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Architect of U.S. pivot picked to be Biden’s ‘Asia czar’

Kurt Campbell (right) (Chatham House/WikiCommons)
January 16, 2021

In a move likely to reassure Tokyo and other allies, Kurt Campbell — a key architect of the U.S. pivot to Asia — will take a top job under President-elect Joe Biden as a senior policy official for the region.

Campbell will take the post of coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council (NSC) as deputy to Jake Sullivan, who Biden has tapped to be his national security adviser.

His consultancy, The Asia Group, revealed the news in a statement published Wednesday. Campbell founded the group after leaving the administration of President Barack Obama.

A spokesman for the Biden transition team later confirmed the pick, Reuters reported. The position, which some observers have equated to an “Asia czar,” will not need Senate confirmation.

Campbell, a former naval officer whose first interactions in Asia came during his service at the base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, has served in a number of key posts, including as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2009 to 2013, during which time he became a familiar face in Asian capitals.

He is also the author of “The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia,” a book that outlined a highly anticipated plan by the Obama administration to rebalance U.S. resources and focus on the Asia-Pacific region amid China’s rise. The plan ultimately fell short of expectations.

“Campbell’s appointment will supercharge the incoming administration’s standing in Asia,” Michael Green, a national security adviser on Asia to President George W. Bush who has close ties to Japanese policymakers, wrote in a commentary in Foreign Policy.

The veteran diplomat has voiced strong support for Washington’s Asian allies, slammed President Donald Trump’s disdain for alliances and virtual absence from multilateral engagement and has taken a tough stance on Chinese assertiveness in the region.

“Trump himself strained virtually every element of the region’s operating system,” Campbell wrote Tuesday in an article in Foreign Affairs.

The president’s actions have ceded ground “for China to rewrite rules central to the order’s content and legitimacy,” he wrote, adding that “serious U.S. reengagement” is needed.

But rather than forming a “grand coalition focused on every issue,” Campbell said the U.S. should pursue “ad hoc bodies focused on individual problems,” while looking to expand existing coalitions such as the “Quad,” which groups Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., to focus on military deterrence.

“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,” he wrote in the article with Brookings Institution scholar Rush Doshi, who is reportedly set to take on the NSC’s China portfolio under him.

But Campbell has also left the door open for cooperation with Beijing, noting that Asian nations do not want to be forced to choose between the U.S. or China.

“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 wrote, noting that Beijing should be offered a key position in a regional order if it abides by agreed-upon rules.

His tough but nuanced stance on Beijing will be welcomed in Tokyo, which has praised parts of Trump’s hard-line approach to China, especially its response to the Asian powerhouse’s maritime assertiveness in the East and South China seas.

Campbell has long been an advocate for a more muscular role by Japan in the security sphere, recommending in “The Pivot” that the U.S. should provide “steady counsel on how best to chart an uncertain course toward becoming what some Japanese strategists describe as a ‘normal country,'” a reference to loosening of postwar limitations on its defense and foreign policy.

One issue that Campbell has acknowledged the new administration will have to face almost immediately will be how the U.S. approaches nuclear-armed North Korea.

Campbell has said Biden will “need to make an early decision about what to do” on North Korea, while also praising the “extraordinarily bold strokes” of Trump’s diplomatic entreaties with Pyongyang, as Biden tries to head off a repeat of 2009, when the regime of Kim Jong Un scuttled an attempt at outreach in the opening months of the Obama administration.

The odds of a provocation early in Biden’s term remain high after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stuck to a familiar playbook at a rare party congress that ended this week, where he vowed to develop more advanced nuclear weapons and missiles and labeled the U.S. its “principal enemy.”

But much of Campbell’s success with North Korea will also depend on his ability to help South Korea and Japan mend ties that have reached their lowest point in decades.

Campbell has routinely touted the importance of behind-the-scenes counsel as a means of helping resolve the longstanding row over World War II history. The veteran diplomat will likely look to fellow Obama-era official Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick to be secretary of state, for some aid in that department.

However, Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said the coronavirus pandemic — Biden’s top priority — and ongoing domestic political turmoil mean any immediate outreach to Kim will have to wait “although we cannot rule out an opening ahead.”

Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, critics had panned Biden’s Cabinet picks for sending mixed signals on the administration’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. Campbell’s selection, however, could alleviate at least some of those concerns, especially in Japan.

“On balance Tokyo will be reassured by Campbell’s appointment because it ensures there will be a senior official with clout whose roving brief is to focus and coordinate the Biden administration’s attention on Asia,” said Euan Graham, Shangri-La senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security with the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.

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(c) 2021 the Japan Times

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