Understanding Biden’s ‘Asia Czar’ on China

I don’t like the framing of the Cold War. I am fearful that framing obscures more than it illuminates. I think it causes us to fall back on patterns of thinking and framing that is in no way helpful... to some of the challenges presented by China.”

Kurt Campbell

President Biden assumed office in January of last year and with that inherited a number of pressing challenges, including abandoned treaties and alliances, disgruntled allies and partners, a trade war with a risen China, and a deadly pandemic. Unlike Donald Trump’s policy of ‘America First,’ President Biden promised to bring ‘America back’ to the world stage, reassure its allies and partners, confront ‘authoritarianism’ with respect to China and Russia, and address challenges to America’s global leadership. Since many of these challenges stemmed from Washington’s lack of strategic focus in the Asia-Pacific region in years prior, President Biden picked Kurt M. Campbell as the administration’s Asia hand.

Kurt M. Campbell is a seasoned diplomat, skilled bureaucrat, and a respected foreign policy theorist. At present, Campbell serves as the Biden administration’s Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs on the National Security Council and informs President Biden’s policy towards China.

Campbell previously served in different capacities in the executive branch of the US government. From 2000 to 2007, Campbell served as the Senior Vice President, Director of the International Security Program, and the Henry A. Kissinger Chair on National Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). From 2009 to 2013, Campbell was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under the Obama Administration. For five years, Dr. Campbell also served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Affairs, Director on the National Security Council Staff, Deputy Special Councilor to President Clinton for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and a White House Fellow at the US Department of Treasury. He was also a member of the Defense Policy Board at the Pentagon. In 2013, he co-founded and served as the CEO of The Asia Group, a strategic and advisory firm based in Washington D.C. Campbell is also the Co-Founder and a former Board Chairman of the Center for New American Security (CNAS), a prominent think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.

During his tenure as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Campbell advocated for a greater focus towards Asia and, together with Hillary Clinton, was the principal architect of Obama administrations’ ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy (also referred to as ‘Rebalance to Asia’). Since Campbell informs President Biden’s approach towards China, it is essential to understand how Biden’s Asia hand perceives the China challenge. This article examines Campbell’s book, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia, that he authored in 2016, and his numerous articles on US-China relations to assess his changing perception of China. Over the last few years, it is evident that Campbell’s view of America’s approach to China has transitioned from that of “constructive engagement” with China to competition as the “dominant paradigm” of the relationship.

Campbell As a China Watcher

Campbell is among those vigilant ‘China watchers’ who has consistently informed Washington on China as the “rising commercial, political, and military giant” in the East.

In his 2006 testimony before the US Committee on Arms Services as the Vice President and Director of the CSIS International Security Program, Campbell stated that the “engagement” and “hedging” elements of the American approach towards China were not well integrated. To “manage the rise of China,” Campbell suggested deployment of forward military presence in Asia as a sign of reassurance to its allies while adopting a “nuanced diplomacy” to ease tensions among regional countries, including between China and Taiwan. Specifically with regards to China, Campbell called for promoting Chinese language skills within the government and military, and to secure “sustained strategic cooperation” with Beijing against the global war on terror.

In 2010, as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Campbell emphasized the complexity of US-China relations and underscored the fact that the Obama administration was working hard to develop a stable and constructive partnership with Beijing. He argued that US relations with China are complicated because the relationship concerns an ‘extraordinarily diverse’ range of issues, including climate change, commercial and currency issues, and hotspots such as Iran and North Korea. Notably, Campbell advocated cooperation with China on many of these issues. Overall, his perception of America’s approach towards China was predominantly informed by his ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy, which favored prioritizing Asia as a central focus of American foreign policy by shifting economic, political, and military resources to the region, reassuring American allies, maintaining a sustained strategic competition with China, along-with cooperation with China on issues of mutual and global concerns.

His support for Obama’s ‘pivot’ or ‘Rebalance’ to Asia continued while serving as the CEO of The Asia Group since 2013. In an article published in Foreign Affairs in 2014, Campbell rejected the assumption that the strategy seeks to encircle or weaken China, and stated that developing robust and productive relationship with China is a principal and irrefutable component of the strategy. For instance, the strategy calls for annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and the Strategic Security Dialogue. Although, he recognized the fact that Washington’s robust outreach to China’s neighbors will antagonize China, Campbell expressed confidence that any such disagreements will be neutralized by the broader context of U.S.-China bilateral cooperation. At the same time, Campbell highlighted China’s attempts to change the territorial status quo as an ‘immediate challenge’ and advised the Obama administration to make it clear to Beijing that its ‘revisionist’ behavior is counter-productive to stable U.S.-China relations.

