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Biden's Asia policy

Biden's Indo-Pacific team largest in National Security Council

Adviser Jake Sullivan to lead 'all-government' approach on China

President Joe Biden talks on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House. (Photo courtesy of the White House)

NEW YORK -- The largest contingent of U.S. President Joe Biden's national security team will be the Indo-Pacific directorate, one filled with experts who have advocated a tough stance on China, Nikkei has learned.

Led by Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell, the division at the National Security Council will combine the directorate for Asian affairs -- which traditionally covers China, Japan, the Koreas, Southeast Asia and Australia -- and the South Asia directorate which oversees India.

About 15 to 20 members are expected to form the team.

"Kurt Campbell's Indo-Pacific team will be the largest regional NSC directorate, a sign of how this NSC is prioritizing China and broader Indo-Pacific policy issues," NSC spokesperson Emily Horne told Nikkei Asia.

She added that "work on China expands into virtually every NSC directorate," meaning teams in charge of "technology and national security," "global health security and biodefense," "defense," "democracy and human rights," and "international economics" will all be involved in shaping China policy.

Then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell speaks to the media in Seoul in June 2011. Campbell will lead the Indo-Pacific directorate in the National Security Council of President Joe Biden.   © Reuters

"National security adviser Jake Sullivan is personally focused on China as a priority, building capacity across departments and agencies and running processes that break down old silos between foreign and domestic policy," she said.

Ryan Hass, who was NSC director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia during the administration of former President Barack Obama, said the composition of the NSC changes according to the priorities of the times.

"For some time the Europe directorate was the biggest, probably in the post Cold War era. Then in the post 9/11 era, the Middle East directorates grew in size. Now it appears that the Indo-Pacific directorate is growing in size," Hass, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Nikkei Asia. "It's intended to signal that the administration embraces the concept of the Indo-Pacific, and will continue to approach the region in that manner."

Many of the new members of the NSC have written articles in recent months that call for a tough approach to China. They are in unison in framing the relationship as one of "competition" rather than cooperation, engagement or patience.

Laura Rosenberger, who occupies the newly established position of senior China director, co-authored a piece in Foreign Affairs in December titled "Democratic Values Are a Competitive Advantage."

In it, she and Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute think tank, write that "today's competition between democracies and authoritarian powers is more than a power struggle," and that "values" are the principal competitive advantage for democracies.

Rosenberger, who served as chief of staff to now-Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he was deputy secretary, has been working on combating foreign interference in U.S. domestic politics since 2016 as director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan initiative housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Shanthi Kalathil, Biden's NSC coordinator for democracy and human rights, speaks at a symposium in Washington in March 2018. (Photo courtesy of the Brookings Institution)

Shanthi Kalathil, who serves as the NSC coordinator for democracy and human rights, has written about the dangers of the exercise of "sharp power" by authoritarian governments, as opposed to soft power or hard power.

In a piece titled "The cutting edge of sharp power" in January 2020 for the Journal of Democracy, Kalathil and co-authors Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig describe sharp power as efforts to "impair free expression, to compromise and neutralize independent institutions, and to distort the political environment."

An example they raise is an instance in September 2019, when leaked documents revealed that the Chinese-owned social network TikTok had told its moderators to censor videos mentioning Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence and other subjects considered sensitive by the Chinese government.

"The drastically increased scale of authoritarian efforts at manipulation and censorship presents a qualitatively new challenge for institutions in the spheres of publishing, education, culture, business, media, and technology," they write. "To guard against sharp power, the leaderships of these institutions must take concrete steps toward renewing their commitments to democratic standards and free political expression."

Tarun Chhabra, a former Pentagon speechwriter, is the NSC coordinator for technology and national security. Last February, he co-authored a piece titled "The Left should play the China card" in Foreign Affairs, in which he and fellow authors Scott Moore and Dominic Tierney write, "Whereas the political right in the United States has leaned into competition with China, the left remains uncomfortable with the idea of geopolitical rivalry."

"The left needs to reconsider its traditional aversion to geopolitical competition," they write, because while "demographic and environmental headwinds will likely slow China's economic growth, ... they won't keep the Middle Kingdom from presenting a formidable threat to American interests for decades to come."

Tarun Chhabra, Biden's NSC coordinator for technology and national security, left, and Rush Doshi, NSC director for China, third from left, participate in a forum in October 2019. (Photo courtesy of the Brookings Institution)

Like Rosenberger and Kalathil, Chhabra and his co-authors argue that the U.S. needs to stay competitive in technology. "Although the private sector in the United States remains one of the most innovative in the world, government spending is critical to support promising but unproven technologies with unclear commercial applications," they write.

"In 2017, U.S. federal investment in basic science and research stood at about $66 billion, or roughly 1.7 percent of the federal budget -- half of what it was in the 1960s. That is far too little at a time when China is prioritizing investments in new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and quantum communications."

Brookings' Hass, who worked with most of the team in the Obama administration, said, "All these people have worked very closely together, both inside and outside of governments. There's a lot of cohesion amongst them. They share agreement around broad principles."

"They have a common diagnosis of the relationship with China," he added. "We are in a strategic competition with China, and technology is going to be at the core of that competition."

Last Friday, Biden issued a memorandum titled "Renewing the National Security Council system," laying out the members of the Principals Committee and the Deputies Committee.

A national security meeting during the Trump administration shows White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, fourth from right, attending.  The meeting was held at then-President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in West Palm Beach, Florida on April 6, 2017.   © Reuters

The Principals Committee, which national security adviser Sullivan chairs, comprises of the secretaries of state, treasury, defense, energy, homeland security, the attorney general, the director of the office of management and budget, the ambassador to the United Nations, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development and the president's chief of staff.

The director of national intelligence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of the CIA will attend in an advisory capacity.

"It's notable that there was no Steve Bannon equivalent like there was at the start of the Trump administration," Hass said, referring to former President Donald Trump's onetime campaign manager and later White House chief strategist, whose attendance at the NSC raised eyebrows among national security experts.

"That's important because in the Trump era, a lot of policy was driven by politics. What these memos are seeking to signal is that policy will be driven by objectives, good policy will lead to good politics rather than the other way around."

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