In Conversation: Kurt Campbell, White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator
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In Conversation: Kurt Campbell, White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator

The White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell spoke to Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove on the first day of the digital conference 'The Indo-Pacific Operating System' on 1 December 2021.

In Conversation: Kurt Campbell speaks to Michael Fullilove

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: We begin with Kurt Campbell. For many years, Kurt has been central to debates in Washington on America's policies towards Asia. He was the architect of the 'Pivot to Asia' announced by President Obama in Canberra a decade ago. He also coined the term 'Indo-Pacific Operating System' to describe the regional rules based order. We liked Kurt's snappy term so much we decided to adopt it for this conference. I first met Kurt 20 years ago, at the residence of the Australian Ambassador to the United States when I was in Washington at the behest of Frank Lowy, writing a feasibility study for a new Australian think tank that would become the Lowy Institute. Kurt gave me good advice then, as he's done ever since. And in 2013, Kurt served as the Institute's inaugural Distinguished International Fellow, and gave the first Owen Harries Lecture. Kurt Campbell served in senior positions in the Clinton and Obama Administrations. This year President Biden appointed him as Deputy Assistant to the President and coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs on the NSC, in which capacity Kurt has been at the centre of important initiatives, including the Quad and AUKUS. Kurt is a strategist. an entrepreneur and a public servant. I believe he's had a greater impact on US policy towards Asia than any other American official in living memory. He's also a good friend to Australia, and to many Australians, including Prime Ministers of recent decades. Kurt, I'm honoured that you've agreed to speak with me today from the White House and to take some questions from our audience. Thank you, Kurt.

KURT CAMPBELL: That's such a gracious introduction, and I can't tell you how much I've been looking forward to being with you. and I want to return the compliment. No think tank, no (indistinct) has done more than the Lowy Institute in advancing how to think about Asia, how to think about the Indo-Pacific, how to think about Australia's role in the world. So I want to congratulate you - tremendous work - and I'm grateful to have played a small role in the trajectory of the Lowy Institute over the course of the last couple of decades.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: All right, thank you, Kurt. Let's get straight into it. To begin with - Kurt Campbell, tell us a bit about America's long-term ambition in the Indo-Pacific. And tell us a bit about how the Indo-Pacific, how you see the 'Indo-Pacific Operating System'.

KURT CAMPBELL: Well, thank you. First of all, I think we have to begin with just fundamental understandings. And the first is that over the last 40 years, the greatest experience in wealth creation, in lifting people out of poverty, in promoting democracy, in supporting integration has taken place in the Indo-Pacific. It's a remarkable achievement, too often overlooked. But a tremendous achievement. And one that we have to look at very carefully. I think the United States has helped play a role in that, through a variety of mechanisms, Michael. Keeping American markets open for the export of goods, the provision of security, supporting freedom of navigation - which can seem hard to kind of figure out what its role is, but it's incredibly important - peaceful resolution of disputes. So it is a fabric of a number of different things woven together that has provided the confidence to countries - ranging from Japan to Indonesia -  to basically experience the drama and the tremendous innovation of the last forty years. So I see the operating system as a living thing. And something that is added to over time. I think sometimes people fall into a habit when describing or discussing American policy, suggesting that our job is to somehow secure something from the past. That the operating system worked in the past, and that our effort is basically to preserve something from the status quo ante bellum. And, Michael, I would just simply say that I think that's a fool's errand. That in reality, Asia is about moving forward. And it's about working with other like-minded states about what are going to be the important ingredients in sustaining this operating system going forward. And I would say probably the most important is for the United States to truly, honestly and with tremendous durability, work with partners and allies. This is not something that can be accomplished alone through faux consultation. This requires the deepest integration and engagement with partners and allies.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: You spoke about looking to the future rather than clinging to the past. And we know that economics forms a more important part of geostrategic competition now and it will in the future than it did in the past in the Cold War. You recently said that not having an economic strategy for the Indo-Pacific is like having one or two hands behind, tied behind your back, and perhaps a foot as well. You're very good at the snappy phrase, Kurt. What will it take the United States to break free and really develop an economic strategy for the region?

