Home > Analysis, Foreign Relations, politics > Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi, “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust”

Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi, “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust”

In the Western discourse, it is extremely rare to see the ‘Chinese’ perspective. Whatever coverage about China that exists, they are generally something anti-government related. For example, at the moment the Western press seems to be drunk and indulgent on tabloidism with respect to the news of Bo Xilai recently relieved of his post as party chief in Chongqing municipality. On occasion, big outlets like the New York Times may carry an Op-Ed from some prominent Chinese citizen (see Eric X Li). A number of years ago CNN’s Fareed Zakaria interviewed Premier Wen, under the condition to not edit out his speech or spin what he had to say. Whatever the reach those instances of unadulterated Chinese views had, they are crucial for the average American to judge on their own and to understand China first hand. The every day reporting of ‘China’ by the Western press is already colored and filtered through an agenda, and hence making understanding of the country and people virtually impossible.

With that in mind, I’d like to highlight a very important piece of work published through the Brookings Institute recently by Kenneth G. Lieberthal (Director, John L. Thornton China Center) and Wang Jisi (Director, Center for International and Strategic Studies and Dean of the School of International Studies, Peking University), “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust.” (English pdf. Chinese pdf.) Similar to the instances I mentioned above, Wang Jisi’s opinions are carried in full in the joint paper, without any sort of reinterpretation by his America counter-part. Path-breaking indeed, a point the Brookings Institute highlighted and used as the introduction to the paper:

The coauthors of this path-breaking study—one of America’s leading China specialists and one of China’s leading America specialists—lay out both the underlying concerns each leadership harbors about the other side and the reasons for those concerns. Each coauthor has written the narrative of his government’s views without any changes made by the other coauthor. Their purpose is to enable both leaderships to better fathom how the other thinks.

Lieberthal’s opinion is too made available to the Chinese audience without reinterpretation. Wang Jisi’s reputation will help to disseminate Lieberthal’s American views within China while the reverse is also true for Wang’s views in America. This format is a brilliant concept and worthwhile noting, and I only hope more joint papers come out in the years to come so that citizens on both sides of the Pacific get to read each others’ views directly.

While celebrating this important concept, I’d also like to weigh in on Lieberthal’s opinion on what constitutes issues affecting America’s strategic trust for China. On the left column below is Lieberthal’s take, from the summary section. On the right are my opinions on the strength of his views. In fact, in a number of cases, I will offer a stronger argument on behalf of the American side for the Chinese audience.

Understanding Strategic Distrust: The U.S. Side

By Kenneth G. Lieberthal

Strategic distrust of China is not the current dominant view of national decision makers in the U.S. government, who believe it is feasible and desirable to develop a basically constructive long-term relationship with a rising China. But U.S. decision makers also see China’s future as very undetermined, and there are related worries and debates about the most effective approach to promote desired Chinese behavior.  Underlying concerns of American leaders are as follows: I agree with Lieberthal’s view that distrust is not the dominant view that drives American foreign policy towards China.
Various sources indicate that the Chinese side thinks in terms of a long-term zero-sum game, and this requires that America prepare to defend its interests against potential Chinese efforts to undermine them as China grows stronger. PLA aspirations for dominance in the near seas (jinhai) potentially challenge American freedom of access and action in international waters where such freedom is deemed vital to meet American  commitments to friends and allies. The context for this is that, as China’s strength in Asia grows, it is more important for America to maintain the credibility of its commitments to friends and allies in the region. I think the “commitment to friends and allies” is a weak argument.  For the Chinese, they understand the current geopolitical configuration in East Asia; that of the Cold War competition between the Communist bloc and the U.S.-lead West.  The Chinese in fact celebrate with Americans the defeat of WW2 Japan, because China along with other Asians suffered brutal atrocities under Japanese invasion.

Lieberthal’s argument would be much stronger for the Chinese if he framed the Japan occupation as America wishing to suppress a former enemy.  And, frankly, as Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in his latest book, “Strategic Vision,” America’s hegemonic positions around the world indeed produces a public good: stability for everyone to plow ahead.

Brzezinski also argued a sudden and rapid decline of American power would bring about chaos and likely violence as the world realigns.

China’s challenge to the American hegemony, especially in East Asia, must have that reality in mind.

Unless China is ready to fully unseat America in East Asia and at the same time able to preserve peace and stability for the region, China should not try.

Until then, China’s strategy should be fully defensive in nature, in the ability to asymmetrically deter American force purely from the perspective of a fight where America attempts to bring the fight unto the Chinese mainland.

