Getting Past Mutual Suspicion

On the eve of Obama's meeting with Xi, Washington needs a strategy that will push the security relationship with China in a better direction. 

Tomorrow, in Los Angeles, President Barack Obama is due to meet China’s new President Xi Jinping in a face-to-face summit meeting, the first such personal get-together since Obama’s reelection and Xi’s promotion to the leadership of China’s state and party structure earlier this year. Many observers have called for such a meeting as a means of reducing the tensions and suspicions that have accumulated between the two powers over the past few years.

Most notably, China’s growing military and paramilitary presence in the Western Pacific, its more muscular approach to dealing with maritime-sovereignty disputes with Japan and several southeast Asian nations, and bilateral frictions over trade and cybersecurity have fueled an image in the United States and some other nations of Beijing as an aggressive bully bent on flouting international norms, intimidating its maritime neighbors, and eventually supplanting Washington as the dominant power in East Asia.

Meanwhile, Beijing looks askance at Washington’s efforts, as part of the so-called “rebalancing” to Asia, to strengthen security ties with nearby Asian powers such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, India and Japan; to shift more U.S. military assets to the Western Pacific; to promote a new, free-market-oriented regional trading structure; and to intervene in maritime territorial disputes. Many in Beijing view these aims and policies as part of a deliberate, coordinated strategy to undermine China’s continued development and contain its growing influence in order to protect America’s global and regional dominance.

The two nations’ mutually reinforcing and corrosive attitudes have resulted in a deepening level of bilateral strategic distrust that threatens to harden into an enduring zero-sum mindset that could endanger regional peace, stability and prosperity. To counter this dynamic, some Western observers have called for new bilateral initiatives to deepen and expand global and regional norms and institutions designed to reinforce cooperative behavior, channel competition and limit strategic rivalry. Others have stressed the need for more competent, sensitive diplomacy and a deemphasis on the growing Sino-U.S. military competition in favor of more inclusive and far-reaching joint military-to-military activities.

On a much broader level, Beijing has called for the development of a “new type of great power relationship” with Washington, based on “mutual trust, equality, inclusiveness, mutual learning, and win-win cooperation.” Although Washington has cautiously endorsed this concept, it remains largely undefined, a general catch-all notion for trust-building actions on both sides. Hopefully, the forthcoming Obama-Xi summit will provide a first step toward this objective by establishing a sustained level of personal, high-level rapport between the two leaders.

However, although no doubt useful in blunting the sharpest edges of the bilateral relationship, personal rapport, better diplomacy and stronger institutions will likely prove inadequate to construct the kind of bilateral relationship that can avoid the worst aspects of great-power rivalry associated with a changing balance of power. To do this, Beijing and Washington must understand and address the underlying reason for their deep-seated strategic suspicion, deriving primarily from basic differences over the best system for sustaining order and prosperity, both domestically and within the international system.

Simply put, Washington believes the former is best provided through a pluralistic balance among contending interests, mediated by institutionalized procedures and legal rules, while the latter is best secured through the presence of a single dominant military power able to ensure the safety of the global commons, deter aggression and resolve important conflicts in its favor. Beijing believes the opposite—that is, that domestic order requires a single source of uncontested political power and international order necessitates a balance of power among major nations, with China playing a far more important security role in East Asia than at present.

Domestically, this difference is most clearly reflected in longstanding U.S. attempts to encourage the evolution of China’s one-party state toward greater political diversity and eventual democracy. Internationally, in the Western Pacific—by far the most critical area of Sino-American strategic competition—these differences are reflected most directly in American and Chinese approaches to the use of air and naval power and sovereignty disputes between Beijing and U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines.

While the protection and advancement of human rights should and likely will always remain an important objective of American diplomacy, there is little that Washington can or should realistically do to transform China’s current regime into a democracy, beyond encouraging and facilitating Chinese contact with democratic processes, values and beliefs. Indeed, past efforts to justify U.S. engagement with China as a means of democratizing China are misguided and serve more to reinforce Chinese strategic suspicions toward the United States than to bring about meaningful change in China’s political system.