Kurt Campbell is chairman and chief executive of The Asia Group and on the board of the Center for a New American Security, which he co-founded in 2007. From 2009-13 he served as the assistant US secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and is widely credited as a key architect of the “pivot to Asia” spearheaded by the Obama administration. Dr. Campbell previously served in several capacities in government, including as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific, when he helped coordinate the “Nye Initiative” to upgrade US-Japan security ties. He is currently writing a book about his experiences in the Obama Administration working on Asia, tentatively entitled The Pivot; America’s Rediscovery of the Asia-Pacific Century.
The following interview was conducted jointly for Weekly Toyo Keizai and Dispatch Japan, just as President Obama was beginning his recent four-country visit to East Asia.
DISPATCH JAPAN: When the trip is over, what do you expect to be the major headlines?
CAMPBELL: This is an absolutely critical trip for the administration on several fronts. First and foremost is the idea of presidential leadership. The administration is facing enormous challenges, including Crimea, Ukraine, and the Middle East. I believe the President is up to those challenges. I think he will underscore his strong determination to make the rebalance to Asia one of the core achievements of his administration. He will make this clear throughout his second term.
Many people made the mistake of assuming that the rebalance would be a relatively simple matter of focusing more attention on Asia. The world does not allow that. There continue to be troubled regional dynamics in other areas, and the administration also faces domestic challenges, including budgetary issues.
This puts the administration in the position of having to really fight for opportunities to reinforce and deepen its commitment to the region.
That’s the context for this trip, which is the first the President is making to the region that does not involve a multilateral summit.
There are complex messages the President wants to send on each of the four stops, but the unifying message is strong presidential leadership, including in foreign policy. I believe Asia is the place for the President to drive this home. No other region will be as politically and strategically rewarding to American time and attention. I think the President is making that bet, and he will emphasize his commitment to the rebalance.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What’s the key to the Japan stop?
CAMPBELL: With respect to Japan, we have reached a critical stage in the TPP process, and the President will make a strong case – put some pressure – for Japan to take the steps necessary for real progress toward a final agreement. We know Japan faces political difficulties in this regard, but the leadership in Tokyo has to demonstrate a real commitment, or it will be difficult to get the necessary support in Congress for a final agreement.
The complex mission in Japan is to set the stage for progress on TPP by underscoring the strong American support for Japan during a period of almost unprecedented tension between Japan and China. The President will make clear that in a crisis, we will stand by our Japanese friends. He will also emphasize our strong desire for better relations between Japan and China, and for both countries to take the necessary steps to bring that about.
We want a strong and vibrant security relationship with Japan. There are some sensitive issues being debated in Japan now with respect to security policy. Japan is a democracy, so the issues will have to play out in the domestic system. But the President will likely send subtle but clear messages about Americans perspectives on these issues.
The President is also likely to quietly communicate American preferences about how history issues are handled by Japan.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What about Korea?
CAMPBELL: In South Korea, the President is likely to really emphasize the firm American commitment to our alliance, especially given the tensions with North Korea. People may get tired of hearing about the security threat from North Korea, but the situation is very severe. We face a pretty much unprecedented security challenge from North Korea; the regime in Pyongyang is very unpredictable and is clearly contemplating its next round of provocations. The President will make clear that we stand firmly with South Korea.
I think the President’s presence in both Tokyo and Seoul will underscore the role he played in facilitating an initial rapprochement between President Park and Prime Minister Abe, and he will emphasize that they now have to create the political space that will allow a revival of political and security dialogue and cooperation.
The President will also want to express deep support for President Park and the Korean people in the wake of the recent tragic sinking of the ferry. The President is good at that, and I believe he will very much want to do that.
And there will be some bilateral issues, including ways to improve the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, and changes in the command structure of our allied military forces in Korea.
The trip to Malaysia is also very important. The government there has faced an enormous challenge stemming from the downed Malaysia Airlines jet. This has wreaked havoc domestically. Prime Minister Najib Razak was on the verge of launching a series of ambitious political and economic reforms, but they have now been put on hold. He has faced unrelenting criticism and pressure from China about his handling of the lost airliner, which has further complicated maritime challenges from China that Malaysia had already been facing.
