Politics

Rethinking the US view of China

As a senior diplomat under Barack Obama, Kurt Campbell helped shape the US relationship with China. Now he says the American view of the Asian superpower needs a fundamental rethink. Campbell spoke to Sam Sachdeva about China’s role in the international system, Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy, and New Zealand’s position on the world stage.

As Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell told a US Senate committee in 2010 that China’s “peaceful rise and integration into the international system” was essential to peace in the Asia-Pacific.

Eight years on, he says America needs to think again about whether it can simply bring China into the fold.

Campbell, visiting New Zealand for a series of speeches, says the US has historically overestimated its ability to influence Beijing.

It has tended to believe China’s economic liberalisation and growing ties with other countries would change its internal development for the better; instead, China has held firm to its beliefs, with the US “tending to look the other way” when that was reflected in its approach to multilateral institutions like the WTO.

“China has been incredibly effective at taking steps that prevent the emergence of countries that are working together to confront China - they are good at splitting coalitions that could be formed on issues of concern.”

Washington did not anticipate the arrival of a dominant leader like Xi Jinping, while China itself has been alert to attempts to counter its views.

“China has been incredibly effective at taking steps that prevent the emergence of countries that are working together to confront China - they are good at splitting coalitions that could be formed on issues of concern.”

Campbell says his critique of the US view does not mean its traditional approach has failed and a more confrontational attitude is needed; in fact, he says there are many parts of the US-China relationship that have worked well.

However, with competition as the central characteristic of the relationship, that must be handled in a way that avoids escalating tensions.

He is keen for the US to work with other countries on addressing China’s trade policies, including its Made in China 2025 policy which could effectively shut Western nations our of key industries.

'Jury out' on Trump's China approach

While Donald Trump has been increasingly hawkish on China, calling out the country for its supposed theft of intellectual property and creeping closer to a trade war, Campbell says “the jury is fundamentally still out” when it comes to his approach.

“What we’re seeing in the Trump administration is not yet an integrated approach but a series of powerful individuals and individual approaches.

“Parts of the administration are interested in a narrow accounting of the trade imbalance, others are interested in intellectual property, still others are interested in structural reform. The problem is each time we’ve got near cutting a deal with China, President Trump has pulled back and said it’s not enough.”

Any attempt to reshape the US-China relationship is complicated by the former’s recent issues when it comes to flouting international norms.

“There’s a huge focus more on bilateralising our major relationships, less interest in multilateral pursuits - I think there is an almost unthinking desire to reverse everything that President Obama and indeed President Bush did on the global stage.”

While Campbell does not believe the US is turning its back on the world, he says fundamental aspects of the country’s foreign policy are being brought into question under Trump.

“There’s a huge focus more on bilateralising our major relationships, less interest in multilateral pursuits - I think there is an almost unthinking desire to reverse everything that President Obama and indeed President Bush did on the global stage.”

His biggest concern is not the state of the relationship with China, but how the US itself is affected over the next two to six years by Trump’s tenure.

NZ not 'hiding head in sand' on China

New Zealand’s own stance on China has been called into question in recent months, with critics saying successive Governments have not done enough to address alleged interference activities directed from Beijing.

Campbell says he likes the work done by Kiwi academic Anne-Marie Brady, whose Magic Weapons paper outlined cases of supposed Chinese interference in New Zealand.

However, he dismisses suggestions New Zealand is being naive in its approach compared to Australia, which has just passed new foreign influence legislation.

“I don’t believe New Zealand is hiding its head in the sand - I think New Zealand has followed what has gone on in Australia very carefully, I think there is an attempt to understand more, doing some of that exploration outside of public view and to map the contours of Chinese efforts.”

Campbell also backs the standard argument from New Zealand Governments that it is not a matter of choosing between the US and China.

“In Asia, every country wants three things: a workable relationship with China, a strong relationship with the United States, and increasing diversity among relationships with second-tier powers...that requires deftness and sophistication, of which New Zealand is near the top of the list.”

“I’m inspired by [Ardern] and I’m impressed by her...I think she has some unique opportunities to speak out on the things that matter deeply to New Zealand but also talk about New Zealand’s role in the world.”

In fact, Campbell - who was made an honorary Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2014 - is full of praise for New Zealand’s role on the world stage.

He describes the National Government’s foreign policy efforts as “incredibly impressive”, and compliments Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as “a real politician of the left”.

“I’m inspired by her and I’m impressed by her...I think she has some unique opportunities to speak out on the things that matter deeply to New Zealand but also talk about New Zealand’s role in the world.”

When it comes to the NZ-US relationship, Campbell says Ardern’s Government must strike a balance between working together in areas like the Five Eyes intelligence alliance and speaking out on areas of concern, like the Trump administration’s separation of migrant children from their families.

“That’s the nature of modern friendship with the US right now: you’ve got to balance a lot of interests, but most importantly find a way to respectfully and carefully speak truth to power but pursue your own interests as well.”

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