US needs to step up its game in Southeast Asia, says senior official

·5-min read

The US has been “missing in action” in Asia and needs to step up its game especially in Southeast Asia to show Chinese hardliners that the world’s largest economic and military power is not in free fall, a senior US official said on Tuesday.

“Ideologues around Xi Jinping think the US is hurtling toward decline,” said Kurt Campbell, the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, speaking to the Asia Society.

“Rumours of our decline are greatly exaggerated. [We] have the wherewithal, the will and the determination to continue to play a leading role in the global community, but particularly in the Indo-Pacific.”

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The long-time public servant, who left a consulting job to rejoin government in January, said the US has weathered tough periods before and re-emerged stronger, including the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the 1980s economic showdown with Japan.

Campbell, a veteran of various national security and trade jobs, said the current environment resembles early Cold War days given current American hand-wringing, self-doubt and exaggeration of its adversary’s capabilities.

But the official stopped short of calling this a new cold war given the risk it will lead to old patterns of thinking.

Washington has objected vociferously to Beijing’s Hong Kong crackdown and passage of the hardline national security law in part to check future Beijing moves against Taiwan and beyond.

The administration is acutely aware of the delicate balancing act it faces strengthening ties with Taiwan without emboldening independence forces in Taipei or an armed response from China, he said, which views self-governing Taiwan as a renegade province.

“I just want to underscore that succession would be catastrophic. But at the same time we need to signal when China has taken steps that are completely antithetical to the international order,” he said. “It’s very delicate, a dangerous, balance but it’s a balance that must be maintained.”

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Campbell said he believes cooperation between Washington and Beijing will be limited and increasingly competitive, interspersed by a few areas such as climate change where their national interests are aligned. The pandemic looked like another shared concern although “that has been quite a disappointment”, he added.

The conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, in its 2021 China Transparency Report released on Tuesday, said any effort to prevent such a devastating pandemic from reoccurring depends on greater transparency from China, where the virus originated.

“As US policymakers look to address the China challenge, access to reliable data becomes increasingly important,” it added.

Medical workers help Covid-19 patients move into isolation wards at Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan, China in February last year. Photo: Xinhua
Medical workers help Covid-19 patients move into isolation wards at Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan, China in February last year. Photo: Xinhua

Campbell added that he hoped the Indo-Pacific region was big enough for the two powers, but “some of what we’ve seen from President Xi and his colleagues suggests that China’s ambitions surpass that”.

In a speech last week marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party, Xi took a defiant tone toward the United States and its allies.

“China will absolutely not accept the preaching of ‘arrogant teachers’ who order us around,” he said. “The Chinese people will absolutely never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress, or enslave us. Whoever is so deluded as to act this way will inevitably have their heads broken.”

Campbell questioned whether China is getting ahead of itself. In the past, Beijing tended to focus on one major foreign policy initiative at a time. These days it is flexing its muscles on multiple fronts, from India and the South China Sea, to Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, Europe, among others.

A Pew Research poll released in late June recorded unfavourable views of China “near historic highs” in most of the 17 advanced economies surveyed.

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“The government’s prioritisation of nationalist politics over economic pragmatism is continuing to turn the developed world against China,” the Eurasia Group consultancy said in a recent report.

“China is alienating potential partners in the developing world too,” it added, citing recent tension with India.

Xi and China are unlikely to be persuaded by rhetoric but will need to be persuaded by US advances in technology, education, effective alliances and other concrete steps, Campbell said. “Do I believe China and the US can coexist and live in peace? Yes, I do. But there will be enormous challenges.”

The official said a Biden administration strategic review of China policy will be released later this year, its delay driven by the pandemic, trying to govern in the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol attack and the need for careful, deliberative policy prescriptions.

An Afghan army soldier walks inside the Bagram airbase, Afghanistan on Monday. Photo: EPA-EFE
An Afghan army soldier walks inside the Bagram airbase, Afghanistan on Monday. Photo: EPA-EFE

Over the weekend, US troops left Bagram airbase in Afghanistan as part of a planned withdrawal from the country after 20 years of war.

Campbell said Chinese policymakers likely have three interpretations of the US pull-out: that Washington decided it has been embroiled long enough, wants to shift resources to the Indo-Pacific to counter China and wants to destabilise China’s southern flank.

There have been estimates that up to 1 million Uygurs have been in “re-education” camps in far western Xinjiang bordering Afghanistan despite widespread global criticism over human rights violations.

“What we think we see is a China that believes that there will be some opportunities to step in Afghanistan in the next little while. I think they recognise that the situation is more unstable than many anticipated,” Campbell said.

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