: “We were there then, we are here now, and we will be here for the future.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described the coming years as “America's Pacific Century,” showing a continued American commitment to the region.
The Obama Administration’s "Pivot to Asia” strategy has drawn a lot of attention in China. Some observers viewed it as a “New Cold War” strategy adopted by Washington in response to a perceived threat from China, and a fear of American decline. They said that America, in desperation, would try any means to maintain its preeminent position as the world's superpower while suppressing China’s rise.
President Obama refused to admit that the United States was enforcing a containment policy against China in an interview with Fareed Zakaria of Time magazine in Jan, 2012, and Panetta has been very meticulous last week in removing any mention of China when he explained the “Pivot to Asia” at the Shangri-La Dialogue, saying that he “rejects” the view that China is being threatened “entirely.” However, to many Chinese observers, Hillary Clinton’s historic visit to isolated Burma last year, as well as Panetta’s visit to the former US air and naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam last week, has lent some credence to the conspiracy theory.
Since the Obama Administration announced its "Pivot to Asia" strategy, the two countries have fallen into antagonistic positions and, considering their interests and pursuits overlap, brief confrontations are possible. If the United States signals to the Philippines and Vietnam that they can do as they pleased so long as America maintains its military presence in the South China Sea, it may inadvertently jeopardize Sino-US relations.
There’s a certain sense of desperation among Americans who are afraid of seeing the United States being replaced as the world’s undisputed superpower, or just to share its prominent position on the global stage with China. On the other side of the relationship, there is a suspicion among Chinese political elites that the ultimate goal of Washington is to maintain its global supremacy and will seek to contain or even upset China’s rise.
Hence the “trust deficit” has become a central concern in Sino-US relations.
Cause for Mistrust
Why is there mistrust between China and the United States? Is it ideologically inherited from different political traditions, value systems and cultures? Is it unfortunately formulated because of insufficient comprehension and respect for each other’s policymaking processes? Or is it an unavoidable consequence brought about by domestic politics?
From a Chinese perspective, I think the fundamental reason can be traced back to the cultural differences between the two countries. China is the last remaining cultural and ethnic empire, held together by a continuous history and a common language, while the United States is the newest multiracial empire held together by a set of political values.
Five thousand years of Chinese history shows that serious economic problems can always be managed through determined diplomacy. The Chinese, being a very pragmatic and peace-loving people, are more likely to negotiate business deals, than wage aggressive wars. However, in light of its sometimes turbulent history, particularly after the trials and tribulations in freeing itself from foreign domination, China’s core national interests have become non-negotiable and rightfully inflexible. National sovereignty, national security, and territorial integrity, are the kinds of issues that if unresolved through diplomacy, can lead to military confrontation. On the other hand, China should view America’s proselytizing in the name of democracy, liberty and human rights against the backdrop of a set of values that proved to be the glue that held this great nation together and allowed it to prosper in relative peace.
Both China and the United States should have a correct and clear understanding of each other’s core values and national interests, and be prepared to compromise and come to terms with peripheral issues. The non-core value issues can be discussed and managed through diplomacy.
In totem pole terms, China is in somewhat of an awkward limbo. While it is repeatedly being extolled as the second most economically powerful country in the world and slated to topple US’s lead position in the not too distant future, it actually ranks a mere 92nd in terms of per capita income – between two poverty stricken states: Ecuador and Belize. This is comparable to what America faced a century ago as it sought international acceptance. While it is worth noting that it took the United States more than half century and two world wars to become fully integrated in the international system, nobody really is expecting China to take as much time in this day and age of globalization, instant messaging and internet connections.
Nevertheless, it would still take some time, patience, delicate diplomacy and good will on all sides for China to find worldwide acceptance.
Goodwill spawns trust - trusting the other party would not jeopardize our core interests, as we lend ourselves to be trusted that we would similarly respect the other’s core values.
Take the “pivot to Asia.” America wants to protect the “economic architecture” that supports global stability and prosperity. While China wants to ensure that room is provided for its growth, continued development, and that no one power can dominate the region. These are not mutually exclusive goals, and can easily work in tandem. However, the lack of trust means each side sees their own actions in the best possible way and the other's actions in the worst possible way.
