We don’t trust China, and they don’t trust us. Which makes it very difficult to find solutions to diplomatic disputes. Our deep mutual suspicion is based on a history of misunderstandings and broken agreements between the two most powerful countries on Earth.
Last year, I wrote a post describing seven cultural differences that complicate US-Chinese relations, including “the relativity of truth.” The key to understanding this difference was summarized by Robert Conrad in his book Culture Hacks (p. 166): “China has one set of [ethical] rules for conduct within the extended family or clan group and a much different set of rules for those outside of the group.”
One area where it is particularly easy to see the effects of this cultural difference is in education. For example:
- Chinese students in the US “might think it’s acceptable to collaborate on homework or to find the answers to a test online in advance… They think it’s a gray area, but in the U.S. it’s [not].”
- A Chinese company that helps students apply to US colleges estimated that “90 percent of recommendation letters and 70 percent of college essays submitted by Chinese students are fraudulent.”
- Some Chinese who want to study in the US but whose English is weak hire other people to take the TOEFL English proficiency exam for them.
- “Problems with cheating on the Chinese university entrance exam, known as the Gaokao, have gotten so out of hand that it is now a criminal offense punishable with a seven year jail sentence.”
Differences in the definition of truth that are troublesome in the classroom become much more serious when they are involved in foreign policy. For example, consider what happened when China was accepted as a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001.
While negotiations were underway, both sides saw this as a win-win.
Hu Jintao, then President of China, said China wanted “access to new trading partners… raising prospects for improved living standards domestically and giving China a seat at the table in a globalizing world… This “major strategic decision [was taken] to push forward China’s reform and opening-up.”
On the US side, President Clinton seemed even more enthusiastic in describing this as “an agreement which will open China’s markets to American products made on American soil.” He went on to predict the agreement would lead to “a China that is more open to our products and more respectful of the rule of law at home and abroad.”
How did that turn out for us?
Not well, according to most experts. In 2018, the White House issued a report with the ominous title “How China’s Economic Aggression Threatens the Technologies and Intellectual Property of the United States and the World.” It documented China’s many violations of WTO rules, including “physical theft, cyber-espionage, evasion of U.S. export control laws, counterfeiting, [forcing] technology transfer from foreign companies, typically in exchange for limited access to the Chinese market… and talent recruitment of business, finance, science, and technology experts.” (page 2)
I summarized some of the effects of this cheating four years ago in one of the first posts in this blog: “The biggest theft in human history.” The title was based on a quote from the director of the US National Security agency describing how China steals as much as $600 billion per year by ignoring international law protecting patents and trademarks.
For example, according to former FBI special agent Kevin Brock, in America, “we pay for software licenses, the lifeblood of today’s economy. In China, 99 percent of Microsoft licenses are counterfeit and unpaid for.” The result, he continued is that since China “didn’t have to recover the considerable sunk costs of R&D or pay for valuable products, [they] could undercut prices and build massive trade imbalances in their favor.”
Another example of diplomatic deception can be seen in one of the key flashpoints of the relationship: the South China Sea. Since 2014, China has been building artificial islands on top of rocks and reefs, identifying them as Chinese territory, and using them to defend its broad claims over international shipping waters.
When President Obama and Xi Jinping held a summit in 2015, Xi stood in the Rose Garden and said: “Construction activities that China [is] undertaking in the… Nansha Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization.”
Again, that’s not how things turned out. “China has fully militarized at least three of the islands it built in the disputed South China Sea, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets.”
The result of these and many similar experiences is that there is a “long-running view formed over many generations among American officials… [that China] is not only opaque but also has zero moral compunction about actively lying to foreigners whenever its political needs so dictate.” (Paul Rudd, The Avoidable War, Kindle loc 1141)
So, from our perspective, it’s easy to see why the US doesn’t trust China. But why don’t they trust us?
“Americans typically believe,” Rudd also wrote in his book (Kindle loc 999), “that [our] approach to China has been driven by high ideals in defense of democracy, free trade, and the integrity of the global rules-based order.” But the Chinese government sees things differently. According to Stanford researcher Thomas Fingar, they have “decided that we’re out to get them, and that we will not tolerate China’s rise to a point at which it could be a peer competitor, let alone displace us as king of the mountain.” China also believes, according to the South China Morning Post, that “the US is manipulating the concept of national security to conceal its true agenda of containing China’s rise… [and] it is the US that is provoking military tensions in Asia, particularly over Taiwan.”
Chinese diplomats often point to the US hypocrisy which justifies such wars as Iraq and Afghanistan efforts to build democracy while we simultaneously embrace dictatorships which are allies, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. (You have to admit, they’ve got a point on that one.)
As Xi Jinping summarized this view in a speech last March “Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented grave challenges to our nation’s development.”
Given this fundamental mutual mistrust, what can be done to begin to thaw relations between the countries?
In the 1980s, when President Reagan was negotiating arms reduction with the Soviet Union, he frequently quoted the old Russian proverb: “Trust but verify.” In 2013, when US Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated to a treaty to destroy Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, he went a step further and said that “President Reagan’s old adage about ‘trust but verify’… is in need of an update. And we have committed here to a standard here that says ‘verify and verify.’”
That is exactly the approach that the US and China could use today. For now the diplomatic motto in both countries could be: don’t even try to trust each other. It won’t work. But do engage in diplomatic discussions in areas of mutual interest such as climate change, pandemics, terrorism, and the global economy. And when you reach an agreement, make sure that it can and will be verified.
In February, US-China relations may have hit a new low when “a 200-foot-tall Chinese airship, which U.S. officials said was a spy balloon designed for eavesdropping, traversed the U.S. for several days before it was shot down by a U.S. fighter jet.”
This led US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a planned visit to Beijing. Even worse “more than 100 communication channels between different government ministries and agencies are dormant, depriving each side of mechanisms that can defuse smaller disagreements and disputes.”
As Stephen Roach, a senior fellow at Yale’s China Center put it: “If a balloon can derail this relationship the way it did so swiftly, it just tells you how damaged and distrustful the two nations are of this relationship.”
But there is hope. Last week at the G7 meetings, President Biden predicted that tensions with China are going to “begin to thaw very shortly.” Let’s hope he’s right.