Campbell’s Pivot to Asia: Embedding China in a Greater Asian Framework

In 2016, Campbell gave a comprehensive analysis of the contours of Obama’s Pivot to Asia strategy in his book, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia. The book is premised on two principal arguments; first is to elevate Asia as the prominent focus of American policymakers, and second is to adopt a comprehensive and flexible strategy towards Asia, moving move away from a “China First” or “G-2” approach and instead embed China in a larger regional framework.

Despite recognizing the manifold challenges presented by a rising China, Campbell rejects containing China as the appropriate American response. In fact, he argues that “no serious American policy-maker supports containing China,” because the notion itself ignores the complexities of interdependence in Asia. Campbell understands that China is deeply intertwined with the US and regional economies and plays the “greatest role” in Asian emergence. To Campbell, any approach that spurs arms race with China is unsuccessful while the appropriate approach is to constructive engagement.

Campbell does acknowledge that “at least some amount of competition and tension in US-China relations is inevitable and perhaps even healthy.” In the midst of a changing balance of power and the prospect of “Chinese hegemony” in Asia, Campbell argues that the US should work closely with its traditional allies and partners and “engage China constructively and resolutely.” To Campbell, China became more assertive as it doubted America’s resolve which is why he advocates shifting forces to the Pacific Theater to demonstrate American resolve and check “China’s unilateralism” in the Asia-Pacific region. In short, Campbell’s approach under “Pivot to Asia” is best understood as mixture of reassurance and resolve – underscoring the elements of cooperation and competition between the two great powers. However, Campbell’s vision of US-China relations has evolved with time.  

Continuity and Change in Campbell’s Perception of China

Campbell endorsed some of President Donald Trump’s tough actions against China since 2017. He appreciated Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS-2017) and National Defense Strategy (NDS-2018) for revisiting past U.S. approaches and evincing the importance of the great power competition with China, but Campbell criticized the administration for adopting a “narrow focus on bilateral trade deficits, the abandonment of multilateral trade deals, the questioning of the value of alliances, and the downgrading of human rights and diplomacy,” an approach that he considered “confrontational without being competitive” and contrary to China’s approach which is “competitive without being confrontational.” In his review of Michael Green’s book By More Than Providence, Campbell, along with Rush Doshi, contended that the Trump administration lacked ‘strategic focus’ towards Asia in general and China in particular.

In 2018, Campbell authored an essay in Foreign Affairs with Ely Ratner, explaining how “Chinese realities have upset American expectations,” and warned against returning to a policy premised on the perception that, in Josh Rogin’s words, “engaging China in hopes that China will liberalize.” In an August 2020 article on the “Changing China Debate” for the Chatham House, Campbell also highlighted the bipartisan consensus between the Democrats and the Republicans alike on the fact that “engagement is now behind us.” Rejecting Cold War analogy for a China that is less threatening but more competitive than the Soviet Union (to Campbell, there is no George Kennan-esque prophecy which claims that the Chinese system contains the “seeds of its own decay” and will “crumble under its own weight”), he suggested that the US strategy should include “sustained commercial competition and military vigilance with necessary political dialogue and cooperation.” Claiming that a shift from “cooperative engagement” is underway, he recognized that “great power politics is not a problem to be solved but a condition to be managed,” which is why the US should find a form of “evolving and complex co-existence” with Beijing. Campbell’s calls for “serious U.S. re-engagement” remains, but less with Beijing and more with US allies and partners in face of a risen China.

Over the years, Campbell has continually advocated maintaining robust military presence and close coordination with allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region. In December 2020, Campbell argued that the US military presence in Asia is Washington’s “ticket to the big game” with the ability to deter challenges to the existing “operating system” – in other words, to check China’s growing assertiveness in the region. However, he also suggested that the US not seek military primacy but shore up effective deterrence in close coordination with its allies and partners in Asia.

Similarly in trade and economics, Campbell suggested that the US should advance an ‘optimistic, open trading system’ with its allies and deny China access to areas including artificial intelligence, robotics, or 5G to maintain primacy in the cutting edge technologies. Campbell has also backed away from his past support for the TPP (Trump withdrew from it in 2017). At the same time, he called a new China-backed Asia-Pacific trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and Beijing’s interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) “a real wake-up call” for the US.

In another Foreign Affairs article with Rush Doshi, Campbell also began building a case for why the China challenge can help unify the US at home and forge closer cooperation with allies and partners. In short, his argument is premised on the assumption that competition with China will help Washington check China’s unilateralism in Asia as well as dispel the notion of American decline.

Campbell as Biden’s Asia Hand: Competition as the Dominant Paradigm

Campbell’s views of China have turned rather more negative after he joined President Biden’s team of Asia hands in January 2021.

