Obama-era veteran Kurt Campbell to lead Biden's Asia policy

Campbell (above was the top US diplomat for Asia under Democratic President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Campbell (above was the top US diplomat for Asia under Democratic President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - US President-elect Joe Biden has picked an Obama-administration veteran, Mr Kurt Campbell, to be his senior official for Asia policy, including the relationship with China, a spokesman for Mr Biden's transition said on Wednesday (Jan 13).

Mr Campbell, the top US diplomat for Asia under Democratic president Barack Obama and 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.

Mr Campbell will serve as coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council and deputy to Mr Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security advisor, said The Asia Group, a consultancy that Mr Campbell founded in 2013 after leaving government.

Mr Campbell had advised Mr Biden's Democratic campaign.

He is also 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 such as 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 such as 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 or 5G.

China, trade and North Korea

In his Foreign Affairs article, written with Dr Rush Doshi, a Brookings Institution fellow 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 trade agreement Washington negotiated under Mr Obama and from which Mr Trump withdrew.

But while warning that rejoining such multilateral trade agreements could not be expected at the start of a Biden administration, given the US domestic mood, he has also called a new China-backed Asia-Pacific trade deal and Beijing's interest in the TPP "a real wake-up call".

The two wrote that the US “needs to make a conscious effort to deter Chinese adventurism” but advocated a more nuanced approach than the Trump team, which has spoken of a global Cold War-like struggle against Beijing.

Asian nations do not want to have to choose between the US and China, Mr Campbell and Dr Doshi wrote.

“A better solution would be for the United States and its partners to persuade China that there are benefits to a competitive but peaceful region,” they wrote, saying that Beijing should be offered a place in a regional order if it abides by agreed-upon rules.

On North Korea, 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.

Mr Campbell 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.

"Some boldness is appropriate in American foreign policy, particularly in Asia," said Mr Campbell, who has also spoken of maintaining strong backing for Taiwan, which the Trump administration boosted.

Mr Campbell has said that Republicans and Democrats need to work together on China, saying Washington faces "a period of deep strategic competition" with Beijing and must dispel the notion that America is in a hurtling decline.

"We have to convince other countries we have our own house in order," he said.

Without both parties working together on China and Asia, he added, "we will, in all likelihood, fail".

A longtime presence on Washington’s think-tank circuit who studied music in Armenia and played tennis at Oxford, the garrulous Mr Campbell was an unusually lively presence in the often staid world of diplomacy when he served as secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s top diplomat on Asia.

Pursuing a hectic travel schedule, he led the Obama administration’s “pivot” under which the US said it would re-orient resources towards Asia, seeing future interests there rather than the conflict-ridden Middle East.