INTERVIEW/ Kenneth Lieberthal: U.S.-China strategic distrust a major problem

July 30, 2012

By YOICHI KATO/ National Security Correspondent

WASHINGTON--The United States and China have a relatively successful relationship, but their distrust of each other's long-term intentions has reached a potentially dangerous level, says Kenneth Lieberthal, an experienced China expert based in Washington.

Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center of the Brookings Institution, made his points based on a report, “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust,” which he co-authored with Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies, Peking University.

In a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Lieberthal elaborates on his view that “the problem is becoming more serious.”

Excerpts of the interview follow:

* * *

Question: What do you mean by “strategic distrust”?

Answer: The United States and China have, on balance, a relatively successful relationship. And we have learned how to deal with each other on major issues so that we are able to prevent disagreement in any one area from upsetting the entire relationship.

Having said that, in more than 30 years of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, we have not succeeded in persuading each other of our long-term good intentions in the relationship, so that each side distrusts what the other side will do over a 10 or 15-year period. That is what we term “strategic distrust.” Strategic, not meaning strictly military; meaning long-term and comprehensive.

Q: What kind of negative impact could it have on the bilateral relations?

A: The problem with “strategic distrust” is that it makes it difficult to take the initiatives that could actually build greater trust over time. So that, for example, on the military side we not only have a broad military policy that seeks engagement with China, but we also hedge. And there is a tendency in life for hedges eventually to become the mainstream policy. So this is, potentially, a very costly situation.

Q: Your report warns that the problem is becoming more serious. What makes you think so?

A: Since 2008 (when the Lehman shock and the global financial and economic crisis occurred), China’s footprint in the world has grown dramatically, in comparative terms, both because China is doing more and because the industrialized world has been faltering.

This, in 2010, created a perception, in the U.S. at least, that China was beginning to act in assertive terms, with the U.S. being a little unsure what the future held in that regard. I think we have seen since then great debate in China as to what China’s role ought to be, what its progress will be, and so forth.

But this question of our relative positions and responsibilities, bilaterally, regionally and globally has been raised in a way that was not nearly as pressing before 2008. And I think we do not have a comfortable sense of each other’s final answers to those questions, and that has increased this uncertainty and distrust.

Q: Why can’t Americans trust Chinese?

A: Some of the distrust stems simply from deep differences in the nature of our systems and the difficulty in understanding, therefore, what the other side’s words really mean. Partly it is that Americans tend not to trust authoritarian political systems. We trust even less authoritarian political systems run by a party that calls itself communist. That, for historical reasons, is who Americans are.

Q: Is that the bottom line of U.S. policy toward China?

A: I think that the bottom line, on the American side, is that despite all kinds of concerns, the U.S. has felt that it is possible and desirable to have a positive sum relationship with China. We absolutely accept the long-run rise of China. No one says that the U.S. can stop the rise of China. We want a strong and secure China who is a constructive player in the global arena. That is the U.S. line. But Beijing does not buy it.

Q: So the problem is on the China side?

A: The big fly in the ointment is that, as we have seen Chinese discussions, internally and publicly, we see a lot of evidence that key decision-makers in China view this relationship, over the long run, more in zero sum terms. Over the short term, they seek cooperation, but over the long run, a powerful narrative in China is that the U.S., because we are the most powerful country in the world, will seek to either slow down or disrupt China’s rise, so that if China is to achieve its reasonable aspirations--to be wealthy and strong and a major player in the world--it will have to weaken the United States.

Q: What is the reaction from the U.S. to that?

A: In sum, we are happy to go for a positive sum, but we are not happy to roll over and let the Chinese walk all over us in order to achieve their aspirations. So, that is where the tension comes in. I think that is a real problem.

Q: I hear often from Chinese officials and scholars, “We don’t see it as zero sum.” It is almost like a mantra.

A: That is the official mantra. But that is not the terminology you hear privately.

