INTERVIEW/ Kurt Campbell: China should accept U.S. enduring leadership role in Asia

February 09, 2013

By YOICHI KATO/ National Security Correspondent

WASHINGTON--As Washington implements its “rebalance to Asia” strategy, it will be important for China to accept the enduring and strong role of the United States in the region, said Kurt Campbell, outgoing U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs.

In an exclusive exit interview with The Asahi Shimbun to review major diplomatic issues in the Obama administration's first term, Campbell rejected perceptions of a U.S. decline, emphasizing, “We will be a leading country for decades to come.”

He expressed strong concerns about escalating tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue, saying the feud could damage the economic performance of the entire region.

Campbell also said North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests pose “an existential threat” to the United States and warned Pyongyang against further provocations.

Excerpts of the interview follow:


Question: What foreign policy goals did you set at the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009?

Answer: What we sought to do was, basically, to increase the intensity of our engagement across the board, not just with our security partners, not just with China, but with regional institutions like ASEAN and the emerging East Asia Summit.

I think it would be fair to say that in 2009, there were really grave anxieties about an American decline. And one of the things that will require a sustained effort, first of all, was to underscore the enduring features of American leadership and the quality of American engagement.

But secondly, continuing in the process of the rebalance, in which the United States responsibly winds down some of these challenging and expensive endeavors in the Middle East and South Asia, and focuses more of that capability on emerging opportunities and challenges of the Asia-Pacific region.

Q: The United States shifted its strategic focus back to the Asia-Pacific region after the decade-long war on terror. But in the meantime, “the rise of China, the relative decline of the United States” had become a cliché, and now you are trying to fix it. Was the war on terror a strategic distraction?

A: I wouldn’t go as far as to say that, but I do think it is undeniable that these conflicts have taken a terrible toll on American forces, American focus, and lives and treasure.

My general proposition, though, would be, if you look over a period of decades, there have been recurring commentaries about the American decline, starting with the one at the end of the Second World War, then the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War, and now, more recently, in the period immediately after the global economic crisis in 2007 and 2008.

But each time the United States has surged back. In fact, in many respects, we responded to these challenges effectively. I believe that the fundamentals of the American economy, in terms of competitiveness, innovation, strategy, and the determination to play an active role in the Asia-Pacific region, these qualities ensure that we will be a leading country, if not a dominant nation in Asia, for decades to come.

Q: Most of the regional states welcome the U.S. rebalance. But they also share confusion and doubts. One of them is “Why now?” I believe the so-called pivot to Asia was first announced in the now-famous article “America’s Pacific Century” by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton back in October 2011. Why did you choose that particular time?

A: Well, the truth is, from the beginning of the administration, there were clear indicators that we did, in fact, want to step up our game in the Asian-Pacific region. In my first conversations with Secretary Clinton and, in fact, in the White House, that was the going-in proposition, that we needed to do more, do more effectively, and to make clear that the lion’s share of the history of the 21st century was going to be written in Asia. So in a number of ways, over several months, we articulated this vision.

Now, it is true that the secretary’s article in Foreign Policy magazine received a lot of attention. But she had given speeches months before, a year before, that articulated the similar themes.

The truth is we have never left Asia. We’ve been engaged systematically and substantively for decades. But there is an acknowledgment that we need to do more not just over one or two administrations, but several. And it will require a concerted, determined effort over time.

Q: A small but important footnote about the term “pivot” and/or “rebalance.” I remember you said at one point that you’re not going to use “pivot” anymore. But President Barack Obama mentioned “pivot” in the presidential debate last fall. What’s going on?

A: Well, the president likes the term. Others don’t. Some like “rebalance.” I use them interchangeably. And they do not hold religious significance.

I think what’s important here is the underlying concept. They are meant to connote revitalization and a re-engagement at a deeper level of our key relationships with Asia. And I agree that the unintended consequence of the initial use of the “pivot,” for instance, was somehow that we were vacating our responsibilities and our important relationships with Europe. That was not the case.

Q: Is it really strategically feasible for the United States to “rebalance” from the Middle East, when the Middle East is still not in a stable condition?

A: I think that’s one of the concerns with sort of the mental image that comes with the term “pivot.” It suggests a complete movement away, while “rebalance” suggests a shifting balance, along the lines of a scale that subtly reorients.