KURT CAMPBELL: Well, look, you're already seeing elements of that taking shape now, Michael, in a variety of places. I think sometimes, we tend to overlook certain elements of American economic power. We're the largest investor in most of the places in the Indo-Pacific. The President in the last few weeks in summits with the East Asia community, with APEC, articulated his vision of a economic framework that we're in the early stages of articulating and discussing with partners and friends that will be cutting-edge in respect to issues associated with the digital economy, with climate-related features, worker rights. We already had initial discussions with Secretary Raimondo who just returned from the region - also in consultation with Australian friends. I think we're very hopeful about those discussions and we want to take quick action moving forward. But also there are other elements, the 'Build Back Better' World will be about advancing efforts, American efforts and investment in some key areas of infrastructure, climate. And so I think, what's going to be important over time, Michael, is for the United States to demonstrate that we do in fact, understand that the region looks to the United States and have an open, engaged optimistic view that yes, we bring defence and security support to the Indo-Pacific but that's not enough. Our diplomacy is terrific. Ultimately, the region seeks our efforts not just in projects, but in the design of the standards that will animate our technology and innovativeness as we go forward. And I think the Biden Administration's trying to signal - despite our domestic challenges, and some of the issues that we're dealing with - that we're committed to working purposefully in this endeavour.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Alright, let me ask you about some of the new diplomatic initiatives in your administration has initiated. And let me start with AUKUS. You've played a critical role in the negotiation of AUKUS, which was announced by President Biden and Prime Ministers Johnson and Morrison in September. The centrepiece of that agreement is a commitment by the United States to share its nuclear submarine propulsion technology with Australia. This is one of the crown jewels of American technology. Why did the Administration decide to make this commitment, Kurt?

KURT CAMPBELL: Largely because Australia is an ally like no other. I don't think it's a secret that a number of other countries have asked over the years to be included in this partnership. And it's not - it is the crown jewels. it is the thing that has separated the United States in terms of our operating capabilities undersea for decades. We've only done this once. It was almost 70 years ago - imagine that - with Great Britain. It took the kind of ally, friend and partner like Australia to, to frankly persuade some of the folks in our government and elsewhere that this was exactly the right strategic move at a critical time. So I would say AUKUS does many things Michael, you touched on one, but it will do other things as well. We've just brought on-board an AUKUS administrator or strategist here at the White House - a friend to Australia, Jim Miller, who had served in the Obama Administration as Undersecretary for several years, technologist and in his own right, and his task over the next 18 months working with Australia and Great Britain is to basically do three things: The first is to help design an architecture that's going to bring our three countries closer together in defence technology. That means more regular engagements at the highest level and this has many advantages. We've met individually for decades with both countries but never in combination among the three. It brings Britain more into the Indo-Pacific and it leads to more interoperability and engagement between the United States and Australia. So that's extraordinarily important. It will be ambitious. It will mean a regular tempo of engagements, a sharing of information, of intelligence. I think that's going to be vital. The second is that I think we acknowledge that there will be some key technologies that will be animating in the  21st century. And some of those technologies have been pioneered outside of the United States. For instance, there are a lot, there's a lot of work that Australia has done in AI, in longer range systems. Great Britain has done some pioneering work in cyber. Our goal is to set up working groups and engagements that will allow us to meld and to mine capabilities that can be helpful in maintaining deterrence and initiative on the technology and military arena. And then lastly, as you mentioned, is to work expeditiously to provide Australia with the best options for how to field nuclear submarines to the Royal Australian Navy. The nearest possible destination time. And in the meantime, to think about what other capabilities can ensure that there's no gap in capacity. And so it's a tall task. But I believe that this is one of those initiatives - when we look back on the Biden Administration - I believe it will be among the most significant things that we accomplish. And I think in 20 years it will be taken as a given that our sailors sail together, our submarines port in Australia, and people will say, well gee, hasn't it always been that way? No, it was started with the vision of Australia, of Great Britain and the United States to drive this forward.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: You recently suggested that AUKUS could lead to almost a melding of US, Australian and UK forces in the Indo-Pacific. What did you mean by a melding - and what implications does that have for Australia's national sovereignty and its national freedom of decision and freedom of action?

KURT CAMPBELL: Look, I've followed the Australian debate carefully. I fully understand how important sovereignty and independence is for Australia. So I don't want to leave any sense that somehow that would be lost. That's not the - this arrangement is meant to be additive and create new capacities. I think what I'm suggesting is that Australian sailors will have the opportunity to serve on American vessels and vice versa. I think you can expect American submarines to port more commonly in Australian ports. I think we're going to operate and share perspectives much more than we've done in the past. And we're already close allies. I think our overall capacities and our training will be much more common as we go forward. And for Australia to learn and to become, and to master of nuclear technology of the kind that is presented in submarines will require the deepest, most profound kinds of engagements with submariners in the United States and Great Britain, who work on nuclear submarines. That's going to be extraordinarily important. And it ultimately is going to lead to a kind of strategic intimacy that we think is going to be very important in the time ahead.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: You've also spoken about AUKUS as open architecture, which other countries might join in time. Can you talk a little bit about that, and what other countries do you have in mind?

