Report: 'Strategic Distrust' Between U.S. And China

Kenneth Lieberthal is co-author of a new monograph called "Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust." He's also director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. Robert Siegel speaks with Lieberthal about what is behind the distrust between the two countries and what can be done about it.

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The relationship between the U.S. and China is full of asymmetries. We see them as growing rapidly in economic and military power. They see us as a country on the decline. We see U.S. China policy as trying to get Beijing to play a more constructive role within established international rules and systems. They see us as trying to contain or frustrate assumption of global power. Name a big global issue - North Korea, Iran, Syria, monetary policy - and the two countries are likely arguing about it.

A new report from the Brookings Institution has boiled these differences down to a phrase: Strategic Distrust. The report is called "Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust." It was co-authored by a Chinese and an American, each an expert on his country's dealings with the other. And the American co-author, Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

It's a pleasure to be with you.

One point that's a measure how apart, we and the Chinese are, is whether each country's leadership regards strategic mistrust as a problem. And I gather, there is does and ours doesn't.

I think both countries regard the issue of long-term distrust as a serious problem. I think the difference is that their distrust is based much more on past history. Our distrust is based much more on uncertainty about how China will act in the future.

That notion that the U.S. is on the way out, that it's in decline, widely held in China or a matter of some debate? How would you describe it?

I think what's very widely held as the notion the U.S. is either starting to decline or, within the coming decade or so, will have seen its power peak and will be in decline. Let me add one more point on that though, everyone thinks America is still by far the most powerful country in the world. So it isn't that America is now weak. But as you look to the future they see America as having peaked, and now the only question is when it will actually begin to decline and then how rapidly.

One obvious point of distrust here is the dimension of U.S. policy that fosters democracy and human rights and civil rights. The Chinese don't see that as some benign American worldview. They see it as an attempt to thwart them, I gather.

For those of the Chinese elite, America's democracy agenda is seen as an agenda of trying to change the Chinese political system and get them out of power. So, of course, they regard that as not all welcomed. And they interpret a lot of things we do around the world as effectively trying to tee-up the chances for regime change in China.

There's one other pretty worrying area of distrust that I want you to describe a bit, which is military issues. And the Chinese feel that they have a real strategic interest in seas that are beyond their recognized territorial waters, around their coast. And the U.S. believes that it has valid security interests in the very same waters.

That's potentially dangerous difference of views. And you think that there actually are ways in which the two militaries could address them, and perhaps understand each other a bit better.

I think it is objectively the case that we're going to have a lot of tension over this issue. The Chinese do have very legitimate security interests to go beyond their territorial waters. We have very long-standing, serious interests in those same waters. We have alliances with South Korea and Japan. We have a strong relationship with Taiwan and so forth. And these are very important shipping lanes.

I think there are real conflicts of interests. So this is not all a matter of perception. They can be reduced by intelligent negotiation and enhanced and mutual understanding. They can't be eliminated. But look, even at the height of the Cold War we could have nuclear arms negotiations that produced agreements, that involve mutual restraint in some areas so that neither of us did some things that would have been destabilizing.

So I think diplomacy can really have a significant impact in helping to reconcile real conflicts of interest. Can't fully resolve them but it can create a less costly, more secure future.

Kenneth Lieberthal, thanks for talking with us.

My pleasure, nice to talk to you.

Kenneth Lieberthal, of the Brookings Institution, is the co-author of the new report "Assessing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust."

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