The Problem of ‘Mutual Trust’

With the end of America’s presidential campaign and the close this week of China’s 18th Communist Party Congress, leaders of these two countries now have to look ahead and consider how to handle their relations for the next four years.

President Obama, in selecting Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia for his first trip abroad after re-election, is indicating his persistence in pivoting America’s focus to East Asia, a strategy that implies a new round of competition between China and the United States. The stability of China-U.S. relations will be determined by how capable the leaders of both countries are at developing tangible means of cooperation — rather than continuing their counterproductive talk about “mutual trust.”

When President Hu Jintao met with President Obama in Los Cabos, Mexico, earlier this year, he spoke of the need for mutual trust to achieve long-term cooperation. Mr. Obama had struck the same note as a candidate in 2008 when he said, “America and China have developed a mature, wide-ranging relationship over the past 30-plus years. Yet we still have to do serious work if we are to create the level of mutual trust necessary for long-term cooperation in a rapidly changing region.”

But mutual trust is not the answer. Perhaps the best that fierce competitors like China and America should strive for is cooperation on shared interests and an open dialogue on conflicting interests.

It is not even clear what mutual trust between nations means. There are countless examples throughout history of cooperation between major powers that lacked any of this so-called mutual trust. In fact, the lack of trust has been the norm in successful international relationships.

China and the United States have not had much trust since Communists came to power in 1949. Yet relations were just fine during 1972-1989 and through the first few years of the 21st century. China and the United States developed a working relationship in 1970 even though Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon did not trust each other. Presidents Jiang Zemin and George W. Bush developed cooperation on a counterterrorism campaign a few months after the military collision between Chinese and American air forces over the South China Sea in April 2001.

Perhaps the American-British partnership comes closest to one with trust at the core. But almost all of America’s other alliances, or any country’s alliances for that matter, are based on shared interests.

The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia is a prime example. The former advocates democracy and the latter practices absolute monarchy. Even the U.S.-France bond revealed its weakness when Paris took the lead in condemning the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Would you say that America and France trust each other? They don’t, but that does not matter.

Chinese and American officials looked for a term for this unstable type of relationship in the mid-1990s. They eventually agreed on the phrase “neither-friend-nor-enemy” (fei di fei you ), which has become widely accepted by experts in both countries. During President Bill Clinton’s visit to China in 1998, the two governments even defined their relations as a “strategic partnership.” During Mr. Obama’s visit to China in 2009, both sides claimed that their bilateral relations reached the climax of China-U.S. history.

None of those nice definitions improved mutual trust between these two countries.

Nevertheless, the fear of nuclear war made China and the United States very cautious about conflicts that could escalate into military clashes. As long as both sides are conscious of the danger of military conflict, they will keep their competition peaceful.

The current disputes between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands are a case in point. Because there is no mutual trust, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta felt it necessary to visit Beijing and meet with his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie, to ensure that the People’s Liberation Army would not turn to a military solution as long as the United States took no side in the disputes.

In recent years, the Chinese and U.S. navies have also cooperated off the coast of Somalia to address the global threat of piracy. Collaboration on humanitarian assistance operations, search and rescue missions, and other nontraditional forms of security cooperation can help build military-to-military relationships at some levels. This type of cooperation can come before trust and will help to prevent conflicts resulting from miscommunication.

The U.S.-China relationship may be best viewed as one between two business partners. That is what we are, after all: two huge nations with interlocking economies. The Chinese like to say that, “Money matters should be accounted for even among brothers” (qin xiongdi ming suanzhang ). In other words, business comes before family.

Policy makers in Beijing and Washington should keep in mind that mutual trust is a result rather than a premise of long-term cooperation. Instead of “mutual trust,” Beijing and Washington should drop the wishful thinking and spend more effort on building a realistic relationship based on their interests.

Yan Xuetong is dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

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