Beyond the Pivot: a response

Sam Hazelgrove

Obama and Xi Jinping/ Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed

Obama and Xi Jinping/ Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed

In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs Australian MP Kevin Rudd gives an insightful analysis of contemporary US-China relations and how it might develop.

Like the countless other academics and politicians predicting the future state of US-China relations, Mr Rudd recognises the primacy of the two countries in Asia and concludes that it is time that “Washington and Beijing reach some long-term conclusions as to what sort of world they want to see beyond the barricades.”

His analysis is perhaps more encouraging than that of those who see conflict between the two states as inevitable.  He argues, and perhaps rightly so, that the installment of Xi Jinping offers the United States a window of opportunity to form an amicable relationship devoid of the mistrust that might hinder substantive discussions.

Kevin Rudd explains that Xi is certain of both his “military and reformist background,” thus giving him room for “ maneuver.”  Furthermore, when it comes to China’s foreign policy, he notes that “the centrality of [China’s] domestic economic task” means Xi will seek to maintain a high degree of stability in the Asia region and will search for a peaceful approach to potential problems that could flare between it, the United States and other regional powers.

Mr. Rudd believes positive engagement between the two powers is possible. And he is right.

Indeed, Obama’s second term presents an opportunity for the President and the Premier to come to a consensus on a new strategic balance in Asia.

Mr. Rudd calls for a new Shanghai Communiqué, but his analysis does not go far enough in explaining why this is essential or how it is possible.

The 1972 Communiqué was more than the diplomatic symbol, or showing of good faith, that Rudd seems to suggest.  It was the culmination of tireless diplomatic efforts on the part of the US and China over a period of three years.  It was a true reflection of geopolitics as it stood in the 1970s, as well as an indication of the kind of international order that both nations were seeking to create.

The question that needs to be asked when attempting to forge such a pact becomes, how should the two states discuss and negotiate on their national interests and come to some agreement on the international order.  Rudd refutes the idea that both nations must restore their trust in each other before any cooperation can occur.  He argued that “in fact, the reverse logic applies: trust can be built only on the basis of real success in cooperative projects.”

However, when it comes to building a relationship between the two countries, both are necessary.

Firstly, the fact that both Xi Jinping and Barack Obama have some foreign policy capital, thus leaving room for diplomatic manoeuvre, should have a positive effect on current contentious issues.

Secondly, it might be argued that the Korean issue provides the two countries with an opportunity to build trust on the basis of the kind of cooperation that Rudd rightly believes is essential.

Following routine US-ROK military exercises and further economic sanctions imposed on North Korea after its third nuclear testing in February, the North Korean Government has pursued a “massive display of sabre-rattling” that reaches far beyond its usual bellicose rhetoric.  According to the Guardian, the North has declared itself to be in a “state of war” with South Korea and has said that it may target Kaesong industrial park (a significant trade zone run by both North and South Korea).

Both China and the United States need to open a strategic dialogue, firstly on how to deal with the emerging Korean crisis and following that, how to provide incentives as well as put pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and enter the international community.  (There is little evidence that current UN economic sanctions deter North Korea from pursuing its nuclear programme, or from escalating its military exercises).

It is this kind of “cooperative project” that could help the US and China realise their mutual interests in the Asia-Pacific region.  There is evidence to suggest that this is possible.

US policy toward North Korea during the Bush Administration did not exist much beyond the fierce “axis of evil” rhetoric; a wasted opportunity, as some might say.  President Obama’s Asia “pivot” has provided not just an opportunity to engage with China, but also a longed-for reassessment of America’s position on the Korean peninsula.

Furthermore, the New York Times reported last month that the constraints placed on North Korea by the UN Security Council included harsher language than had been used previously.  But as David Sanger and Rick Gladstone write, “The [UN] provisions are in some ways less important than China’s participation in writing them.”

China’s willingness to engage in a debate with the international community on the Korean issue is a huge step forward, even if the enforcement of sanctions is not fully realised; it “suggests that after many years, the screws are beginning to turn”, former diplomat and academic at the University of Denver Christopher Hill has told the New York Times.

Thus there clearly exists the ability and willingness on the part of both the US and China to discuss, and resolve, the emerging crisis on the Korean peninsula.  This might provide the basis for a longer-term strategy that seeks to provide the right balance of incentives and pressures for the North to build a better relationship with its neighbour to the South and to engage positively with the international community.

The best-case scenario is that dealing with the Korean crisis also allows for more constructive and progressive talks between the United States and China on issues that have thus far proven difficult to resolve.

Kevin Rudd’s article entitled “Beyond the Pivot: A new road map for US-Chinese relations” is a worthwhile read and it appears in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine (March/April 2013), which can be found, here.  

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