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Dealing with China and the US: Four Strategies for 2017

11 Jan 2017
By The Hon Dr Wayne Mapp
New Zealand, Australia, and the US Photo Credit: New York National Guard (Flickr) Creative Commons

Australia and New Zealand have a vital interest in the relationship that the new Trump Administration will have with Beijing. Both countries, along with many other nations in the Asia-Pacific, will not wish to be drawn into any disputes between China and the United States.

This will particularly be the case if they perceive that such disputes are a result of a departure from the status quo, such as the implementation of new trade barriers or provocative military policies.

Already, Australia and New Zealand have to deal with the unsettling fact that the United States is not going to be party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Both countries spent political capital in signing up to the TPP. On this issue alone, the new administration is unlike previous United States governments. No longer can the US be relied on to commit to trade deals signed by previous administrations.

The incoming administration has already indicated that many existing commitments will be undone. This has been most clearly the case with the TPP and the Paris Treaty on climate change, though the reality may be far more prosaic.

Although President-elect Trump has said the United States will not proceed with the TPP, that does not necessarily mean the United States will completely abandon a multilateral trade deal for the Asia-Pacific. There are enough people in the administration who are committed multilateralists and who understand the need for the United States to maintain its strategic position with its partners. In any event, many of President-elect Trump’s statements are not to be read as literal statements of policy, rather as indicators of a sense of direction.

President-elect Trump’s statements on defence, whether it be about defence relationships or the nuclear deterrent, have raised real concerns about the quality of the commitment to security. However, it is unlikely that there will be a significant rupture of the various alliance obligations. This would serve no-ones interests.

Australia and New Zealand will inevitably be taking a wait-and-see approach until the direction of the new administration is transparently clear. However, both nations have fundamental relationships, which they will wish to preserve irrespective of the direction of the Trump administration. Foremost among these is the relationship with China.

China is the largest trading partner of Australia and New Zealand for both imports and exports, and is an increasing source of investment and migrants. The sustained growth of the two economies has been crucially dependent on the strength of the Chinese economy. Both nations have comprehensive free trade agreements with China. Any significant setback to these economic relationships would do great harm to both nations.

It is therefore imperative that the two nations do all that is reasonably necessary to prevent this from happening.

There are four key strategies.

The first is to assure China that the relationship is a vital national interest, and that nothing will be done to imperil the relationship; the frequency of ministerial and official visits will be sustained.

The second strategy is to press upon the United States the importance of the China relationship, and that any US actions should take that into account. While the United States will have is own policy imperatives, it is unlikely to completely ignore the clearly stated wishes of its closest partners. It is certain that many of the United States’ Asia-Pacific partners will be indicating to the United States the importance they place on the China relationship.

The third strategy is to take a more neutral stance on Sino-American issues—particularly where they relate to security matters. As much as possible, this would mean avoiding being seen as tending toward one side or the other as much as possible. The current alliances and defence partnerships with the United States would be maintained with the usual range of exercises and dialogue. But where there are disputes on security matters, which have been aggravated by an unnecessarily deteriorating Sino-American relationship, then the partners of the United States should adopt a more neutral stance. This may also signal to the United States the limits of its security alliances. They should not be seen as a blank cheque.

The final, and most significant, strategy is to build new China and Asia-centric links to offset any risk of a disruption of China-US trade. It makes sense to implement the TPP even if the United States is not a party. Clearly it is weaker without the United States, but progressing the TPP without the United States speaks of the confidence that the TPP nations have in their own economic destiny. It also ensures they are in the best possible position in terms of any renegotiation, should the United States seek to enter at a later point. This strategy may also allow the easier entry of China into the TPP if the United States is not a party. In such an event it means that the alternative agreement, the China-centric RCEP, may be also be improved in terms of trade access.

Fundamentally Australia and New Zealand have their own independent foreign policy objectives. They should advance their own interests, rather than being excessively influenced by the changes the United States may make to its foreign policy as a result of the 2016 presidential election.

The Hon Dr Wayne Mapp is a New Zealand law commissioner. From 2008 to 2011 he was New Zealand’s minister of defence and minister of science and technology.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.