US-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century: A Question of Trust

a question of trustAuthor : Michael Tai

ISBN : 9781317502265

Publisher : Routledge London and New York

Year : 2015

Price : $120


Reviewed by Jennifer Liu, Associate Professor, Department of History, Central Michigan University

Michael Tai maintains that “US-China relations is not only the most important bilateral relationship in the twenty-first century but also the most complex” (p. 27). As the world hegemon, the US fears that China, a rising force, may one day challenge it. This leads Tai to analyze the trust, or rather distrust, between the two nations along the four HISE dimensions of history, interests, structures, and empathy. He uses this methodological framework to examine US-China relations with respect to climate change, financial crisis, and international security, arguing that “these are global threats that demand collective response and yet collaboration is failing for lack of trust” (p. xv).

Chapter 1 explores trust, human nature, and the state, proposing the HISE framework for analyzing trust between states. First, Tai looks at the history of US-China relations to determine whether and how integrity built trust or betrayal destroyed it, noting that history also reveals the character of a state and its leaders. Second, he examines the US and China’s vested interests; if they are compatible, the two countries are more likely to trust each other. Third, he explores how the nature of structures such as institutions, treaties, and alliances are derived from such vested interests. When both nations’ structures are more in mutual harmony, the more likely they are to trust each other. Finally, Tai notes that mutual empathy between both countries is crucial; the deeper the understanding and goodwill, the stronger the trust. All four factors influence each other and evolve over time. Chapter 2 discusses the generic trust between the US and China by comparing the way Chinese and Americans view themselves and each other. According to Tai, many Americans see the Chinese as a threat to the US economy through trade, currency policy, and cyber theft. Furthermore, American leaders believe China is trying to displace the US, building military capabilities to constrict US activities in the Western Pacific. They reason that authoritarian political systems like China’s are less transparent and therefore less trustworthy. Likewise, Tai discusses how “trust is eroded when the Chinese see America applying double standards” (p. 53). For example, the US condemns China’s approach on the Tibet and Taiwan issues as human rights violations despite its own invasion of Iraq. The hypocrisy of US imperialism does not convince the Chinese of any notion of American moral virtue. Nevertheless, Tai asserts that “the Chinese are more disposed to be friends than enemies of America” and that this is “an asset which [Americans] often fail to appreciate” (p. 54). Many Chinese see the US as a land of prosperity and opportunity, a “dream” destination. In 2013, the fact that “there [were] 300 million Chinese learning English compared to 200,000 Americans learning Chinese” (p. 53) demonstrates the enthusiasm and desire that the Chinese have for visiting the US and interacting with Americans.

Chapter 3 uses the HISE framework to analyze the state of trust between the US and China on climate change. The two nations are the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide (over 40%) and the level of cooperation between the two on climate action may determine the future of global warming. However, the Kyoto Protocol, which was intended to bring the world together to combat global warming, has turned into a heated debate between the US and China. In 2001, the Bush administration withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, complaining about a lack of obligations imposed on developing countries such as China and India. According to Tai, Americans argue that efforts to control emissions will raise energy costs and cause manufacturers to move jobs overseas to countries with looser emissions standards, including China, while the Chinese suspect Americans of using global warming as a pretext to restrain their growth. Concluding that no one can possibly expect China in its current stage of development to commit to greenhouse gas reduction targets, the Chinese are disappointed that the US, wealthy as it is and more responsible than any other country for carbon dioxide emissions, rejects the Kyoto Protocol (pp. 85-86). In addition, while nuclear power is a cornerstone of the Chinese push toward a green future, the US is unwilling to transfer advanced nuclear technology to improve China’s energy efficiency. Tai notes that China wants to purchase technology under the concessionary terms of the Kyoto Protocol but the US will only sell on commercial conditions.

Chapter 4 compares the views of Chinese and American economists on the causes of the Global Financial Crisis (GCF) of 2007-2008, demonstrating that economists on both sides of the Pacific agree on many of the causes. Both point to “low interest rates, the federal home ownership program, regulatory failure, and securitization of subprime mortgages” (p. 114). However, they disagree about global imbalances and currency manipulation: “the Chinese say they cannot be held responsible for American profligacy and deny manipulating the renminbi” (p.114). For Tai, the issue illuminates how the two countries manage their economies differently. While the US practices free market fundamentalism (itself a source of distrust between the two states), the Chinese adopt a non-ideological pragmatism. He argues that the GFC served as a warning to the Chinese of the hazards of financial liberalization and credit-fueled consumption and deepened Sino-American distrust.

Chapter 5 contrasts US and Chinese perspectives on mutual trust in terms of international security, especially with special focus on Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Japan, and the South China Sea. Tai argues that a belief in American exceptionalism drives the US desire to contain China, and that the US intends to maintain its leadership and military presence in the Asia-Pacific region by denying political and economic control to China. To sustain this the US must therefore prepare for war with China, and in turn the media sows negative images about the Chinese to make the American public ready for conflict. If the US and China actually go to war, Tai concludes that the Chinese have more to fear. The out-of-date Chinese military has wide technology and logistics gaps. Moreover, “the US defense budget in 2011 totaled $739.3 billion compared to China’s $89.8 billion” (p. 138). In response to the US challenge, a Chinese poll in 2012 revealed that “27 percent of government officials surveyed considered the US an ‘enemy’ while 68 percent thought of it as a ‘competitor’” (p. 158).

In the concluding sixth chapter, Tai discusses asymmetrical knowledge in US-China relations. He asserts that the Chinese are more knowledgeable about, and understanding of, the US than vice versa, which explains the lack of mutual trust. He concludes that Beijing needs to strengthen its soft power and tell its “success story” better.

The book is well-organized, clear, and factually rich in structuring chapters 2-5 with both American and Chinese perspectives. In particular, Tai considers the views of officials, scholars, businessmen, and journalists from both Chinese and Western sources. However, while he provides a variety of American opinions on China, he does not present much debate and differences in Chinese opinions on the US. Nonetheless, the work is useful because it shows the continuing, widening gap between Chinese and American perceptions of the relations between their governments.

Overall, US-China Relations in the Twentieth-First Century is an important contribution to studies on the current developments and issues between the two global powers, especially for leaders and scholars interested in international relations. It also serves as an excellent introduction to undergraduate and graduate students.


Suggested citation

Jennifer Liu (2018), Review of “US-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century: A Question of Trust”, by Michael Tai, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 11, no. 4.