What is strategic trust?

16 February 2012


We have all heard the slogans of contemporary diplomacy — “peaceful rise,” “responsible stakeholder,” and the rest — and now it seems that we have a new diplomatic euphemism: strategic trust. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping gave a speech shortly after his arrival in the US for an official visit in which he prominently employed the phrase. I have not been able to find a reliable full text of the speech online, but here are some excerpts:

“For us, strategic trust is the foundation for mutually beneficial cooperation, and greater trust will lead to broader cooperation.”


“We in China hope to work with the U.S. side to maintain close high-level exchanges. We hope to increase dialogue and exchange of views with the United States by making full use of our channels of communication, including the Strategic and Economic Dialogues, cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and military-to-military exchanges…”


“By doing so, we can better appreciate each other’s strategic intentions and development goals, avoid misinterpretation and misjudgment, build up mutual understanding and strategic trust, and on that basis, fully tap our cooperation potential.”

And this from Chinese VP calls for deeper strategic mutual trust with U.S.:

“The development of cooperative partnership could be guaranteed only when the two sides view each other’s strategic intention and development path in a correct and objective way, respect each other’s core interests and accommodate each other’s major concerns, avoid making troubles for each other and do not cross over each other’s bottom lines…”

It might be unwise to read too much into these statements, since this was, after all, a highly publicized political speech. There was an interesting sketch of Xi Linping at Foreign Policy, Empty Suit: Xi Jinping is just another Communist Party hack by Yu Jie, that gives some context, and some weeks earlier, also on Foreign Policy, there was this highly entertaining piece, Hu Jintao on China losing the culture wars by Isaac Stone Fish, in which the author quotes this from Hu Jintao:

“Only if we resolutely follow the guidance of Marxism, and let the advanced culture of socialism guide the way, will we be able to lay the foundation for the cultural development of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

And then notes:

“Every year Chinese press wonders why their country can’t seem to win a Nobel Prize in literature or peace; ironically, in most cases banned from mentioning dissident writer Gao Xingjian, who won in 2000, or Liu Xiaobo, who won last year.”

We have, of course, seen this before. During the Cold War, the Soviet Bloc countries placed a great deal of emphasis upon winning medals at the Olympics, since this is politically non-controversial, even while the greatest writers and artists were harrassed, jailed, and sent to gulags. Every authoritarian state that seeks to control expression runs into this same difficulty.

Nevertheless, the idea of strategic trust is interesting on its own merits, whatever Xi Linping may have meant by it. Vice President Linping gave a fairly detailed sketch of how he would go about cultivating strategic trust, and I will certainly agree that maintaining both broad and deep communication over the long term will likely achieve something like this — although one may well wonder how broad and deep communication can be maintained with the Great Firewall of China intervening between the two countries, and with a vigorous Chinese censorship regime empowered to unilaterally delete content (sort of like Twitter has now empowered itself to act).

Some time ago, in On a Definition of Grand Strategy, I examined a conception of grand strategy has a certain amount of currency, and then went on to suggest that one of the functions of grand strategy is to make certain policies and practices thinkable or unthinkable:

Grand strategy, like ethics, not only both forbids and enjoins certain actions and classes of actions, but it also shapes our thinking, making certain options unthinkable while making other options possible. Alternative grand strategies may pick out different courses of action as unthinkable or possible. We recall that throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, all-out nuclear war was often simply referred to as “the unthinkable,” but there were people who did not see things that way at all. Castro is supposed to have urged Khrushchev to launch a nuclear strike, even if it meant the annihilation of Cuba, rather than back down in the Cuban missile crisis. For Castro, at this point in his life, nuclear war as in no sense unthinkable (I have read somewhere recently that he has since changed his mind).

With this sense of grand strategy in mind, we could characterize two distinct nation-states (or, more generally, political entities, whether state or non-state) as sharing a grand strategic vision if they share common conceptions of what is thinkable and that is unthinkable. Another way to put this would be to say that political entities share a grand strategic vision if they share political presuppositions.

Now, it is true that Xi Linping spoke in terms of strategy rather than grand strategy, so we need to take a step own in generality toward greater specificity to do justice to his remarks. I don’t think very many people would suppose that China and the US, representing profoundly different traditions of civilization, would ever substantially share a grand strategic vision on the level of common political presuppositions. Indeed, this is precisely what divides China and the US, and makes communication difficult — not impossible, but difficult, which means that an effort must be made, and even when an effort is made, misunderstanding will persist and can only be address by further communicative efforts.

It is, however, entirely possible (and, moreover, possible by the concrete means that Linping suggests) that China and the US could share substantial presuppositions on a strategic level short of grand strategy: mutual economic growth, rule of law, global political stability, avoidance of catastrophic military conflicts, the restriction of conflict to localized proxy wars conducted below the nuclear threshold, and so forth. All of these same elements were present during detente with the Soviet Union.

Such an arrangement is not only possible, but mutually beneficial. Strategic trust, then, would be a trust of each nation-state in the other that the other recognizes the mutually beneficial condition of shared strategic presuppositions, and will seek to perpetuate this arrangement.

What are the challenges to maintaining such strategic trust? Under the above-named conditions, there will always be a tension between strategy and grand strategy. Part of strategic trust would be trust in your strategic partner to remain focused on strategy and to allow grand strategy to take a distant second place. This is all about maintaining a mutually agreeable status quo, and maintaining a mutually agreeable status quo would be all about de-emphasizing, and perhaps even suppressing, revolutionary movements and macro-scopic social change that could upset the strategic apple cart.

Under these conditions, the US would continue to talk about Tibet and Taiwan, but would take no action beyond its existing commitments to Taiwan, while China would be careful not to use its growing economic influence to push the US out of its established positions of power. Like detente with the Soviet Union, all of this is doable, and perhaps it even represents the most likely short- and medium-term future, but it leaves open certain difficult questions like, for example, the Pacific theater

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Grand Strategy Annex

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