Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 13 January 2021


Biden’s pick for top Asia official should reassure nervous allies

Kurt Campbell, then-assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, in Tokyo in January 2013.
Kurt Campbell, then-assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, in Tokyo in January 2013. (KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)
Jan. 13, 2021 at 7:00 p.m. GMT+8

Until now, the incoming Biden foreign policy team had no senior officials with a specialty in Asia. But Biden plans to soon announce a new Asia-related position inside the National Security Council and has chosen former State Department official Kurt Campbell to fill it. The move should reassure nervous Asian allies that the Biden administration is taking the China challenge seriously.

Campbell will join the administration with the title of “Indo-Pacific coordinator,” a job that will give him broad management over the NSC directorates that cover various parts of Asia and China-related issues, several Biden transition officials told me. Early reports called this position an “Asia czar,” but the Biden team doesn’t like that term. Campbell will report directly to incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan, officials said. The Biden NSC will have several of these “coordinators,” who will have more authority than the “senior directors” below them.

The pending announcement is viewed favorably by those Asia experts in Washington who hope the Biden administration will take a more competitive approach to dealing with China than the Obama administration did. Campbell has a high profile in the region, extensive diplomatic experience, well-honed bureaucratic skills and good relationships on Capitol Hill, all of which suggest he will have real influence over the administration’s strategy.

“China hawks have a healthy skepticism about how the Biden administration will approach Beijing, but bringing in Kurt to play this senior role, and all the more junior, competitive-minded people who will work for him, is a very encouraging sign,” said Eric Sayers, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “It will be bureaucratically tricky to make this position work smoothly in our government, but if anyone has the personality and drive to pull it off, it’s Kurt.”

Campbell, one of the most senior Asia hands in the Democratic foreign policy ranks, last served in government as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under Hillary Clinton. Together, they helped form the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy. The Obama White House later changed the name to the “rebalance,” but Campbell got the last word on that debate in his book, titled “The Pivot.”

He co-founded the Center for a New American Security in 2007 with Michèle Flournoy, who was considered but not chosen to be Biden’s defense secretary. Campbell’s wife, Lael Brainard, was considered but not chosen to be Biden’s treasury secretary. Since 2013, Campbell has served as chairman and chief executive of the Asia Group, a consultancy he founded. He is close to Sullivan, whom he worked with in the Clinton-led State Department.

In late 2019, Campbell and Sullivan laid out their theory of the case for dealing with China in an essay for Foreign Affairs titled “Competition Without Catastrophe: How America Can Both Challenge and Coexist With China.” They argued that the Trump administration had it right when it identified China as a “strategic competitor” in its 2017 National Security Strategy, but they said this competition must be waged with vigilance and humility, structured around the goal of coexisting with China rather than expecting to change it.

“Although coexistence offers the best chance to protect U.S. interests and prevent inevitable tension from turning into outright confrontation, it does not mean the end of competition or surrender on issues of fundamental importance,” they wrote. “Instead, coexistence means accepting competition as a condition to be managed rather than a problem to be solved.”

Campbell believes the United States must not return to a strategy based on engaging China in hopes that China will liberalize. The United States must acknowledge that strategy didn’t work, he wrote in a 2018 Foreign Affairs essay with Ely Ratner, who is expected to take a senior Asia-related post in Biden’s administration, perhaps as assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs.

On Tuesday, Campbell and Rush Doshi, director of the Brookings Institution's China Strategy Initiative, released a new Foreign Affairs essay focused on how the United States can “shore up” the international order in Asia, by restoring a balance of power with China, bolstering alliances and then using those alliances to push back on Beijing’s aggressive actions.

Through a network of overlapping coalitions, the United States should join with like-minded partners to “send a message [to Beijing] that there are risks to China’s present course,” they wrote. “This task will be among the most challenging in the recent history of American statecraft.”

Asia watchers in Washington and America’s Asian allies should be reassured that Biden is planning to elevate the importance of the Indo-Pacific region by creating this coordinator role and staffing it with someone so senior. But the real test will be whether the Biden administration actually devotes the time and resources needed to complete the “Pivot to Asia” Campbell first pitched a decade ago.

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