Strategic Trust: Re-Thinking U.S.-China Military Relations
Beitelman, David A.
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Due to a historical pattern of conflict between rising and dominant states, China’s rise has created fears that it is on an inevitable collision course with the United States. This has inspired a tremendous amount of research, often aimed at proving or disproving the inevitability of conflict between the two. One important aspect of the U.S.-China relationship that remains critically understudied is military-to-military relations. Military-to-military relations (mil-mil) have been characterized by stops and starts and are regarded as the weakest component of the bilateral relationship. The majority of mil-mil analyses come from think tanks or policy journals, often bereft of theoretical analysis. Strategic trust, the ostensible outcome of mil-mil relations, is central to understanding the relationship, and yet the term is used by policymakers, politicians, and analysts without definition or context. This project re-thinks the conventional narrative of U.S.-China military-to-military relations by introducing the concept of strategic trust. While others have offered theories of trust related to interpersonal relationships (Wheeler) or even the role of trust in institutions (Rathbun), a state-centric theory of trust that takes structure and anarchy as its starting points is lacking. Strategic trust is crucial for resolving theoretical ambiguities surrounding the problem of uncertainty in IR. It also clarifies how peaceful power transitions are possible. This project contributes to the burgeoning literature on trust in international relations by theorizing and applying a version of strategic trust appropriate for contemporary great power relations. Specifically, it identifies military-to-military relations as the mechanism through which strategic trust is generated and maintained. Drawing on interviews with 60 current and former U.S. government employees (civilian and military), think tank analysts, and academics, this dissertation provides a much-needed in-depth and theoretically informed analysis of U.S.-China military relations by incorporating strategic trust. In so doing, it serves as a bridge between two analytical islands: academics who ignore mil-mil relations, and mil-mil analysts who ignore IR theory, both of whom often ignore the critical role of trust.