KURT CAMPBELL: Thank you Michael, I will just simply say that, look, the nuclear arrangements between our three countries is set aside. That will only be our three countries working together. They're are sensitive technologies, sensitive agreements that we're in the midst of negotiating as we speak. Let's put that aside. But there is a recognition that we share partnerships and discussions as does Australia, does Australia with a number of countries that are working in areas of technology and military innovation, particularly cyber. And so I think in these discussions, this is an indication of the excitement that AUKUS has stirred. Many close allies have come to us, in the immediate aftermath and said, can we participate? Can we engage? And it is to the credit, is the credit of Australia and Great Britain, that they insisted, yes, this is not a closed architecture. It's an open architecture. We want to work with partners in these key areas of military innovation as we go forward. So it hasn't been you know, we've got time to design and to figure out what, where are the areas that have the most potential.  I think cyber is going to be one. There will be a number of other areas that I would expect other countries, that will want to work with us. And again, this gets back to your original question, Michael. Ultimately, the goal of our strategy is not simply to surge independently, in the United States, economically, politically, strategically. It is to work in partnership, in harmony, with other countries on a range of issues, including on technology as part of AUKUS.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: It is interesting, this fear of missing out that we've seen on behalf of some other countries. You know, in the aftermath of America's withdrawal from Kabul, a lot of commentary around the world said that this showed that America had lost interest in its allies, and its allies had lost faith in America. But I wrote at the time of AUKUS that AUKUS is a rebuttal of both those points. It's very interesting to see allies reaching out and wanting to, to engage more closely with the United States on this. Of course, it wasn't all clear sailing, Kurt. What did you make of France's reaction to the AUKUS announcement? And was the Administration happy with the way Australia managed that side of the rollout?

KURT CAMPBELL: So Michael, first if I could, I want to go back to what you had described and I do want to just suggest to you, you know, when you're in these positions that are challenging, a lot of stuff is breaking on, across your bow every day. The day that AUKUS came out, I got a tweet. It was actually from you. And I sometimes look at it. And it says, you know, just a couple of weeks ago, people were saying that the United States couldn't be trusted, and its allies were deserting it. And then you had just one line afterwards: not today. A tremendous I think rebuttal to the idea that the United States still could not lead, still could not be a reliable partner. So I do want to say thank you for that. And I still glance at it occasionally.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Frame it, Kurt...

KURT CAMPBELL: Yeah, it's a great - it's suitable for framing. But not today. So I will say that, look, the President has been very clear about our desire to make sure that we're working as closely as possible with France. We have done so much in the last few weeks to indicate that that partnership is central and critical as we go forward. I think we're very proud of the work that we've done on AUKUS. I believe, and I think that we believe generally, that our relationship with Europe in the Indo-Pacific will only grow stronger. And at the same time, we will be able to look back on AUKUS as a significant achievement. So I, I do want to just take us forward in this, and recognize, you know, all the work that we want to do together. And you will have seen that the United States has taken very serious efforts to ensure that our dialogue, our partnership, and our engagement with our European allies in the Indo-Pacific remains strong and is growing over time.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Alright, let me ask you about the Quad, Kurt, another file on your desk, which has a big pile of files. You were in the East Room of the White House in September when the President hosted the first in-person meeting of the leaders of the four Quad countries. Let me ask you this: is it more important to deepen cooperation between the four members of the Quad, or to expand the Quad to include more members.