On May 26, 2021, Campbell at the Stanford’s APARC’s Oksenberg Conference stated that “the period that was broadly described as engagement has come to an end.” According to him US policy towards China will now operate under “new set of strategic parameters” and the “dominant paradigm is going to be competition.” In a response, a spokesperson for Chinese Foreign Ministry acknowledged that “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.”

In fact, Campbell’s announcement of the “unceremonious close” of the era of engagement was made earlier in 2019 in his Foreign Affairs article with Jake Sullivan, where both of them assessed whether “competition can succeed in transforming China where engagement failed.” Campbell and Sullivan proposed that the main goal of the US strategy towards China should be to establish favorable terms of co-existence in four key competitive domains including military, economic, political, and global governance. Therefore, to them, the appropriate US approach should be a “steady state of clear-eyed co-existence,” where competition should be taken as a “condition to be managed and not a problem to be solved.” On the other hand, Campbell’s position on America’s longstanding policy position seems immutable. For instance, in a discussion at Asia Society on July 6, 2021, Campbell stated that US and China can co-exist peacefully and that the US does not support Taiwan independence. He also rejected dropping the policy of Strategic Ambiguity in favor of Richard Hass’ ‘strategic clarity’ given the former’s significant strategic “downsides” for US-China relations and beyond.  However, he warned of the anticipated “periods of uncertainty” that would be sustain tensions between China and the Unites States.

Exploring for the Shift

With respect to his changing views on China, Campbell credits Hu Jintao with China’s shift from a “charm offensive” (building ties with neighbors) towards economic statecraft and coercive bargaining, along with more “assertive trends” in Chinese foreign policy under President Xi Jinping.

After joining President Biden’s team of Asia hands, Campbell describes the shift himself as consistent with growing Chinese power and its changing posture in the Asia-Pacific region. He argues that “there are many components to American engagement in Asia; one is just a general recognition of what is taking place.” Referring to his absence from the White House for a decade, Campbell explains that “I will tell you I was out of government for ten years, coming back, I was astonished by some of the things I read, saw, experienced, and have had deep engagement about, and one of them is just undeniable – a very assertive determined China that wants to play the leading role on the global stage, and has really quite unsentimental views of the United States, and really wants to reshape the operating system of Asia.”

Kurt Campbell describes Chinese President Xi Jinping as “deeply ideological but also quite unsentimental” who is “not terribly interested in economics.” To Campbell, President Xi has consolidated decision-making power, and in doing so has isolated him from moderate voices who might advise against more assertive policies. In fact, he proposed in his book in 2016, that “direct engagement with Xi Jinping is especially important now, given his increasing dominance of decision-making.” Campbell’s belief has only been reinforced since then in subsequent interactions with Chinese officials. For example, Campbell was part of the US delegation who met Chinese diplomats at the heated Alaska talks in March 2021.

Furthermore, Campbell has expressed he does not trust the value of negotiating with top Chinese diplomats including Yang Jiechi a (member of the Politburo and Director of Central Foreign Affairs Commission) and Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister and State Councilor, who, according to Campbell, are “nowhere near, within a hundred miles” of the Chinese leaders’ inner circle. Nevertheless, he expressed “great regards” for the two men as the “able representatives” of China.

Campbell’s approach is now more concerned with anchoring American unity with allies than seeking cooperation with Beijing, which is why, during the Alaska talks, he conditioned improvement in relations with China on Beijing ending its economic boycott of Australia.

Campbell believes that President Xi’s foreign policy includes the rise in incursions across the Taiwan Strait, border clashes with India, economic campaign against Australia, and Beijing’s Wolf Worrier diplomacy. However, these ae only one among the three major trends Campbell believes define China’s “forward leaning” approach under Xi, the others of which include a perception (in China) that balance of power is shifting in China’s favor, as well as the rise in popular and elite-level Chinese nationalism.

According to Campbell, events like the 2008 global financial crisis and American engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq motivated a perception in Chinese leadership that the US is in ‘inexorable and rapid decline.’ A renewed domestic debate ensued which concluded on disposing of Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” strategy in favor of a more assertive Chinese approach identified by “New Type of Great Power Relations” introduced by President Xi. Roughly around the same time, China began pursuing a more assertive foreign policy to match its continuing economic ascent and military modernization. Its unprecedented economic growth and rapid military advancement in pursuit of area-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities has given leaders in Beijing greater confidence in their ability to deter the US from entering conflict zones near its borders including the South China Sea (SCS).

