Xi's Tour Won't Fix the U.S.-Chinese 'Trust Deficit'

The Long March to Mutual Respect

Xi Jinping, who is expected to be the next leader of China, with Henry Kissinger. Click here to read an interview with CFR's Elizabeth Economy. (David Gray / Courtesy Reuters)

In the run-up to Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's visit to the United States this week, Cui Tiankai, the vice foreign minister, said it all: China and the United States suffer a "trust deficit." That is true; myriad factors -- including different political systems, a rapidly growing list of issues with which the two countries must contend, and overblown expectations -- have contributed to the problem. Cui's prescription was that both sides "must give full attention" to "nurturing and deepening mutual trust." What he left out, however, was precisely what nurturing and deepening might entail. 

In any relationship, trust is built over time. It requires clarity of intention, predictability of action, shared sensibilities, a willingness to give before one takes, and mutual respect. On some matters, China and the United States have worked hard to understand what the other side intends. The two countries have conducted countless dialogues across scores of issues. As a result, officials have a much better understanding of each side's short- and long-term economic interests and have even gained insight into the competing priorities that each country must balance.

In many other areas, such as the security realm, however, intentions are more opaque. Washington practically begs China for open dialog on the subject, but China has generally resisted. Beijing believes that, as the weaker power, it should not show its hand. The downside of this tactic was made clear in 2010, when the country's surprisingly forceful rhetoric and actions in the South and East China Seas riled its neighbors and resulted in the United States reaffirming its military commitment to the region. Perhaps recognizing the shortcomings of Beijing's favored approach, Xi accepted the Pentagon's offer to attend a discussion about U.S.-Chinese security interests when he is in Washington. 

Predictability is another component of trust that remains elusive

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