Biden’s Asia czar Kurt Campbell says era of engagement with Xi's China is over

Quad leaders (from left) Yoshihide Suga, Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison listen during a virtual meeting with US President Joe Biden.
Quad leaders (from left) Yoshihide Suga, Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison listen during a virtual meeting with US President Joe Biden.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - The United States is entering a period of intense competition with China as the government running the world’s second-biggest economy becomes ever more tightly controlled by President Xi Jinping, the White House’s top official for Asia said on Wednesday (May 26).

“The period that was broadly described as engagement has come to an end,” Mr Kurt Campbell, the US coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council, said at an event hosted by Stanford University.

US policy towards China will now operate under a “new set of strategic parameters”, Mr Campbell said, adding that “the dominant paradigm is going to be competition”.

Chinese policies under President Xi are in large part responsible for the shift in US policy, Mr Campbell said, citing military clashes on China’s border with India, an “economic campaign” against Australia and the rise of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

Beijing’s behaviour was emblematic of a shift towards “harsh power, or hard power” which “signals that China is determined to play a more assertive role”, he said.

The blunt comments by Mr Campbell came as President Joe Biden said he ordered the US intelligence community to redouble its efforts to determine where the Covid-19 virus came from, after conflicting assessments of whether its origins are natural or from a lab accident in China.

Mr Biden said in a statement Wednesday that Chinese officials needed to be more transparent, and that Beijing should join an “evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington dismissed the inquiry as a “smear campaign and blame shifting” that would hurt efforts to prevent future health crises. 

China Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said Thursday at a regular press briefing in Beijing that the two countries “stand to gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation.”

“China-US relations will naturally experience some competition, which is prevalent among other major-country relations, but it is wrong to define the relationship with competition because it will only lead to confrontation and conflict,” he said.

Covid-19’s origins are just one part of a contentious and complex US-China relationship. That includes disputes over Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea, human rights in the Xinjiang region, the future of Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as economic concerns including the deployment of 5G technology and a global shortage of semiconductors.

Chinese and US officials have said they see areas of mutual cooperation, particularly on climate change, but on many other issues the relationship is far more frosty.

Mr Campbell knows well what it is like to negotiate with angry Chinese diplomats. In March, he was among US officials who met with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska in talks that got off to a rocky start with bickering before reporters and cameras over human rights, trade and international alliances.

Mr Xi is at the heart of the new approach to US-China ties, Mr Campbell said, describing the Chinese president as “deeply ideological but also quite unsentimental”. He added that Mr Xi is “not terribly interested in economics".

Since coming to power in 2012, Mr Xi has “almost completely disassembled nearly 40 years of mechanisms designed for collective leadership”, Mr Campbell said, adding that top Chinese diplomats such as Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi – the top officials dispatched to the talks in Alaska – are “nowhere near, within a hundred miles” of the Chinese leader’s inner circle.

Pushing back

Allies will be central to US efforts to push back against China in the years ahead, Mr Campbell said. The US has already tried to build up the importance of its work within the so-called Quad group of nations, which includes India, Japan and Australia. And Mr Biden’s first meetings at the White House with foreign heads of state were with Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korea President Moon Jae-in.

“We believe that the best way to engage a more assertive China is to work with allies, partners and friends,” Mr Campbell said, adding that “the best China policy really is a good Asia policy”.

Still, he said the US will need to dispel fears of American decline in Asia and offer a “positive economic vision” for the region.

“For the first time, really, we are now shifting our strategic focus, our economic interests, our military might more to the Indo-Pacific,” Mr Campbell said.

The US is looking to convene an in-person meeting of its partners the Quad group of countries in the second half of the year with a focus on infrastructure in the face of the challenge from China, Mr Campbell said.

He added that other countries would be welcome to work with the Quad, which held a first virtual leaders' summit in March and pledged to work closely on Covid-19 vaccine distribution, climate issues and security.

"We want to look this fall to convene an in-person Quad and the hope will be to make a similar kind of engagement on infrastructure more generally," Mr Campbell said. "And I do want to underscore...this is not a fancy club. If there are other countries that believe that they'd like to engage and work with us, the door will be open as we go forward."

The March Quad summit was carefully choreographed to counter China's growing influence and Mr Biden and his fellow leaders pledged to work to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific in the face of challenges from Beijing.