Campbell recounts the role of Obama’s Pivot to Asia strategy; yet, he criticizes the administration’s distraction with other regions at the end of Obama’s second term. In his terms, this provided Beijing the opportunity to press its advantages motivated by a belief in America’s decline. Campbell credits the global financial crisis, the US being bogged down in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deepening dysfunction in Washington as the major reasons for President Xi’s confidence in setting long-term goals for China to become “a global leader in terms of comprehensive national strength and international influence” by mid-century as well as offering China’s development model as a “new option for other countries.”

Additionally, nationalism at the elite and popular level in China has profound consequences for the formulation and execution of its assertive foreign policy strategy. Given a history of the CCP stoking nationalist sentiment in the population by retelling a history that begins with the ‘Century of Humiliation,’ along with ‘patriotic education’ to build a narrative that highlights the CCP as the savior for resurrecting China, this trend is undeniable. Campbell calls the narrative a reservoir for the CCP from which to gain political legitimacy whose purpose is to undo the Century of Humiliation that inevitably means reclaiming territories such as Taiwan. It for this reason, Campbell argues, that President Xi has declared “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” as the principal objective of his leadership. This inspires the Chinese people to demand a muscular foreign policy by demonstrating greater autonomy and a complete rejection of Western influence in and around China.

Campbell on Cooperation and Engagement

Although Campbell’s approach has emphasized competition over the last few years, he does not ignore the need for cooperation with China. Quoting Elbridge Colby, a former defense official in the Trump administration, Campbell argues that “deterrence without dominance – even against a very great and fearsome opponent – is possible.” Campbell acknowledges that China’s status in the global economy mean the country is “central to the prosperity of US allies and partners.”

Despite his recent call for an end to engagement with China, Campbell has previously highlighted the need for China and the US to cooperate on transnational and global challenges. In his 2019 Foreign Affairs article with Jake Sullivan, for example, Campbell accepts the inevitable need for cooperation between China and the US to solve major global problems. While China has emerged as more formidable competitor than the Soviet Union was in the Cold War, it has also become an “essential U.S. partner.” To him, “global problems that are difficult enough to solve even when the United and China work together will be impossible to solve if they fail to do so”; for example, climate change is foremost among them given that the United States and China are the world’s two biggest polluters.

In addition, Campbell suggests that a host of other transnational challenges – economic crises, nuclear proliferation, and a global pandemic – also demand ‘some degree of joint effort.’ Exemplifying this potential, Campbell points to how Taiwan prospered and democratized in the ambiguous space between the US and China. Furthermore, he argues that this degree of nuance and flexibility could serve as a model for challenging diplomacy between Washington and Beijing on variety of other issues, which are similarly likely to include not only intense engagement, mutual vigilance, and distrust, but also patience and restraint.

Having rejected the Cold War analogy more than once, Campbell nonetheless believes alludes to how the Soviet Union and the US, fierce rivals during the Cold War, managed to  concertedly reduce the risk of conflict by setting up military hotlines, establishing codes of conduct, and signing arms control agreements. He argues that China and the US should take similar measures to avert crisis, especially when the cyber and space domains have increased the risk of escalation. In short, Washington needs to enhance US-China crisis management while also improving its own capacity for deterrence.

One important suggestion presented by Campbell in his book, The Pivot, was to decouple military relations from the political disagreements. He believes that “Military relations should not be held hostage to political disagreements and military officials from both sides should engage in more frequent and substantive discussion to build personal ties as well as understanding of each other’s operation.” This will stop further eroding of trust between the two countries.

To Campbell, leaders on both sides should consider cooperation on transnational challenges not as a concession by one party but as an essential need for both. Also, he believes that “Cooperation is necessary in part because the American and Chinese economies are fundamentally linked and substantially interdependent.”

Campbell has also advocated for cooperation with China on revolutionary green technologies, space programs, research on treating intractable diseases, combatting piracy on high seas, non-proliferation, climate change, stability in the Middle East, and counterterrorism. He agrees that while the challenges posed by President Xi’s China are undeniable, “a degree of common purpose and effort is also necessary because transnational problems such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, and economic governance that are already difficult enough to solve with China will be impossible to solve without it.”

Given his acute focus with the China challenge under President Xi, Campbell has been cautious about describing engagement with China as cooperation. Commenting on the defining characteristics of the US’ approach towards China, Campbell argued that “I believe that the defining characteristics of the period ahead will be around competition and also at the same time finding areas of where the US and China can, it’s not necessarily cooperation I don’t like that narrow definition, it might be just alignment of policies areas where we need to understand that purposeful efforts on both of our parts like on climate change hopefully, we hoped on the pandemic that has been quite a disappointment, would be important as we go forward.” Overall, Campbell’s approach towards China is subtle— it underscores competition without confrontation, does not foreclose the possibility of cooperation, and encourages co-existence without conceding American interests.