The period in U.S. policy toward China that was broadly described as ‘engagement’ has come to an end, said Dr. Kurt M. Campbell, deputy assistant to the President and coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the National Security Council, speaking at Shorenstein APARC’s 2021 Oksenberg Conference. “The dominant paradigm is going to be competition. Our goal is to make that a stable, peaceful competition that brings out the best of us,” he added.
This year’s Oksenberg Conference examined President Biden’s China strategy, how it might differ from that of the Trump administration, and how the United States can best pursue its values and interests amidst China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific. Campbell headlined the online event along with Laura Rosenberger, special assistant to the President and senior director for China and Taiwan at the National Security Council. Following their remarks, Campbell and Rosenberger joined the Freeman Spogli Institute Director Michael McFaul for a fireside chat. Watch their statements and discussion:
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The lion share of history in the twenty-first century will be written in Asia, noted Campbell, and for the first time the United States is earnestly shifting its strategic focus, economic interests, and military might to the Indo-Pacific. America’s approach to the region has been underpinned by the post-WWII narratives of a U.S.-led international order centered around deployed engagement to preserve stability and peaceful conflict resolution, economic openness, and multilateralism. Now this U.S.-led ‘operating system of the Indo-Pacific’ is challenged.
Over the past several years, Beijing has signaled its determination to play a more assertive role on the international stage. Across the board, said Campbell, we have witnessed examples of China’s shift to “harsh power, or hard power” and its strategically destabilizing impacts — from the conflict on India’s northern border to an “undeclared economic campaign” against Australia, “wolf warrior” diplomacy, stepped-up military interactions in the South China Sea, regular military actions across the Taiwan Strait, and increasing pressure on Japan.
“We all understand that China, as a rising power, takes issue with certain elements of the existing, dominant system and wants to revise them,” Campbell said. “We believe that the best way to engage a more assertive China is to work with allies, partners, and friends.”
Granted, no country is eager to pick sides in the U.S.-China rivalry, he added, and, in the post-Trump era, “one of the biggest challenges of the Biden administration is to try and underscore and reassure allies and friends that we’re going to continue our stabilizing role.”
Working with allies and partners, which is one of the three pillars of the Biden administration’s China policy, is not about building an anti-China coalition, emphasized Laura Rosenberger. “What we are seeking to do is to show that democracies deliver” and work for the benefit of the American people and the world’s people. “That provides a competitive counteroffer” to China’s more coercive ways of engagement with its counterparts and its efforts to reshape rules in ways that threaten democracies.
Another pillar of the Biden administration’s China policy, Rosenberger explained, is investing at home and strengthening ourselves domestically. The need to do so is especially urgent not only due to the health and economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic but also in response to intractable challenges in American society — such as economic disparities and the cracks in our democracy — and to the imperative to out-innovate and outperform China in the technology space, where much of the competition between the two powers lies.
The third aspect of U.S. policy towards China, said Rosenberger, is “Countering China where we need to and cooperating with China where it is in our interest to do so. We think this is how we can manage competition in a way that will prevent us from moving into conflict but that will allow us to maximize cooperation.” She noted that this approach has already played out in the initial high-level engagements of the Biden team with Beijing.
Still, Campbell admitted, the United States will need to recreate elements of its power, dispel fears of American decline in the international arena, and convince the entire Indo-Pacific of its determination to continue to play a leading role on the international stage. It also must have a positive economic vision for its engagement in the region.
“The operating system of the Indo-Pacific is under substantial strain,” he said. It will need to be reinvigorated not just by the United States but also by other countries that use it, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and countries in Europe that want to do more in Asia.
“Our goal is to enhance deterrence,” concluded Campbell, and to bring other countries into the effort. “We’re ambitious about the Quad,” he said, noting that the Biden administration is looking to convene an in-person meeting of its Quad partners in the fall and underscoring the administration’s willingness to welcome into its efforts “other countries that believe that they’d like to engage and work with us.”
Sponsored by Shorenstein APARC and led by the China Program, the annual Oksenberg Conference honors the legacy of the late Professor Michel Oksenberg. A renowned China scholar who urged the United States to engage with Asia in a more considered manner, Oksenberg was a senior fellow at APARC and FSI and served as a key member of the National Security Council when the United States normalized relations with China. In his tribute, the Oksenberg Conference recognizes distinguished individuals who have advanced the understanding between the United States and the nations of the Asia-Pacific.