Elephants in the Room
Biden Makes His First Bold Move on Asia
The appointment of Kurt Campbell as Biden’s right hand on Asia will supercharge the incoming administration’s policy to counter China.
This article is part of The Biden Transition, Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden builds a new White House administration—and what the new team’s policies might be.
There is broad consensus that the United States has been losing ground to China in Asia, despite the growing clarity that China is a global geopolitical competitor and that major players such as Japan, India, and Australia are eager to partner with Washington to restore a favorable balance of power. The Trump administration did some of that with its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, which aims to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative by promoting free trade, rule of law, and open seas. But the administration also hobbled its own strategy and retreated from major areas of competition by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatening to withdraw troops from South Korea, and ignoring diplomacy in Southeast Asia. President Donald Trump’s incompetent response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his incitement of an insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol only deepened the hole out of which President-elect Joe Biden will now have to climb.
Thus far, Biden’s top picks for his national security team have all been credible and experienced, but they primarily focus on the Middle East and trans-Atlantic relations. There were growing murmurs in Asia that perhaps the administration’s appetite for active engagement and strategic competition with China would slip, given all the other pressing challenges Biden faces, and the Obama administration’s reputation in parts of the region for having been soft on China. However, the transition team went a long way toward reversing that impression Wednesday by announcing Kurt Campbell for the post of White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific.
Campbell’s appointment will supercharge the incoming administration’s standing in Asia in three ways:
First, Campbell is widely recognized as an early and important architect of a strategy to build up alliances and partnerships to keep Beijing in check as Chinese power grew. In the mid-1990s, he was appointed as the senior U.S. Defense Department official on Asia, arriving with relatively little regional expertise but powerful strategic instincts. Within two years, he pushed through a major expansion of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, arresting years of post-Cold War drift and setting in train the close defense cooperation between Washington and Tokyo today. As assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific under then-President Barack Obama, he championed the so-called pivot to Asia. Some were critical of a metaphor that suggested the United States no longer cared about Europe or the Middle East, while others argued the policy was too provocative toward China. But the balance-of-power logic behind the pivot was sound and served as the precedent for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept. Campbell’s pivot strategy remains the core point of consensus between the incoming team and congressional leaders of both parties.
Second, the new position is unprecedented in elevating Asia’s strategic importance in the U.S. policy apparatus. When I arrived at the National Security Council (NSC) in 2001, the Europe Directorate was three times larger than that for Asia. When I left in 2005, they were about the same size, each headed by one senior director and about five directors. It looks as if Biden’s new Asia shop at the White House could have three or four senior directors, making it the powerhouse within the NSC—likely three times the current size of the Europe Directorate. This kind of major reorganization always has some collateral impact, but if it is played well, it could also be a boost to trans-Atlantic relations. NATO and much of the European Union are focused on working with the Biden administration on China—a strategic card the Trump team tossed away with its anti-European stance.
Third, the selection of Campbell represents an important nod to bipartisanship on China and Asia strategy. Even though the Republican National Committee urged candidates to beat up Biden on China during the 2020 election campaign, the reality is that there is very broad consensus in Congress and the foreign-policy community on the need to strengthen alliances, protect critical technologies, and press China hard on human rights and democracy—as an August 2020 poll on China policy by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found. Campbell is one of the reasons why Asia policy is as bipartisan as it is. Our long association began when I worked for him in the Pentagon before joining the NSC under George W. Bush. Randall Schriver, who until December 2019 was a very effective assistant secretary of defense covering Asia, also got his start working for Campbell in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration. Sen. John McCain and other Republicans on Capitol Hill frequently turned to Campbell for advice on China, Taiwan, Japan, and the broader region. When several of us briefed McCain before a trip he was taking to Singapore, Campbell made a strong appeal for the senator to stop in Taipei to show support at a time of increasing Chinese pressure on Taiwan—and to the chagrin of his schedulers, McCain agreed on the spot. Campbell is a proud Democrat, but at a time when the United States is painfully polarized at home, an appointment that represents bipartisanship and unity of purpose could not be more important.
Headlines across Asia will give this appointment big play—and for good reason. The incoming Biden administration has a daunting series of challenges on its plate. The scarcest commodity for a president is time. The only way to compensate is to have a strategic sense of what matters most and where to target U.S. power and influence. This requires experience but also clear strategic intent. This will not be as easy as some in the transition team may think, but Biden and his designated NSC chief, Jake Sullivan, are sending an important early signal that they are on it.