America’s “credibility of its commitments to friends and allies in the region” is simply a dress-up for preserving American hegemony in the region.  This way of framing the argument comes across as crafty and insincere.

Economically, the United States worries that China’s mercantilist policies will harm the chances of American economic recovery. China-based cyber theft of American trade secrets and technology further sharpens these concerns. This ‘mercantilist’ claim is also weak in the Chinese eyes.  The truth is China and the U.S. made treaties in how China is to join the WTO.  China is designated by the U.S. as a ‘non-market economy’ and with it certain benefits and drawbacks under WTO treaties for both countries.

America has not provided evidence about cyber theft, and so far the U.S. media have only resorted to insinuations about this issue.

Given the economic down-turn in the U.S., America is in a beg-thy-neighbor position in trade relations with China (and other countries).

The way to build strategic trust in the economic relationship is to negotiate more treaties – for example, an FTA between the two countries.

Recently, the U.S. has agreed to lift restrictions on technology exports to China.  China has agreed to import more American films.  Both will help with the trade deficit.

With demand in the West softening, China is focusing her efforts on domestic consumption.  This also bodes well for American corporations, many of whom already make record profits in China.

China working with the other BRICS countries to minize transactions using the USD in favor of currency swaps in cross-border trade will erode American financial power.  This is largely brought about by the World Bank and the IMF unwilling to fully accommodate the developing countries and the U.S. printing so much USD out of self-interest, at a great cost to foreign holders.

Strategic trust comes from equity.  The WB and IMF have taken positive steps resulting in BRICS adding funds into those organizations.  More along these lines could be done.

China’s one-party governing system also induces distrust in various ways. Americans believe democratic political systems naturally understand each other better and that authoritarian political systems are inherently less stable and more prone to blaming others for their domestic discontent. Authoritarian systems are also intrinsically less transparent, which makes it more difficult to judge their sincerity and intentions. What Americans view as human rights violations (especially violations of civil rights) make it more difficult for the U.S. to take actions targeted at building greater mutual trust. This is purely an ideological view no different than fanaticism in religion.

The ultimate truth is that both systems are only as legitimate as their ability to provide economically for their respective citizens and freedom from being invaded by foreign entities.

America’s interest in this line of thinking is purely to undermine governments abroad.  If America is so confident of these ideologies, she should be confident others will line up to copy them.  These ideologies would only strengthen if America can be a shining example, but at the moment, given her various problems domestically, she is hardly one.

While the U.S. welcomes a wealthier, more globally engaged China, it no longer regards China as a developing country that warrants special treatment concerning global rules. Washington also looks to Beijing to take on some of the responsibilities for international public goods that major powers should assume, and it worries when Beijing declines to do so. China is in fact participating much more in international affairs.  For example, China has many more U.N. peacekeepers as compared to the U.S..

China also deploys a lot of resources guarding the shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia against pirates.

America’s interest in this regard is largely about getting China to agree to undermining governments like Libya and Syria such that those governments become ‘friendly’ towards the United States.

America has to find a way for China go give more in the context of achieving a more fair and equitable world-order.  This would then be win-win and the true way to build strategic trust.   Getting China to help America in order for the U.S. to achieve a stronger grip on the existing world-order does not achieve strategic trust for China.

Given the U.S. view that Asia is the most important region in the world for future American interests, American leaders are especially sensitive to Chinese actions that suggest the PRC may be assuming a more hegemonic approach to the region. Washington saw evidence of such actions in 2010-2012. America and China will compete for influence within the East Asia region.

“most important region” is merely an excuse for American dominance.

If we view China and America within the region as two NBA professional teams competing where China enjoys home-court advantage, America’s dominance is only legitimate as long as her goals are aligned with the long term interests of the region.  Fairness, sportsmanship, and prosperity are all welcomed.

America (with a strong military and multi-national corporation) in fact has a much tougher team, and as long as she demonstrate those qualities, then the more America will be viewed as a leader.

On the economic and trade side, America is especially sensitive to Chinese policies that impose direct costs on the U.S. economy.  These include intellectual property theft, keeping the value of the RMB below market levels, serious constraints on market access in China, and China’s 2010-2011 restrictions on exports of rare earth metals, which appeared to be strategically designed to acquire sensitive foreign technologies—especially in clean energy. China’s environment is being devastated, and given how damaging rare-earth mining is, it is important for China to restrict that industry.  America is abundant with rare earth metals, and China imposes nothing on America in mining them.  America’s interest in this issue is purely from a selfish stance – that to extract such commodities from China at China’s environmental degradation.

