Biden appoints Kurt Campbell as Asia policy head

President-elect Biden has appointed Kurt Campbell as top official for Asia policy, including the key relationship with China; Campbell is a veteran diplomat who had a similar role in the Obama administration

by Jon Macaskill and David Brunnstrom
Biden appoints Kurt Campbell as Asia policy head
President-elect Joe Biden has sought to signal continuity and cautious evolution with his pick as head of Asia policy, Kurt Campbell. Image:AFP/ Getty.

(ATF) US President-elect Biden has appointed Kurt Campbell as top official for Asia policy; picking a veteran of the Obama administration with extensive diplomatic experience in the region.

Campbell, 63, was viewed as an architect of a “pivot to Asia” strategy under Obama, but his views on relations with China have toughened in the interim years.

Since leaving government, Campbell has run the Asia Group consultancy and advised Biden’s Democratic campaign. He is co-founder of the Center for a New American Security think tank.

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 toward China adopted by the Trump administration and praised some of outgoing Republican President Donald Trump’s unprecedented dealings with North Korea.

He has also criticized Trump for failing to engage sufficiently with the region as a whole and for undermining relations with key allies like Japan and South Korea.

'Serious re-engagement needed'

In a Foreign Affairs article this week 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.

Campbell’s greatest challenge will be finding ways to reset relations with Beijing to encourage Biden’s aim of cooperation on issues such as climate change, while pursuing policies aimed at changing Chinese behaviour.

Last month, 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 necessary to maintain a cutting edge, such as artificial intelligence, robotics or 5G.

In his Foreign Affairs article, written with Rush Doshi, a Brookings Institution fellow seen as another possible Asia appointment under Biden, 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 prioritize deterring China through relatively inexpensive and asymmetric capabilities such as cruise and ballistic missiles, unmanned carrier-based aircraft, submarines, and high-speed strike weapons.

Campbell has backed away from his past support for a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement Washington negotiated under Obama, from which 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.”

'Boldness appropriate'

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.

Campbell praised Trump’s unprecedented summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, even though no progress was made in persuading Kim to give up nuclear weapons and missiles.

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

Campbell has said 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.”

With reporting by Reuters

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