Q: They also use “win-win.”

A: Well, they have learned the vocabulary.

Q: Why do you think the Chinese got the idea that the United States is trying to disrupt China’s rise?

A: Well, I think for a variety of reasons. One, history. China’s modern history, by which I mean its history of more than the past century, has taught Chinese the lesson that the world out there is a very tough and unforgiving place, so you should not trust in the goodwill of others.

Secondly, the Chinese assume that no hegemonic power will willingly give up its hegemonic position. I sense they feel that if they were the global hegemon, they would not give up their position if some other country were rising. So, it is hard for them to imagine that the U.S. would act differently.

Thirdly, they see statements made by various Americans, some in significant positions, that feed their narrative, that distinctly assume that the U.S. and China will be at loggerheads. I think most of those come from Capitol Hill. I think very few Chinese understand the role of Capitol Hill in U.S. domestic and foreign policy.

So there is a tendency when important players on Capitol Hill say something, to see it as if someone in the White House had said it.

Fourthly, China is no longer a very ideological place, but I do think there is a sense that the U.S., as a leading democratic system, poses an existential threat to the Chinese system of governance. And, of course, you have Americans all the time promote a global democracy agenda.

Again, it is who we are. And I think China, much more than is really the case, thinks that that agenda is aimed directly at China. I think it is in fact more aimed at smaller countries.

Q: Despite all the problems you explained, you describe the current status of Sino-U.S. relations as “good and effective.” Why?

A: Well, it reflects more than 30 years of intensive work to build a very high-capacity relationship. This involves almost every U.S. Cabinet agency dealing with its Chinese counterpart at least every week. This is not only the normal foreign affairs agencies, the State Department, Defense Department, etc. We have enormous interactions, say from the Department of Energy, from Health and Human Services, from Housing and Urban Development--you name it. Emblematic of this is the fact that our two governments now convene over 60 formal dialogues each year.

I think that both sides, now, have a clear recognition of the value of being able to contain disagreements. So that if, for example, we announce a new arms sale opportunity for Taiwan, the response from China, typically, is strictly in the military-to-military relationship. It does not spill over into the broader economic relationship or broader diplomatic relationship except in the thinnest and most symbolic fashion.

Q: Then why can’t the two countries maintain that kind of good relationship into the longer future?

A: Well, I think for several reasons. One is we are at a point in history where China’s role in the world is changing quite dramatically, but the future is unclear. And we are at a point in history where there are questions about how much the U.S. role in the world will change, and the future is unclear.

So, both sides know that how the other side will act is enormously consequential, and that the future is unclear.

Plus, these are two huge countries. Each is continental sized. And they have the two largest economies in the world. But they have very, very different political systems, cultures and modern histories. It, frankly, is remarkable to see how little conflict there is, in this relationship, not how much.

Q: Some suggest a “power share” between the United States and China as a way to manage the future relationship. Why does the United States need to maintain the leadership role?

A: I think the U.S. does feel, based on experience, several things. One, that there is no other country out there that is prepared to assume the burdens of leadership that the U.S. has assumed for many years now. That includes China.

If you look at China’s white papers, etc., what China says--and I think their actions support this--is that they are a developing country and their priority must be on becoming a middle-class society, what they call “relatively well-off society,” by the 2020s, and that, to engage in major obligations to provide collective goods for the international arena would be to divert resources from this core goal and, therefore, would be wrong.

So it is not like the Chinese are proposing that they take on a regional or global leadership role; they are not. It is our experience, and I think this is the thinking of people not only in the administration but of most of the political class in the United States, that it is important that we fill in that gap.

We did it with the tsunami and the nuclear disaster in Japan last year, and also with the tsunami in Indonesia and related areas a few years ago. It is just what the U.S. does. And our feeling is if we were to seriously back off from that role, a lot of bad outcomes would ensue, not so much for the U.S. as around the world, and that there are a lot of conflicts that would actually become much more severe. And the threats to global commerce, etc. would become more pressing.

