Kurt Campbell and Biden Administration’s China Policy

Image: The Asia Group via Getty Images

By Kathryn Putz

Career in Academia, Government and the Private Sector

President Joe Biden recently announced Kurt Campbell as his pick for a newly-created position as senior official for Asia policy. Campbell will hold the title of “Indo-Pacific Coordinator,” a position that will grant him management over branches of the National Security Council (NSC) that cover Asia and China-related issues. He will report directly to Jake Sullivan, the new National Security Advisor with whom he worked in Clinton’s State Department. The move to create a new Asia-related position within the NSC is reassuring to Asian allies and Washington experts, who all hope the Biden administration will prioritize U.S.-China relations.

Seen as one of the foremost Asia foreign policy experts in Washington, Campbell’s appointment comes as little surprise. Previously, Campbell served as the director of the National Security Strategy Department in the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS), and as an executive of the Aspen Strategy Group. Campbell also co-founded the Center for a New American Security in 2007. Currently, Campbell serves as Chairman of the Board of the Center for a New American Security, as a non-resident Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, and as Vice Chairman of the East-West Center in Hawaii. He is also the Chairman and co-founder of The Asia Group, LLC, a strategic advisory and capital management group specializing in the Asia-Pacific region.

In addition to his extensive work with Washington think tanks, Campbell also has deep roots in the U.S. government. While teaching at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Campbell was recommended by Joseph Nye to enter the U.S. Department of Defense. Campbell served successively in the National Security Council and the Treasury Department. Previously, from 2009 to 2013, Campbell served as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Notably, he is widely credited in that role as championing the “Pivot to Asia” initiative: a strategy that highlights the necessity of the United States’ continued leadership in the Asia-Pacific region. Frustrated by the large amounts of resources and money spent in the Middle East and South Asia during the Bush administration, Campbell urged the Obama administration to pursue a “pivot” to Asia–prioritizing the U.S.’ economic, diplomatic, and security dealings in East Asia. Now, as the upcoming Indo-Pacific Coordinator for the Biden administration, Campbell will play a central role in shaping the upcoming U.S. policies toward China.

Campbell’s Views on China

Over the past few years, Campbell and a cohort of scholars published a series of articles detailing their visions for the future of American policy toward China. While differing in the details, all of Campbell’s co-authored articles scrutinize the U.S.’ previous strategy of “engagement”–the notion that, as a Foreign Affairs article by Campbell and Vice President of the Center for a New American Security Ely Ratner explained, “deepening commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties” would transform China’s internal development. Yet, Campbell argues throughout that this strategy of expecting China to adopt a market economy and political liberalization did not work. “Beijing was not tamed by openness of the economic market, interactions with the international community, and its power was not abated by American hegemony.”

In terms of the market, while the Chinese economy opened up during the era of U.S. engagement, Campbell identifies many issues that still exist within its state-led economic model. China has embraced this model–focusing on consolidating state-owned enterprises and pursuing industrial policies that promote technological advances in sectors such as aerospace and telecommunications. Furthermore, U.S. companies doing business in China face greater challenges now than they did in years prior. Campbell notes in his article with Ratner that more than 60 percent of American companies had little confidence that China would open its markets further over the next three years.

Regarding politics, Campbell is again emphatic that the Chinese political system shows no signs of liberalizing; in fact, recent developments suggest the opposite. Campbell and Ratner reference a 2013 internal Chinese Communist Party memo, explicitly warning against the perils of “Western constitutional democracy” and “universal values” meant to destabilize China. In practice, the Chinese government has attempted to subvert Western political pressures through tightening their control over information flows and citizens’ behavior. Campbell points to the crackdown on journalists, protesters and academics in Hong Kong as one example.

On the issue of military affairs, Campbell believes the era of U.S. military power acting as a deterrent is ending. Previously, a delicate combination of carrots and sticks was meant to deter China from challenging the U.S.-led balance of power in Asia. And until recently, this tactic was deemed successful; China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) remained decades behind the U.S. military and their moderate foreign policy under Deng Xiao Ping reassured the U.S. of their compliance. However, recently, efforts by Xi Jinping to reform the PLA have accelerated. China has invested more money into the military, working to improve technology and establish new military installations in the South China Sea and at overseas bases. According to Campbell, this heightened interest in military superiority is a result of Chinese leadership deeming the wide-reaching U.S. military presence in Asia unacceptable.

Finally, in a recently published Foreign Affairs article with Brookings Institute scholar Rush Doshi, who will also work as a director on China at the NSC, the authors express concern over Beijing’s recent violations of international norms. Regarding human rights, China has pursued internal repression of its citizens in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. And militarily, China has shown signs of disregarding norms surrounding the peaceful resolution of disputes through the recent conflict with India and threats to invade Taiwan. 

