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Biden's Asia policy

'Indo-Pacific czar' Kurt Campbell calls for spreading out US forces

Biden's new coordinator seeks to shore up Asian order

Then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell listens to a media question during a joint news conference after his meeting with Philippine foreign affairs and defense officials at a Manila hotel in 2012.   © Reuters

TOKYO/NEW YORK -- When Kurt Campbell served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under then-President Barack Obama, the Japanese press corps in Washington would gather at Dulles International Airport every time the diplomat would depart on or return from his many trips to Asia.

Whether on North Korea's nuclear development, the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps base in Futenma, Okinawa, or a broader "pivot" to Asia in general, Campbell was the point man for Asia. The reporters all saw the 37 km drive from the White House area to Dulles as a must.

Campbell was held in similar esteem by Japanese politicians who visited Washington. For them, having met with Assistant Secretary Campbell, even more than with members of Congress, signaled that the trip had policy substance.

The veteran diplomat has now been tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, a newly created National Security Council post expected to take the lead on shaping U.S. policy in Asia.

The Asia Group, a Washington-based consultancy where Campbell serves as chairman and CEO, announced Wednesday that he will join the Biden administration as deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the NSC.

In line with the recent focus of U.S. policy, his new portfolio covers the "Indo-Pacific" rather than the "Asia-Pacific." The military's Pacific Command was renamed the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in May 2018 to recognize the stepped-up emphasis on South Asia, especially India.

Outgoing President Donald Trump's administration revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, with Japan, India and Australia, as a new foreign policy grouping to counter China's regional rise.

Campbell himself has called for spreading American forces out across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, as opposed to the current heavy tilt toward Japan, South Korea and Guam.

A just-declassified internal White House document called the U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific shows that the Trump administration saw American security and prosperity as depending on free and open access to the Indo-Pacific -- home to the world's most populous region, which accounts for more than a third of global gross domestic product.

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers remarks at an event honoring Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington in 2012. Clinton and Campbell drove the "pivot to Asia" strategy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. State Department)

Campbell served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs between 2009 and 2013, handling Japan and China policy. He was an architect of the administration's so-called pivot to Asia, a shift in diplomatic focus first articulated in a Foreign Policy magazine piece titled "America's Pacific Century" by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action," wrote Clinton, who later lost to Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Campbell updates his views this week in a Foreign Affairs article written with Brookings Institution scholar Rush Doshi, who is also expected to take a prominent Asia post in the Biden administration.

Titled "How America Can Shore Up Asian Order -- A Strategy for Restoring Balance and Legitimacy," the piece lays out policy suggestions for the Biden administration.

Asia has been left in flux by Chinese assertiveness and U.S. ambivalence, according to Campbell and Doshi. "Like any rising state, China seeks to reshape its surroundings and secure deference to its interests," they write, listing Beijing's island-building in the South China Sea, incursions in the East China Sea, conflict with India, threats to invade Taiwan, and internal repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as examples.

A still image from an U.S. Navy video purportedly shows Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.   © Reuters

"This behavior, combined with China's preference for economic coercion, most recently directed against Australia, means that many of the [regional] order's organizing principles are at risk," the authors argue.

But Campbell and Doshi are equally critical of Trump's undermining of existing alliances, such as through pressing Japan and South Korea to renegotiate cost-sharing agreements for U.S. bases and threatening to withdraw forces altogether if he did not like the new terms. They note that Trump was often absent from regional multilateral processes in Asia as well as economic negotiations.

The Indo-Pacific is "drifting out of balance," Campbell and Doshi write, urging the Biden administration to address each of these trends in turn.

On the security front, they suggest that the U.S. military move away from its singular focus on primacy and such expensive platforms as aircraft carriers. Instead, they write that it should turn to such relatively low-cost and asymmetric capabilities as long-range conventional cruise and ballistic missiles, unmanned carrier-based strike aircraft and guided-missile submarines.

"These developments would complicate Chinese calculations and force Beijing to reevaluate whether risky provocations would succeed," the piece says.

It also calls on Washington to disperse American forces across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. "This would reduce American reliance on a small number of vulnerable facilities in East Asia," Campbell and Doshi write.

This last point is in line with a proposal by Trump's Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite, who has pushed to create a reimagined 1st Fleet focusing on the Indian Ocean and possibly based in Singapore. The idea is to move certain duties now covered by the Yokosuka, Japan-based 7th Fleet closer to the new geopolitical center of gravity.

Aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman arrives at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Kurt Campbell has called for a shift away from expensive strategies that depend on aircraft carriers. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

The other part of Campbell and Doshi's focus is on restoring "generally accepted legitimacy" to policy.

Here, they differ from the Trump administration in that they call for bringing in China to international decision-making or at least attempting to.

"Although Indo-Pacific states seek U.S. 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," the authors write. "Nor do the region's states want to be forced to 'choose' between the two superpowers."

They advocate having "a place for Beijing in the regional order," envisioning Chinese membership in the order's primary institutions.

This echoes a stance of Campbell's from an October virtual symposium held by Nikkei and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in which he took issue with the term "cold war" as applied to the U.S.-China relationship. He cited "existential" issues where the two countries will need "some form of concerted action," if not full-blown cooperation, such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

The Foreign Affairs piece also calls for "bespoke or ad hoc bodies focused on individual problems" rather than a grand coalition for every issue. It cites the U.K.-proposed D-10 grouping of democracies -- the Group of Seven plus Australia, India and South Korea -- as an example of such coalitions, which will be most urgent in trade, technology, supply chains and standards.

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