Rising U.S.-China mistrust has dangerous long-term implications, Brookings study says

China and the United States are locked in a pattern of rising distrust that, if left unchecked, could result in a dangerously adversarial relationship in coming decades, according to two analysts with access to high-level leaders in both governments.

Their conclusions, compiled in a Brookings Institution study released Monday, note that although suspicions exist on both sides, they appear even more deeply rooted on the Chinese side, where leaders view the United States as a declining power seeking “to constrain or even upset China’s rise.”

The report grew out of informal talks between Kenneth Lieberthal, the national security director for Asia during the Clinton administration, and Wang Jisi, dean of international studies at Peking University and a member of the Foreign Policy Advisory Committee within China’s Foreign Ministry. Wang also is founding director of the Institute of International Strategic Studies at the Central Party School — the training ground that high-level officials must pass through in China.

“Both of us expressed real concern about where this is headed, not in the short-term, day-to-day relationship but 10 to 15 years from now,” Lieberthal said in an interview. “We both sensed a deep distrust among leaders about long-term intentions on the other side.”

In hopes of illuminating the problem, Wang and Lieberthal sought out candid opinions from high-level officials in the Chinese and U.S. governments about causes of the mistrust. The researchers were particularly interested in the narrative through which each side’s leaders see the other country.

Wang described Chinese distrust as rooted in history and growing out of a belief that China has become a first-class global power in recent years. Because Chinese leaders believe that the ultimate goal of U.S. leaders is to preserve American hegemony, they conclude that the United States will work to prevent China’s rise.

Lieberthal, in talking with U.S. leaders, said he found that many believe their Chinese counterparts think in terms of a zero-sum game. Some cite intelligence gathered from internal communications among Chinese officials painting the relationship in such terms.

U.S. worries stemming from that perception permeate views on economic policy, cyber-intrusions and defense systems that the American military sees as being developed specifically for U.S. targets.

In the joint section of their report, Wang and Lieberthal called the distrust “corrosive, producing attitudes and actions that themselves contribute to greater distrust.”

Among the solutions they propose is an increased understanding of the other side’s perceptions and intentions, as well as a more honest dialogue to reach that understanding.

William Wan is the Post's roving national correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He previously served as the paper’s religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent and for three years as the Post’s China correspondent in Beijing.

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