Liberty Times (LT): Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd was in Washington last week promoting a new strategic roadmap for US-China relations. What are your comments?
Kurt Campbell: The US-China relationship is so complex and so multifaceted that it requires constant examination and re-evaluation. The challenge is the visual image of the roadmap that I sometimes struggle with. It suggests that sometimes it plots concisely the course you are going to take. In fact, the uncertainties and the challenges we are witnessing right now in Asia are remarkable, with respect to North Korea.
So what I am more personally focused on is creating the institutions, the capabilities and the relationships that will allow the US and China to deal with the inevitable unforeseen development confronting us. I think that’s the real challenge of the period ahead. It’s not somehow plotting this course through such unforeseen territory. Some of that is positive should be taken as it comes. But much of what we are dealing with are issues that neither side fully predicted or expected. And we have to improvise and to operate together in ways that are sometimes completely unprecedented.
LT: What is your interpretation of the new big-power relationship proposed by Chinese leaders?
Campbell: I’m not sure, frankly. I think like all general frameworks, it’s open to interpretation. To some, it’s an attempt to try to explain more carefully and clearly to the US about China’s interests; or to try to get recognition from the US of the need to give China the necessary space in the international environment.
My own sense is that it does need to be a conversation about how two great powers deal with each other. What I appreciate about the statement and the concept is that for years China has resisted being described as a great power, much more as a developing country. And in some sense China is seeking to have the best of both worlds. When they want to be treated like a great power in terms of political status, they accept that. But then when there were expectations about sharing responsibility, maybe they were a little reluctant to take this on.
What I think the concept suggests is that recognition of China has arrived or re-arrived on the sense of a national scene. And they will play a larger role in shaping both existing institutions and new one.
The challenge for the US is that we have to be prepared to share power in certain circumstances and work with China as we define the mode and means of peace and stability. We need to educate the public in the US and China for a cohabitation in the region, and that is not easy.
Right now, with rapid military growth on China’s side, much needs to be done. We need to establish mechanisms and communication channels to deal with unintentional incidents. And I think the possibility of an incident is very real now, like the EP-3 incident.
LT: For many Asian countries, China has become the No. 1 trading partner. But most of them remain close security ties with the US. So many countries, including Taiwan, sometimes feel like they are caught in between. Do you think this is a choice they have to make?
Campbell: Look, every country that is successful in Asia currently has a good relationship with the US and China, right?
Countries that are on one side, for instance North Korea, are not thriving. Countries like South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand are choosing to have a close relationship with both the US and China. And they recognize that there is in fact no fundamental choice that needs to be made.