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Mistrust Overshadows U.S. Talks With China


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. High-level meetings between the U.S. and China underscore a long-term problem. They have the world's two largest economies. They're likely the two most important nations on earth.

INSKEEP: And neither trusts the other's intentions. Because they must cooperate, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew are in Beijing for talks.

MONTAGNE: But the point of this next story is that words may not ease mistrust. The key is what each side thinks the other is planning. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is watching the U.S.-China meeting in Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In their remarks at the beginning of the meeting, both President Xi Jinping and Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized that conflict between the U.S. and China can and must be prevented. They also suggested that it's less what they say that matters; it's what the other side sees and believes. Here's Xi Jinping.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Chinese spoken).

KUHN: How China and the U.S. judge each other's strategic intentions, he said, will directly affect what kind of policies we choose and what sort of relationship we develop. Secretary Kerry seemed to voice frustration that no matter how many times the U.S. says its intention is not to thwart China's rise, that is still how many people in both countries see it.

JOHN KERRY: When I listen to some of the so-called experts and they talk to us about our relationship, too many of them suggest that somehow the United States is trying to contain China.

KUHN: The concern is that these misperceptions could increase the likelihood of an accidental military clash.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Chinese).

KUHN: A recent Chinese government video appears to show a Japanese fighter plane flying dangerously close to a Chinese plane near islands claimed by both sides in the East China Sea. Both China and Japan claim they're just reacting to provocations by the other side. At a recent conference here, Brookings Institution senior fellow Kenneth Lieberthal said that what one country claims is reaction, the other may see as provocation.

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: The dynamics of those disputes and of the rhetoric surrounding those disputes on both sides is affecting each side's judgment of the strategic intentions of the other side.

KUHN: He says the toll on the U.S.-China relationship is clear.

LIEBERTHAL: The relationship appears now, at a geopolitical level, to be in a downward spiral.

KUHN: Xie Tao is an international relations expert at Beijing Foreign Studies University. He points out that China's recent assertiveness in territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines flies in the face of China's talk of its peaceful rise.

XIE TAO: We have been very good neighbors. You know, China does not intend to threaten any of these guys. But look at the gap between the top leadership rhetoric and what is happening there. There's a big gap. So how can you explain the gap? And so that's, I think, what is driving people's speculation.

KUHN: Many Chinese, meanwhile, are still fuming over President Obama's trip to Asia in April, during which he offered strategic reassurance to allies, including Japan and the Philippines. Chu Shulong is a foreign policy expert at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. He says he knows the U.S. is not trying to contain China as it did during the Cold War, but he has a hard time convincing other Chinese of that.

CHU SHULONG: (Through translator) China looks at the issues with the Philippines and Vietnam and sees that the U.S. sides with everyone who's against China. That makes China increasingly suspicious of the U.S.'s system of alliances. It's increasingly obvious that it's aimed at China.

KUHN: Despite the strategic mistrust, the two sides agreed to step up military exchanges and continue stalled talks on cyber security. China also addressed U.S. concerns about its currency, saying it would intervene in the markets less. Further progress, though, may have to wait until November, when Presidents Obama and Xi meet here at a regional summit. Anthony Kuhn. NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.