So we derive some benefits, obviously, from playing that kind of leadership role, but we also pay a price. None of this is free. Security is expensive. You could argue that one way of looking at what has been going on in East Asia is that we have become increasingly heavily involved on the security side. China has been focused on the economic side. So, for China, this whole region is a profit center and for us it is more of a cost center.

Q: What are the keys to reduce the distrust and build strategic trust?

A: Well, I think the essence of distrust is about the long term, and notably we never talk to each other about the long term in other than formulaic terms. We will talk about our joint desire to have a “constructive strategic partnership,” but what that means is not clear.

We have these catch phrases that the Chinese love. But the problem is we never get into details. It is very hard to build confidence about the long term if you do not have detailed discussions among serious peoples about the long term.

Take, for example, the Korean Peninsula. My view is that over the next 10 years, the array of feasible possibilities on the Korean Peninsula is startlingly broad. These include, for example: a North Korean Chinese-type reform, with or without the nuclear program; North Korea continues the nuclear program and remains, basically, hunkered down and antagonistic; North Korea collapses, in a violent and chaotic process that draws in the U.S., South Korea and China, into the North; there is unification in Korea, fundamentally a southern takeover of the North.

I do not think anyone would disagree that all of those are possible, over even a period of a decade. But we have never discussed any of them with China. Without those kinds of discussions, it is very hard to develop trust in what the other side’s goals are on the Korean Peninsula. We both agree that we do not want North Korea to have a nuclear weapons program. But beyond that it is frankly very unclear.

Q: How can you get them on board in this kind of discussion?

A: Well, the first issue is getting them on board to have a discussion. It is not getting them to agree with our analysis or our priorities. What I am talking about is understanding the other guy’s analysis and priorities, and clarifying your own in the process. And I have no illusions that we are going to be able to persuade the Chinese to think just like us. That is not the real world.

Q: It seems you have an assumption that China will not become a liberal democracy anytime soon.

A: Well, I have been around long enough to know that you never say “never” about history. But I have also been around long enough to think that I will not be around long enough into the future to see China as a liberal democracy. So I think it will be a long and very uneven transition to a meaningful--meaningful in Western terms--democratic system in China. This is not a civil society that has been developed in a fashion that is easily supportive of democratic processes. It is a political system that certainly is not democratic. And this is a continent. Continents do not change easily.

Q: I think Japan also has “strategic distrust” with China. The Senkaku issue is the recent example. What should Japan do to deal with this issue?

A: I am not really sure. Disputes over sovereign territory are very difficult to resolve. And history suggests how difficult it is, because it is a matter of identity. And especially when those disputes are not about remote territories but, rather, are areas that have been the center of a great deal of attention and where, to make things worse, it is thought that there is a possibility of major wealth that is associated with owning that territory. America does not take a stance on territorial disputes to which we are not a party.

Q: Tokyo is very eager to promote Japan-U.S.-China trilateral dialogue. Do you think this trilateral mechanism has any utility in easing the distrust between U.S.-China and/or Japan-China?

A: The United State now engages in various mini-lateral dialogues with friends and allies in Asia including, in different combinations, India, Japan, Australia and others. But none of these dialogues of three or four participants includes China, and thus all have a tendency to reinforce the division of Asia into different spheres.

It makes great sense, in order to reduce distrust in Asia, to invite China to participate in one or a few trilateral official dialogues on key issues. In this regard, a U.S.-Japan-China mini-lateral dialogue may help to increase mutual understanding, reduce tensions and increase mutual trust.

By YOICHI KATO/ National Security Correspondent
  • 1
submit to reddit
Kenneth Lieberthal (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

Kenneth Lieberthal (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

  • Kenneth Lieberthal (Photo by Yuko Lanham)
  • Kenneth Lieberthal (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

More AJW