China Center for Contemporary World Studies

China and the US Needing Preventative Cooperation
From:Dr. Yan Xuetong | 06-06-2014 | By:Dr. Yan Xuetong, Professor, Dean of Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University visitors:543

      Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo and former American Deputy Secretary Robert B Zoellick initiated an annual strategic dialogue between China and the US in 2005. This bilateral mechanism developed into the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2009 when Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State. In the last 8 years, this dialogue has focused on improving mutual trust between China and the US. In contrast to the aims of this dialogue, Sino-US bilateral relations have witnessed deterioration.  Instead of appropriately analyzing the impetus for this deterioration, both sides simply conclude that it is an issue of mutual trust. However, I believe a question needs to be raised; is mutual trust a necessary precondition for cooperation between China and the United States? 


Cooperation without Trust


The idea that mutual trust is one of the first steps to strategic cooperation is prevalent in the thinking of most policy analysts as well as top leaders in both China and the US.  President Obama once said: “America and China have developed a mature, wide-ranging relationship over the past 30-plus years. Yet we still have to do serious work if we are to create the level of mutual trust necessary for long-term cooperation in a rapidly changing region.”  During his meeting with President Obama in Los Cabos earlier 2012, President Hu Jintao reiterated the need for “mutual trust” to achieve long term cooperation.   This belief is so popular that many people forget the fact that there are thousands of examples of strategic cooperation without mutual trust between major powers throughout human history and has been the norm rather than the exception.

In retrospect, we can find that most of the strategic cooperation between major powers was established without mutual trust. The United Kingdom of Britain established strategic cooperation with the Soviet Union based on common interest against Nazi Germany in World War II even though Winston Churchill detested Stalin. China and the US developed strategic cooperation in 1970 even though Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon did not trust each other. Faced with the several decades of military confrontation, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan reached the agreement of reduction of nuclear arsenals in 1988, announcing the end of the Cold War. Jiang Zemin and George W. Bush developed cooperation on a counter-terrorism campaign a few months after the military collision between Chinese and American air forces over the South China Sea in April 2001. 

Except for the American-British partnership, there are very few examples of American relations with other countries that are based on mutual trust. Almost all American alliances are based on shared interests rather than mutual trust. For instance, none of the strategic cooperation between the US and Muslim states is based on mutual trust. Saudi Arabia is a clear example. Even the U.S.-France strategic relationship after the Cold War does not support the argument that mutual trust is the basis for strategic cooperation between major powers. France took the lead against the US launched war in Iraq in the first decade of this century. Today the U.S. still prevents Japan from possessing nuclear weapons after being an ally of Japan for more than five decades.

The historical cases listed above illustrate that strategic cooperation between states is not because of mutual trust between them, but because of the incentives that make cooperation safe and productive for them. This implies that finding similar interests between China and the US is the key to their stable relations in the future. No matter if China and the U.S. have mutual trust or not, they will have many chances to develop strategic cooperation in the coming years as long as they focus on similar interests.


Superficial Friendship


China and the US have lacked mutual trust since 1989. Yet, their relationship can be characterized by the ebb and flow of cooperation and deterioration.  This characteristic strongly illustrates the superficial friendship of current Sino-US relations. The superficial friendship not only drives the rivalry, but also contrastingly helps promote cooperation between these two powers.   Officials in both the Chinese and American governments searched for an ambiguous term to cloak their uneasy relationship and finally agreed on the phrase neither-friend-nor-enemy (fei di fei you). Both governments used the term to define their relationship, and it became widely accepted by experts in both countries. David Lampton coined the term “same bed different dreams” to capture the idea that both powers are closely entangled, but have very different aspirations. 

The rebalancing strategy adopted by Obama’s administration typically represents the state of superficial friendship between China and the US. It is driven by two factors. The first one is China’s rise. Obama has repeated several times that the United States cannot accept being second in the world. The US as the only superpower cannot tolerate any country that would challenge the unipolar configuration that was formed after the Cold War. China’s rise concerns the US because of the fear of relative decline as the sole superpower in the world. The second factor is the possible shift of the world center from Europe to East Asia, which is directly related to the first factor. Contrasting from Japanese modernization during the Cold War, China rises as a comprehensive power, paving the way for East Asia to replace Europe as the world center in the visible future. Faced with this new historical trend, the US has to strengthen its domination in East Asia to maintain its robust global leadership.

Nevertheless, the strategy of superficial friendship helps prevent bilateral relations from falling into a comprehensive confrontation between China and the US. Obama administration denies the fact that the balancing strategy targets at China, which typically represents the strategy of superficial friendship. China and the U.S. have been able to adopt a superficial friendship strategy towards each other since the late 1990s when they normalized their relations mainly because there were some shared objective strategic interests, such as nuclear nonproliferation, peace in Asian-Pacific, counter-terrorism in Central Asia, mutual trade and investment, rather than subjective mutual trust.