In sum, Campbell acknowledges the growing threat posed by China to the U.S. To attempt to weaken China, the Trump administration abandoned the past strategy of U.S. engagement in favor of an “America First” stance towards China–placing tariffs on billions of dollars worth of Chinese imports, and blacklisting Chinese technology companies. The views expressed in Campbell’s recent articles suggest that while he too wants to contain China, he disagrees with the tactics used by the previous administration. 

Firstly, in his recent article, Campbell feels the Trump administration’s disregard for alliances was counterproductive. In his view, the former President’s erratic behavior undermined even the U.S’ longest-standing alliances. For instance, he argues that pressing Japan and South Korea to renegotiate cost-sharing agreements for U.S. bases, and threatening to withdraw forces if they did not comply has damaged U.S. standing among Asian allies. 

On the security front, Campbell disagrees with the former President’s singular focus on military primacy in the Asia-Pacific region. Instead, Campbell encourages new tactics that would disperse American forces across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. This kind of deployment would  “reduce American reliance on a small number of vulnerable facilities in East Asia.”

Lastly, Campbell differs from former President Trump on his approach to international decision-making. Specifically, while the former President sought to exclude Beijing from the Asian regional order, Campbell advocates for including China in issues that involve the Asia-Pacific region. He believes that failing to cooperate with China is “neither practical nor profitable.”

Biden Administration’s New Policies Toward China

As the senior official for Asia policy, Campbell’s view of China and his analyses of the deficiencies of the Trump administration’s China policies will likely provide a framework through which to predict the Biden administration’s China policies. While Campbell is very critical of the outgoing administration’s approach to China, he does agree with its conclusion that the bilateral relationship is now defined by “strategic competition”–a term first used by the Trump administration in the 2017 National Security Strategy. But he also thinks the U.S. would be in a better position to compete with China if it is “prepared to live with the other as a major power.” Additionally, Campbell believes the U.S. can compete more effectively through boosting alliances and creating a network of coalitions to “shore up” the international order in Asia. To achieve these wide-reaching goals, Campbell offers concrete policy suggestions across the economic, political, military, and global governance fields.

Firstly, in order for the U.S. to remain an economic and technical leader, the Biden administration should pursue policies that protect American workers and foster domestic innovation. Such policies might include increased funding for scientific research and investing in higher education. Additionally, the U.S. will need to work with like-minded allies to establish a new set of international standards for trade. China’s access to global markets, therefore, would be contingent upon its willingness to comply with these rules. “The logic is straightforward. If China hopes to enjoy equal access to this new economic community, its own economic and regulatory frameworks must meet the same standards.”

In terms of political understanding, the Biden administration should adopt a “pro-democracy, not anti-China” strategy. In other words, through leading by example, the U.S. can promote democratic values and encourage other countries to follow suit–advancing the appeal of these values because they are pro-freedom and pro-growth, and not because they are anti-Chinese. He turns to the example of China’s Belt and Road Initiative to demonstrate this point; rather than fighting China at every turn, the U.S. should focus on convincing other countries of the value of high-quality, high-standard investments.

On the security front, in light of recent increases to Chinese military power, the U.S. would be wise to accept that their previous primacy in Asia is now relative. Instead, he believes greater attention and resources should be devoted to coexisting with China in the Indo-Pacific region–specifically, in deterring China from interfering in Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, and the East and South China Seas. Conversely, Beijing will need to respect the U.S.’ position as a  major military player in Asia. In order to foster this agreement, the Biden administration should move towards relatively low-cost and asymmetric capabilities that encourage deterrence–such as long-range conventional cruise and ballistic missiles. They should also establish a formal and detailed military agreement between the U.S. and China, with ample communication channels to allow both sides to clarify their intentions during a conflict. Lastly, the U.S. should encourage smaller states in the Indo-Pacific develop their own military capabilities in order to deter China. In short, the U.S. should strive for deterrence without dominance in East Asia.

Finally, as to global governance, the need for cooperation between Washington and Beijing will become even greater during the Biden administration. Global problems–such as climate change, economic crises, and pandemics–will be impossible to solve if the two countries fail to work together. In order to facilitate this collaboration, competition is essential–as perceptions of U.S. power in China matter enormously. Thus, the U.S. should “lead with competition, follow with cooperation, and refuse to negotiate any linkages between Chinese assistance on global challenges and concessions on U.S. interests.”

Undoubtedly, China policy will be at the forefront of the Biden administration. Many scholars are eager to discover whether, as Kurt Campbell plays a vital role in the future of American diplomacy in Asia, his “Pivot to Asia” campaign will become a reality.