The quiet, and now more open support the US and Australia have been providing Malaysia in the search for the lost aircraft has been very important. It is fair to say that many in Malaysia have long harbored suspicions about the intentions of the United States. But now we have been there in this time of real crisis facing the country. It will not be lost on anyone that President Obama will be the first American president to visit Malaysia in almost 50 years. The President has a very good relationship with the Prime Minister. They have met several times, and they share a cool, calm demeanor. There is a lot going on that will elevate the bilateral relationship.
Meanwhile, the final stop will be the Philippines, which has been outperforming economic expectations perhaps more than any other country. President Benigno Aquino may be unique among the world’s democracies in that he has very high domestic political standing, with the trust and confidence of his people.
President Obama will want to express American support for the economic success of the Philippines. We are also rebuilding our security relationship. That needs to be handled carefully and responsibly, but I think we will be able to thread that needle.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Where does China fit in all of this?
CAMPBELL: Lurking behind everything I just outlined is a very clear set of issues for US-China relations. The President is likely to underscore that while we are committed to a strong relationship with China, it will be a complex relationship. There will be areas of tension, competition, and disagreement. But there will also be areas where we will work closely together. The President, I think, will try to strike that balance.
Fundamentally, the President’s goal I think is to make clear to everyone that the US is fully committed to being a power in Asia that can be counted on. The US is not, in any way, abandoning the pivot to Asia; to the contrary, that corner has been turned. His presence shows that we are moving ahead with this strategic approach.
The history of the 21st century will largely be written in Asia. Remember the old adage: why do you rob banks? That’s where the money is. Well, why give so much attention to Asia? That’s where the action is.
So this trip is really important. The President will convey that we want to work with China, but that we want to establish a 21st century relationship with China. We want China with us as we establish rules of the road in the region for commerce, freedom of the seas, and peaceful resolution of disputes.
We are making clear that we do not believe that Asia is better off with 19th century style spheres of influence, in which bigger states dominate smaller states.
DISPATCH JAPAN: It’s no secret that there has been a good deal of tension between the White House and Prime Minister Abe over Yasukuni Shrine. Where do things stand on that front?
CAMPBELL: We’ve made clear to Japan that we have an extraordinarily important list of issues to focus on. There have been private conversations about what we see as the need to rebuild important relationships in the region. I tend to think that it is best to handle history and related issues in private. The issue is not necessarily behind us. But we have had very close dialogue with Japan about this over the past few months. They know how we see things, and vice versa.
One of the most important parts of the trip is to try to establish a closer working relationship between the President and the Prime Minister. That’s not to say it hasn’t been good. But they have not spent much time together, and the trip could go a long way toward establishing a closer relationship.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you believe the time has come for the United States to take a more public role in facilitating a resolution of the history issues between Japan and Korea?
CAMPBELL: My particular view is that the United States has to take a leading role in facilitating a closer relationship between Japan and Korea. But it does not stop there. This also goes for Japan and China.
Some argue that we should basically stay on the sidelines, offering encouragement. But I think one of the principles of American leadership in the region is that we should be facilitating positive trends and positive dialogue. We are very encouraging of the dialogue and better relationship that has emerged between the South Korea and China. We’d like to see a greater degree of comity in Northeast Asia. Some things are best done privately, and some are best done more publicly. Overall, the principle is a more active American engagement, facilitating dialogue in the region.
I can’t remember another time when high-level, or even mid-level diplomacy between China and Japan has been virtually extinguished. This absolutely is not in the interests of the region, and certainly not in the interests of the United States.
I think the President and his team should be thinking creatively about this. I don’t know if there is a chance for a breakthrough right now. But I would like to see our public diplomacy clearly reflect that we are doing everything possible to help bridge the gap.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you perceive any concerns in South Korea that, at the end of the day, the US will side with its much bigger ally, Japan, on history issues?
CAMPBELL: I don’t see it that way. There is a good case to be made that over the last four years, our strongest bilateral relationship in the world has been with South Korea.
The Koreans have stepped up in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago, such as hosting international summits, concluding important trade agreements, speaking out publicly on global climate change. The record is very impressive.
There are unique qualities to the US-Korean relationship. In fact, I have heard some people argue that we might even have spent too much time on Korea.
I think the President is very focused on the very difficult challenges posed by the recent heart-breaking sinking of the ferry, which has gripped the heart and concern of the entire nation. I expect he will make every effort to express to Koreans that we stand with them in this situation.
With respect to Japan and Korea, we are doing everything we can to help bridge the gaps, to facilitate dialogue, and to help affect a better relationship between the two countries.