Architect of Obama's 'pivot to Asia' strategy to head policy in region

Obama-administration veteran Kurt Campbell authored a book advocating strengthening existing alliances and building closer relations with states like India and Indonesia in the face of a rising China.
Obama-administration veteran Kurt Campbell authored a book advocating strengthening existing alliances and building closer relations with states like India and Indonesia in the face of a rising China.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • United States President-elect Joe Biden has picked Obama-administration veteran Kurt Campbell to be his senior official for Asia policy, including the relationship with China, a spokesman for Mr Biden's transition said.

Mr Campbell, the top US diplomat for Asia under Democratic former president Barack Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, is considered an architect of their "pivot to Asia" strategy, a vaunted but so far still limited rebalancing of resources to the region.

"I can confirm Kurt will be coordinator for the Indo-Pacific at the NSC," the transition spokesman said, referring to the White House National Security Council.

Since leaving government, Mr Campbell, 63, has run the Asia Group consultancy and advised Mr Biden's Democratic campaign.

He is co-founder of the Centre for a New American Security think-tank.

Mr Campbell outlined his approach to Asia in a 2016 book The Pivot, which advocated strengthening existing alliances and building closer relations with states like India and Indonesia in the face of a rising China.

He has since endorsed some of the tough approaches towards China adopted by the Trump administration and praised some of outgoing Republican President Donald Trump's unprecedented dealings with North Korea.

However, he has also criticised Mr Trump for failing to engage sufficiently with the region as a whole and for undermining relations with key allies like Japan and South Korea.

In a Foreign Affairs article this week, Mr Campbell wrote of the need for "serious US re-engagement" in Asia and "ad hoc" coalitions and partnerships to sustain the existing order threatened by China.

Probably Mr Campbell's greatest challenge will be finding ways to recalibrate Mr Trump's fractious relationship with Beijing to an extent that allows for Mr Biden's aim of cooperation on issues such as climate change, while pursuing policies aimed at changing Chinese behaviour.

Last month, Mr Campbell said Washington's "ticket to the big game" in Asia was the US military presence and its ability to deter challenges to the current "operating system" - a reference to China's bid to establish itself as the dominant regional power.

He said the United States must also demonstrate a vision for "an optimistic, open trading system", working with allies and denying China access to areas where it was necessary to maintain a cutting edge, such as artificial intelligence, robotics and 5G.

In his Foreign Affairs article, written with Brookings Institution fellow Rush Doshi, who is seen as another possible Asia appointment under Mr Biden, Mr Campbell said Washington should move away from a "singular focus on primacy" and "expensive and vulnerable" military platforms such as aircraft carriers designed to maintain it.

Instead, they wrote, Washington should prioritise deterring China through relatively inexpensive and asymmetric capabilities such as cruise and ballistic missiles, unmanned carrier-based aircraft, submarines and high-speed strike weapons.

Mr Campbell has backed away from his past support for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement Washington negotiated under Mr Obama and from which Mr Trump withdrew. Mr Campbell has also called a new China-backed Asia-Pacific trade deal and Beijing's interest in the TPP "a real wake-up call".

Mr Campbell has said the incoming administration would have to make an early decision on its approach to North Korea and not repeat the Obama-era delay that led to "provocative" steps by Pyongyang that prevented engagement.

He praised Mr Trump's unprecedented summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, even though no progress has been made persuading Mr Kim to give up nuclear weapons and missiles.

Mr Campbell has also spoken of maintaining strong backing for Taiwan, which the Trump administration boosted.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2021, with the headline 'Architect of Obama's 'pivot to Asia' strategy to head policy in region'. Subscribe