The RMB valuation is not the culprit for the trade imbalance between the U.S. and China.  The key problem is American over-consumption (see Allen‘s post, “Making Sense of the Dollar and Yuan“).

China’s restrictions on market access are due to mutually agreed fact that China is a developing economy.  That fact is also reflected in China’s joining of the WTO.  America also enjoys favorable terms in that fact to restrict Chinese corporate access to the U.S. market.

Accusing China of constraining market access without that context is dishonest.

America in fact uses national security as grounds for blocking CNOOC and Huawei and other Chinese companies from acquiring assets.

Compared to the unprecedented market share of American companies in China versus the other way around, it is clear which country is ahead.

If American corporations all of a sudden relocate factories outside of China, the resulting environment would be a big list of American corporations in China profiting while only a handful of Chinese companies in the U.S..

This true economic imbalance is only allowed by the Chinese government because the factories employ Chinese workers.  This is also an imbalance American corporations are happy to have since China is suffering the environmental costs.

Recent developments have increased suspicions among relevant American agencies. The U.S. military sees the PLA apparently prioritizing development of weapons systems particularly targeted at American platforms, and it worries about lack of transparency in China’s military plans and doctrines.  The scope and persistence of China-based cyber attacks against U.S. government, military, and private sector targets

has alarmed American officials in charge of cyber efforts and raised very serious concerns about Chinese norms and intentions. And U.S. intelligence officials see increased evidence of zero-sum thinking in Beijing regarding the U.S. and also increased Chinese espionage efforts in the United States.

In order for China to protect her sovereignty, it is the duty of the PLA to deny access to the Chinese mainland by the overwhelming American military might.

America harassing the Chinese military on a daily basis by buzzing up and down China’s coast with surveillance planes, aircraft carrier, and nuclear submarines is guaranteed to cause such reaction.

America should see this belligerence in the context of China doing the same along American coastal waters.  Imagine the Chinese sending warships within striking distance to Washington D.C.?

Is it surprising the “PLA apparently prioritizing” against American platforms?

Cyber attack or espionage are accusations we frequently hear in the American media, but rarely do we see any facts presented.  In fact, what is much more frequent are instances of American or Western hackers obtaining credit card or account information from financial institutions.

Undoubtedly, the two countries must be engaging in such activities against one another.  Friendly countries spy on each other too.  I often wonder how this situation can be improved.

Regarding transparency, the American view is very hypocritical.  After all, the U.S. State Department has been fighting tooth and nail to suppress Wikileaks from publishing their diplomatic cables.

Perhaps America can afford to be slightly more transparent in her intentions, because she is so much stronger than any other country.  But, declaring “full spectrum domination” is hardly being transparent.

Within Asia, is America planning to occupy Japan forever?  What is the end game for America in the region?  Where is the transparency?

At the end, if America can be a great example of transparency, however defined, perhaps other countries can follow suit.  For now, this concept has largely been bandied about to defame.

Actually, in my view, I think Lieberthal’s arguments are much more in alignment with American media narrative. They are ideological and propagandistic. If we observe the American geopolitical elites, their views are much more realist, and they rely on rationality rooted in might.

If America truly honors ‘transparency,’ perhaps we will get to see meeting minutes in their negotiations with the Chinese leaders. Neither side are willing to share such minutes, and we must ask why?

That all aside, I applaud Lieberthal and Wang for joining hands in this exercise. I truly wish between the two countries there will be more exchange in views in such a frank and unadulterated format. The gap that exists between the two sides is indeed wide. May the more reasonable arguments help narrow that gap!

  1. pug_ster
    April 3rd, 2012 at 23:20 | #1

    Excellent post about this. Despite the garbage that Kenneth Lieberthal posted, there is a growing minority voice rising from Wang Jisi and Eric X Li who provide a more pragmatic voices about what China thinks that America is not listening to.

  2. raventhorn
    April 4th, 2012 at 16:56 | #2

    I would call Ken’s 1st line as BS:

    “Strategic distrust of China is not the current dominant view of national decision makers in the U.S. government, who believe it is feasible and desirable to develop a basically constructive long-term relationship with a rising China. But U.S. decision makers also see China’s future as very undetermined, and there are related worries and debates about the most effective approach to promote desired Chinese behavior.”

    “NOT the current dominant view”?! Please!

    The 2nd sentence pretty much says exactly the opposite! Oh, we don’t “distrust” China, we just “worry and debate” about “DESIRED Chinese behavior”?!!

    Yeah OK, Americans losing sleep over not getting what they wanted China to do, Oh, that’s not “distrust”, that’s just plain stupidity.

