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 in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. China's commitment to a rules-based global trade and investment system is questionable. The country fails to protect intellectual-property rights, puts forth protectionist policies, such as indigenous innovation, and at times suggests its willingness to blaze its own trail. For example, at the end of 2011, the World Trade Organization ruled against China on a matter involving Chinese export restrictions on raw materials. In response, the state-supported paper Global Times suggested that China ought not adhere to findings that it deemed unfair or harmful. 

The United States, too, has often failed the predictability test. Early in its tenure, the Obama administration raised expectations that it would pass significant domestic climate legislation that would contribute to global emissions-reduction efforts. Obama went on to press China to do more at home as well. But then Washington failed to deliver on its end of the bargain, undermining the United States' credibility with China and the rest of the world. 

Any trust-based relationship also requires that the parties have a certain willingness to give before receiving in the service of friendly ties over the long run. Prior to Obama's 2009 visit to China, for example, the President postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama as a sign of the priority he gave the U.S.-Chinese relationship. Beijing, however, did not reciprocate his gesture. Instead, during his trip, officials reneged on some widely publicized arrangements, for example rescinding their offer to televise Obama's town hall meeting in Shanghai. Since then, there has been little evidence of either side taking another such first step to build trust. The advent of a new leadership in China, however, could open the door to renewed efforts at confidence building.

Perhaps the most serious obstacle to fixing the U.S.-Chinese trust deficit is the two countries' lack of shared sensibilities. For the most part, the United States and China do not approach the world with the same values and priorities. China's stated preference for not mixing business with politics, for example, has made it unwilling to consider joining in oil sanctions on Iran, which is a top policy priority for the United States. Beijing's decision last week to veto the UN Security Council resolution on Syria, moreover, reflected the primacy of sovereignty in Chinese politics and also brought it into conflict with the United States, which places greater value on the protection of human rights and democracy promotion.

Yet there is evidence that Chinese sensibilities are changing. A growing number of the country's multinationals are suffering the consequences of operating in politically uncertain environments, such as Sudan, Nigeria, and Libya. In turn, the public and some scholars and officials have started questioning the wisdom of China's business-at-all-costs politics. In "China's Trouble with the Neighbors," a much noted 2011 article in Project Syndicate, for example, Peking University scholar Zhu Feng argues that "China's neighbors will not be reliably good to Chinese interests unless and until China begins to provide essential public goods -- not just commerce, but also full-fledged regional governance based on the rule of law, respect for human rights, and regional economic growth." And with regard to China's vote on the Syria resolution, several (although not all) Internet polls showed that the majority of the Chinese people disagreed with Beijing's position.

Finally, trust goes hand in hand with respect -- and respect must be earned. For its part, Washington needs a strong and sustained economic recovery. Then its role as global leader would be less open to challenge. The country must also practice what it preaches. On every issue the United States champions -- fiscal responsibility, climate change, human rights -- its own behavior should match its stated aspirations. 

China, in turn, should recognize that the United States and most other countries will not likely respect it until it undertakes fundamental political reform. On one level, the international community wants to see transparency, rule of law, and official accountability, especially on issues such as intellectual-property rights, food and product safety, and the environment. At a more profound level, of course, the international community wants to see the Chinese government treating its own citizens better. If a regime does not freely earn respect and legitimacy from its people, it cannot expect those to be forthcoming from the rest of the world. 

This year, the two countries have a chance to reset the relationship and begin addressing their trust deficit. As a new Chinese leadership assumes power, there is the potential for new political values to emerge. At the same time, as the United States emerges from the global financial crisis and draws down its commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, it can take stock of its foreign policy opportunities and priorities. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is now, when the relationship is at its most uncertain, that trust has the greatest chance of flourishing. 

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  • ELIZABETH ECONOMY is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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