Kurt Campbell’s name may not ring a bell to many of us but he’s now one of the most important United States officials in this side of the world.
He is the US “Asia Czar” as the Indo-Pacific coordinator at the US National Security Council. It’s a newly created post that was meant for him. He returns to regional policymaking after an eight-year absence.
Campbell, described as an “Asia hawk” and a former US Navy officer, had also served as deputy assistant defense secretary for Asia and the Pacific in the administration of Bill Clinton, before he was tapped by Barack Obama as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
He was instrumental in the US government’s rebalancing policy in the Asia-Pacific region and, together with then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, shifted Obama’s Asia from the Middle East.
Obama called the US “a Pacific nation” before its allies in the Australian parliament, clearly sending a signal that the US needed its regional allies as it was out to check China’s rapidly rising military power as it became Asia’s fastest growing economy.
That shift saw Hillary make 60 stopovers in Asian countries, emphasizing the region’s importance in US trade and political influence. The US, along with Russia, also became a member of the East Asia Summit.
Hillary was succeeded by Jon Kerry on 1 February 2013, the same year Campbell resigned.
Then followed the “lost eight years” of US influence in the region during Obama’s second term and the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
China had seen the opportunity to advance during this stretch. In 2012, it had cemented its control of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea (also known as the West Philippine Sea).
Scarborough Shoal is also known as the Bajo de Masinloc or the Panatag Shoal. It has long been owned by the Philippines, which uses the 1734 Velarde map, against China’s recently devised nine-dash line claim.
China had also built military facilities in the Philippine-owned Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, highlighting the powerful country’s invidious policies against its neighbors and the other claimants to the disputed land and rock features.
In December last year, more than 200 Chinese militia boats have again swarmed at the Julian Felipe Reef, forming a large wall of boats anchored hull-to-hull to project an impenetrable ownership of the fishing grounds and sea lanes. The Chinese flotilla stayed in the Philippine water territory until last week.
Like the other Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines called for US help by invoking its Mutual Defense Treaty, while Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana demanded that the foreign militia ships leave the area. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. also fired a couple of protest notes to the Chinese government.
It helped that the Philippines is presently conducting yet another Balikatan exercises with the US troops. With the presence of powerful American ships and their air and submarine support, China had seen a renewed US commitment to its Asia-Pacific allies.
Then the Chinese militia boats had scattered.
China seemed to have misread Biden when, during his inaugural speech, the 46th US President had focused on internal concerns and did not mention China, except in the last part when he vowed to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.”
Global Times, a China media with close links to the Communist Party, called Biden’s speech as “closer to the reality of the US. He is much more rational than his predecessor Donald Trump.”
Then it said: “Many analysts believe that the focus of the Biden administration’s early governance is the domestic issues he listed. Biden obviously wants to at least partially bridge the divisions in the US society and restore a certain degree of unity in the country. Biden is asking the US to do its own things well in order to rejuvenate the country.”
Then last week, Biden hosted Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to reinvigorate the two countries’ united front. The US is dealing further with Taiwan, reaffirming its commitment to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, that counts Japan, Australia and India, and of late, had tapped its allies in the Philippine government on their shoulders to guarantee its presence.
China’s withdrawal from the vicinity of the Julian Felipe Reef was a sign that it respects power. It was no guarantee, however, that it will not pursue with its ambition to become a global superpower, too.
Even Campbell said it would be unwise to detach China from Asia’s energetic future. It’s a very close future that China’s knows is in its hands.
“A better solution would be for the US and its partners to persuade China that there are benefits to a competitive but peaceful region,” Campbell offered.
As the complex of the US foreign policy changes, China could try to sway away from its unenviable approaches that discourage its neighbors from trusting it fully.
The Chinese government knows this as even the Global Times, in the same editorial it published on Biden’s inauguration, said: “Unity is a good wish, and it is often the victor’s call. But the attitude of the defeated is a short plank that determines how much water a barrel can hold.”