Currently, Chinese-Japanese brutal disputes over Diaoyu Islands have had almost no impact on China-US relations. This phenomenon illustrates that both China and the US are very cautious about conflicts escalating into military clashes. As long as both sides are conscious of the danger of military conflict, they can keep their competition peaceful. The principle of peaceful coexistence is a general one which can be applied to any bilateral relationship, but it may not be enough for China-US relations in the coming decade. Many projections show China will become a superpower only second to the U.S. by 2022. That means the strategic competition between them will be intensified and proliferate into more sectors. “Peaceful Competition” will be a more suitable principle for China and the US to guide their relations than “peaceful coexistence.”


Preventative Cooperation


The China-US relationship should be looked upon as being between two business partners. ‘Business is business’ is the golden rule for business partners, and there is a Chinese equivalent, ‘Money matters should be accounted for even among brothers’ (qin xiongdi ming suanzhang). Both ultimately mean that business partners are not friends and cooperation is based on interests rather than friendship or mutual trust. This identity keeps a sense of distance between the two nations and allows for both countries to make realistic expectations of each other.

In order to keep unavoidable conflicts manageable, it would be better for China and the U.S. to adopt the principle of “peaceful competition” for their strategic relationship; an idea that promotes bilateral cooperation without the necessity for mutual trust. In the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev relaxed the strategic tension between the Soviet Union and the U.S. by adopting this principle to their bilateral relations. We should learn from the positive experience of American-Soviet relations during the Cold War if we want to prevent China-US relations from slipping into a new cold war. During his visit to China in October 2011, American Vice President Joe Biden was warmly treated by his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Xi suggested to him that China and the US should develop a new type of major power relations which is comprised of “healthy competition”. There were no opposing voices to this suggestion from the American side after the meeting was reported. It should be possible for China and the US to agree on the principle of peaceful competition if not healthy competition. At minimum, peaceful competition would provide a red line for both sides.

China and the US should spend more effort developing both positive based on shared interests and preventative cooperation based on conflicts rather than seeking mutual trust. Mutual trust is not attainable in the short run but it may be realized after long term cooperation. For the sake of positive cooperation, China and the US should endeavor to enlarge their common and complementary interests. Already Chinese and United States navies have cooperated off the coast of Somalia to address the threat of piracy. Similar Sino-US military cooperation should be implemented in the future. Collaboration on humanitarian assistance operations, search and rescue missions, and other non-traditional security cooperation can help build military-to-military relationships at all levels. This type of cooperation will help to prevent conflicts resulted from miscommunication and produce mutual trust.

Preventative cooperation differs from positive cooperation because it is based on conflicting interests rather than on shared interests. For instance, China and the US agreed on de-targeting nuclear weapons against each other in late 1990s, which helped in stabilizing bilateral relations. In order to develop preventative cooperation they should adopt principles of clarity rather than ambiguity in their policy towards each other. In the coming years, China and the US should prepare to witness conflicting interests increasing faster than common interests. They can skillfully manage their competition if they spend more energy on developing preventive cooperation based on emerging conflicts of interest. China and the US can develop preventative cooperation not only in the military sector but also in the non-traditional security sector, such as energy, finance, climate change, etc. 

To encourage China and the US to give priority to preventative cooperation does not mean opposing building mutual trust, but suggests that China and the US will be able to stabilize their strategic relations without mutual trust. Moreover, preventative cooperation is important underpinning for improvement of their strategic relations. The worst scenario is not that China and the US will be faced with more strategic conflicts in the coming years, but that they never learn how to develop cooperation based on lack of mutual trust and allow the escalation of a small conflict into a major one in the future.

In order to reduce unexpected conflicts, each side should clearly define the other as a political competitor. Most important is that they need to clarify their competitiveness as that between a rising super power and one with super power status. The United States aims to maintain its global dominance, and China to resume its world leading position. This structural conflict makes political competition between them inevitable. China and the US will compete for closer political friends in the coming decade.




Mutual trust is a result rather than precondition of long term strategic cooperation between major powers. It would be beneficial to both China and the US if they abandon the misperception that mutual trust is the premise for developing strategic cooperation. Clarifying their political relationship as strategic competitors would stabilize China–US relations without mutual trust. They should get used to the other’s unfavorable policy and restrict any retaliation to the level within mutual expectations. Although this would not improve bilateral political relations, it would prevent any worsening of already unfriendly political relations. A stable unfriendly political relationship would be healthier than a fluctuating superficial friendship for both China and the United States during China’s rise. They could consider an agreement on developing peaceful competition towards healthy competition. The world benefits from their competition because peaceful competition is an engine for social progress.