President-elect Joe Biden has tapped Kurt Campbell, one of the architects of U.S. strategy toward the Pacific over the past generation, for an expansive White House role that reflects the emphasis Biden will place on addressing the economic, geopolitical, and security challenges posed by China.
Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia in the Obama administration, will hold the title of Indo-Pacific Coordinator on the National Security Council, a portfolio indicating “that we see this region holistically,” a senior national security adviser to the transition team told The Daily Beast.
“We believe this is a fundamentally competitive relationship [with China], but one that on certain issues it will be in America’s interest to work with China even as we compete,” the adviser said. “The selection of Kurt sends a signal, because he’s a formidable practitioner, about the heightened strategic importance of the relationship, and the seriousness with which we will take this region.”
Campbell has been at the fore of U.S. policymaking toward Asia for the past 25 years. At the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, Campbell captained Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye’s “Nye Initiative” shoring up U.S. alliances in the Pacific in advance of a forecasted explosion in Chinese wealth, power, influence, and ambition. As then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s leading Asia official, Campbell helped design the “Pivot to Asia,” an effort to rebalance U.S. geostrategic focus away from the Middle East for similar reasons—and one that saw mixed results.
His approach has been one of counterbalancing China through a web of regional partnerships to preserve American political and military advantage. In Campbell’s 2016 book, The Pivot, he critiqued “the flawed assumption that getting the bilateral relationship right is the key to getting Asia policy right.” But a far more powerful China—and a reeling America—now confront Campbell, all raising the question of whether the relationship’s future will be one of cooperation, competition, confrontation—or a mixture of all three.
Campbell is as familiar a face in Asian capitals as in Washington think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security, which he co-founded. Currently he’s the chairman of the Asia Group, which describes itself as a “strategic advisory and capital management group specializing in the dynamic Asia Pacific region.”
“Kurt is widely recognized as the most talented and influential thinker on Asia in the Democratic Party of the past generation,” said Michael J. Green, who was the National Security Council senior director for Asia in George W. Bush’s White House and who worked with Campbell at the Pentagon.
At both the Pentagon and the State Department, Green said, Campbell “was the biggest name in the U.S. government on Asia, the one everyone in the region looked to, the guy who brought real energy and style, really, to engaging more deeply with Asia.”
The coordinator role is a revival of a position Obama employed to give wide-ranging responsibility to a single figure empowered to coordinate policy for a crucial region or issue. It will sit just below National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer, above three NSC senior directors who will answer to Campbell. Biden’s transition has thus far announced two other coordinators: Brett McGurk, coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and Shanthi Kalathil, coordinator for human rights and democracy.
Campbell’s track record, stretching back to the Nye Initiative at the Pentagon, ensures that many in the region will read Campbell’s appointment as a signal that revitalizing Pacific alliances is a priority for the administration, Green said.
“So the Asia shop at the NSC is going to be on steroids, there’s never been anything like it. It’s a strong signal from the White House that the Biden administration is going to put a huge emphasis on Asia and on the China problem,” Green said. “A lot of people who wanted that job are China experts, who made the case that ‘China is a problem, I know China.’ But they picked Kurt, I think, because he said, ‘I know China, but more important, I know allies and partners.’”
“Kurt is someone who has deep experience and relationships with our core allies in the region,” the senior transition adviser said. “We’ve said in other contexts that we judge the success of our foreign policy by how it impacts working American families, and this is a region deeply connected to those issues because of the economic relationship with countries across the Indo-Pacific, and frankly, some of the security concerns and threats, principally North Korea.”