My own sense is that it is inevitable and strategically wise that our commitments in the Middle East and South Asia will continue but probably not at the same level. It’s not just expensive, but it focuses the entirety of the U.S. government.

Ultimately, what we are looking to do is to shift more resources toward naval and expeditionary capabilities, over time--that will take some period--more diplomatic engagement in Asia, more focus on nurturing and sustaining some of the key alliances. I believe Asia will be the center of strategic gravity.

Q: Another concern about rebalance is budget. And, of course, the president said that defense budget cuts do not come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific. Really?

A: I believe we will have what it takes to sustain our efforts in Asia. Let me give you an example. If we could take one week of an operating budget, during the time when we had active, strong military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and used that (money) toward programs and projects in Asia, it would be sustaining for a long period of time. We have ample resources to do what’s necessary to sustain American leadership in Asia.

Q: You stated in a past interview that one of the principal beneficiaries of a much more intense engagement of the United States is China. But the reality is that China does not see it that way. Instead, they seem to regard the U.S. rebalance as a threat. Why is there this lack of understanding?

A: I don’t know if there’s that much of a lack of understanding. I do believe that there is a strong competition between the United States and China. And it will be important for China to accept that the United States is going to play an enduring, strong role in the Asia-Pacific region. But the United States does want a stronger, deeper relationship with China, and we have made that undeniably clear.

Q: What is the significance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement as a part of this rebalance strategy?

A: The TPP holds an enormous potential to provide a high-quality 21st-century platform for how to increase economic interaction among the key states in Asia. I believe that, at a strategic level, nothing would make more sense than for Japan to join the TPP.

I recognize that that’s a difficult proposition in Japanese domestic politics, but ultimately, I believe that the thing that will matter most in revitalizing and strengthening the U.S.-Japan relationship is not more dialogues, not more focus on security issues–which is important–but, frankly, is taking steps to subject our economic relationship to more openness, more competition, and more engagement.

I think that is the central challenge for U.S.-Japan relations over the course of the next several years. Without such a significant economic engagement, our relationship is going to wither.

Q: Back in November 2009, when President Obama visited China, a historic phrase was inserted in the joint statement: “The two sides agreed that respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important.” But this reference to “core interests” disappeared from the next joint statement, when China’s president, Hu Jintao, visited the United States in January 2011. What happened?

A: I believe that the concept of “core interest” is subject to much misunderstanding and has led to fairly serious tensions between the United States and China. The idea that if a country declares an area a “core interest,” then somehow it is no longer a subject for discussion with other countries, I don’t think that approach is very effective in 21st-century diplomacy.

Q: What is going to happen to the China policy of the Obama administration in his second term after Secretary Clinton and you leave?

A: Look, it’s bigger than any individual and this, remember, comes from the president himself. I have high confidence it will be sustained.

Q: Among policy experts in both the United States and China, there is a view that a deep-rooted strategic distrust exists between the two countries. And some argue that the situation has gotten worse because of the U.S. rebalance. What is your view?

A: I think there is some strategic distrust, but it is based on ignorance, and some of it is based on an inaccurate assessment of differences in values and views. And I think we have eliminated some of the former, but I think it is just undeniably the case that this is a relationship that will have areas of discord.

Q: You were quoted in a past interview as saying, “A degree of tension is inevitable and probably healthy, as well, between the United States and China.” What is the acceptable level of tension and what is not?

A: There is Winston Churchill’s famous dictum: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” We have been able to have very frank discussions on economic, political and other matters. But there will be areas of very substantial tension in numerous areas: cyber security, intellectual property, military, issues of political values and human rights. Those features in our relationship are, by nature, conflictual and even, occasionally, combative.

But at the same time, the key is that the larger vessel, in which those issues reside, is a vessel of cooperation and a recognition that the United States and China must work together.

Q: A top foreign policy expert in China, Wang Jisi of Peking University, said that since China had already ascended to first-class power status in the world, “it deserves more respect.” Do we need to pay more respect to China’s interests, such as Tibet and Taiwan?

A: It is undeniably the case that China is a rapidly rising state and is a great power in the international system. And there is a sense that respect and international legitimacy have been denied. But I think the challenge between China and other leading countries in the global community is something quite different. In fact, I believe we have done everything possible to encourage China to play a leading role in the G-20, in the East Asia Summit, just every imaginable institution and venue.

But in many respects, China is ambivalent about playing that role. So I actually don’t think the key here is a lack of respect.

