AMERICA’S INDO-PACIFIC STRATEGY STILL OBSCURE
The outgoing and incoming presidential national security advisors are in agreement on the broad outline of a bipartisan China policy. Addressing an on-line audience on January 29, Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, said that the so-called Quad framework—consisting of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India—will be a cornerstone of American policy in maintaining a “free and open” Indo-Pacific in the face of China’s rise. Sullivan also stated that the Biden administration will “impose cost” for what China is doing in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and for the “bellicosity of threats” it is projecting towards Taiwan, noting that Washington will be speaking to Beijing “with clarity and consistency” on these matters.
Sullivan and Robert O’Brien, who served Trump as national security advisor, were guests on an on-line “Passing the Baton” event hosted by the Washington-headquartered US Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan institute funded by the US Congress. The duo further agreed that China would continue to pose “the most significant challenge of any nation-state” to America’s national security for many generations to come.
On January 19, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared: “I have determined that the People’s Republic of China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, China.” On the same day, Antony Blinken and Janet Yellen, incoming secretaries of state and treasury, agreed with Pompeo’s declaration during Senate confirmation hearing.
Blinken stated that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been putting Muslim Uyghuers to hard labor in Xinjiang, stressing that the Biden administration will take every measure to ban imports from China that are made with forced labor from the Uyghur population.
Blinken’s remarks were captivating, clearly reflecting his staunch commitment to human rights. The new secretary of state comes from an elite East Coast family. His wife Evan Ryan is the White House Cabinet Secretary in the new Biden administration. His uncle Alan is a former ambassador to Belgium, and his father Donald a former ambassador to Hungary. His mother Vera found refuge in America from Hungary and so did his late Stepfather, Samuel Piser, who survived the horrors of the Holocaust.
At the end of the war, Samuel, an inmate in a Polish concentration camp, made a break from a death march into the Bavarian woods. One day he heard the rumbling sound of a tank and saw a five-pointed white star instead of the dreaded iron cross. Samuel ran desperately to the tank, and the hatch opened. “An African-American GI looked down at him,” Blinken told the committee. “He fell to his knees and said the only three words that he knew in the English language that his mother had taught him before the war: ‘God Bless America.’ The GI lifted him into the tank, into freedom, into America.”
Committed to Condemning China
“That’s who we are,” Blinken said. “That’s what we represent to the world however imperfectly, and what we can still be when we’re at our best.”
That he cited his family’s story demonstrates how earnestly he is committed to condemning China. It is clear that Blinken is genuinely angered by the CCP, which denies Chinese citizens their human rights: the imperious Xi Jinping maneuvering to fit international law to the Chinese way of legal interpretation; and everything about Chinese imperialism that forms the basis of Beijing’s coercive foreign policy.
The China policy of the Biden administration is expected to be hardline, if one is to trust what those in charge have had to say so far. But what really counts is how they put their words into action. At this juncture, Biden cannot but concentrate his efforts on the pandemic that the Wuhan virus has caused, as well as other grave domestic problems, such as the stagnant economy, racial discrimination, and a divided society. Biden has entrusted John Kerry with the environmental issue, which constitutes the centerpiece of America’s foreign policy, and put Kurt Campbell in charge of international security.
China is the culprit that has created the security crisis that the US, Japan, and other members of the free world are faced with. China’s authoritarian behavior has especially been conspicuous in the South and East China Seas, as well as the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which virtually cover the whole of Asia in the broad sense of the word. Campbell has been named the coordinator for this wide expanse of geography.
Kerry and Campbell are roughly 20 years senior to the other members of the Biden administration. Will the younger cabinet secretaries be able to control these veterans? And will the veterans be able to perform as expected on their part? I have my doubts about that for several reasons.
Campbell, one of the most senior Asia hands in the Democratic foreign policy ranks, previously served as Assistant Secretary of State under Hillary Clinton when Obama was President. Campbell is a man of vast experience, but assessment of his ability remains polarized in Washington. Some quarters criticize him for the vested interest he allegedly has with China.
Another point is that he has accomplished little in terms of the outcome of his polities. Hillary Clinton and Campbell helped form the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” scheme. Campbell is said to be the architect of this strategy. Despite emphasizing the Chinese threat, however, “Pivot to Asia” failed to work out concrete measures. Put simply, it was all words and no action.
Of course, Campbell alone was not to blame. But wouldn’t the Biden administration be running the risk of again falling into the same patter of failure of the Obama administration—all talk and no action?
Campbell co-authored an article in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs entitled The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations, in which he and Ely Ratner pointed out the faults of America’s engagement policy with China. They criticized successive US administrations for taking this approach over the years under the false assumption that the richer Chia became, the more democratic and open it would be—like the US.
Trepidation about Biden’s China Strategy
Long before Campbell and Ratner criticized the naïve China policy of successive administrations, China expert Michael Pillsbury exposed the truth about the authoritarian state in his best-selling book—The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (St. Martin’s Griffith; 2016). The Trump administration, inaugurated in January 2017, announced in December a national defense strategy portraying China as a serious national security threat. Did Campbell write the article to merely acknowledge the changes in the political winds in Washington vis-a-vis China?
In the Biden administration, Campbell is charged with coordinating security matters relating to the entire Indo-Pacific region. Foreign Affairs ran a timely piece by him in its January 12 digital edition titled How America Can Shore UP Asian Order.
Basing his assertions on a thesis Henry Kissinger wrote in the late 1950s—
A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace 1812-22— Campbell discusses the current state of US-China relations. I gave it a quick read but frankly was disappointed that it was of no use as a reference. I was particularly sorry that, while discussing the Indo-Pacific, Campbell failed to refer to the region as a “free and open” Indo-Pacific—not even once.
As coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, Campbell is in a position to deal with the China issue from a wide perspective encompassing all the departments and agencies centering around the defense and state departments. But his stance is in stark contract to the two national security specialists introduced at the outset, who declared that a free and open Indo-Pacific is the fundamental principle of America’s defense strategy. I am not sure if this is right.
Campbell’s policy proposal under the Obama administration—that America implement a strategic “rebalancing” of its interests from Europe and the Middle East toward East Asia—ended up as only words. Am I going too far in saying that, as America’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Campbell this time has yet to even make a decent proposal as regards the area he is charged with.
Kissinger allegedly gets 5% of his total income from Chinese sources. I am not sure how trustworthy this figure is, but I can easily imagine that he may have close business ties with the Chinese. Frankly, I have trepidation about Campbell as America’s Indo-Pacific coordinator for claiming to adore a figure like Kissinger, and about the Biden administration which will rely significantly on Campbell for its China policy.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 937 in the February 11, 2021 issue of The Weekly Shincho)