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Big changes coming to Obama’s Asia team

Big changes coming to Obama’s Asia team

Several senior Obama administration Asia officials are set to either leave government or move to new jobs within the bureaucracy in the coming months, as the White House tries to hit the reset button on U.S.-China relations.

As part of a cautious warming of U.S.-China relations in the early days of President Barack Obama‘s term, his administration elected to postpone arms sales to Taiwan and a visit by the Dalai Lama in 2009. Beijing was pleased, but that evaporated when the arms sales went through in January 2010 and the visit went ahead in February 2010. That month, China responded by breaking off U.S.-China military-to-military relations.

China’s aggressive stance on a range of issues, such as its claimed of sovereignty over the South China Sea, as well as Beijing’s de facto defense of North Korean bad behavior, contributed to a worsening of ties. China was also seen to have worked against U.S. goals at the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2010, resisted efforts to place strong new sanctions on Iran at the U.N. Security Council, and declined to heed U.S. calls for a significant revaluation of its undervalued currency.

The Obama administration changed its stance toward China to a more competitive posture in response, codifying this policy shift during Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ trip to Southeast Asia last May and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Vietnam in August. Recognizing China’s increasingly aggressive diplomatic stance, the administration decided to set clearer red lines and step up its collaboration with regional allies to address their concerns about increased Chinese influence.

The United States has also joined regional organizations, such as the East Asia Summit, which signaled increased U.S. attention to the region. It has also successfully shored up its ties with South Korea and Vietnam after lull in those relationships during the Bush administration. Relations with Japan have not gone as well, but Japanese politics have been in upheaval pretty much since Obama took office.

The two top Obama administration officials responsible for driving this policy have been NSC Senior Director for Asia Jeffrey Bader and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell. Although Campbell is generally seen as more hawkish on China than Bader, the two close friends have worked together from day one.

But sometime after Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington this month, Bader will leave his post at the NSC, several administration insiders confirmed to The Cable. The exact date of Bader’s departure is not set, and could still be weeks or months from now. Bader, who has been working on China since the 1970s (and was once an assistant to Assistant Secretary of State for Asia Richard Holbrooke), is rumored to be looking for the exit due to the understandable fatigue caused by working a job that has basically required a 24/7 commitment for almost two years.

The leading candidate to replace Bader, according to several administration sources, is the NSC’s Daniel Russel, one of the directors who currently works under Bader. Russell is a Japan hand, having served as the head of State’s Japan Desk after being consul general in the Japanese cities of Osaka and Kobe. Russell’s selection might give Japan watchers hope that the White House would reinvigorate the stagnant U.S.-Japan relationship, but the likelihood is that China will continue to dominate the administration’s Asia agenda going forward.

The other contenders for Bader’s post are Derek Mitchell, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific security affairs, Michael Schiffer, another DAS-D who works with Mitchell, and Frank Jannuzi, policy director for East Asia and Pacific Affairs at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mitchell, a top Asia hand who worked with Campbell at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is said to be looking to move because the PDAS position he holds is more focused on management than policy. Schiffer, who spent 9 years on the staff of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), has been intimately involved in a variety of issues related to Asia policy and would be able to move into the post seamlessly, Asia hands said. Jannuzi, who was a top Obama campaign foreign policy advisor, is close to the Biden team and could also be a good fit with the current Biden-heavy leadership at the NSC.

Meanwhile, back at State, there are other moves in the works. Campbell’s principal deputy Joe Donovan is being considered for a number of different ambassadorships, including as the next envoy to South Korea. He would replace longtime foreign service officer Kathleen Stephens. If the White House decides to give that post to a political appointee (traditionally, Seoul has gone to a career diplomat), then Donovan would probably be offered the ambassadorship of Cambodia, multiple administration sources confirmed.

The White House announced last month that David Shear, another deputy in Campbell’s EAP bureau, will be appointed ambassador to Vietnam. So that leaves two open DAS slots at EAP for Campbell to fill. The principal deputy must be a career bureaucrat, but the question remains whether Campbell will return to the tradition of having one political appointee as a deputy when he fills Shear’s slot.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg has been rumored to be leaving State for a long time now, but still remains at his post and is very active on Asia policy. Our sources report that Steinberg had originally told the White House he would only stay for two years, but has not yet found the right job to justify him leaving State.

Back at the Pentagon, changes are expected sooner rather than later at the Asia Pacific office run by Assistant Secretary Chip Gregson.  A shuffle in the leadership of that office would not come as a surprise to anyone, but many say that decision is on hold until there’s some clarity as to when Gates will leave — and who will replace him.

Besides Campbell, one of the only senior Obama administration Asia officials not thought to be leaving imminently is U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. Despite some reports that he is eyeing a presidential run, administration officials said they haven’t seen signs that he is planning to leave Beijing any time soon, and praised his work on U.S.-China relations. More on that tomorrow…