Power Constrained: Sources of Mutual Strategic Suspicion in U.S.-China Relations
David M. Lampton
The U.S.-China relationship is fundamentally stable and will remain so for the foreseeable future. This is so because the relationship is anchored in the two societies’ respective preoccupations with their own domestic problems, the United States’ draining commitments elsewhere, and the requirement for cooperation on transnational issues such as proliferation, global production chain security, energy, the environment, stabilizing the world economy, and many other positive-sum opportunities.
Having said this, the present essay highlights four sources of mutual strategic mistrust that, if insufficiently attended to by Washington and Beijing, will metastasize. These sources are: (1) defining the challenge of U.S.-China relations in such a manner that there is no “win-win” solution, (2) miscalculating U.S. and Chinese power, (3) desires in China to “change the game,” and (4) challenge and response dynamics. These four phenomena create a toxic mix that is corrosive to mutual trust and conducive to higher levels of future conflict if inadequately addressed in both nations.
Because mutual strategic mistrust has origins in many corners of the U.S.-China relationship, managing and reducing that distrust will be a long-term, multifaceted task, involving leadership education of the Chinese and American publics, negotiations on strategic postures, conscious fostering of interdependence, unilateral and negotiated confidence-building measures, rethinking export control policy, energized and more meaningful military-to-military exchange, and creating a balance of forces and constructing multilateral organizations in the region that encourage confidence and discourage adventurism. Finally, and perhaps paradoxically, a critical element is that the United States must strengthen its comprehensive national power—in particular, its economy and human resource base—because perceived deterioration in the United States invites assertiveness by others, not least China. Moreover, when Americans are unhappy with themselves, they are defensive with others.