HONOLULU — After a year and a half of gradual improvement, relations between the United States and China appear to be taking a turn for the worse. Two recent U.S. reports sharply criticize U.S. policy toward China and have earned equally sharp criticism from Beijing in return. While we shouldn’t overestimate the significance of the two reports, they do make plain the perception gaps that plague the Sino-U.S. relationship. Unless the two countries address that issue directly, there will be no significant and lasting improvement in bilateral ties.

The two recent salvos are the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on “The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China” and the bipartisan Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Security Review Commission, both of which were released in mid-July. The Pentagon report argues that China is acting as if the U.S. is an adversary and is preparing credible options that would allow it to retake Taiwan by force and to nullify the U.S. military advantage. It emphasizes China’s use of strategic deception and casts most Chinese overtures to the U.S. as attempts to lull the U.S. into a false sense of security.

The CSRC report takes the same skeptical tone toward Chinese intentions and echoes many of the same points in a more wide-ranging examination of the bilateral relationship. The CSRC argues that “there are important areas in which Chinese policy runs directly counter to U.S. national security interests.” It charges that the U.S. is helping China modernize its economy and its military and concludes “that far more prudence must be displayed and far better understanding developed on the part of Congress on the full extent of [the Sino-U.S.] relationship and its impact on U.S. interests.”

China has reacted to the reports with anger, claiming that they created “disturbances” that could derail relations between the two countries. According to a Chinese government spokesman, “the threat to Sino-U.S. relations, the threat to world peace, doesn’t lie in China but rather in these people who have fabricated this China threat.”

These two reports represent one important strand of U.S. thinking about China: that China is a revisionist power that wants to establish itself as the region’s leader by midcentury. It is therefore a threat to U.S. interests, since it must replace the U.S. as No. 1 in Asia to achieve that objective. Some go even farther. A few years ago, Gen. Henry H. Shelton remarked that the U.S. must do all it could to ensure that China did not become “the 21st century version of the Soviet bear.” “For Reagan administration alumni who are back in government, that is a call to arms. For them, the most important lesson of the 1980s is that it is better to go toe-to-toe with an adversary than give it room to consolidate its position.

Even though these documents bear the imprimatur of the U.S. government, they are not official U.S. policy. The Pentagon report is mandated by Congress, and reflects typically conservative Department of Defense thinking. While the CSRC is a bipartisan committee, its members are also hawkish in their outlook.

The official U.S. position is more nuanced. According to Secretary of State Colin Powell, “China is a competitor, a potential regional rival, but it is also a trading partner willing to cooperate in areas where are strategic interests overlap. China is all of these things, but China is not an enemy, and our challenge is to keep it that way.”

While officials continually acknowledge that “treating China like an enemy will ensure that it becomes one,” they also maintain that the U.S. has to be prepared for rivalry and even confrontation. In short, as the CSRC notes, “in time we will learn whether China is to become a responsible world power or an aggressive, wealthy dictatorship.” Until then, the U.S. must hedge its bets and be ready for all possible outcomes.

Unfortunately, from Beijing’s perspective hedging looks a lot like trying to deny China its rightful place in the world. The U.S. has already imposed sanctions against Chinese companies for selling technology to Iran and Pakistan, and has offered visible and robust support for Taiwan. There seems to be little effort to divine China’s future intentions.

In a recent study, Andrew Scobell of the National War College provides a compelling explanation of Chinese thinking. Scobell notes that Chinese thinkers see their country as “pacifistic, defensive-minded and nonexpansionist.” At the same time, those strategists believe that any war China fights is just and any military action is defensive, “even when it is offensive in nature.” The result is a paradox: While Chinese see themselves as fundamentally pacifist, they are “predisposed to deploy force when confronting crises.”

Scobell concludes that “China’s leaders and strategists are convinced that their country harbors no aggressive intentions toward other countries. . . . Beijing’s leaders tend to remain oblivious to the possibility that other countries might feel threatened or uneasy about China’s growing military power . . .”

The fundamental problem in Sino-U.S. relations is this: The very same things can be said for the United States. U.S. leaders are convinced of their own good intentions. President George W. Bush has just laid out a doctrine calling for pre-emptive strikes against terrorist organizations and the states that support them. Governments that are paranoid, suspicious or just plain prudent — those inclined to “hedge” — will see U.S. hostility in every move. This is a classic example of a “security dilemma”: attempts by one nation to create security for itself create insecurity in its neighbors.

Something must be done to break this cycle of mutually reinforcing suspicions. The obvious answer is a strategic dialogue between the two governments, one that lays bare the assumptions behind the two countries’ national security policies and examines in detail the way they are implemented. Leaders of the two national security communities need to exchange views on a variety of subjects ranging from national missile defense to counterterrorism. Each government must try to understand how their intentions and actions can be misinterpreted and try to remedy those misunderstandings. The process will need to be pursued on a variety of levels, both official and nonofficial. It will be frustrating and time consuming. Given the stakes, however, nothing is more important.

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