Only Credible Assurances Can Stabilize U.S.-China Relations

The U.S.-China relationship is the most consequential bilateral relationship for the peace, security and prosperity of the world, today and for the foreseeable future. It is also arguably the most contentious relationship across a wide range of issue areas, from human rights and trade to technology development and global security.

Acknowledging the high stakes involved, both Washington and Beijing have repeatedly stated their desire to prevent the relationship from veering into a severe crisis or conflict, and to add more stability to their interactions. One major way of doing this is for each side to offer credible assurances that it will not deliberately or inadvertently threaten the most vital interests of the other. The key words here are “credible,” meaning believable and durable, and “most vital,” meaning those interests that directly affect the security and well-being of the nation and its governing system.

Achieving this requires each nation to match its formal statements clearly and reliably with its actual behavior—in other words, to avoid hypocrisy—with regard to what each side regards as its vital interests, and to do so consistently over time. This in turn requires both sides reaching a mutual understanding of what their vital interests are, the meaningful assurances regarding them that each desires, and what would constitute violations of those assurances and, hence, threats to the concerned party’s vital interests.

Unfortunately, despite some initial efforts, neither Washington nor Beijing has thus far met these requirements. Perhaps the most prominent example of this failure involves what began as the “Four Noes and One No Intention,” but which Beijing now calls the “Five Noes.” These reportedly affirm that the United States: does not seek a new Cold War with China; does not aim to change China’s political system; is not revitalizing its alliances to counter China; does not support Taiwan’s independence; and does not seek a conflict with China.