KURT CAMPBELL: It's .. Michael, it's such a good question and such a hard question, frankly. I think, look, I'm not going to speak for the leaders. But I will say I think they've answered that question in the short term. Which is the most essential feature of the next year or so is to deepen relations among the four countries. And I think that has been the uniform view of all the leaders. The President asked this question directly, and he heard clearly from Prime Minister Modi, Prime Minister Suga, Prime Minister Morrison the importance of deepening the work that we had done to date. But as importantly - to deliver what we have committed to, particularly in the realm of vaccines and climate. I will say I, you know... I do want to underscore, Michael, that the Quad is a bipartisan effort. It was begun under the George W. Bush Administration. Our good friend Mike Green, Steve Hadley and others played a critical role in designing it in response to the Indonesian - the tragedy of the tsunami. And it has waxed and waned over the course of the last, you know, 16 or so years. And the Trump Administration resurrected elements of this, but it was hard. They couldn't always call it the Quad, they had difficulty sometimes issuing communiques. I think when President Biden came to office, he was determined that he would use this unofficial institution as a vehicle to underscore our commitment as maritime democracies to again, this operating system. And the President pushed us every day - do what you need to do to get this going. And yes, initially, there were perhaps some questions, some uncertainties, but the first virtual meeting that took place in the late winter, early spring of last, of this year, helped set the table and created a degree of comfort among the four leaders that allowed us to, to - to meet in person. And again, will meet again next year. I will tell you, I have been involved with my team here at the White House, and at the State Department. Michael, it would be remarkable if you saw the habits of cooperation that are developing before our eyes. The working groups, the engagement on issues from technology, to education, to climate, to pandemic preparedness. You just go down the list. It is remarkable. And I will also tell you, it is deeply, almost a moving experience, that each of these leaders are - you know, these are hard, lonely jobs - and when they met and engaged, you could see they could recognized each other. They're at the top of these critical, dynamic countries at periods of tumult and change. And there was a partnership that formed among these four leaders. And I believe it will carry on. And it represents the partnership among our four key countries as ocean-going maritime democracies at the leading, cutting edge of innovation and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Kurt, these leaders probably wouldn't have come together at the White House as part of this Quad leaders meeting were it not for the challenges and opportunities posed by China. So let me ask you if I can about the US relationship with China. How has the relationship developed over the course of the year, from the Anchorage meeting in March, to the meeting of the two Presidents this month? You're in both meetings. Tell us tell us a bit about them and how you see the bilateral relationship today.

KURT CAMPBELL: Well, thank you, but if I could, Michael, just a moment about the Quad. I do think it's important to underscore and to recognize... a lot of people will say, well, gee, what is the Quad against? That is not how the meetings and the working groups and leaders engagements actually are developed and proceed. It's really about what we are for. And so each of these leaders believes that it's critical to deliver for their people and for the people of the Indo-Pacific. So it is, it is clear to all four leaders that the Quad has to be relevant, and seen as value-added, particularly by Southeast Asia, by ASEAN. And that's why so much focus has been presented there. So I would just simply say this is more animated about what we're for, rather than what we're against. It is also the case, as you indicated, that anxieties about China have risen across the region, and that's just undeniable. And we see that manifested in the politics of all four countries involved. When the President came to power, he made clear that he wanted to develop a comprehensive strategy that was really, had many operating features to it. So I would say, you know, we think, number one about investing at home. And you've seen how much work and focus there has been on technology and the like. The ramparts, the arenas of competition that will define the 21st century are less to do just directly with military issues. Those are important, but it has much more, Michael, to do with cutting-edge technologies: AI, 5G, quantum computing, human sciences. These are the areas where the United States has traditionally had leading advantages and all of them have been challenged. And so part of what the President has sought, is to seek bipartisan support for these kinds of domestic investments that will carry us well into the 21st century. And I'm pleased to say that many of those are basically coming to pass now and we'll see more in the time ahead. And so this domestic - even periods of deep divisiveness and division in the United States - there is a broad agreement in a bipartisan sense about coming together to deal with the challenges in the Indo-Pacific. So that's the first... And I would say, even though people will say well, that's just a throwaway - it is not. It is the most important element in our strategy: a deep bipartisan commitment to making the United States strong. And it is not an accident that when President by hosted the call with President Xi, it was immediately after the signing of the largest infrastructure deal that the United States had undertaken basically, since 1958. Since Eisenhower signed the Highway Act - around the same time that the nuclear agreement with Great Britain was signed as well. (Excuse me) So I think that's the first element. The second element obviously has been working with allies and partners. And you've seen that, we've been discussing that, the last little while. The feature that is different this time is, I've seen more countries want to work more constructively with the United States than I've ever seen before. There are a variety of reasons for that. But what's really changed is - behind closed doors and often openly - some open anxiety about the direction of China's economic policy, its security ambitions and its diplomacy in the region and globally. So the countries of Europe have been most interested in working with the United States. And that's one of the things that we've sought to build on is, in technology and in a variety of formats, working closely with Europe on the Indo-Pacific. And Michael, you wrote this great book about, you know, about Roosevelt's diplomacy with Europe - Rendezvous with Destiny - basically, it can be said that everything that the United States has ever done of significance on the global stage, we've done with Europe. And that has to be replicated in the Indo-Pacific. And we are seeking to do that. And there are challenges and... but it's critically important. And then obviously, the last dimension is the bilateral diplomacy. And I think what we've sought to do is not - in the past we've had large venues, some of that diplomacy feels more for show than for results. I don't think we were interested in that. We wanted a clear, defined strategic set of interactions. And I will just simply tell you that the interaction between the two leaders two weeks ago I think was exactly what we were looking for. The President was clear, articulate, was extraordinarily precise about what the United States was seeking in terms of our own engagement in the Indo-Pacific. I think we tried to underscore that that there were concerns in China's policy. I think at the core of our approach is a sense that given the changes in China, the only way to really engage and get things done in China today is at the senior leader level. And that, from there, you can have the developments in policy thereafter with the people that President Xi and others have chosen. But at the same time, there has to be support at the highest level. And what we've seen is a, is a degree of power that has essentially been accumulated at the leader level. That became very clear, particularly after the plenum. So I would say, you know, we're - we're - we're very careful about communicating to the Chinese that the dominant paradigm of our relationship right now is competition. We believe that competition can be conducted peacefully. But at the same time, it is essential that we create the mechanisms and the venues where the United States and China can take steps through avoidance, calculation to prevent misunderstanding, to build confidence where necessary, and at the same time underscore that fundamentally there are still many areas that United States and China have disagreements on. I do want to say that it is something that countries and friends ask, is there anything that the United States and China can do together. And the answer to that, obviously, is yes. We've tried, and we will continue to try to work closely with China on our shared goals with respect to climate. I think there's some proliferation concerns that in Iran, North Korea and elsewhere that I think China's role can be significant. And obviously, in the final stages of the pandemic, a degree of engagement between the United States and China is going to be central. So we are, we..  there's independent ... interdependence between our two countries. We recognize the significance of China. We're not seeking to undermine China directly. But at the same time, at the core of our approach is a strong and determined message. And that is, that the United States is not leaving the Indo-Pacific, and we're not in decline. And there is a profound belief, I think, among some of the more ideological advisers around President Xi that somehow the United States is in this hurtling decline. Michael, as a student of the United States, you know very well that over decades, there have been many times where countries either prophesized or hoped or feared American decline. At the early stages of the Korean War, during Vietnam, more recently in the Asian Financial Crisis. Each time, the United States found something inside that caused itself, that caused it to search for, to reinvent itself. I fundamentally believe that the pandemic is going to provide some of that, that effort towards innovation that will drive the United States forward and we will rise to the challenge of continuing to play a leading role in the Indo-Pacific.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Alright, Kurt, the President also talked in that meeting about establishing 'common-sense guardrails' to prevent the relationship from getting off the rails and prevent escalation, and so on. Let me ask you a specific question there: the Pentagon assesses that China likely intends to have at least 1000 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2030. And in the wake of that meeting, the White House indicated that it was open to talks with Beijing to ensure nuclear stability. Do you think China is open to those talks, and what would the Administration's objectives be in carrying out those discussions?

