Towards a trilateral mechanism

Robert Zoellick, former deputy secretary of state and architect of the Bush administration’s “responsible stakeholder” approach to Sino-US relations, has an op-ed in the FT — subscription required — in which he calls for a new “Shanghai Communiqué.”

He wrote:

Chinese leaders place value on determining the principles that should guide policy. That is sound logic. Yet concepts such as “peaceful rise” or “development” have to come to life through policies and actions concerned with real problems and opportunities. Others will assess China’s – and the US’s – rhetoric by considering deeds and achievements. The economic relationship between the US and China has burgeoned since 1972, yet the political foundation for this economic edifice is increasingly lopsided and the risks of slippage are increasing. China has prudently encouraged economic opportunities for countries in other regions.

It would be sensible for China to build the same strong, sustainable mutual interests with its largest economic partner. The US and China will also need to intensify their co-operation on many interconnected foreign and security policy interests – concerning North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and even Sudan.

The challenge of becoming shared stakeholders is not an easy one. China is a rising power and rising powers engender fears. The US is the pre-eminent global power but, unlike most successful powers, it is in the nature of the US to question the status quo. This transforming spirit can cause anxieties in others. Yet America’s practical outlook and openness to change foster respect for China’s accomplishments as well as a proclivity to solve problems. We need to turn to the next stage of work in defining the strategic relationship between China and the US that began with the Shanghai Communiqué.

Zoellick’s argument is sensible, but he fails to note that a new communiqué is as important for the US as it is for China, as it would be a means of signalling the importance of a steady Sino-US relationship to the American people, their representatives in Congress, and US allies across the region — especially Japan. The Sino-US relationship is far more critical now than it was in 1972, and it is time for the US and China to issue a document that updates the principles, goals, and expectations of the relationship for the twenty-first century.

That said, Zoellick’s piece lacks imagination, because rather than simply pretending like the Sino-US relationship is all that matters, the new Shanghai Communiqué should be the founding document of a more formalized US-China-Japan trilateral relationship. The strategic triangle is the relationship upon which the peace, security, and stability of the region rests. While recent steps to regularize communication and cooperation within the constitutive relationships of the triangle are important, Tokyo, Washington, and Beijing should become accustomed to addressing regional issues in concert. A trilateral arrangement would also reduce the temptation, surely faced by each government, to divide and conquer, and would do much to undermine the argument that the US and Japan are secretly planning to balance against and contain China.

As Daniel Drezner suggests in this post, due to China’s vulnerability in the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics, the time may be right for an ambitious move by the US to lock in China as a “responsible stakeholder” both regionally and globally. Japan, as the major US ally in the region and China’s major economic partner in the region, must be a part of this process.

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