Since taking office on January 20, President Biden has taken several steps on foreign policy that mark a sharp break from the global posture of the Trump administration. On February 4 at the State Department, Biden announced the end of US participation in Saudi Arabia’s offensive war in Yemen, drawing praise from Senator Bernie Sanders and raising hopes that he might end that nightmare altogether.
Progressives were also cheered by Biden’s appointment in January of Rob Malley, the seasoned negotiator of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as his envoy to Iran. In his speech at State, Biden explained that his administration is committed to working “in common” with key allies while “engaging our adversaries and our competitors diplomatically, where it’s in our interest.”
But those promises could be undercut by Biden’s policies on Asia, which are shaping up to be the most hawkish in years. Last week, in his first appearance at the Pentagon as president, he made clear that US actions in Asia will be focused almost exclusively on deterring China and its rising military and economic power.
Days before, the US Navy sent two aircraft carrier groups into the South China Sea, a move guaranteed to increase tension with Beijing. More dangerously, as I predicted just days after the election, Biden’s apparent return to Obama-era pressure tactics against North Korea could spark another crisis with the Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang, China’s closest ally.
To coordinate his new militaristic approach in the region, Biden has appointed Kurt Campbell, a career diplomat and business lobbyist steeped in the traditional Cold War posture toward Asia. Campbell, a prominent anti-China ideologue, is the new director of “Indo-Pacific Affairs” at the National Security Council. He is working for Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, whom Campbell served with in the Clinton-led State Department.
Campbell has been preparing for his position for years. During the Obama era, he made his name as the chief architect of the “Pivot to Asia,” which shifted the focus of US military forces from the Middle East to the Pacific. With Antony Blinken and Avril Haines—now, respectively, Biden’s secretary of state and director of national intelligence—Campbell played a key role in the Obama administration’s attempt to stop North Korea’s nuclear programs with a combination of military pressure, secret cyber-attacks, and sustained economic sanctions.
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Campbell is also known as one of the most pro-Japan officials in government. He is a key figure in a policy faction that sees Japan and its right-wing ruling Liberal Democratic Party as the linchpin of the US alliance system in the Asia region. Like many officials and think tank “experts,” he views South Korea—now under its most progressive government in years—as a subordinate partner to US and Japanese efforts to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and contain the growing military power of China.
That policy is manifest in a US initiative championed by the Obama administration to create a de facto military alliance between South Korea and Japan as part of the enlarged “Indo-Pacific” region. That push for a three-way alliance, which intensified under Trump, has become a major source of tension with South Korea, which has been at odds with Japan over its obstinate refusal to acknowledge responsibility for crimes committed against Korean women and industrial workers during World War II.
Campbell’s stance has been endorsed by anti-China hawks in Washington and Tokyo. He “will supercharge the incoming administration’s standing in Asia,” Michael Green, a former adviser to President George W. Bush who holds the “Japan Chair” at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Japan Times. CSIS, where Campbell was once affiliated, is a military think tank lavishly funded by the Japanese government, and has pushed in recent years for a more aggressive posture toward North Korea.
Campbell, who was President Obama’s top diplomat on Asia before joining a business consultancy focused on Asia, is also a major player in the so-called Washington “blob” as cofounder of the Center for a New American Security, a hawkish military think tank that has become a kind of farm team for the Biden administration.
Campbell founded CNAS in 2007 with Michèle Flournoy, the former Pentagon official and national security investor who was briefly considered by Biden for secretary of defense. Campbell is one of least 13 people affiliated with CNAS who have been hired by the new administration, according to a report released last week by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (among them are DNI Haines and Victoria Nuland, a controversial former CEO of CNAS, who is Biden’s choice for undersecretary of state for political affairs).
CNAS, the report says, is funded by many of the military contractors that supply US forces in Korea and Japan, including General Atomics, Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. According to CEPR, the think tank “publishes research and press material that frequently supports the interests of its sponsors without proper disclosure; and even gives its financial sponsors an official oversight role in helping to shape the organization’s research.”
That fits well with Campbell’s profile at the NSC, where he will be carrying out policies favored by CNAS and its military donors.
Biden’s North Korea policy is currently under review and he will make no moves until he is confident that “our allies and our partners [are] with us,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said last week. But Blinken’s comments so far indicate his preference for a pressure campaign against North Korea until Pyongyang takes specific steps to end its nuclear program. That could be problematic: It was Trump’s refusal to provide any interim sanction relief to Kim Jong-un that led to the collapse of their denuclearization talks two years ago in Hanoi. In January, Kim warned that North Korea will continue to build nuclear weapons and ICBMs until there is a fundamental change in the US position.
That seems unlikely in the near term. “The stage is set for another nuclear standoff,” said Hyun Lee, the national organizer for Women Cross DMZ, at a press conference earlier this month. “It is not a question of if; it’s a question of when. We cannot afford another crisis in nuclear brinkmanship like the one we had in 2017.”
