The China-bashing broadside delivered by US Vice President Kamala Harris at the end of September in Japan raises questions of who is in charge of China and Asia policy and what it is.
Hopes ran high when Kurt Campbell was appointed “Asia Czar” on the first day of President Joe Biden’s administration. But his turn at the helm of US Asia policy is not turning out as he and others had hoped. Indeed, from China to North Korea to Southeast Asia, US policy seems to be in disarray with no signs of improvement in sight.
There were great expectations that a Campbell–driven Asia policy would repair the damage done by the Trump administration in alienating China and much of Southeast Asia. That hope had some basis because Campbell and Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan publicly advocated ‘competitive coexistence’ with China. Moreover, China seemed to be open to a reset in relations.
Further, Biden proclaimed that “Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy” and his Foreign Affairs Secretary Antony Blinken echoed this by claiming that diplomacy – not militarism- will always come first. He declared that “Real strength isn’t bluster and bullying.” This led to the expectation that the U.S. would lighten up on its China –threat obsession and stop viewing other countries through a China lens.
Yet so far Biden’s supposedly Campbell-led Asia policy is continuing the same mixture of hypocrisy, demands, confrontation, and military intimidation that characterised the Trump administration’s Asia policy. Diplomacy has lagged far behind military signalling. Moreover Biden’s new National Security Strategy has a marked China-threat and militarist tone to it.
This increased militarisation of the issues worries Southeast Asian countries that might suffer if the two engage in conflict. They fear that the U.S. will force them to choose between supporting the U.S. or supporting China. Moreover, they worry that the US will create a political, economic and military mess and then turn tail as it did in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. This would leave its ‘allies and partners’ to deal with the situation it leaves behind – including an angry and vengeful China.
On Campbell’s watch, US-China relations have reached a nadir unprecedented since recognition in 1979. Relations have sharply deteriorated because in China’s eyes the U.S. has salami-sliced a revision of the One-China policy that was the basis for their peaceful coexistence. Under that policy, the U.S. acknowledged China’s position that Taiwan is part of China and refrained from supporting Taiwan independence. But recently it has altered the status quo by significantly stepping up its supply of weapons and training under the excuse of helping Taiwan ‘defend itself’. This encourages the Taiwan independence movement. More worrying to China are Biden’s repeated ‘slips of the tongue’ that indicate that the U.S. policy of ambiguity may be changing to one of military support for Taiwan in a conflict. And now the U.S. wants to turn Taiwan into a ‘military porcupine.’ Indeed, the U.S. seems to be focused on deterrence, preparing for conflict with China, and revising its Asia policy accordingly.
US policy towards other Asian countries is increasingly made and implemented through an anti-China lens. It is pressing its allies Japan and the Philippines to prepare to support it in a conflict with China over Taiwan. This has provided an opportunity for the Philippines to try to extract more in its bargain with the ‘devils’. It also makes the U.S. vulnerable to being dragged into a conflict with China through unilateral aggressive actions by the Philippines –or to losing its credibility if it chooses not to respond.
Its major diplomatic initiatives like a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, the Quad and AUKUS are all attempts to constrain and contain China strategically and militarily. Moreover they undercut ASEAN’s aspirations for centrality in regional security affairs.
It is no longer even clear that Campbell still has control of US Asia policy. Maybe he never did. Indeed these developments raise the question of whether Biden, Blinken, Sullivan and Campbell have been “outmaneuvered” by anti-China hard liners. The signs so far are a far cry from their professed desire to lead with diplomacy rather than raw power. Indeed it would seem that the militarist cart is still ahead of the diplomatic horse.
At best Campbell and company seem left with little more than trying to re-establish “honest communications at the highest level” so that they can negotiate “limits” and ”guidelines” with an increasingly suspicious China.
As for Southeast Asia, Campbell has lamented that the US response to China’s economic power is “still insufficient” and the focus of the “most anxious” pleas he gets from the region’s leaders. He characterised the US approach as “One hand or two hands tied behind your back. Maybe one foot tied back there as well”. Maybe he meant his hands are tied.
Moreover, whatever behind the scenes good work he and his colleagues may have been doing to mend fences and smooth ruffled feathers has been undermined by other US government officials. Biden’s undermining of ‘ambiguity’, disruptive visits to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and copycat US legislators and bills introduced into Congress dictating policy towards Taiwan and China support that notion. Congress is even discussing the idea of recognising Taiwan as a “major non-NATO ally”. US Vice President Kamala Harris’ recent broadside certainly did not help. At the least, too many cooks spoil the broth—and undermine the backchannel signals to reduce tension and improve relations that Campbell may be trying to send.
Despite Campbell’s best intentions and efforts, the U.S. remains focused on Europe and the Middle East. This has been dictated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the necessity to quell crises. It is symbolised by the optics of Biden’s attendance at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral—as opposed to sending Harris to former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s funeral..
As prominent international relations scholar Stephen Walt says “US negotiating efforts succeed when American leaders recognise that “a successful deal must provide something of value for all. US efforts fail when it negotiates on a take-it-or leave –it basis or coercion”.
The question is whether the Biden administration will continue the U.S. goal of sole hegemony in the region or shift toward a negotiated “balance” and “competitive coexistence” originally advocated by Campbell and Sullivan.
Compromise and a sharing of power in the region including the South China Sea is the only peaceful solution to the US-China conundrum and would be welcomed by most Asian countries—especially in Southeast Asia. This would certainly be a better alternative than a Cold-War- like division of Asia into US and China camps, proxy wars, or a direct US-China conflict risking nuclear war.
In retrospect failure may have been predictable. Changing the U.S.’s established pattern of free and frequent use of military threat and force would take monumental political courage and will. If any of Campbell’s original ideals and goals remain viable he should demonstrate that now. Otherwise it would appear that Campbell is just another of the “best and brightest” to have been stymied and swallowed by the ‘system’.