Can Trust-Building Be Risk Free?

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Barack Obama. Photo: Steve Jurvetson/flickr.

In international relations, there exists diplomatic theater and diplomatic facts. A recent example of theater is the agreement between China and the United States to expand their military exchanges and bilateral scientific contacts. The reality, however, is something quite different. The US Department of Defense, for example, continues to comply with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000, which forbids any contact with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) staff members that might result in the “inappropriate exposure” of key US operational plans, dispositions or activities. China’s astronauts, in turn, remain banned from the International Space Station and, more recently, its scientists were prohibited from attending an academic conference at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

At the heart of these prohibitions is the US Congress. Over the past few years it has thwarted the funding for joint Sino-American projects; it has voiced concerns about the potential theft of US space technology; and it played a key role in terminating an exchange program that helped facilitate Sino-America dialogue on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Unsurprisingly, leading American scientists are upset about the missed opportunities that these restrictions represent. Yes, they include missed chances for collaborative research, but they also represent a lost opportunity for each country to gain deeper insights into the long-term strategic interests of each other.

So, given the above impediments, how might Washington and Beijing inject more trust into their relationship, and thereby lift at least some of the current restrictions on military and scientific exchanges? Traditional wisdom argues that there are two basic ways to build trust. The top-down approach, familiarly enough, stresses the importance of creating a “virtuous cycle of positive reciprocity” between senior policymakers. Mutual trust at the highest levels is then supposed to trickle down to interested communities such as the armed forces and scientists. In contrast, the familiar bottom-up approach stresses that developing trust is largely a grassroots affair that then seeps upward to influence top decision-makers.

Although the general debate over which approach is preferable remains a contentious one, especially in the case of building trust between rival states, it is important to remind ourselves that neither approach is risk or context free. Given this truth, what trust building method is best suited to US-China relations? Well, there have been top-down efforts to enhance transparency and trust between NASA and the CNSA. Over the past six years, in fact, NASA administrators have visited their Chinese counterparts on several occasions. Yet, there is very little evidence to suggest that such high-level exchanges have kick-started a “virtuous cycle of positive reciprocity”. The same holds true on the nuclear front. High-level exchanges between the two countries’ senior politicians  and top military officers are hardly a rare occurrence now. But to say that trust-building has trickled down and thereby enabled a breakthrough on nuclear arms control and proliferation is obviously off the mark. Now, this inertia is hardly surprising given some of the limitations of the top-down approach – i.e., each nation’s overweening and self-conscious awareness of their own national security interests; the inescapable presence of bureaucratic rivalries and inertia; the insufficiently appreciated role of domestic political constraints, and more. These impediments do indeed compromise the ability to make top-down concessions that stick, and thereby lead to trust.

The above problems are why so many argue that the bottom-up approach offers the most ‘organic’ opportunity of bringing states such as the US and China closer together. In this respect, the two countries’ attempts to pursue this type of dialogue at the military, scientific, technological and business levels seem well-founded. Yet, as the ill-fated US-China Lab-to-Lab Exchange reminds us, domestic politics can upend bottom-up forms of dialogue too. Conservative and even liberal politicians can always find reasons to worry about certain forms of engagement. They include the fear of illegal technology transfers, the leaking of sensitive information and other risks to national security. To be fair, such concerns are not unfounded. It would be naïve, however, to think that trust- and confidence-building will ever be risk free. Improving the ties between ideologically different or adversarial states is never simple.

So, if both the top-down and bottom-up methods of trust building are never going to be risk free, is there a more plausible third option? For example, what if Washington and Beijing forget about trust-building and instead opt for a relationship based on mutual deterrence? Unfortunately, the risks of this option – arms racing, a return to a Cold War-like MAD doctrine, and forever teetering on the brink of conventional conflict – might not just upend US-China relations, they might sabotage regional and global security as well.

What then is to be done if a ‘third way’ isn’t truly viable, at least when it comes to building security-related trust? Despite its slow progress to date, it appears that the bottom-up approach still offers the best option. As recent exchanges suggest, China has shown an increased enthusiasm for this approach. For its part, the United States – most notably Congress – should reconsider its decisions to forbid technical exchanges with China in the name of national security. ‘Safe’ areas of possible cooperation could include the joint development of radiation detection technology and space situational awareness capabilities. Furthermore, history suggests that espionage and unintended technology transfers may be unavoidable, but they can be managed. Indeed, mutual exchanges – if properly implemented – carry a risk that is far lower than leaving this important bilateral relationship on autopilot.

Tong Zhao is a Stanton Nuclear Security Pre-doctoral Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is also a nonresident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS. This blog, which has its roots in the WSD-Handa Global Opinion Leaders Summit held in Tokyo on September 6th, 2013, is part of an on-going partnership between the Pacific Forum CSIS and the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

For additional material on this topic please see:

Facilitating China-US Relations in the Age of Rebalancing: ASEAN’s ‘Middle Power’ Diplomacy

Myanmar-China-US: The Potential for Triangular Cooperation

Cooperation or Trust: What Comes First in the South China Sea?

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.


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