KURT CAMPBELL: So Michael, it's a great question. And again, the larger context for friends. So, no country in history, no country in history has undertaken such a broad gauge, extraordinary military modernization over the last 30 years as China. Across every sector: nuclear, conventional, naval, air, land. It's a remarkable set of investments and frankly, it has unnerved. It's not talked about as much - but it has unnerved people enormously - in every nation in the Indo-Pacific, but increasingly globally. The thing that has caused quite a lot of comment of late is the apparent determination on the part of China to build a substantially, more ... larger nuclear deterrent. And I think it is fair to say that the United States is concerned that along this course, without proper communications, without understanding the doctrine, goals and ambitions - that that's potentially destabilizing. And just as we had discussions at early stages of the Cold War, - and this is unlike the Cold War, it's very different relationship, we can come to that - but like we did with the former Soviet Union, it is important to have some communications to ensure that we understand, you know, what goals and ambitions are at this stage. So I think what President Biden and Jake Sullivan said, was that we're very early stages of trying to signal to China, that some of these communications are part and parcel of being a responsible global leader. And that too much of what they're doing on the nuclear side, they're doing in secret, and with very little transparency. And so to your question about whether China is prepared for these discussions - the answer, frankly, is that we don't know. But I can assure you that the United States is going to be prepared to engage in ways that will bring and keep strategic stability at a time that China's continuing to build - not just nuclear, directly, but an array of delivery systems that you put them all together, has the potential to be destabilizing.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Kurt, staying on this topic of potentially destabilizing developments. There's been a lot of discussion about the reports of a test in July by the Chinese of an intercontinental-range hypersonic weapon. General Milley said the United States is very close to a Sputnik moment. How do you assess this development? How concerned is the Administration about these reports?

