On November 10–12, President Barack Obama will visit China for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting and hold a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping. With ongoing tensions in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, it is ever more important to examine the levels of cooperation on strategic issues between Washington and Beijing. Policymakers on both sides have stressed the need to develop greater “strategic trust” between the two nations. However, there are still significant obstacles to achieving stability through mutual trust.

NBR spoke with Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, to discuss the role of strategic trust in the U.S.-China relationship. Mr. Haenle stressed the importance of presidential bilateral meetings for identifying strategic areas that the United States and China can collaborate on. He also noted the domestic constraints in both countries to achieving strategic trust and offered suggestions for how the two sides could overcome these challenges to their strategic relationship.

When Chinese president Xi Jinping met with U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice on September 9 to lay the groundwork for President Obama’s visit to China in November, he said that “strategic trust constitutes a cornerstone for the ‘tower’ of the new model” of U.S.-China relations. Why is strategic trust important to the bilateral relationship?

Paul Haenle
Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center based at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Haenle served as the director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia Affairs on the National Security Council staffs of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama prior to joining Carnegie.
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In my time in government and at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center, it has become clear to me that the issue of trust hinders the ability of China and the United States to maximize cooperation on a range of issues, from global economic growth and prosperity to common security interests in the Middle East, North Korea, and freedom of navigation and commerce in the Asia-Pacific. When dealing with these issues, a layer of mistrust wedges itself in and inhibits both sides from understanding the other’s perspective and finding ways to maximize cooperation.

This is especially apparent when you look at the narratives concerning the source of problems in the Asia-Pacific. The narratives in the United States and China are diametrically opposed to one another. Many in the United States see an increasingly assertive China that is announcing an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea without consultation, moving an oil rig into an area of disputed territory with Vietnam, and refusing to participate in a UN arbitration case brought by the Philippines. For officials in Washington, this behavior serves as evidence that, rather than managing tensions and disputes peacefully, diplomatically, and in accordance with international law, China intends to use coercion or intimidation and is potentially hoping to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific.

The Chinese narrative is very different. Beijing’s perspective begins with the U.S. pivot to Asia in 2012, which looked to Chinese leaders like an effort to isolate China. Beijing believes that the U.S. pivot emboldened China’s neighbors to advance territorial claims and sees the United States’ recent steps in the western Pacific as reactions to those advances. The strategic mistrust evident in these very different narratives has created boundaries that block both countries from acknowledging each other’s perspectives, reassuring each other of their intentions, and moving relations forward.

When Presidents Obama and Xi met at the Sunnylands summit in 2013, many observers hoped that they would lay the foundation for greater cooperation on strategic issues. How do these types of meetings serve to promote greater strategic trust?

The Sunnylands meeting between the two presidents was a good first step, but more of these need to take place. Bringing together the two leaders in an informal environment can create an atmosphere where they can begin to build greater understanding and trust, as well as enhance cooperation in a way that benefits both the United States and China. Both presidents need to have a better understanding of each other’s view of the world and of the U.S.-China relationship in that context in order to identify areas of common interest where the two countries can cooperate. Prior to Sunnylands, the formalities of official dialogue and talking points left little time for true interaction and open discussion of issues and concerns. More candid, direct, and interactive exchanges can provide opportunities for leaders to find common ground, offer reassurances in areas where one country is expressing concerns, and ultimately build trust.

The leaders in the United States and China need to begin to dedicate real leadership to putting the U.S.-China relationship on a more positive and constructive trajectory. It is very difficult for the bureaucracies to move by themselves without initiation from the very top. So while the Sunnylands meeting was a good start, the work can’t be done in one session alone. This will take a series of Sunnylands-type meetings, and unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t seen those happen. Given the consequential nature of the U.S.-China relationship, the two presidents should find more opportunities to meet and engage in blue-sky discussions so that they can begin to know each other better and identify areas where our two countries can enhance mutually beneficial cooperation. Until that occurs, there will be some limitations on the degree to which the two nations can cooperate.

What are the major obstacles to the United States and China cooperating on strategic issues and developing greater strategic trust?

