By Oriana Skylar Mastro
Best Defense Office of Sinology
It seems like every week I go to a talk or some type of
meeting in which the participants argue that if the United States and China
could just sit down and talk to each other, we could dispel all
misunderstandings and mitigate the tension that has been a central part of our
bilateral relationship since 2009. If I'm lucky, it is usually an American
talking about how our policies worry China and then a Chinese strategist that
articulates what the United States could do to reassure China. The other day I
went to one such talk at IISS in which Michael Pillsbury played the role of the
American urging a deeper understanding of Chinese strategic thinking and Lanxin
Xiang urged the Obama administration to take steps to address China's concerns
about the re-balancing.
While I believe that diplomacy and dialogue is important to
the health of the relationship, many of problems the U.S. currently faces
vis-à-vis China are not because of some miscommunication, but because of a
serious conflict of interest. This is
usually where someone chimes in that we have a lot we can cooperate on. Yes,
fine. But the bottom line is this: China
would feel less vulnerable if the U.S. reduced its presence and influence in
Asia, and we aren't going anywhere. This affects all aspects of the
relationship. For example, when I tell my Chinese colleagues that the U.S.
isn't purposely creating conflict between China and its neighbors to
undermine China's rise, they don't believe me. When Chinese interlocutors tell me that China would never use force to
resolve its territorial disputes with Taiwan, Japan, India, Vietnam or the
Philippines, I don't believe them. And
as long as Chinese behavior doesn't change, my level of trust won't either.
If Chinese strategists, academics, and public intellectuals
are any indication, I shouldn't hold my breath. Today, when Dr. Xiang was asked
if China understands that the re-balancing was partly in response to an increase
in Chinese assertiveness in Asia, he said it wasn't convincing. I have never
heard a Chinese strategist admit that concern about China's rise is
understandable, that maybe other countries have a point in their critiques of
Chinese behavior. When meeting with a
Chinese delegation just yesterday, I asked if there was anything China could do
to mitigate regional concerns. Blank stares. And then the standard: 'China is
only being defensive, is peaceful, and any negative regional views are the
result of malevolent U.S. re-balancing strategy.'
Exchange and dialogue are critical. I believe that my time
living in China and the fact that I speak Mandarin help me better understand
international issues from China's perspective. But that doesn't mean that I
always agree with China's policies or trust Beijing to do what's in U.S.
national interest. Enough already about how if we just exchanged views all
would be well. If both sides truly were honest, we would admit that in a frank
dialogue, we probably wouldn't like what we heard anyways.
Oriana Skylar Mastro is a PhD
candidate at Princeton university and a Fellow at the Center for a New American
Security (CNAS). She also is an officer in the Air Force Reserve. In a previous incarnation, she worked for a
hydroelectric valve company in Beijing as a translator. This is the standard
disclaimer about how her views are her own and don't represent those of any
organization or government agency.