Concerns have emerged among Washington’s Asian allies that the prospect of a spiraling conflict between Israel and Hamas could bog the United States down as happened a decade ago in the fight against the Islamic State, say former U.S. officials. But Biden’s nomination of Kurt Campbell to serve as deputy secretary of state is reassuring, they said.
“They’ll still be worried,” said Victor Cha, a White House Asia director under President George W. Bush, of allies including South Korea and Japan. “But having Kurt as the Number Two in the State Department will give some sense of confidence that the administration is committed to advancing and implementing its Indo-Pacific strategy.”
Campbell, 66, a veteran Asia hand and former Sovietologist, is the White House’s Indo-Pacific coordinator. He indicated in remarks Monday at a Washington think tank that, if confirmed, he would continue to pursue the deepening of partnerships among allies and partners in the region — the fulcrum of the administration’s strategy, whose unstated objective is to build a democratic counterweight to an increasingly authoritarian China.
Such initiatives have unnerved Beijing, current and former administration officials say. They include elevating a four-way partnership among the United States, India, Japan and Australia to show other countries in the region that democracy offers benefits; sealing a landmark deal in which Britain and the United States will help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines; and brokering a historic summit at Camp David with the United States, South Korea and Japan. The summit institutionalizes a partnership in which Tokyo and Seoul have agreed to set aside decades of bitterness to work toward stability in the region.
A key partner in the region is Taiwan, an island democracy that China claims as its own territory and has vowed to take by force if necessary. Campbell has worked to strengthen U.S.-Taiwan security and political ties since he was a deputy assistant defense secretary in the Clinton administration. More recently, Campbell has played “an instrumental role” in moving U.S. partners — including individual countries such as Japan, and the Group of Seven advanced economies and NATO — to highlight in official statements “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” said Bi-Khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s representative and de facto ambassador to the United States.
Such peace and stability is “indispensable to global prosperity,” said Hsiao, who has known Campbell since the 1990s. “I can foresee Kurt having more of a global role in facilitating greater international interest in ensuring that stability and prosperity.”
Some of Campbell’s colleagues wonder whether his prospective move from the White House to the State Department — where he served as assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration — will result in less direct focus by Biden on Asia. But, they note that if he is confirmed, Campbell would take part in regular “deputies” meetings at the White House on a range of national security and foreign policy issues, and would help execute initiatives begun in the past two years.
“Kurt leaving the NSC will leave a vacuum there, but it will hopefully inject some real energy, movement and dynamism into the State Department on Indo-Pacific affairs,” said Charles Edel, a State Department policy planning official during the Obama administration.
Campbell has known Secretary of State Antony Blinken for many years. Blinken is godfather to one of Campbell’s daughters, and Campbell was a groomsman at Blinken’s wedding. His views on China have hardened over the years as China’s Communist Party-led government has undertaken a massive military buildup, cracked down on dissidents and minority communities, used coercive tactics to influence other countries’ policies and become much more aggressive toward Taiwan.
In a note to State Department personnel Wednesday, Blinken called his colleague a “visionary policymaker,” but said, “if you ask Kurt what he’s proudest of, he’ll tell you it’s the strong and diverse teams he’s built, the colleagues he’s mentored, and the camaraderie he’s fostered in the institutions he’s served.”
The Fresno, Calif., native has worked on Asia issues for almost four decades and has personal relationships with many leaders, diplomats and officials. But as an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, he studied the Soviet Union, and music. He played the violin and was an avid surfer.
He lived in Yerevan, Armenia, for a year and a half — during which he once played with the Soviet National Tennis Team — and his doctoral dissertation at Oxford University was on Soviet policy toward South Africa. He still speaks enough Russian to understand Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, associates say.
Campbell’s Senate confirmation process will present an opportunity for hard-line Republicans to amplify their claims that the Biden administration has not been tough enough on China. Campbell has indicated to associates that he does not expect the process to be easy.
But Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he would offer “enthusiastic support” to Campbell’s nomination. “He is thoughtful. … Hill-savvy and patriotic,” qualities necessary to thrive in “this sometimes politically contentious but geopolitically complex environment,” Young said.
Young, who has been critical of the Biden administration in some areas, said “it’s my strong belief that he’ll have other Republican supporters within the Senate” as long as he delivers a strong appearance at his confirmation hearing.
While the spotlight is trained on the Middle East, the Chinese military has not let up in the Pacific. Just last week, a Chinese fighter jet flew within 10 feet of a U.S. B-52 bomber, passing in front of and below one the American jet’s wings while the bomber was in international airspace over the South China Sea. And several days before that, the Chinese Coast Guard rammed a Philippine Coast Guard vessel near a contested shoal in the South China Sea.
Campbell said in his remarks at a Center for Strategic and International Studies dinner Monday that there was a greater than “50 percent chance” that such dangerous maneuvers could result in an accident, according to two people present.
Such incidents underscore the need for open channels of communication between the two countries’ military officials, he said. And he expressed hope that an expected meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco next month will yield the resumption of such talks.
Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.