To an extent that may reassure Tokyo and other allies, Kurt Campbell – a key architect of America’s pivot to Asia – will hold a prominent position under the leadership of President-elect Joe Biden as the region’s political leader.
Campbell will serve as the National Security Council (NSC) Indo-Pacific Affairs Coordinator as a deputy to Jake Sullivan, whom Biden has chosen to be his national security adviser.
His consulting firm, The Asia Group, revealed the news in a statement on Wednesday. Campbell founded the group after leaving the administration of President Barack Obama.
A spokesperson for Biden’s transition team later confirmed the choice, Reuters reported. The position, which some observers have likened to an “Asian tsar”, will not need confirmation from the Senate.
Campbell, a former naval officer whose first interactions in Asia took place during his service at Yokosuka Base, Kanagawa Prefecture, held several key positions, including as Assistant Secretary of State for L East Asia and the Pacific 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 describes a much-anticipated plan by the Obama administration to rebalance America’s resources and focus on the Asia-Pacific region in the midst of the rise of China. The plan ultimately fell short of expectations.
“Campbell’s appointment will strengthen the position of the new administration in Asia,” wrote Michael Green, Asian National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush, who has close ties to Japanese policymakers, in a commentary. in Foreign Policy.
The veteran diplomat expressed strong support for Washington’s Asian allies, criticized President Donald Trump’s disregard for alliances and the near absence of multilateral engagement, and took a firm stand on China’s assertion in the region.
“Trump himself has strained virtually every element of the region’s operating system,” Campbell wrote Tuesday in an article in Foreign Affairs.
The president’s actions ceded ground “to China to rewrite the rules essential to the content and legitimacy of the order,” he wrote, adding that “serious American re-engagement” was needed.
But rather than forming a “grand coalition focused on each issue,” Campbell said the United States should create “ad hoc bodies focused on individual issues,” while seeking to expand existing coalitions such as the “Quad », Which brings together Australia, India and Japan. and the United States, to focus on military deterrence.
“China’s growing material power has indeed destabilized the delicate balance of the region and emboldened Beijing’s territorial adventurism. If nothing is done, Chinese behavior could end the region’s long peace, ”he wrote in the article with Brookings Institution researcher Rush Doshi, who is expected to take the portfolio under his leadership. Chinese of the NSC.
But Campbell also left the door open for cooperation with Beijing, noting that Asian countries don’t want to be forced to choose between the United States or China.
“A better solution would be for the United States and its partners to persuade China that there are advantages for a competitive but peaceful region,” he wrote, noting that Beijing should be offered a key position in a regional order if it respects the agreed agreements. on the rules.
His harsh but nuanced stance on Beijing will be welcomed in Tokyo, which has praised parts of Trump’s hard-line approach to China, particularly his response to the maritime assertion of Asian power in the East and South China Seas. .
Campbell has long championed a more muscular role for Japan in the security arena, recommending in “The Pivot” that the United States should provide “regular advice on how best to chart an uncertain path to become what some Japanese strategists describe as a ‘normal country’, ”a reference to the post-war relaxation of limits to its defense and foreign policy.
One issue Campbell has acknowledged the new administration will face almost immediately will be how the United States approaches the nuclear-weaponized North Korea.
Campbell said Biden “will have to make a quick decision on what to do” in North Korea, while praising the “extraordinarily daring moves” of Trump’s diplomatic pleas with Pyongyang, as Biden tries to avoid a repeat of 2009, when the Kim Jong Un regime scuttled an outreach attempt in the early months of the Obama administration.
Chances of provocation early in Biden’s tenure remain high after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stuck to a familiar playbook at a rare party convention that ended this week , where he vowed to develop more advanced nuclear weapons and missiles and called the United States “the main enemy.”
But much of Campbell’s success with North Korea will also depend on his ability to help South Korea and Japan restore ties that have reached their lowest point in decades.
Campbell has consistently touted the importance of behind-the-scenes advice as a way to help resolve the long-standing conflict over WWII history. The veteran diplomat will likely look to his Obama-era colleague Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, for help in that department.
However, Sheila Smith, senior researcher for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said the coronavirus pandemic – Biden’s top priority – and the ongoing internal political turmoil means any immediate communication with Kim will have to wait “although we cannot rule out an opening ahead.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s announcement, critics had criticized Biden’s cabinet choices for sending mixed signals about the administration’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. Campbell’s selection, however, could alleviate at least some of those concerns, especially in Japan.
“Overall, Tokyo will be reassured by Campbell’s appointment, as it guarantees that there will be an influential senior official whose traveling mandate is to focus and coordinate the attention of the Biden administration on Asia.” , said Euan Graham, Shangri-La principal researcher for Asia-Pacific. Security with the think tank of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
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