Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted jointly for Weekly Toyo Keizai, and Dispatch Japan . Kurt Campbell is assistant secretary of state for East Asian and and Pacific Affairs. He was previously co-founder of the influential think tank Center for a New American Security, and deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific. Much like Mark Lippert, Obama’s nominee to run the Pentagon’s Asia Division, Campbell served as a Naval Officer through a special program that allows accomplished academics to work as senior advisors to career Naval officers. Campbell worked as a liaison to the Russiian military leadership for then-US Joint Chief of Staff Admiral William Crowe. This interview is one of four that we conducted to evaluate President Obama’s purported “pivot” toward East Asia in foreign policy.
TBL: What’s the best way to describe the ‘pivot’ toward Asia the Administration has undertaken? It is a return to normalcy, or is it a fundamental shift in US strategy?
CAMPBELL: There is a profound recognition that over the past 10 years, we have been primarily occupied – many would say preoccupied -- with extraordinarily important and consequential developments in the Middle East.
This involves the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently the extraordinary developments associated with the Arab Spring. There are many reasons for us to remain consequentially involved in the Middle East and South Asia. However, by almost every measure, we have probably been over-invested in Iraq and South West Asia. And in Washington there is a profound bipartisan recognition that the lion’s share of the history of the 21st century will be written in the Asia-Pacific, and that the United States needs to be part of that story line.
So, what we’ve seen over the past few years is an integrated effort to first redefine and advance our bilateral security and political relationships, to work closely with emerging new partners, such as India’s “look East” strategy, Indonesia, Vietnam, New Zealand, and others. There is a clear recognition that US-China relations are essential. But most countries in the region want to see the two great nations of the region working together, even with underlying tensions and occasional challenges. It is in the interests of every country in the region to see in their own situations an improvement in relations with China. At the same time, they want the US in that picture because they believe it aids in that effort.
As part of our overall effort, we are also committed to multilateral institutions, formally joining the East Asia summit, working to establish a formal secretariat at ASEAN, launching the US-ASEAN summit, the steps that were taken at APEC, and then the ASEAN Regional Forum all signifying a strong commitment to institution-building.
Lastly, our ticket to the big game in the Asia-Pacific region has always been our military. Not only do we have to reposition our capabilities more to the Asia-Pacific; we also have to recognize that over the past 10 years we have invested much more heavily in land-based capabilities and on-going operations than we have expeditionary and ‘blue water’ naval capabilities, which are essentially what are necessary in the Asia-Pacific region. So we will be making those complex steps.
Also, and Peter you this better than anyone, we need to maintain a very strong set of capabilities in North East Asia, while doing a good deal more in South East Asia. And in Australia we’ve headed down that path.
TBL: At the start of the Obama Administration, how much did the Chinese and American leaders misread each other: China thinking the US was in decline as signified by the 2008 financial crisis, and the US by thinking they could pull China into the role of a more responsible global stakeholder?
CAMPBELL: I’m not sure there is ever a definable “beginning” in this relationship. There is a constant ebb-and-flow. The United States has to recognize, deeply and profoundly, that the US-China relationship will be the most complex bilateral relationship that we will ever experience. This requires an enormous amountof hard work, and many consultations on every conceivable matter. Even with these dialogues, the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation are very real.
We thought it was important to send a signal that, yes, we have experienced some economic and financial difficulties in recent years, but that but that the fundamentals of our system and of our economy are very strong, and that the United States will be playing a primary role in the Asia-Pacific region for decades to come. But at the same time that our position is strong, we are prepared, willing, and able to sit down with China and other countries to figure how best to live together in peace and freedom, and maintain and advance the commerce that has sustained us all.
TBL: Is TPP a trade policy, or more the trade element of a much broader geo-strategic architecture to which you are urging a peaceful China to adhere?
