Then-US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell waves as he arrives at the Foreign Ministry to meet with Japanese officials in Tokyo on January 17, 2013. Photo: AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi

One of America’s most respected experts on Asia has been tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as Indo-Pacific czar, a sign that the incoming US administration will likely continue a tough stance on China while seeking to build more sustainable and lasting alliances with the region. 

Kurt Campbell, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under the Barack Obama administration and is seen as the intellectual architect behind Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy in the early 2010s, will serve as Biden’s “Indo-Pacific coordinator.”

The well-connected Campbell, who has a background in business and academia, is most likely to be a regular visitor to Southeast Asia in the coming four years. His previous stint in the State Department as well as his work in several Asia-centric think tanks means he now has a lengthy contact list of the region’s most influential politicians and opinion-makers to draw on. 

Campbell founded the Center for a New American Security in 2007 with Michele Flournoy, a China hawk who many observers thought had the inside track to becoming Biden’s defense secretary before he tapped General Lloyd Austin. Campbell later founded the Asia Group, a strategic advisory and capital management group where he served as chairman.

Campbell’s role will be at the National Security Council, not the State Department. He is expected to work closely alongside Biden’s incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan, with whom Campbell has co-written essays in recent years, suggesting a shared vision for US policy in Asia. 

National Security Advisor nominee Jake Sullivan after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden on November 24, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. Sullivan recently outlined the new administration’s foreign policies in an interview with CNN. Photo: AFP/Mark Makela/Getty Images

One co-written article published in late 2019 in Foreign Affairs, entitled “Competition Without Catastrophe: How America Can Both Challenge and Coexist With China,” argued that the Trump administration had been correct to change America’s view of China as becoming a “strategic competitor” but called for a less confrontational approach and more consistent messaging.  

Coexistence, they wrote, “means accepting competition as a condition to be managed rather than a problem to be solved.”

This week, Campbell co-wrote another essay in Foreign Affairs in which he argued that the Biden administration must expand alliances in Asia so that it can cooperatively push back against Chinese aggression. 

In the piece, Campbell argued for a profound re-engagement in Asia designed to turn its ad hoc coalitions into more rounded and systemic alliances against China’s apparent attempts to reorder the region’s and globe’s politics.  

While the Trump administration switched Washington’s policy towards a tougher line on China’s actions, its relations with Southeast Asia have soured since 2019, when Trump stopped sending senior officials for annual regional summits. 

Several of the region’s leaders rebuffed US-led talks on the summit’s sidelines led by officials they perceived as being junior. 

Other Southeast Asian governments have carped that Trump’s administration has taken an overly Sino-centric stance, failing to engage the region on any issue other than how it relates to China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump. Many issues divide their countries. Image: YouTube

Campbell could quickly come to personify the Biden administration’s policy in the Indo-Pacific.

That would likely mean combining a tough policy on China with a newfound level of dependable cooperation with other Asian partners, many of which found the Trump administration inscrutable and overly quick to change policy depending on the whims of the president and his often erratic cabinet. 

In his 2016 book, The Pivot, Campbell argued that the US must rapidly expand its alliances with India and Indonesia in particular.

US-Indonesia relations improved under Obama, who had lived in Jakarta as a boy, following almost a decade of lukewarm ties. The George W Bush administration’s interventions in the Middle East were strongly opposed in Muslim-majority Indonesia, though the two sides did cooperate on counterterrorism issues. 

Indonesia has arguably been overlooked by the outgoing Trump camp, which has more clearly prioritized closer relations with Singapore and Vietnam.

They were the symbolic venues for Trump’s peace talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, while Vietnam also was a de facto major beneficiary of Trump’s trade war with China, as multinational companies moved manufacturing facilities there to eschew new “Made in China” related tariffs.    

Campbell has said recently that Washington must show it supports “an optimistic, open trading system,” which may mean diminished focus on America’s trade deficits, a major bugbear of the Trump administration. 

Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong toasts before a luncheon with then-US Vice President Joe Biden at the US State Department on July 7, 2015 in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP/Brendan Smialowski

This could work in the favor of Vietnam, which in December was blacklisted by the US Treasury Department for currency manipulation. At the same time, Thailand was added to a currency manipulator “monitoring list”, which already included Malaysia and Singapore. 

Last month, Campbell also asserted that the US military presence in Asia is its “ticket to the big game,” especially as a means of deterring China’s hard power. 

He will likely argue that the Biden administration needs to maintain negotiations with Manila over the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows US troops to make use of military bases and rotate troops in the Philippines. 

President Rodrigo Duterte, seen as one of China’s top regional allies despite sharing a mutual defense treaty with the US, has frequently threatened to cancel the agreement. His reasons have included retaliation for US criticism of his administration’s abysmal rights record. 

If America’s military supremacy in the Indo-Pacific is to remain a primary concern, as Campbell’s past writing suggests he will emphasize, the Biden administration is likely to continue pressuring the Cambodian government not to allow Chinese troops to be stationed at the country’s military bases. 

Since 2018, Washington has issued a steady flow of public and private allegations that Phnom Penh, now China’s closest partner in Southeast Asia, will allow the Chinese military to station troops at the Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand, an accusation the Cambodian government has repeatedly denied.

Cambodia Foreign Minister Hor Namhong (R) poses with then-US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell before their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh on May 25, 2012. Photo: AFP/Khem Sovannara

Chinese troops and naval assets in Cambodia would give China a new southern flank in the South China Sea, where China has territorial disputes with various Southeast Asian states and the US under Trump has vowed to keep open to international navigation.  

Most importantly, perhaps, Campbell also appears to understand that the worst fear of most Southeast Asian governments is being forced to choose between either the US or China, a “with us or against us” dichotomy that some argued the Trump administration was pushing. 

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, widely viewed as the region’s spokesman on this issue, said in late 2019: “If you ask them to choose and say, ‘I therefore must cut off my links with my biggest trading partner,’ I think you will put them in a very difficult position.” 

Campbell noted in this month’s Foreign Affairs article that “although Indo-Pacific states seek US help to preserve their autonomy in the face of China’s rise, they realize it is neither practical nor profitable to exclude Beijing from Asia’s vibrant future. Nor do the region’s states want to be forced to ‘choose’ between the two superpowers.”

He went on: “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.”

After four years of writing on the theme, the original architect of America’s “pivot” to Asia now has the power to bring his musings to policy fruition.