The relationship between the United States and China is now the most decisive bilateral relationship in the world. It works on two levels, one public and one private.
The two leaders, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, have been manoeuvring behind the scenes to improve their private ties.
On 2 December last Trump broke decades of United States policy by receiving a congratulatory phone call from the President of Taiwan.
Last February, however, Trump made a complete change. He said in a TV interview that he had spoken by phone with President Xi and had pledged to follow the “one China policy.” Also on 1 February Ivanka Trump and her husband attended a Chinese New Year party at the Beijing Embassy in Washington.
President Trump is unpredictable but clearly wants to be a deal maker. It is clear that he is less interested in maintaining existing United States alliances and that he can work with both China and Russia. This has important implications for Australia.
With the end of the Cold War high hopes were held for the future; but twenty-five years later this hope has given way to fears. These present fears do make it easier for Australia to adopt updated policies.
Sadly the ALP under Shorten does not differentiate itself substantially from the Turnbull Government’s policies, thus hindering Australia from adopting updated foreign security and trade policies suitable for 2017 and beyond. Both the Government and the ALP accept the illusion that Australia’s security is guaranteed by ANZUS. It is not guaranteed. Also both the Coalition and the ALP have supported recent steps to strengthen our alliance with the former United States Government. The Coalition and the ALP have both supported United States conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the Saudi Arabian brutal involvement in the Yemen.
Australia has also supported the United States attitude to what it refers to as the “war on terror”, including United States forces operating in Darwin as part of a denied but actual policy of the containment of China.
These developments have prompted the retired Mikhail Gorbachev to say on 27 January last that Western leaders sound “increasingly belligerent”. It is, he added, “dangerous” and it all “looks as if the world is preparing for war”.
North Korea is indeed acting in a strident manner. It is not really interested in the Six Party Talks. What North Korea really wants is bilateral discussions with the United States. The United States has not agreed to have such bilateral talks with North Korea as it would be seen as rewarding its intransigence. The United States adopted the same attitude to bilateral discussions with Cuba for some thirty years but now has them. If the United States seriously wants progress with North Korea, then it should agree to bilateral talks with it, as it ultimately did with Cuba.
To conclude we must set new policy priorities of much closer engagement with South East Asia, North Asia and the South West Pacific, as well as with Russia. Our focus must not be on the “containment” of China, as this will not succeed. We must focus now on regional dialogue, mediation, the peaceful settlement of disputes, especially in the South China Sea and on increasing economic co-operation and trade.
Richard Woolcott is a former Head of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and former President of the Security Council.