In her presentation, Lee took a page from Biden’s playbook. “We can build back better” on the Korean Peninsula, she said, by “reinvesting in diplomatic efforts” to end the Korean War through a peace agreement, as proposed in a new report released by Korea Peace Now. Such a treaty is also supported by South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who has been pressing Biden through his new foreign minister, Chung Eui-yong, to resume talks with Pyongyang.
“The Korean Peninsula peace process is not a choice, but a path that we’re obligated to take,” Chung declared on February 9. But convincing Campbell, whose job during the Obama administration was to keep US allies in line, could be difficult. Consider the actions he took against the only Japanese leader in recent history who dared to challenge American strategic policy in the region.
In August 2009, Japanese voters overwhelmingly rejected the LDP and chose Yukio Hatoyama, the dovish leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), as prime minister. Hatoyama won on a promise to reduce the massive US military presence in Okinawa and make public the secret agreements the militaristic LDP had made with Washington during the Cold War, including one dating back to the US occupation that allowed US naval forces to bring nuclear weapons in and out of Japan anytime they chose.
Hatoyama’s pledge to remake the alliance didn’t sit well with the Obama administration, which was just embarking on Campbell’s “Pacific Pivot.” It dispatched Campbell, then the assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, to Tokyo. In an arrogant series of meetings detailed in secret diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, Campbell bluntly informed Hatoyama that the DPJ’s demands were “unhelpful” to the US-Japan alliance and threatened America’s ability to confront “the dramatic increase in China’s military capabilities” from its bases in Japan.
As I reported in The Nation, Hatoyama was forced to back down from his earlier demands. Instead, he agreed to a “compromise” on Okinawa that kept the US Marines in place until Japan built a new base for them in a less inhabited part of the island (that project has yet to be completed and remains a source of tension). Hatoyama resigned in humiliation a year later, and by 2012, the LDP was back in power and doing America’s bidding in Okinawa and elsewhere.
Campbell’s role as an enforcer of US interests with Japan is likely to be repeated in Korea by another key appointee on Asia, Jung Pak, a longtime Korea analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency In January, after a stint as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, she was appointed deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, where she will take a leadership role in dealing with the Koreas. During the Trump years, Pak became known for her tart criticism of President Moon for straying beyond US policy in his attempt to forge the peace with Kim Jong-un.
Perhaps that’s why she was hired so quickly by Blinken and his team. In his press remarks last Tuesday, State’s Ned Price stressed the importance of South Korea and Japan’s being on the “same page” as Washington. And on Thursday, in his first phone call with Foreign Minister Chung, Blinken reiterated Price’s point in even more detail. According to the State Department’s readout of the conversation, the new secretary of state “highlighted the importance of continued trilateral U.S.-ROK-Japan cooperation, underscored the continued need for the denuclearization of North Korea, and stressed President Biden’s commitment to strengthening U.S. alliances.” That sounds very much like orders not to deviate from American strategy, not a warm endorsement of friendship with an old ally.
The fruits of renewed advocacy for a broader US-led alliance system in Asia can already be seen. It was no accident that Biden called Japan’s prime minister, the LDP’s Yoshihide Suga, almost a week before he called Moon—a snub that was noted instantly by Hankyoreh, Seoul’s progressive and pro-engagement daily newspaper. “Precedent shows that all four of the past US presidents, upon their inauguration, have spoken on the phone with the Japanese prime minister before the South Korean president,” it noted.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon warned last week that South Korea’s rift with Japan threatens US strategy in the Pacific. “Trilateral cooperation” is “vital to the maintenance of regional peace, prosperity, and stability [which includes] addressing the North Korea nuclear, WMD, and ballistic missile threat and maintaining the rules-based international order,” a Pentagon spokesman said.
Still, the Moon government is happy with the state of the bilateral alliance and is reportedly on the verge of a new agreement with the United States on defense cost-sharing, a volatile issue during the Trump administration. “I think it will be extremely easy [for South Korea and the United States] to synchronize their positions,” Chung said in his first speech as foreign minister. But he added that “the Korean Peninsula peace process is not a choice, but a path that we’re obligated to take.”
If Biden and his NSC decide after their review to open talks with the North, they have appointed several officials skilled in diplomacy who would work with Campbell and Blinken.
They include Wendy Sherman, the new deputy secretary of state, who coordinated an innovative approach to North Korea for the Clinton administration that nearly succeeded in ending its missile program in 2000. Sung Kim, the former US ambassador to South Korea and the Philippines who played a key role in the Trump administration’s early negotiations with Kim Jong-un, was asked in January to remain as assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, but only on an acting basis.
In other words, the traditional Democratic tug-of-war between hard-liners and pro-engagement forces has begun. Hopefully, the outcome will advance the cause of peace and not the military-industrial complex that much of Biden’s team seems to represent.
Correction: The text has been corrected to note that Yukio Hatoyama was leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, not the Democratic Justice Party.