The United States must ensure that its focus on the Indo-Pacific region does not come at the cost of its interests in other parts of the world where China also poses a challenge, according to U.S. National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell.

President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House staff, participates in the virtual Quad Summit with Australia, India and Japan Friday, March 12, 2021. (Adam Schultz/Official White House Photo)
President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House staff, participates in the virtual Quad Summit with Australia, India and Japan Friday, March 12, 2021. (Adam Schultz/Official White House Photo)

“Increasingly, the China challenge is a global challenge,” Campbell said. “We see it in Latin America and Africa … this idea of the export of the technologies of authoritarianism. These are profound challenges that we have to meet,” he added.

Emphasizing the importance of a “global, balanced approach” and working with allies and partners, he said: “The key effort here is not to over invest or not to over focus; to realize that keeping our global balance is going to be essential.” At the same time, he added, “we have to sustain the bipartisan understanding of what it is that the United States is about on the global stage, and that is probably our biggest challenge going forward.”

A Focus on the Indo-Pacific

Campbell participated in a discussion with former U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace on November 19. The discussion took place on the heels of a slew of recent developments related to the Indo-Pacific, including a four-hour virtual summit between U.S. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., and Chinese President Xi Jinping; the first ever meeting of the leaders of the Quad — Biden, Narendra Modi of India, Scott Morrison of Australia and Yoshihide Suga of Japan; and the formation of a trilateral security alliance between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, known as AUKUS.

Hadley wondered if a U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific comes at the cost of U.S. interests and presence in other parts of the world. “My own worry is that if we are so doubled down on the Indo-Pacific, the challenge from China is a global challenge, and do we actually open the door for China to in some sense eat our lunch in these other theaters if we overcommit to the Indo-Pacific,” said Hadley, the former chair of USIP’s Board of Directors.

Campbell said he was “deeply aware of the potential downsides of an overfocus on a region to the exclusion of others.” He noted that this had been evident from past U.S. preoccupation on Iraq and Afghanistan. “We have to be careful about not repeating that in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

At the same time, he said, the deepening U.S. engagement with its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific is intended to send the message that “the United States is here to stay in the Indo-Pacific and we are going to defend and support the operating system that has been so good for so many of us for many years.”

What Biden has sought to do is to make clear that “the most important ingredient in our success in the Indo-Pacific and with China is that we can engage actively domestically, invest appropriately and be competitive internationally,” said Campbell.

U.S.-China Relations

The Biden-Xi virtual summit on November 15 was a recognition of the importance of investing in the relationship between the two leaders and to have open, clear lines of communication, said Campbell. In China, Xi has consolidated power and appears to be paving the way for a third term in office. In light of these political developments, Campbell said, “we have to engage in this current period of relations with China between the two leaders. In fact, ensuring that there is this open, respectful line of communication between the two is an essential feature of our diplomacy.”

While the Biden administration acknowledges that the chief paradigm of the U.S.-China relationship is competition, Campbell said: “We believe that it is possible to compete responsibly and in a healthy way, but at the same time … our team recognizes that it will be important to try to establish some guardrails that will keep the relationship from veering into dangerous arenas of competition.”

“The ramparts of competition … it’s really investment in technology, AI, quantum computing, 5G, human sciences,” Campbell said. U.S. advantages in these arenas have been tested and challenged, he said, while emphasizing the need to invest in and double down on these areas. “We do need to step up our game,” he said.

Addressing Misgivings About the Quad

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, includes the United States, India, Japan and Australia. The Quad has been met with unease from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and hostility from China. Campbell sought to address these misgivings.

The United States sees the Quad as a vehicle that is “promoting common good, not against any particular issue,” he said. Its agenda, he said, is about deliverables, including providing more than one billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to Asia, as well as initiatives on infrastructure, health and education. “It is about a positive agenda,” Campbell said.

The United States is focused on ensuring ASEAN understands that the Quad recognizes and wants to support the concept of ASEAN centrality, said Campbell. “We believe that the two institutions, frankly, have complementary goals and ambitions, but we have a lot of work to do to make sure that ASEAN understands that these initiatives are really designed to help them,” he added.

As for China, Campbell said Xi had made clear in his meeting with Biden that “a number of things that the United States is doing cause China some heartburn.” At the top of that list, Campbell said, are U.S. efforts to build partnerships in Asia and Europe. “President Xi made clear those from the Chinese perspective represent what they would describe as Cold War thinking. We believe they are essential features, interconnected, overlapping … that together help pursue this operating system that has led to such profound prosperity over the last 30 years,” Campbell said.

AUKUS

In September, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom announced their decision to form a trilateral security partnership known as AUKUS. Under the agreement, the United States and the U.K. took the rare step of agreeing to share nuclear submarine propulsion technology with Australia. AUKUS is widely seen as being directed at China. Campbell said the strategic rationale behind AUKUS is “unassailable.”

A recent Pentagon report noted that China is rapidly increasing the size of its military arsenal, including deliverable nuclear warheads. AUKUS, Campbell said, is a response to this military buildup. He said that while China has historically been averse to arms control, the United States is also in the very early stages of discussions with China about how to avoid miscalculations.

China’s Economic Ambitions

In tandem with building its military, China has sought to build and join economic partnerships in its neighborhood and around the world. Recently, China applied for membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (CPTPP) — the Obama administration helped build the CPTPP’s predecessor, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) from which the Trump administration subsequently withdrew. TPP was seen as a way for the United States to set the rules of the road on trade. China’s bid to join CPTPP is “deadly serious,” said Campbell.

Hadley said the United States is missing an economic component in its China strategy, the consequence of which he likened to fighting with one hand tied behind one’s back. Campbell admitted that the United States’ partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific, while appreciative of U.S. diplomatic and strategic initiatives, emphasize the importance of having an “open, optimistic, engaged economic message and policy.” 

Toward this end, Biden has indicated that the United States is embarking on an effort to engage likeminded partners in the Indo-Pacific on the prospect of building an economic framework around key issues in the 21st century, Campbell said. “This is the coin of the realm … This is the area that the region is looking toward,” he added.

U.S.-India relations

Democratic as well as Republican U.S. administrations have been “united in a recognition that a key fulcrum player on the global stage in the 21st century will be India. And it is profoundly in American interests to build that partnership,” Campbell said.

India’s closer partnership with the United States has in part been driven by the recent Chinese aggression along the border with India that resulted in the deaths of dozens of Indian as well as Chinese soldiers. “It would be difficult to exaggerate the strategic significance that has had in Delhi,” said Campbell. “A real sense of a new strategic paradigm which has encouraged India to reach out and to build, not just with the United States but other countries, stronger bonds to signal that India is not alone,” he added.

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