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Tuesday 20 Feb 2018 | 21:08 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 20 Feb 2018 | 21:08 | SYDNEY

Obama's Asia policy: In safe hands



30 June 2009 14:02

Following Hillary Clinton’s successful first international foray – which she wisely chose to make to Asia – Kurt Campbell’s confirmation by the US Senate on 25 June as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama Administration is more good news for Australia and for other US allies in the region. As I’ve said before, Campbell’s formidable CV, influence in Washington, energy and familiarity with Australia make him a big asset.

For further evidence, it’s interesting to read the tea leaves of his nomination statement. Ignore the silly media flurry about whether Campbell dissed Kevin Rudd’s Asia Pacific Community proposal (he clearly didn’t – he’s too smart a diplomat for that). But he had some illuminating – and from an Australian perspective very welcome – things to say.

Campbell ‘gets’ the profound geopolitical changes under way in the region, describing ‘a moment of enormous consequence and opportunity for the United States in Asia’. But there is no whiff of newly fashionable American declinism or of disengagement. On the contrary, Asia is ‘a region that still relies upon strong American leadership...the United States itself is a Pacific nation, and in every regard – geopolitically, military, diplomatically, and economically’. No backward steps there.

Note the order too in which Campbell lists the different categories of power. He gives a nod to the Obama team’s voguish multilateralism and soft power fetish. But you get a sense of what he really thinks from the book he co-authored with Michael O’Hanlon in 2006: Hard Power. Scratch the surface and Campbell is a hawk Democrat and an old-fashioned, bilateral alliance kind of a guy – which should suit Australia just fine.

There are further signposts in his testimony. He lists bilateral engagement first and hard power before he mentions soft power. His first substantive comments credit the US and its traditional allies in the region with maintaining security and stability in the region for the past half century. His declaration that America’s alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand remain the bedrock of US engagement in the region could just as easily have come from Rich Armitage – another longstanding friend of Australia – speaking from the other side of the aisle.

The first country in Campbell’s regional hierarchy is Japan, ‘a cornerstone of our security policy in Asia’ (a useful pointer for the Rudd Government). He reaffirms the US resolve to defend its allies and makes clear that, in dealing with North Korea, his first priority will be to coordinate positions with Tokyo and Seoul. This is a blunt rejection of the bankrupt approach pursued by his predecessor Chris Hill of directly engaging Pyongyang and Beijing and sidelining America’s most important Asian allies.

It is striking that Campbell leaves it to the end of his statement to deal with America’s vital relationship with China, and then in deliberately nuanced terms: ‘The US-China relationship is complex, it is developing rapidly, and it is one of the most consequential of our bilateral relationships.’ Hardly gushing treatment.

It is not that Campbell is negative about China: he is committed to building a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship. But expectations are being kept carefully in check. There’s none of the Clinton Administration’s careless hype about a ‘strategic partnership’ with Beijing. And Campbell puts down markers on human rights, religious freedoms, Tibet and US defence exports to Taiwan. It will be tough to implement – particularly as an assertive Democratic Congress is likely to make tensions over trade and exchange rates harder to manage. But Campbell’s testimony points to a sensible, pragmatic and hard-headed China policy.

Just as welcome from an Australian viewpoint is Campbell’s acknowledgement of the democratic transition in Indonesia and the administration’s commitment to pursuing a comprehensive partnership between the world’s second and third largest democracies. This partly represents the fruit of years of patient Australian advocacy in Washington and will be music to Canberra’s ears.

Photo courtesy of the Center for a New American Security.

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