President Joe Biden has beefed up his foreign policy team with several experts on Asia — a move analysts said signals renewed efforts to raise U.S. standing in a region where China's influence is growing.
The Biden administration has identified a rising and more assertive China as one of its biggest foreign policy challenges, and stressed the importance of allies in responding to the strategic competition posed by Beijing.
Some analysts singled out the appointment of Kurt Campbell as the National Security Council's Indo-Pacific affairs coordinator as affirming Biden's intent to focus more on the region and strengthen relations with allies there.
Indo-Pacific broadly refers to the region that lies between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, bordered by Japan, India and Australia.
Campbell is familiar to many governments in Asia, having served as assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs under former President Barack Obama. He was widely credited for the Obama administration's pivot to Asia — a strategy seen faltering during Donald Trump's term.
Along with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security advisor Jake Sullivan, Campbell is expected to play a major role in forming the Biden administration's policy on Asia and — in particular — China.
"China policy in 2021 I think is actually going to be about ally policy," said Scott Kennedy, senior advisor and Trustee Chair in Chinese business and economics at think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"So I think we're gonna see Secretary of State Antony Blinken ... national security advisor Sullivan and Kurt Campbell spend much of their time not directly engaging China, but engaging allies in Asia and Europe on China," he said in CSIS' Asia forecast webinar last week.
That would stand in contrast with Trump's preferred approach to confront Beijing largely unilaterally — which yielded little results, added Kennedy.
While the Biden administration has not laid out a foreign policy blueprint for Asia, Campbell offered some insights in an article he co-wrote for Foreign Affairs magazine last month.
The article was published on Jan. 12, a day before news of Campbell's appointment was released and roughly a week before Biden was sworn in. It said the Indo-Pacific region faces two "specific" challenges: The rise of China's economy and military, as well as a retreating U.S.
"This combination of Chinese assertiveness and U.S. ambivalence has left the region in flux," Campbell wrote in the Jan. 12 article with Rush Doshi, who has also been tapped to serve in the Biden administration as China director on the National Security Council.
"If the next U.S. administration wants to preserve the regional operating system that has generated peace and unprecedented prosperity, it needs to begin by addressing each of these trends in turn," the authors said.
The article outlined three strategies the U.S. could take in the years to come.
Militarily, Washington should shift from its "singular focus on primacy" as well as the "expensive and vulnerable platforms" such as aircraft carriers, it said.
Instead, the authors said the U.S. should invest in the "relatively inexpensive and asymmetric capabilities" that Beijing has long employed such as cruise and ballistic missiles and submarines — which would "complicate Chinese calculations and force Beijing to reevaluate whether risky provocations would succeed."
Secondly, the U.S. should be more serious about reengaging the Indo-Pacific region, wrote Campbell and Doshi. That means showing up at regional summits and increasing cooperation with regional countries, while persuading Beijing of the benefits of following the rules, they added.
Finally, Washington should be flexible as it builds relationships in the region, said the article. That means going for bespoke or ad hoc bodies focused on specific issues — instead of forming "a grand coalition" for everything, it said.
Biden and his team have started to work on connecting with allies in Asia-Pacific.
The president last week spoke to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and this week held phone calls with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, according to statements from the White House.
Meanwhile, Blinken has spoken with his counterparts in Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand since his confirmation last week, noted analysts from consultancy Eurasia Group.
"The top priority of Biden's team is outreach to US allies and key countries in Asia as it seeks to reinforce US security and diplomatic commitments in the region," the analysts wrote in a report last week.
"This is the first step in an approach to China that will be focused on strengthening these relationships and building coalitions," they added.
China, for its part, has signaled its willingness to work with the new U.S. administration to return the two countries' relationship to "the right track."