KURT CAMPBELL: You know, there's been a lot of discussion by our military commanders about the specifics of this capability. And they are, their comments speak for themselves. I think it would be fair to say that there are a number, there are a range of capacities that China is demonstrating. Not only this, but in the anti-satellite realm, in the cyber arena. A number of things that we are concerned by. Practices, that if they continue, run risks of triggering an unforeseen crisis, or a misunderstanding. And so I think it would be fair to say that some of the capabilities are just potentially destabilizing in and of themselves,  and others could trigger a misunderstanding more directly. I think it'd be fair to say that it is the combination of all of them together that suggests that China's ambitions and their capabilities are rising substantially and in conjunction. And I think it requires not only vigilance on the part of the United States, but also a determination to carefully explore venues for dialogue and discussion with China to see if we can avoid misunderstandings or steps that can be destabilizing or provocative.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Kurt, I know you're very familiar with the Australian debate. You've said you follow it closely. And so you will have seen that the Taiwan issue - the Taiwan Strait, of course, one of the potential flashpoints in the Indo-Pacific. But the Taiwan issue has made headlines in Australia recently - the Defence Minister Peter Dutton said it was inconceivable that Australia would not join the United States in any conflict across the Straits. And the Shadow Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong said, described this statement as wildly out of step with the long-held US policy of strategic ambiguity. What did you make of this exchange? And more broadly, does strategic ambiguity still help to prevent conflict? Or is it time for the United States to openly declare its support for Taipei?

KURT CAMPBELL: Look, I think - I do want to just underscore that our policy, Michael, has not changed. I think one of the great achievements of the US-China relationship over decades - a very complex relationship - is in fact, the remarkable development that we've seen in Taiwan and our ability to maintain peace and stability. I do believe that that determination as referenced and underscored in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 still form.... forms the basis of our overall approach in preserving of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Our effort is multifaceted, Michael. So first and foremost, it is as articulated in the Taiwan Relations Act. It requires the United States to have the necessary capabilities to respond to any scenario in the Western Pacific. And you will have seen Secretary Austin and our teams taking the necessary steps to ensure that we modernize, that we engage appropriately, that we have the right forces that we can bring to bear if we faced a crisis of that sort. The second is ensuring that Taiwan has the appropriate defensive articles to be able to deter aggression. And that is a mission that has been undertaken over decades and it will continue. And then the third for the United States has been to make sure that we have the closest possible partnership and consultation with Congress about anything that transpires across the Taiwan Strait. And Congress is deeply engaged, as you know, in Taiwan. We have added to that mix a number of other things. And so you will have seen in the last several months, a number of countries speaking out more directly, including Japan, including Australia, Great Britain and others. The maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is in the strategic interests of all concerned. And that this is not just a narrow matter but a broader issue that has to be consulted and engaged more directly. I do just want to underscore that this is a very delicate matter. We understand the delicate role it plays in US-China relations. But we also believe that if the United States is purposeful, is determined, and is clear in its messaging, that we can maintain peace and stability and to secure the status quo in the future.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Okay, I didn't think I'd be able to get your comment on the Australian debate, but you can't blame a guy for trying. Let me stay on Australia if I can, just for a couple of minutes. And then I want to go to a couple of audience questions. As I mentioned, you've been a source of sound advice to Australians for many years. You're very aware of the debate. What do you say to those Australian observers including former Prime Minister Paul Keating but others, who worry that the United States is unwilling to recognize the reality of China's rise, and therefore that Australia is heading off in the wrong direction. Mr Keating memorably, recently, described the proposed acquisition of eight nuclear-powered submarines by Australia as like throwing a handful of toothpicks at the mountain, for example. How would you respond to that characterization of Australian policy?