    Anyone saying that they are “worried and debate” about “DESIRED behaviors” from other people, they have a clinical case of delusion of grandeur, and obsessive compulsive behavior.

  3. April 5th, 2012 at 13:54 | #3

    The relationship has two prominent features: competition and cooperation. I think it was Eric Li who said that the Chinese, despite making a paltry amount of money in the trade (in assembling products for American consumption) where the lions share goes to corporate America, it is still worth it, because China get out of it industrial know-how. That’s a win-win not to be discounted.

    On the other hand, American military posture near China’s borders would be viewed extremely belligerent by Americans if it was the other way around – where China harasses America instead.

    America is definitely not trying to kick China out of world institutions. Neither is it within her interest to do so.

    This year is another record year in number of Chinese students being educated in America.

    All of that taken in totality, I would agree with the characterization that American foreign policy towards China is not strategic distrust. That idea is too harsh. Strategic ‘neutral’ fits better in my mind.

    From certain segments of the Japanese population, U.S. bases in Japan is a real invasion/occupation of the country still. From certain segments of the U.S. population, I would venture to say their view is to permanently suppress a former enemy so they never rise up to challenge America again. Once Japan rejects the occupation in full tilt, then it will become clear for everyone to say, it is a complete strategic distrust between the two countries.

  4. raventhorn
    April 5th, 2012 at 16:14 | #4

    I would not call it “strategic neutral”, because “neutral” would imply a Middle of the road compromise.

    US has “strategic schizophrenia”, meaning, it’s talking both ends of the extremes, out of both sides of itself, and it’s nuts.

    This is when a nation of “democracy” is trying to outdo itself in craziness in every election.

  5. raventhorn
    April 5th, 2012 at 16:15 | #5

    and sure, for now, the saner heads prevail.

    But given enough crazy voices all talking on both sides, eventually, it ends up with a populous stupid enough to actually believe in the crazy talk.

  6. April 5th, 2012 at 16:23 | #6

    lol, okay, I can agree with “strategic schizophrenia.” A society filled with extremist positions.

  7. colin
    April 6th, 2012 at 14:06 | #7

    This is a poor piece by Kenneth Lieberthal if it is meant to be impartial. But I’m not sure if he is stating his views or stating the views of US. Since he doesn’t do anything to differentiate the two, I assume they are both the same, and thus garbage that doesn’t do anything to promote progress. All he’s doing is rehashing old, tired, and unfair western characterizations of China. Nothing ground breaking here.

    It’s a damning piece if KL really is supposedly one of America’s leading thinkers on China.

  8. colin
    April 6th, 2012 at 15:03 | #8

    Upon re-reading, it seems all the paper seeks to do is to report on the overt issues of distrust on both sides. Nothing new here, and nothing that can’t be gleened by cursory readings on the internet. How \is it “path-breaking”? I think these folks at the “think tanks” and NGO really have too much time on their hands, twiddling their thumbs, gazing at their navels, and basking in their own self importance.

  9. raffiaflower
    April 11th, 2012 at 09:18 | #9

    “U.S. decision makers also see China’s future as very undetermined, and there are related worries and debates about the most effective approach to promote desired Chinese behavior.”

    LOL! China’s leaders are selected through an arduous and consensual process of elimination. Even given the kerfuffle over BXL, China’s goals – social stability, development, etc – are pretty determined over the next 10 years.
    American goals are also clear, but unfortunately negative: more foreign invasions, plunder, destabilization of “unfriendly” regimes, more meddling in other nations’ affairs, etc.

    As for the bit about ` most effective approach to promote desired Chinese behavior’, China is not your poodle like Japan or that Hungarian flea Sarkozy. Or is Lieberthal deliberately passing a snide remark?

    Even if he’s only declaring the American perspective, if the man had any points of dissent from it at all, he could have spun his own view/s in with some slant/euphemism. Nada.

    Some people might call him an intellectual midget. But not me, of course. To get a grip on Chinese thinking, some ol’ fashioned Confucian sayings might help American leaders. Here’s one, from Zhang Weiwei’s book The China Wave for Mr Lieberthal:

    Cultivating one’s moral character, putting one’s own house in order, running the country well, and letting peace prevail under heaven.

  10. zack
    April 14th, 2012 at 01:30 | #10

    american policymakers are so used to getting their own way, that any sort of resistance against their wishes (which they perceive as being the wishes of the unisted states government and therefore the american people) from foreign nations is considered an anomaly.

    america will learn humility sooner or later, there’s only so much diplomatic leverage a massive military industrial complex can confer

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