“Strategic trust will not be attainable for the foreseeable future. The U.S. and China have many areas of fruitful cooperation, which can and should go forward without waiting for trust to break out…. For these inherent rivals and potential adversaries, the emphasis belongs on ‘verify,’ not ‘trust.'”—Denny Roy
As recent talks between Barack Obama Chinese President Xi Jingping demonstrated, the United States and China are still searching for a way to trust one another. But is trust really necessary or possible?
In a recent, much-discussed article for The Diplomat, Denny Roy, author of Return of the Dragon: Rising China and Regional Security, argues that more and deeper dialogue between the United States and China might not necessarily lead to an ease of tension or greater trust. Ultimately, Roy argues, suspicions between the US and China are warranted and the two nations have “irreconcilable differences over several fundamental strategic questions.” These include some of China’s sovereignty claims; the future strategic roles of Japan and South Korea; and the extent of China’s sphere of influence.
The misunderstandings surrounding the positions of each nation cannot be easily solved. Roy explains:
The problem is not that each country erroneously perceives the other as warlike. Both want peace, but on their own terms. Some of what China calls “defensive” looks to others like aggression. What America terms “stability” is “containment” to China.
Indeed, more “bluntness and honesty” might bring out additional attitudes that are not often discussed publicly and that would drive Americans and Chinese further apart, such as the Americans hoping for the demise of the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese suggesting that all U.S. military forces in the Asia-Pacific should relocate to areas no further west than the Hawaiian Islands. More transparency would not dispel mutual suspicions, it would confirm them.
Roy concludes by suggesting some reasonable expectations about the ways in which China and the US can reduce tensions or prevent an outbreak of hostilities:
Strategic trust will not be attainable for the foreseeable future. The U.S. and China have many areas of fruitful cooperation, which can and should go forward without waiting for trust to break out. In other more sensitive areas, the two countries should strive to manage their inevitable bilateral strategic tensions by reaching agreements where both see a benefit and where compliance is measurable. Reducing the chances of unintended incidents at sea or over the sea between U.S. and PRC military units is certainly is a worthy example. For these inherent rivals and potential adversaries, the emphasis belongs on “verify,” not “trust.”