In terms of agreeing on a framework for the U.S.-China relationship that can improve strategic trust and put relations on a more positive trajectory, one thing I would argue is that you cannot have as a starting point one side demanding that the other side make concessions. We cannot expect to build the foundation for a new type of relationship with one side demanding that the other side change its long-standing positions in areas where the two countries have disagreed, especially positions that are rooted in principles. If either side tries to use these kinds of demands as a starting point for improving strategic trust, then we are bound to fail. Since their first communiqué in 1972, the United States and China have agreed to disagree on many issues. While our differences on important issues should be addressed head on, not sidestepped, neither country should expect the other to change its principles overnight.

Our leaders often find themselves, to a certain degree, constrained by their own domestic politics. In China, it is difficult, given the domestic politics, for the leadership to accept proposals for cooperation by the U.S. side because of the misperception in China that the United States proposes cooperation only when it needs help and only in an arrangement where China is a subordinate partner to the United States. There is also a widely held view in China that any progress in this type of arrangement would likely benefit the United States more than it would benefit China. Given these types of narratives, Chinese leaders increasingly find it difficult to accept with enthusiasm U.S. proposals for cooperation.

For the United States, a rising China presents a potential challenge to the U.S.-led international order that has brought great prosperity and security to the world since the end of World War II. While China’s economic and political trajectory is anything but certain, Beijing feels it holds increased leverage in the U.S.-China relationship, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. Americans, however, need to be confident in the strengths of their own political, economic, and value systems, as well as their sustained leadership position on the global stage. There is no choice but to engage with China and seek deeper cooperation if the United States wants to make progress on some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

What steps can the United States and China take to overcome existing challenges to improving strategic trust?

To get around some of the domestic constraints I previously mentioned, it is very important that we begin to hear more from the Chinese leadership about where it hopes to enhance cooperation with the United States. The leadership has indicated a desire to build new models of cooperation. When Secretary of State John Kerry met with State Councilor Yang Jiechi in October, Secretary Kerry enumerated a long list of areas where the United States hopes to cooperate with China. I think we need to begin to reverse that. We need to hear more ideas from the Chinese side in order to really begin to get ideas that work. Only by offering up their own concrete proposals will Chinese leaders begin to take active ownership of cooperation with the United States and be able to sell to the Chinese public the notion that Beijing advanced and pursued these efforts with China’s interests in mind.

The United States can analyze these Chinese ideas and proposals to determine whether they are win-win arrangements and of mutual national security interest. If the U.S. side accepts, then the Chinese president will be able to say to his people that this is a Chinese proposal that the United States has agreed to work on in a way that will benefit both countries. In that context, if China is truly interested in enhancing cooperation, it will be important that Chinese leaders begin to put ideas forward. They cannot just rely on the United States to do this.

Ultimately, the way to improve strategic trust is for the two leaders to identify strategic areas where their countries can work together in ways that are mutually beneficial. By building patterns of cooperation, we can begin to demonstrate that the relationship is working for the betterment of both China and the United States. But this will take leadership from the very top.

Presidents Obama and Xi are scheduled to meet during Obama’s visit to China for the APEC meeting on November 10–11. What areas do you anticipate the leaders will identify for the United States and China to build strategic cooperation and trust?

Looking at the statements that Secretary Kerry and State Councilor Yang made in their October preparation meeting for the summit, I would argue that there is a bit of a misalignment in this regard. The Chinese side is very focused on establishing a new type of great-power relationship but has put forward few concrete proposals as to how and where the countries could begin to work together and interact in more positive ways. If we are going to move to a new model of cooperation, it has to be more than just a new definition of the relationship. We will need tangible examples of where the two sides can work together as partners to build trust and public support, so that managing inevitable competition and disputes will become easier.

Right now, there are a number of areas that should be explored. It is important that the Chinese side put ideas on the table. As State Councilor Yang mentioned in his October meeting with Secretary Kerry, the Ebola crisis presents an opportunity for greater U.S.-China cooperation. Other areas that are worth exploring are humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; counterterrorism, especially in the Middle East; and nontraditional security such as food and water safety and air quality. The United States and China need to elevate cooperation in these areas to ensure that they are actually showing the concrete results that are critical for both sides to convince their citizens that the relationship is working well and benefiting people of both countries. Only then will our leaders have the room to elevate the bilateral relationship to higher levels of cooperation and deal with the most contentious issues in substantial and meaningful ways.

This interview was originally published by the National Bureau of Asian Research.