Aerial view of the The Spratly Islands, one of the major archipelagos in the South China Sea

Aerial view of the The Spratly Islands, one of the major archipelagos in the South China Sea GlebSStock / Shutterstock

China’s Credibility Problem

Beijing’s string of violated agreements is starting to weigh heavily on U.S.-China relations.

U.S.-China relations are in a state of freefall not seen since before President Nixon went to Beijing in 1972. To arrest the deterioration, the two sides will need to establish a new modus vivendi. One underappreciated stumbling block stands in the way, however: China has a credibility problem.

Since the late 1990s, Washington and its allies have taken steps to designed to accommodate China’s rise and give Beijing a say in shaping the post-Cold War global order. American leaders did so by making a series of agreements meant to address certain troubling aspects of China’s rise through negotiations instead of confrontation. But Beijing’s abrogation of those agreements has helped persuade a growing number of policymakers and analysts in the United States and beyond that those efforts have failed. 

Four areas stand out where Chinese promises have proven disingenuous. Hong Kong constitutes the most immediate and pressing example. As part of the People’s Republic of China’s agreement with the United Kingdom to return the city to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing agreed to a “one country, two systems” framework wherein Hong Kong would retain the rule of law and partially elected government for 50 years. But China’s insincerity has been made clear by, for example, its 2014 reaction to the Umbrella Movement and its 2019 response to street protests against a proposed extradition law. The emptiness of “one country, two systems” has become a cautionary tale for people in Taiwan contemplating the prospect of unification with the mainland.

Second, China has advanced its expansive maritime territorial claims in ways that belie promises to the United States and international maritime law more broadly. In September 2015, Xi Jinping stood in the White House Rose Garden with President Obama and said, “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of its artificial islands in the South China Sea. Any hopes that Xi’s assurances were credible evaporated as China stationed anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles on those features. In addition, Beijing’s South China Sea policies violate the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China ratified in 1996 and under whose auspices an international tribunal ruled against Chinese claims in 2016. (China disputes the legality of the tribunal.)

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Third, China has violated promises to dampen hacking and cyber theft for economic ends. In the same September 2015 speech, Xi stated that he and Obama agreed they “will not be engaged in or knowingly support online theft of intellectual properties.” Within months, private cybersecurity firms started reporting that Beijing-backed hackers were violating the accord. More recently, senior NSA officials have confirmed that assessment.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially for U.S. domestic politics, China still has not complied with several of the key commitments it made as part of its accession to the World Trade Organization. The Obama and Trump Administrations have used different language to describe where and to what degree China has fallen short. But both clearly state that Beijing has refused to meet critical WTO standards over its nearly two-decades in the organization. These include provisions on export restraints, intellectual property rights, taxation, domestic subsidies, and state-owned enterprises. As the 2018 U.S. Trade Representative report on WTO compliance notes, “a consistent pattern exists where the United States has raised a particular concern, China has specifically promised to address that concern—and China’s promise has not been fulfilled.” Meanwhile, Beijing benefitted immensely from the market access WTO membership provided. Selling into those markets helped China rocket into its current place as the world’s second-largest economy by GDP and top economy by purchasing power.

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The obvious Chinese riposte to these arguments—and a frequent PRC talking point in its own right—is to bemoan U.S. withdrawal from its international commitments. Chinese officials often point to the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords as two agreements to which Beijing continues to adhere but Washington has abandoned (China’s export of carbon-intensive growth through the Belt and Road Initiative notwithstanding).

Setting aside the merits of those claims, China faces a mounting trust deficit because of its broken promises to the United States and several other countries. In evaluating Chinese behavior, some might ask whether Beijing entered into these agreements knowing it had no intention of complying, or whether sincere original intentions faded over time as circumstances changed. But for U.S. and allied policymakers, the result is the same and the intent is, if not immaterial, then of secondary importance. 

Further, several of these instances amounted to test cases for whether U.S.-China relations, or even Beijing’s rise more broadly, could be managed by summits and major leader-level agreements to address potential points of conflict. Disingenuously playing on U.S. and others’ desires to engage China in productive diplomacy that reinforces the rules-based international order might have worked for a while. But eventually, over a series of repeated interactions, it will become both substantively and politically unsustainable for U.S. leaders to continue to pursue such diplomacy with Beijing. At a certain point—which the relationship may be nearing—policymakers advocating diplomacy will struggle to make the case for why this time is different with China and build support for any sort of future agreement.

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An inability to achieve meaningful diplomatic accords is likely to come at the worst possible time. Some amount of mutual trust will be necessary to navigate what promises to be a bumpy road ahead for U.S.-China relations. An inability to credibly agree to even basic measures will make it very difficult to build such trust. Whether or not it was reasonable to expect China to evolve as a result of Western engagement can and should be debated. But it was reasonable to expect Beijing to keep its specific promises as the price of U.S. accommodation and even encouragement of China’s rise. China has fallen short of that expectation.

Chinese officials believe the United States is determined to thwart their country’s rise. An analogous concern on the U.S. side is that China is trying to lull the United States into complacency about its growing power. Violating agreements with abandon feeds into a sense that diplomacy with Beijing is naïve, even hopeless. To combat this trend, China needs to decide if international agreements are instrumentalist ploys or sincere commitments China intends to uphold. If Beijing wants to move off a confrontational path with Washington and its allies, China should start repairing its credibility by making good on its word.