KURT CAMPBELL: Well, just first, begin by saying - look, I think... If you look at China's remarkable development over the last almost 50 years, 45 years, so much went into that. The hard work, the determination of the Chinese people, the determination of the system, its striving competition at the core of the Chinese model. But it is also the case that a number of other things were provided by other countries, including the larger peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific that the United States helped underscore. And, frankly, the openness of our market, where a huge percentage of Chinese goods that were developed, were exported to. And so I think it's important to underscore that the United States is not some observer in what's happened with China. We have been a supporter of China. And I think more recently, the concerns are not, you know, aimed at the United States. What we've heard - that the biggest surprise that I've heard, that I've experienced Michael, in this job, is that when the door closes in virtually every country I've been engaged with, now I'm up near a hundred, the leadership - no matter who it is, says you know, what, the last five or seven years have been very concerning with respect to China. Whether its you know, wolf warrior diplomacy, you know, really dramatic economic warfare - directed against Australia... I'm sure there's a better way to describe it, but it's certainly what it appears. More assertive actions in the South China Sea, across the Taiwan Strait, the East Sea. Brutal actions along the India border. You add all this up and you see a China that is more risk acceptant, more assertive, more determined to basically take steps that other countries would view as coercive. And so I think that feature plays prominently. And I don't believe that Australia and Great Britain joining with the United States is some evidence of, you know, throwing in with an effort that is doomed to failure or ... strategically irrelevant. Far from it. I think this is going to be the most important strategic innovation of our... of this period. And I think its significant and it sends a powerful message to every country involved. I think it would be fair to say, Michael, that seven or eight years ago, if you asked the countries that were most likely to realign strategically and kind of rethink its options. You know, near the top of that list would probably be both Great Britain and Australia. Look at how much has changed in a very short period of time. And that has largely been driven by Chinese actions. And so those who critique or criticize this effort, I think, have to ask themselves the question - what at the core has driven this effort forward? It is both a clear anxiety about what we've seen in terms of certain actions and policies on the part of China. But it's also a determination that no - I, you know - we have a role in our future and we're going to stand up. So in that respect, I'm extraordinarily proud of this achievement and I think it will be a defining effort for all three countries involved.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Let me say for what it's worth. I mean, my own view is the principal reason that Australia's policy towards China has changed, is that China's changed. And China's policy to Australia has changed drastically. I mean, you mentioned - you use the phrase economic warfare - it's certainly pretty outrageous economic coercion that's being directed at Australia. We're also being subjected to the silent treatment, where it's been some years since leaders have spoken and ministers don't get their phone calls returned and so on. I think Australians were very grateful by comments from you and other friends in Washington, that we won't be left alone on the field. I think that gave us heart. But let me ask you as a student of geopolitics, we also need to be realistic about it, don't we, Kurt. Because the United States has a lot of different issues with China at any one time. And in the end, it's up to Australia to resolve our issues with China, isn't it? Is there a danger for us - I guess, is what I'm getting at - in relying on America, or hoping that America will fix the problems in the bilateral relationship. It's important for us... We're changing our international stance, we're working more closely with partners and allies like the United States and Britain. But how would you suggest beyond that, that we try to re-engage with China and try to get some semblance of a healthy bilateral relationship back on track?

KURT CAMPBELL: Well Michael, I don't need to tell you this. This is something that you understand deeply, and clearly. Australia has a deeply significant strategic role play both globally and in the Indo-pacific. It values its partnership in the United States, but does not seek nor act in a way that is simply an adjunct to Washington. That's just so far, from how Australia conducts its independent foreign policy. And I see it every day. And I'm extraordinarily impressed by its dexterity, and its nuance. I fully believe that over time, that China will reengage with Australia. But it will, I believe, re-engage on Australian terms. I think Australia - China's preference would have been too broke, to break Australia. To drive Australia to its knees. And then you know, find a way forward. I don't believe that's going to be the way it's going to play out. I believe that China will engage because it is in its own interest to have a good relationship with Australia. I believe that will happen naturally, and I think that China is a country that deep down, fundamentally respects strength fortitude and resilience. And I can't imagine a country that has demonstrated that more clearly than Australia.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Just to finish up, let me ask you just a couple of quick questions from our audience members, Kurt. I have a question from Susannah Patton, who is an analyst at the US Studies Centre who will be joining the Lowy Institute next year. Susannah asks this: President Biden will reportedly host ASEAN leaders for a summit in January 2022. What outcomes does the United States envisage from the meeting? Will the US seek to upgrade its relationship with ASEAN to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership?

KURT CAMPBELL: Thank you, Michael. I can't get into exact scheduling. But I will say that we believe that 2022, one of our most important, if not our most important initiatives here in the White House, is to do everything possible to upgrade all of our engagement with ASEAN. And you're going to see it across the board. And I do believe that that means high level leader-to-leader engagement, it will be, it will be in the economic realm, political, strategic, educational. So we recognize the critical importance of ASEAN centrality, and I think we want to build on previous examples of high-level diplomacy and basically articulate a vision of a close partnership between the United States and ASEAN moving forward. We do understand and acknowledge its strategic significance. And then, 2022 will be about that.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Kurt, Richard Maude from the Asia Society Policy Institute asks, what happens if 'competition with guardrails' fails? What does plan B look like?