Perhaps, rather than merely assuming that everyone does (or should) understand global stability the same way it does, America should discuss and work with China to decide how best to protect it. And, perhaps, rather than merely criticizing from the sidelines, China can step forward and propose a shared solution to the problem, allowing for joint responsibility with an agreed shared code of conduct. There is still time; the “pivot to Asia” is so far, maybe, a vague policy. Perhaps these specifics can be filled in through discussions with China to ensure a mutually-beneficial solution.
The Sino-US relationship may be the only relationship in the world that really matters; if anything, the “pivot to Asia” and the rhetoric of “America's Pacific Century” are a realization of how important the relationship really is. It is essential that this relationship be characterized by agreement and trust.
As Leon Panetta said at the Shangri-La Dialogue a week ago, both China and the United states are not naive about this bilateral relationship: “We both understand the differences we have. We both understand the conflicts we have. But we also both understand that there really is no other alternative for both of us but to engage and to improve our communications.” Well said! But how do we go from communicating to understanding and to achieving mutual trust?
Both Beijing and Washington have realized that engagement is important. They have established more than sixty regular government-to-government dialogues between agencies in the two countries each year.
As one observer has wittily stated, between the U.S. and China, there have been numerous meetings, many engagements of dialogue, but too little understanding, scarce empathy, dwindling mutual trust and respect, a deficit of trust, and practically no cooperation.
Just bringing the two sides to meet might be the first step to break the ice. A dialogue has to be meaningful only when both sides, besides stating their respective positions, also listen to the other’s position so that understanding of one another’s rights, core values and difficulties can be achieved. But a relationship can only be successful if it is humanized, and cemented by the personal relationships of the principals of both sides. Understanding with empathy can put us in the other’s shoes and come to realize why and how the other side acted the way they acted, and made the decisions that they made. Only with this humanizing touch and personal empathy can the relationship generate respect. Only then can trust be built on respect. We can only trust the people we respect, and respect the people we trust. With trust and respect, cooperation comes much more easily.
Panel Discussion. (From left) Professor Dingli Shen, Professor Yiwei Wang,
Professor William Inboden, Professor Michael Szonyi.
The Importance of Trust
I would like to conclude by quoting Confucius, the great Chinese sage and philosopher, whose wisdom is timeless and equally applicable today. This comes from an exchange in the Lún Yŭ (論語), the Analects in English, between Confucius and one of his early students, Zī Gòng（子貢）. Zī Gòng asks Confucius, “What are the elements of good government?” Confucius answers, “Food, arms and trust (Xìn).” In modern terms, they are economy, military and values. Zī Gòng then said, “If you have to remove one of those, which would you remove first?” Confucius answers, “Arms.” Zī Gòng then asks, “If you have to remove a second, which would it be?” “Give up food,” Confucius responds. The great sage elaborates, “Death has always been with us since the beginning of time, but when there is no trust, the people will have nothing to stand on.”
Indeed, the most important factor in international relations is “Xìn”, or trust. Without which there can be no basis for international understanding and peace. Talk of "cooperation" and "transparency" would then be just empty words. It is the hardest thing to build up and the easiest thing to lose.
Ladies and gentlemen, the stability of Sino-US relations can be achieved in two different ways: through a unipolar system built on asymmetric military relations, which is a model of a zero sum game; or through a multipolar system built on stability, harmony and peace, which is a multifaceted, multidimensional model that everyone stands to benefit, with a win-win outcome.
Sino-US relations is not only a bilateral relationship, it is a global one, affecting the entire world. The challenges are overwhelming and may not be addressed or solved overnight.
This round of Sino-US Colloquium may not produce immediate results towards a “trust surplus”. But the China Energy Fund Committee has kick-started this process with a view to building more durable Sino-US friendships.
Lastly, my friends, with regards to the Sino-US relationship, I will leave you with these words: 40 years ago, we were friends, we are friends now, and we will be friends for the future.