CAMPBELL: It is fundamentally a trade initiative that ironically just a few months ago people questioned whether would even be possible. We were very gratified on the US side that the Korea-US trade agreement passed. That has allowed forward momentum in a number of sectors. So we were able to announce a general framework in Hawaii. Thus far, many of the countries that have signed on with the TPP initiative are smaller. We believe this is a high-quality agreement that has the potential to define a new way to get back to complex negotiations overall.
Since the announcement of the TPP Framework agreement at the APEC meeting in Hawaii in November, there have been a number of countries, including Mexico, Canada, Korea, and even Japan that have expressed much more interest in exploring the dynamics of the agreement, and what’s possible.
We support this. We believe it has the potential to be a standard-setting agreement, on environmental issues, labor standards issues, and other key issues that involve trade.. The idea is absolutely clear about what is expected with respect to local content, and other difficult subjects.
And by the way, the desire for high-quality or standard-setting agreements is not something that is being imposed by the United States. Many of the countries involved, including Singapore and New Zealand, are pressing for this approach.
Finally, as to your question of whether TPP is geo-strategic in nature: Although it is primarily designed for commercial purposes, as with all things this complex and important, TPP does of course entail geostrategic ramifications.
TBL: I ask about the geopolitics because a minority view in Japan tends to view TPP as some kind of American plan to gain a dominant position in important parts of Japan’s economy. Others see it as a critical way for Japan to help set the regional architecture, without which, China’s influence would only grow.
CAMPBELL: We have made clear that TPP is not something you are invited to. It is something a nation would want to aspire to. If you meet the conditions, if you are prepared to participate, then there can be a process of dialogue with the key partner. So we are not excluding anyone.
At the same time, there is a lot strategic misinformation floating around about TPP in countries where some reforms might be controversial. We think the TPP process could create the kind of connectivity among key participants that will create strong relations across the Pacific, which does nothing to “contain” any nations, but does everything to tie the United States is a much stronger way to the Asia-Pacific than ever before.
TBL: How do you expect our force structure to change in the Asia-Pacific region?
CAMPBELL: The mantra the Pentagon uses is that we are politically sustainable, sensible, that we are dispersed rationally, and that we work with a range of partners. I think it is undeniable that we have strong and important commitments in Northeast Asia, but that we need to work more with fiends and partners in Southeast Asia, and take the necessary steps to follow through on the commitments the President made in Australia.
So, we will see a level of American military commitment that is continuous, even in a period military downsizing, and in some places may see more naval and other capability. We think sending that message right now in the Asia-Pacific region is of central importance.
TBL: So the structure may change, but the presence overall will remain.
CAMPBELL: There will be no question that the US is determined to play a thoroughgoing, critical military role in all aspects of the challenges we face in the Asia-Pacific.
And when I say challenges, recognize I am referring to some of biggest ever, including the response to Ache, Operation Tomodachi, and ongoing efforts to respond to huge flooding in Thailand. It is the United States first and foremost that has been deeply engaged in these efforts. One thing we are trying to do in the context of the East Asia Summit is to put in place capabilities in advance that allow other countries working with us to the inevitable natural disasters that will strike at his region.
TBL: When do you expect Prime Minister Noda to visit Washington?
CAMPBELL: The White House is responsible for specific invitations and timing, We were very happy that Secretary Clinton hosted Foreign Minister Genba here in December for an extensive meeting that helped lead to a extensive joint security declaration. We have many important things planned for 2012, including the visit of the Prime Minister, but also the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the cherry blossoms and they wonderful gift of the Japanese people to the United States. We’ve got several things that we would like to highlight over the course of the next several months that will send a very strong message of support from the United States of support for Japan.
TBL: Okinawa seems to be a continuing source of difficulty between the two governments, or between Okinawa and the two governments. What do you see as the best way forward?
CAMPBELL: Both governments have made an agreement to move ahead on this project. And we have worked closely with Japanese counterparts on a range of the next steps, including the landfill permit. We recognize how important it is for the Japanese and American governments to together send a message of solidarity, and of a strong security joint capability between the two sides. I think the next few months are likely to be critical, and we look forward to working with our Japanese colleagues on every dimension of the FRF issues.