KURT CAMPBELL: So look, I do not believe it will fail. But I think we also have to acknowledge that we're at early stages of competition with China. And there will probably be some bumps along the way. And it's important to be clear-eyed, and to be steady. And to communicate clearly with allies and partners. And also to be resolute in how you approach strategic circumstances. And so I think all of those things will come to play. I think the most important thing is the steadiness, and not to be deterred from our overall course. Either by incidents or by inducements. And I think that's going to be our most important mission in the time ahead.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Kurt, Eryk Bagshaw from The Sydney Morning Herald asks whether President Biden raised the matter of China's economic coercion of Australia with President Xi in their recent meeting. What was the thrust of the discussion about Australia, if any, in that meeting?

KURT CAMPBELL: Yeah. The President just briefly mentioned activities that China was undertaking that President Biden felt were antithetical to China's interests. So there was a period in our discussion where the President, President Biden, tried carefully to say that some of the steps that China was taking, in his view, were backfiring. I think our assessment is, Michael, that maybe some of the feedback loop in China is not working as effectively as it was in the past. And frankly, what better way to reach the leader - who may be a bit isolated at the top - than have a direct conversation with his number one counterpart. So President Biden was very clear and animated about what we had seen in Australia, border issues with India, all the things that I've mentioned, and just basically said, we were concerned. We're concerned by some of these steps and what it signals with respect to China.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Final audience question: Chris Buckley from The New York Times asks about the nature of the US commitment regarding Australian plans to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. He says Australian leaders have spoken as if there's a cast-iron assurance that Australia will get nuclear submarines. But is this correct? The AUKUS joint statement talks about 'shared ambition' to support Australia, and Chris asks, ambitions don't always work out, do they?

KURT CAMPBELL: Well look - the purpose of the next 18 months, and the reason why the AUKUS effort was inaugurated here in White House was to put our best people together to come up with a plan of action that will enable Australia to build and to acquire nuclear submarines at the earliest possible date. I think we all recognize that this is an enormous challenge. Australia has no nuclear industry per se. However, I think we were persuaded that Australia - its determination and its commitment when it puts its mind to something - is remarkable. And this is a shared commitment among the three countries directly. What the, what the AUKUS statements indicated when the leaders announced, is that this 18 months was really designed to dive deeply into how to do this. And if we ran into road blocks that were insurmountable, those would be identified. But I think the expectation. and the belief, is that our three countries will work together towards this objective. And we were able to do this seventy years ago with Great Britain and the expectation is that we will be able to do it again. I don't think our leaders would have gotten behind it if we didn't think that this was an achievable goal.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: OK I'm going to steal one final question - just a more reflective one, if I can, Kurt. You were last in government in 2013. In the meantime, you had a successful career as an entrepreneur leading a different kind of life. What has it been like being back in harness, and what has changed most in the eight years that you've been away from government. You mentioned that the attractiveness of the United States, the continued to attractiveness of the United States to countries in the region has impressed you. But are there any other sort of reflections you would make about being back in government after this period and your hopes for the future?

KURT CAMPBELL: It's... it's a good question. It's a hard question, Michael. I will say these jobs are both simultaneously exciting, but extremely demanding. And they take a toll on your family life and you have to have people that are very supportive of you to be effective. I'm very encouraged. I think the thing that has been most gratifying is to see the young people that are coming up in our system, that are deeply knowledgeable and capable on the issues on the Indo-Pacific. So the next generation of strategists are so much stronger than mine. That it - just to see them, their training, their, determination, you know, many of them work in my office and that's just wonderful. I will also say that, you know, some of it is very daunting. Michael, I had a chance to speak with you as one of the first people in the White House on inauguration day, I never thought I would be coming into government, you know, escorted by an armoured Humvee, through, you know, wires fences that that felt more like, East Berlin, you know it's just shocking for me. And we are living through a period of just enormous divisiveness that is felt every single day. But at the same time, it's a great honour. This is - this is the most important set of issues. And it's nice to see a set of policies that I believe are fundamentally being tackled by the senior most team at the White House. It's a great privileged to work for the President and Vice President. So I I'm glad I did this. But it's every day it's a challenge, Michael.

MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Kurt, we know how demanding the job is. And so it's very generous of you to take a full hour at the end of a busy day at the White House to speak with me and to take some audience questions. You know, I think it's one of the most interesting conversations I've had at the institute. I think the audience can see the depth and the breadth of your thinking on the region, but also the coherence of the US strategy towards Asia. It's quite an impressive thing when you tote up the initiatives and the achievements that you mentioned, you're very humble - also talking about the next generation of strategists - there's a lot of brilliant young Asia hands, but I know all of them look to you. And you've really paved the way in the US system for that generation of, of strategists and policymakers and thinkers. So Kurt Campbell, thank you very much for your time. You're doing really important work in Washington, and we wish you well, thanks Kurt.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions
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