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Malcolm Riddell

Founder of CHINADebate

Kurt Campbell & Biden Asia Policy
Kurt Campbell & Biden Asia Policy
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January 13, 2021

In today’s issue:

1. Kurt Campbell: Biden's 'Indo-Pacific Coordinator'

2. 'How America Can Shore Up Asian Order' by Kurt Campbell

  1. 'Restoring Balance'
  2. 'Restoring Legitimacy'
  3. 'Forging Coalitions'

With President-elect Biden’s nomination of Kurt Campbell to be 'Indo-Pacific Coordinator' (a new title) at the National Security Council, we finally have clearly indications about the direction of China policy and Indo-Pacific policy more broadly under a Biden administration.

  • We have this because Dr. Campbell, who has served in many senior international relations positions, has written extensively and recently about his Asia policy views.

The most recent was an essay in Foreign Affairs on January 12, 2021, which is presented in the posts below.

  • And given Dr. Campbell’s experience, seniority, and influence, we can also expect that he will be a key driver of Asia policy in the Biden administration.

In that recent essay, 'How America Can Shore Up Asian Order,’ co-authored with Brookings Rush Doshi, he writes: ‘Two specific challenges, however, threaten the Indo-Pacific order’s balance and legitimacy.’

‘The first is China’s economic and military rise.’

  • ‘China alone accounts

for half the region’s GDP and military spending, a gap that has only grown since the COVID-19 pandemic.’

  • ‘And like any rising state, China seeks to reshape its surroundings and secure deference to its interests.’
  • ‘The way Beijing has pursued these goals—South China Sea island building, East China Sea incursions, conflict with India, threats to invade Taiwan, and internal repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang—undermines important precepts of the established regional system.’
  • ‘This behavior, combined with China’s preference for economic coercion, most recently directed against Australia, means that many of the order’s organizing principles are at risk.’

‘The second challenge is more surprising because it comes from the original architect and longtime sponsor of the present system—the United States.’

  • ‘Despite determined efforts by the Trump administration’s Asia experts to mitigate the damage, President Donald Trump himself strained virtually every element of the region’s operating system.’
  • ‘He pressed allies such as Japan and South Korea to renegotiate cost-sharing agreements for U.S. bases and troops and threatened to withdraw forces entirely if he was unsatisfied with the new terms.’
  • ‘Both moves undermined alliances the Indo-Pacific needs to remain balanced.’
  • ‘Trump was also generally absent from regional multilateral processes and economic negotiations, ceding ground for China to rewrite rules central to the order’s content and legitimacy.’
  • ‘Finally, he was cavalier about support for democracy and human rights in ways that weakened the United States’ natural partners and emboldened Chinese authorities in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.’

‘This combination of Chinese assertiveness and U.S. ambivalence has left the region in flux.’

To address these, he writes: ‘A strategy for the Indo-Pacific today would benefit from satisfying three needs:’

  1. ‘the need for a balance of power;’
  2. ‘the need for an order that the region’s states recognize as legitimate; and’
  3. ‘the need for an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both.’

I have included Dr. Campbell’s comments on each of these in separate posts below.

Josh Rogin of The Washington Post writes:

  • ‘President-elect Biden has announced 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.’

‘The 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.’

  • ‘ “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.” ’

Mr. Rogin notes: ‘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.’

Given how Asian nations remember the failed ‘Pivot,’ Dr. Campbell will have to give them an awfully lot of reassurance to gain their support in the competition with China.

  • Stay tuned.


CHINADebate, the publisher of the China Macro Reporter, aims to present different views on a given issue. Including an article here does imply agreement with or endorsement of its contents.

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