Despite the convergent strategic interests of the United States and China in the war against terrorism and two Bush-Jiang meetings since September 11, mutual distrust and strategic competition continue to characterize this bilateral relationship. Is U.S.-China strategic cooperation possible without mutual trust? Three experts gathered for a June 5 seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center to explore this and related issues. The three speakers for the seminar were Avery Goldstein of the University of Pennsylvania, Ross H. Munro of the Center for Security Studies, and James J. Przystup of the National Defense University. On the next day, Goldstein and Munro spoke at a breakfast seminar on Capitol Hill on the same topic.

Goldstein argued that it is possible for the United States and China to develop limited strategic cooperation in the absence of mutual trust. While Beijing perceives U.S. hegemony and Washington's unilateralist approach in world affairs as a chief security concern to China, it also considers the United States an indispensable external support for China's modernization program. From the U.S. perspective, Beijing's political brutality and ambition to be a regional power contribute to American wariness of China. China is, however, an important partner for the United States on issues of economic cooperation, nonproliferation and regional security. China also plays a useful, though not essential, role in the U.S. war on terrorism. In terms of U.S.-China strategic cooperation, each side should recognize their mutual interest while acknowledging the problems between them, setting up a realistic goal that is achievable.

Munro maintained that U.S-China strategic cooperation is impossible without mutual trust. Ignoring reality, the Clinton administration made invalid efforts at trying to establish a U.S.-China strategic partnership. According to Munro, Beijing began to seek dominance in East Asia and identify the United States as an enemy as far back as the early 1990s, although it has adopted a more cautious and conciliatory strategy toward the United States in the last one or two years. Even so, Beijing's main activities within the first week after September 11 were to coordinate with Russia and European countries in blocking the U.S. military campaign against terrorism. The United States should pay particular attention to Beijing's growing ties with and arms transfers to rogue states. Washington should also maintain balance of power in Asia by developing closer relations with its traditional allies in that region, as the Bush administration has done.

Przystup argued that U.S.-China strategic cooperation during the 1990s was limited, perhaps non-existent. Although the framework of strategic partnership proposed by Beijing in 1997 was accepted by the Clinton administration, it lacked domestic support on the part of the United States. Taiwan's political democratization since the mid-1980s has created increasing difficulties for the United States in managing its relations with both sides of the Taiwan Strait under the one-China policy. The human rights issue will remain a major dispute between Washington and Beijing. Unaware of what kind of power China will become in the years to come, Washington should maintain a hedging strategy toward Beijing while continuing economic engagement with that country.

The seminar highlighted the uneasy mix of conflict and cooperation in U.S-China strategic relations. All speakers agreed that the United States and China lack mutual trust in dealing with each other strategically. They disagreed, however, on whether and to what degree strategic cooperation is possible between the two countries.

Drafted by Gang Lin, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program