US President-elect Joseph Biden has promised a fast and furious agenda in his first 100 days in office in a bid to show the world “America is back” after four erratic and divisive years under the outgoing Donald Trump.
His administration is promising to couple swift and decisive domestic reforms with a reassertion of American leadership overseas, including vis-à-vis China in Asia. “America’s going to reassert its role in the world and be a coalition builder,” Biden declared following his election victory last November.
Key to the Biden administration’s success will be the rapid confirmation of his top appointees by a Democratic-led Congress, as well as rapid replacement of Trump-era holdovers, from Deputy Secretary and Assistant Secretary level onwards, in the national security bureaucracy.
The goal will be to avoid the policymaking gaps and leadership vacuum prevalent under Trump, who promised to “drain the swamp” of the Washington establishment just to rapidly hire-and-fire cronies and belatedly appoint more competent candidates, which paralyzed both the State Department and the Pentagon.
In contrast to its populist predecessor’s faux pas, the new Democratic administration will primarily rely on veteran policy-makers and tried-and-tested experts to project American leadership in strategic regions such as Asia. The familiar background of his top appointees will likely facilitate their quick bipartisan approval in the Democratic-majority Congress.
The most potent expression of this veterans-based approach is Biden’s appointment of prominent Asia hand Kurt Campbell as his “Indo-Pacific czar.” The announcement was predictably greeted with bipartisan support in Washington as well as praise across major regional capitals, especially in Tokyo and Canberra.
Prominent Republican foreign policy expert Michael Green hailed Biden’s top regional policy-maker as “the most important architect of Asia policy in the Democratic Party of his generation,” who played a key role during the Obama administration in “pushing back against Chinese coercion.”
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi also praised the appointment as well as Biden’s decision to form a specialized body of top foreign policy minds to oversee “Indo-Pacific” affairs at the NSC.
Julie Bishop, Australia’s former foreign minister, described the appointment as “excellent” and “yet another indication the Biden administration will be a strong and relatable partner for us.”
Campbell’s task will be particularly formidable, namely coordinating American policy across multiple agencies, including both State and Defense Departments, to cover strategic interests across the Pacific and Indian Oceans and much of the Eurasian landmass.
As Eric Sayers, a former adviser to the US Navy’s Pacific Command, said over Twitter, “We can’t afford to have DoD [Defence Department] running their China strategy while State, Commerce and Treasury are working off entirely different playbooks. Kurt will have the herculean and thankless task of trying to get them all to ride in the bus he is driving”
Campbell’s appointment is part of a broader wave of former Obama administration top officials and new rising stars in the Democratic establishment taking the reins of American foreign policy.
Campbell, who will be the top policy coordinator for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, will be joined by other top Biden advisers and China experts, including Ely Ratner, former Deputy National Security Council Advisor during Biden’s vice-presidency; Rush Doshi, a next-generation Democratic foreign policy strategist from the Brookings Institute who will oversee the China portfolio; and Laura Rosenberger, a longtime pro-democracy advocate and top aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and likely next State Department chief Antony Blinken.
In a series of influential essays, Campbell, Ratner and Doshi have provided a de facto manifesto for a new Democratic foreign policy driven by the need to establish a strong multilateral strategy to check China’s rise and worst instincts.
“Nearly half a century since Nixon’s first steps toward rapprochement, the record is increasingly clear that Washington once again put too much faith in its power to shape China’s trajectory,” Campbell and Ratner argued earlier, precipitating a major rethink of US’ China policy in recent years.
More recently, Doshi and Campbell have argued “China’s growing material power has indeed destabilized the region’s delicate balance and emboldened Beijing’s territorial adventurism.”
“Left unchecked, Chinese behavior could end the region’s long peace,” argued the two leading Democratic policy thinkers.
The public position of Biden’s picks for Secretary of State (Antony Blinken), Secretary of Defense (Lloyd Austin) and incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan echo the fundamental position articulated by Campbell, Ratner and Doshi in their influential writings.
The Biden administration’s decision to keep the title “Indo-Pacific” rather than “Asia-Pacific” is particularly telling, as it signals continuity rather than departure from the Trump era emphasis on building a robust network of alliances with like-minded powers to constrain Chinese ambitions across the region.
So was the timing of the announcement, which came shortly after the unexpected release of a declassified version of the Trump administration’s 2018 Indo-Pacific strategy document, which outlines a tough and unapologetic embrace of full-fledged superpower rivalry with China.
The document, titled “US strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific”, emphasizes the need for maintaining the US’s “strategic primacy” in the region and accused China, among other things, of seeking to “dissolve US alliances” and “exploit vacuums and opportunities.”
It also portrays China as a source of “profound challenges to free societies” through its growing economic and technological influence.
At sea, the document emphasizes the need to deny Chinese dominance across the “first island chain”, which covers the East and South China Sea, and identifies major Asian powers India as well as key allies such as Japan and Australia as key to creating a “counterbalance to China.”
The need to build stronger ties with India features prominently in the document, with the outgoing Trump administration calling for “diplomatic, military and intelligence channels to help address continental challenges such as [India’s] border dispute with China…”
Interestingly, Campbell has publicly endorsed some of the tougher positions of the Trump administration on China while praising its “extraordinarily bold strokes” in reaching out to North Korea in recent years.
Portraying “high skills technology” – from 5G networks to quantum computing and biotechnology – as the next phase of Sino-American competition, he, Ratner and other top Biden advisers foresee a “decade-long endeavor”, likely in tandem with European allies, of “finding the right criteria and parameters for when we can work together and when we would say those areas are off-limits from investment.”
Biden’s newly-appointed Indo-Pacific czar, however, has also made it clear that there will be major tactical changes in American strategy towards China.
Echoing other top appointees like Blinken and Sullivan, Campbell has criticized the Trump administration’s preference for a containment strategy based on a “grand coalition focused on every issue.”
He suggests it’s much better that the US relies on more “minilateralism” and “ad hoc bodies focused on individual problems” in tandem with like-minded powers, including both the Quadrilateral grouping of Australia, India and Japan as well as major European powers such as Britain, France and Germany.
He has also criticized the outgoing Trump for “strain[ing] virtually every element of the region’s operating system” and ceding ground “for China to rewrite rules central to the order’s content and legitimacy” due to his unilateralist policies, from trade wars to aggressive “New Cold War” rhetoric.
Instead, Campbell has emphasized the need for “serious US re-engagement” with the region, which includes multilateralist diplomacy and trade initiatives as well as an element of calibrated cooperation with China to avoid unnecessary conflict.
“A better solution would be for the United States and its partners to persuade China that there are benefits to a competitive but peaceful region,” he argued, signaling a more sophisticated and differentiated approach under Biden’s incoming presidency.