Biden’s new Asia tsar understands the China challenge

January 22, 2021

Among Democrats, there is no American who knows more about Asia and is better known in Asia than Kurt Campbell. The news in recent days that President Joe Biden has appointed him as Co-ordinator for the Indo-Pacific, a new role within the National Security Council, is therefore very welcome. Campbell has effectively become Biden’s Asia tsar.

The appointment is good news for the UK and for the broader Western alliance, especially as it is coupled with Ely Ratner of the Center for a New American Security – a consummate expert on Sino-American relations – coming in as top China adviser to the new US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Campbell has a long history of engagement with Asia in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. He is credited with authoring Obama’s “pivot” to Asia and is considered to be a tough foreign policy realist who understands the shifting power dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region – and how America can work with allies to manage them. That is, after all, the single greatest foreign policy challenge facing the incoming Biden administration.

Notably, in his most significant recent engagement abroad – for the second of last autumn’s Policy Exchange Cramphorn Memorial Lectures – he highlighted just how much continuity there will be on Asia policy between the Trump and Biden administrations. He praised the first part of the lecture series by Matt Pottinger, then Deputy National Security Advisor in the Trump White House, and went on to laud President Trump’s diplomatic methods in Asia – “the long, languid dinners” and the golfing, for example, with Shinzo Abe, then Japan’s Prime Minister, which reflected “a more leisurely recognition that face time matters so much among our Asian friends and interlocutors”.

Campbell also argued that the United States had maintained Pax Americana in the Indo-Pacific region for 75 years. That may not be strictly true. In that period, the Americans, with their allies, fought the Korean war – successfully – and the Vietnam war – unsuccessfully. But as a general proposition it is right that the astonishing economic rise of East Asia would not have been possible without the Americans as the balancing wheel of regional security. That balance has been possible because the United States has had key alliances – in particular with Japan, Australia and South Korea – on which it can rely. No other country in the region has a comparable network of such sophisticated alliances.

Over the same period, America’s Asia policy has often been domestically contentious. There was substantial domestic opposition to participation in the wars in Korea and Vietnam. These conflicts divided the nation. That stands in stark contrast to the historic unity in the United States towards the commitment to the Atlantic alliance and the Cold War, and even on many of the key issues in the Middle East.

Today, as his Colin Cramphorn Memorial Lecture outlined, Campbell takes on the new job in a context in which the opposite is true. It is Middle East policy that splits the American polity right down the middle. Relations with Russia and the commitment to Nato have become contentious too.  The one foreign policy issue that does unite Americans is their perception that China has now become a strategic competitor to the United States. There is a shared worry across the aisle, as Campbell’s recent article for Foreign Affairsmagazine put it, that, “Left unchecked, Chinese behavior could end the region’s long peace.”

What should we expect from the incoming Asia tsar in policy terms? Well, Campbell understands the difference between a policy of containment of China and a policy of competition. After he left office during the Obama years, he recognised that the administration’s policy of engagement with China had not worked. He is likely therefore to continue on the current approach based on a recognition of China as a competitor. The key will be, as he argued in another Foreign Affairsarticle with Jake Sullivan, how to set the lines which China cannot be allowed to cross. His advice to the administration will be to stand firm against China’s territorial transgressions in the South China Sea, to protect American international intellectual property, to push back against China’s cyber-offensive activities and to make sure America’s trade and investment interests are protected.

Thankfully, Campbell is one of those diplomats who understands power. Too many diplomats are beguiled by the niceties of diplomacy. They tend to be satisfied with relations which are amiable, regardless of geo-politics and the national interest. That isn’t Kurt Campbell’s style. He’s frank and he is tough enough to understand that in the Indo-Pacific region it is essential to maintain an effective balance of power. That means, inter alia, a US administration which will lean heavily on its alliances in the region to renew its leadership and stabilizing role.

Here lies an opportunity for the UK. Campbell has been engaged with Policy Exchange in recent months and is familiar with recent work from its Indo-Pacific Commission, which was chaired by Stephen Harper, the former Canadian prime minister. The Commission’s report argued that there should be a decided tilt towards the Indo-Pacific region by the UK and it made a series of recommendations. Chiefly among them, the Commission argued the important of adopting an Indo-Pacific Charter to crystallise core principles including freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of disputes and protection of IPO that have underwritten the huge increase in prosperity in the region in the past 75 years and guide regional players.

The UK, as an international standard-bearer of the rule of law, can help here. The idea could even become a “Johnson doctrine” for the Prime Minister. It’s fashionable, of course, to dismiss the idea that the UK has the capacity for such a global role. But the Commission found that there was a lot of enthusiasm for Britain to return to what used to be called “east of Suez” – including from Shinzo Abe, one of the great Asian statesman of the post-war era.

Clearly, the UK will need to work closely with the United States in the region to make a difference and benefit from new trade with some of the fastest-growing economies in the world. But there is a benefit for the US too. For the Biden team, to have a country of the UK’s stature – a nation with substantial soft and hard power capabilities – as a presence in the Indo-Pacific region will be a substantial strategic advantage. From assets in technology, notably cyber technology, to financial services and specific military capabilities the UK can help the Biden administration to restore American leadership. The first three assets may turn out to be more important than the last. As Campbell’s lecture noted, the real competition with China in the 21st will not be military, but around AI, 5G, robotics and quantum computing.

With Brexit behind it and a new administration in Washington with a strong focus on the Indo-Pacific, the British Government would be wise to follow America’s lead and appoint its own high profile co-ordinator for the region. That appointment would strongly compliment Campbell’s role, ensuring the UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific is synchronised with American policy. Crucially, this would also allow the UK to do so by investing in key partnerships with countries like Japan, Australia and India to promote sustainable stability and prosperity. On this point, there may even be a chance to co-operate on the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership, which was in its original form negotiated by the Obama administration. The UK and US could both be future members.

One last thought. The UK is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and one of only five countries to have that privileged position, which brings with it the capacity to veto Security Council resolutions. To justify that privilege, the UK must exercise global responsibilities on key issues, not just regional responsibilities. The British government has recently showed it can do just that in leading the international debate on the unfolding human rights crisis against the Uighur minorities in Xinjiang. As one of its last policy acts, the Trump administration declared China’s treatment of the Uighurs as a ‘genocide’ on the same day the UK Parliament debated a clause of a trade bill that aimed at requiring the government to withdraw from deals with nations the UK High Court ruled guilty of mass killing.  How Campbell will tackle this question remains to be seen but in the UK it will find a strong partner. Yet it is one clear example that in the 21st century the great issues for the world are not going to be in Europe: they going to revolve around the rise of China and the dynamic changes in the Indo-Pacific.

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