On the Record

U.S.-China Strategic Distrust a Major Problem

Kenneth G. Lieberthal

Editor’s Note: On July 30, 2012, Yoichi Kato of The Asahi Shimbun interviewed Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center and senior fellow in Foreign Policy and Global Economy and Development at Brookings, about U.S.-China relations.

Yoichi Kato: What do you mean by “strategic distrust”?

Kenneth Lieberthal: The United States and China have, on balance, a relatively successful relationship. And we have learned how to deal with each other on major issues so that we are able to prevent disagreement in any one area from upsetting the entire relationship.

Having said that, in more than 30 years of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, we have not succeeded in persuading each other of our long-term good intentions in the relationship, so that each side distrusts what the other side will do over a 10 or 15-year period. That is what we term “strategic distrust.” Strategic, not meaning strictly military; meaning long-term and comprehensive.

Kato: What kind of negative impact could it have on the bilateral relations?

Lieberthal: The problem with “strategic distrust” is that it makes it difficult to take the initiatives that could actually build greater trust over time. So that, for example, on the military side we not only have a broad military policy that seeks engagement with China, but we also hedge. And there is a tendency in life for hedges eventually to become the mainstream policy. So this is, potentially, a very costly situation.

Kato: Your report warns that the problem is becoming more serious. What makes you think so?

Lieberthal: Since 2008 (when the Lehman shock and the global financial and economic crisis occurred), China’s footprint in the world has grown dramatically, in comparative terms, both because China is doing more and because the industrialized world has been faltering.

This, in 2010, created a perception, in the U.S. at least, that China was beginning to act in assertive terms, with the U.S. being a little unsure what the future held in that regard. I think we have seen since then great debate in China as to what China’s role ought to be, what its progress will be, and so forth.

But this question of our relative positions and responsibilities, bilaterally, regionally and globally has been raised in a way that was not nearly as pressing before 2008. And I think we do not have a comfortable sense of each other’s final answers to those questions, and that has increased this uncertainty and distrust.

Read the full interview »