I think the larger challenge is that it’s very difficult in global politics to absolutely have your way in any set of circumstances. Diplomacy is part of compromise, a part of engagement and, in fact, in many sets of circumstances, we have had success but not necessarily the precise kind of success, perhaps, that friends in Beijing seek.

We want rising states and, indeed, all states, to abide by the set of strategic principles, the peaceful settlement of disputes, the legal applications in international circumstances, all of these things–-freedom of the seas.

Q: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, has expressed a strong intention to strengthen the alliance with the United States, trying to differentiate his administration from the previous ones under the Democratic Party of Japan. What do you expect Abe to do?

A: What we want in the U.S.-Japan context is bipartisanship, not just on the U.S. side but, frankly, on the Japanese side. I would say that we actually accomplished an enormous amount under Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (who preceded Abe). I think the relationship is progressing well.

Obviously, the new government has indicated a desire to spend more on defense. I think that’s appropriate. I believe that Japan wants to find new avenues of cooperation with the United States, like on areas of cyber security. We welcome these initiatives. The Japanese government is now, and has been for several years, showing a much more serious commitment to security, and I think, generally speaking, we welcome that.

Q: Next, the Senkaku issue. You said in a press briefing last September that you want tensions to subside and diplomacy to increase. But the actual situation is the exact opposite. Recently, there was even an incident in which a Chinese warship directed fire-control radar at a Japanese destroyer in the East China Sea. What is going wrong?

A: Let me just say that we are concerned by the escalating tensions in relations between Japan and China. We’ve communicated to both governments that if this continues it will start to have a substantial, enduring, material impact not only on Japan-China relations but, frankly, on the economic performance of the region as a whole. It troubles us very much. So we’re going to push hard for more diplomacy, more dialogue, and more caution, in both Beijing and Tokyo.

Q: Japan’s “comfort woman” issue from the World War II era is referred to as the “sex slave” issue in the United States and gathers no sympathy for Japan. Some in Washington express deep concerns about its negative impact on Japan-South Korea relations. What kind of actions do you expect Japan to take?

A: Frankly, I, myself, would be concerned at an effort that would focus, in the current uneasy environment, on historical reinterpretation. I believe that a better focus is on shared values with respect to how to deal with uncertainties on the Korean Peninsula, how to engage to build trust and confidence between the two leaders in Tokyo and Seoul, and in many respects, to trilateralize the critical security partnerships that exist between the United States, Japan and South Korea.

Q: North Korea has not stopped its provocations. What should we do about it?

A: We’ve faced provocations from North Korea for decades, and they will likely continue. We have made clear that the missile tests, the nuclear efforts, in sum total, are destabilizing and potentially pose an existential threat to the United States. We’ve made that point not only to Pyongyang, but perhaps most important, to Beijing.

And China needs to understand that if North Korea continues on its current path, then it will potentially lead to the United States taking specific steps with respect to ballistic missile defense and the like that perhaps China would not view in its own strategic interests.

Q: Is the U.S. regional strategy including Southeast Asia and the Pacific intended to counter-balance the growing power and influence of China, if not contain it?

A: You know, there are schools of thought when it comes to how to consider constructing U.S. policy in this region. There is one group that argues, “Look, China should be at the center of American strategy.” There’s another that says, “Allies are key.” There’s a third group that says, “China is an enemy.” Others who say, “Climate change or trans-national challenge should unite us.”

I think what we’ve tried to do (in the Obama administration) was to have an all-in strategy, in which we step up our game, not just in ASEAN, but bring India in, revitalize our relationships with countries that we’ve had remarkably little engagement with, like New Zealand and the Pacific islands. So what we’ve done is, frankly, intensify every single one of our bilateral relationships, including our relationship with China.

So this is not meant as a hedge, per se, with respect to China, but more about deepening and diversifying our contacts throughout the region. And we believe a more successful China policy is one that is embedded in the region as a whole.

* * *

Kurt Campbell has been the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs since June 2009. Prior to this government service, he was the CEO and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He was also an associate professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He has served in several capacities in government, including as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific in the Clinton administration.

By YOICHI KATO/ National Security Correspondent
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Kurt Campbell (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

Kurt Campbell (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

  • Kurt Campbell (Photo by Yuko Lanham)
  • Kurt Campbell (Photo by Yuko Lanham)
  • Kurt Campbell (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

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