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.
I will say that one thing that has not received as much attention is that we are currently living in an era that is virtually unprecedented with respect to the cross-strait situation. Essentially, currently the relations between China and Taiwan are the best we’ve seen in decades.
I would argue that the unofficial relationship between Taiwan and the US is robust. There is confidence about our support for Taiwan both in terms of ways of living and in the maintenance of peace and stability. And ultimately, the relationship between China and the US is sound and stable. And I think the three-way relationship right now is reinforcing and positive and that is a virtually unique occurrence since the late 1970s, in which relations between all three legs of the strategic triangle were essentially strong and sound.
LT: Maybe not all people in Taiwan would agree with that.
Campbell: I understand the debates everywhere about all these dimensions, but essentially relations between Taiwan and China right now have been better for a substantial period.
LT: The relationship is stable now, but there are other elements that we have not resolved, such as the military threat. So things could change overnight.
Campbell: I understand that and that is almost true in every country in Asia. Taiwan is not unique.
LT: But China has no territorial ambitions in other countries except Taiwan. So how should people in Taiwan, especially the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) strike a balance in working with China? How do you see China’s approach to the DPP?
Campbell: I think there is some cautious interest on both sides in developing a better relationship, increasing communication and trust.
There are many strategic thinkers in the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] and I have lots of confidence in them frankly. I know they are struggling how to figure out their China policy. The truth is some degree of strategic engagement is necessary.
We have encouraged China to have an open mind and have dialogues with the DPP.
We have seen a number of DPP leaders meeting with Chinese officials. I cannot prescribe what the framework or the formula would be, but ultimately we think that the DPP will have a servable, understandable and recognizable approach to China that is in the best interests of maintaining peace and stability.
LT: Has China ever asked the US to push Taiwan to enter into political dialogue with Beijing?
Campbell: Never in that. I think essentially, China has much greater confidence in their own bilateral set of actions between China and Taipei. And I think there is great confidence on both sides in the way that they have dealt with each other. They don’t need the US as a mediator. So I think the primary areas of discussions that we have with our Chinese interlocutors about Taiwan is their enduring, strong and unwavering unhappiness with continuing American arms sales.
LT: During former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) era, some people in Beijing believed that Beijing and Washington were actually co-managing the Taiwan issue. Does the [US President Barack] Obama administration believe the same thing?
Campbell: I believe there has been a substantial increase in dialogue, confidence and trust between Beijing and Taipei. We support that effort, but at the same time we’ve seen substantial improvement between the US and Taiwan. So I don’t see it as co-management. I see it as a series of complex interactions going in several different directions that in its fundamental and essential essence has improved communication and peace and stability.
I believe trust has increased and China has handled its Taiwan policy very effectively.
And I think Taiwan has been careful with respect to how it’s dealt with Beijing. So the irony is although no side can handle it for a variety of domestic and complex purposes and reasons, the cross-strait relations, the three-way relations have proceeded well.
LT: When you were at the Pentagon, you started the study of Taiwan’s naval defense needs. So what happened to the submarines?
Campbell: As you can imagine there are a few things that we try not to discuss publicly and that’s one of them, so I believe that the US has a clear and essential responsibility to main peace and stability and part of that is to provide the military hardware to Taiwan to independently secure its security needs in conjunction with the US. Ultimately, the details of particular decisions are better left to private conversations.
LT: In terms of military balance, it is impossible for Taiwan to catch up with China, so what is the best strategy for Taiwan?
Campbell: Ultimately, no one wants conflicts. It would be detrimental to Asia, to China, to Taiwan.
Taiwan has maintained effective deterrence and we will continue to … I mean no one would seek to enter into conflicts without thinking carefully about the very real implications. And implications in Asia are disastrous. So people need to understand that quite clearly. It’s not just military capability to deter China. It’s the whole package that comes with it.
LT: In the past several years we have seen many incidents regarding territorial disputes including the Senkaku Islands [Diaoyutai Islands, 釣魚台] and the South China Sea, as one of the claimants, what role does the US expect Taiwan to play?
Campbell: On some of the territorial issues, we have had a dialogue with Taiwan and those were important and we will continue. And I think Taiwan has a right to be able to discuss these issues with other countries. It has a dialogue with Japan and interactions with China and other countries. I think these are perfectly appropriate.
Ultimately, we’ve given our own counsel to Taipei about handling these matters coolly and with great care. My own view is that all the issues in Asia associated with territorial matters are incredibly complicated and they require cooler heads to prevail.
We have called on all sides to take great care about how they manage these issues. Particularly in an environment where Europe’s growth is slowing and the US is still recovering. And we can’t afford to have a crisis in Asia over territorial matters. We’ve built this remarkable progress in Asia over decades with these issues still there. We need to put all of them in a proper context, recognize their larger interests in the maintenance of peace, prosperity and stability.
LT: When US officials talk about rebalancing in Asia, they barely mentioned Taiwan in their speeches. Has Taiwan been left out?
Campbell: Taiwan has been mentioned and we continue to highlight a strong unofficial relationship.
I would simply say that if you look back over the last couple of years, there have been strong reassurances like the specific six reassurances. There have also been numbers of speeches.
I think much of that should be seen as reassurances, strong support for dialogue between China and Taiwan and strong support for unofficial relations between Washington and Taipei. And we’ve taken the steps not just on the political security side, but also on the economic side, the people-to-people side.