Commentary: Bridging the trust deficit with China

United States SenateJanuary 16, 2011 

China’s President Hu Jintao will make a historic trip to Washington next week, appearing alongside President Obama on a stage likely to be dominated by two issues: righting the vast U.S.-China trade deficit and avoiding a catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula. Both subjects matter. Both are manageable, if we work together.

But lurking in the wings is an issue of even greater long-term importance: reducing the growing trust deficit with China.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recent trip to Beijing is a welcome development, but China’s decision to showcase its latest stealth fighter technology on the eve of his visit underscores the extent to which China is building capabilities designed to counter U.S. power. If left unaddressed, widening mistrust will imperil the ability of the world’s only superpower and most rapidly rising great power to cooperate on a host of issues vital to the planet’s future, including restoring global economic growth, combating the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and avoiding calamitous climate change.

It’s been 40 years since Henry Kissinger shook hands with Zhou Enlai. U.S. engagement with China helped bring the Cold War to a favorable conclusion and made possible three decades of explosive Chinese economic growth. Yet despite the mutual gains from cooperation on issues of shared concern, many in both capitals today see the United States and China on a collision course.

Some Americans interpret Beijing’s refusal to condemn North Korea’s recent aggression, the vehemence with which China has pressed disputed territorial and maritime claims, and sustained double-digit increases in defense spending as evidence of China’s hegemonic ambitions and desire to overturn the global order.

For their part, some Chinese analysts see U.S. efforts to enhance alliance relationships with Japan and South Korea, grow security ties with India, Vietnam and Mongolia, support Taiwan’s defense, restrict high technology exports with military uses, and even encourage reductions in China’s carbon emissions, as proof of Washington’s desire to encircle China and thwart its economic rise.

It’s critical that leaders in both countries do not allow such suspicions, heightened by media and public opinion in both countries, to degenerate into mutual fear-mongering and demagoguery. China is not a revolutionary power, and the United States is not trying to contain it. And the simple fact is that we need China, and China needs us.

Let me be clear: getting this relationship right doesn’t mean papering over significant differences on thorny issues like human rights, but it does require not allowing disagreements to obscure positive developments. In fact, we need to consolidate and build upon existing areas of cooperation.

The recent resumption of military-to-military dialogue is an absolutely critical step in building strategic trust. I hope that Presidents Hu and Obama will pledge to insulate these conversations from disruption. It’s precisely in times of tension, whether over Taiwan arms sales or an incident at sea, that our military officers need to be talking.

President Obama will also be seeking greater cooperation to increase job-creating trade and investment. China made significant commitments to protect intellectual property last month, but its undervalued currency remains a concern. Congress is growing increasingly impatient, and absent sustained progress, will likely take matters into its own hands.

Heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula will undoubtedly feature prominently during Hu’s trip. The North’s development of nuclear weapons and long range ballistic missiles undermines Chinese and American core interests in regional peace and stability. Because China exerts outsized influence as North Korea’s only ally, close U.S.-China cooperation on this issue is essential to restrain the North and facilitate the resumption of results-oriented multilateral negotiations to bring lasting peace to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

Another area where both countries must work together more closely is on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and field green technologies. China made strides in recent multilateral negotiations to make its commitments more measurable, reportable, and verifiable. The upcoming summit can have a catalytic effect on efforts to achieve further breakthroughs in developing clean energy.

Combating extremism in Afghanistan is another transnational challenge that provides fertile ground for greater cooperation. Investing more in Afghanistan’s people, rather than just its natural resources, would be an important sign that China understands that with greater power comes greater responsibility.

Finally, both leaders should take this opportunity to strengthen people-to-people, media, educational, cultural, and scientific contacts. Such ties help tamp down xenophobic forces in both countries.

The coming Obama-Hu summit will not produce a diplomatic breakthrough on par with President Nixon’s entente with Mao Zedong. But reinforcing the consensus in both countries in favor of a candid and affirmative partnership is a worthy and attainable goal that over time will prove to be vitally important in its own right. If the two leaders seize this opportunity, the story of the next 40 years of U.S.-China relations can be one of genuine cooperation, robust competition, and spectacular accomplishment.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Sen. John. F. Kerry, D-Mass, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations.

This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.

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