Kurt Campbell on Grand Strategy & the Future of US-China
“I don’t think the Chinese believe in any way that they have elements of decline in their system.”
Kurt Campbell is the Deputy Assistant to the President and the White House Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs. ChinaTalk recently joined Campbell in Washington to discuss US-China relations and mark the podcast’s 300th episode.
The nature of national power today;
If China is peaking;
How ideology impacts Beijing’s foreign policy;
Campbell’s hopes and fears for the Biden administration’s Asia policy;
Whether the US is still aiming to “maintain as large of a lead as possible” on chips and AI;
How to think about the risk of and effectively deter military escalation;
And the dark shadow of Tiananmen and its lasting impact on Chinese politics and US foreign policy.
The Roots of National Power
Jordan Schneider: How do you conceptualize comprehensive national power today? How has your vision of that changed over time?
Kurt Campbell: It’s a challenging question. Obviously, I think particularly when you’re in a period in which you’re comparing great powers in terms of their ability to exert themselves on the international stage — I think in those environments, it’s not possible to simply look at any one venue of power.
I would argue that, to be effective in today’s age, it requires not just military power. I think too often when we discuss power in the United States, we’re often thinking about military power.
But increasingly that definition has to do with the health of our society, the health of our democracy, our investment in education, our ability to lead the world in innovation, technology — and not just one technology, but several. I think by those metrics, the United States stacks up well.
But there clearly are some warning signs and areas where the United States has to be attentive. I think one of the things that the Biden administration has tried to do is to recognize some of those areas, invest in them, and try to double down on ensuring that the United States continues to play a leading role.
Jordan Schneider: So let’s set a baseline goal for US policy in 2050. Michael Green says the traditional US aim is to oppose any power exercising hegemonic control over Asia or the Pacific. Or we can take your slightly more ambitious view that the US should sustain the operating system that it has set up in Asia over the past seventy-five years.
My rubric for the three things the US needs to execute on are long-term economic growth, maintaining alliance networks, and not imploding domestically. Plus, we have a major war as a potential wild card there.
What am I missing in this schematic?
Kurt Campbell: I think that’s a good list. I don’t think what Mike presents and what I do are inconsistent. I think there’s a lot of overlap. I would just add one thing to this if I can. I recognize that for people who think about power, sometimes they don’t like the intrusion of issues that are not traditional.
But in fact, if we don’t figure out how to consequentially deal with climate change — the effects of which are hitting us much earlier, in a much more profound way than I think even some of the worriers thought — I don’t think we’ll be able to deal with some of these other challenges.
So I think what I’d add to that probably are some transnational issues. But at the top of that really would be climate change. That means sea-level rise, that means uncontrolled migration, that means changes in everything from crops to sea habitats. These are all at risk now, much earlier than anticipated.
That’s one of the things that requires the United States working more consequentially with not just allies and partners, but other countries that we have disagreements with.
We try not to call out particular countries, but China is going to have to do much more in this arena if we are to address the most significant elements of climate change over the course of the next period ahead.
Jordan Schneider: Over the past few years, have you revised your expectations on China’s comprehensive national power?
Kurt Campbell: I’m not sure necessarily revised, but refined.
I think what has been brought clear to us over the course of the last little while is when you deal with people who have long experience with China, either in the business realm or elsewhere, they will often say things like, “The Chinese or China is a practical nation, and they will often find their way to practical solutions.”
I think my recent experience, at least with the top level of leadership, would suggest that even more than practical or specific steps, ideology is at the core of what drives China today. You cannot understand or engage effectively without an understanding about how important ideology is to Xi Jinping and his lieutenants.
“As Far As Possible” on AI and Chips?
Jordan Schneider: So almost a year ago today, your boss, Jake Sullivan announced that the US was now aiming to “maintain as large of a lead as possible” in critical emerging technologies like AI and semiconductors. Is that still policy today?
Kurt Campbell: I think our policy continues to be one that we need and will continue to invest in critical technologies and where possible, make sure that we have a competitive edge and to do some of that with allies and partners.
So yes, I do think we recognize and believe that. Again, to your first question, one of the core elements of comprehensive national power is the ability to set standards, create market share, and innovate at the highest levels with respect to critical technologies.
The two [critical technologies] that you mentioned are only two of many in which the United States, I think I would argue, needs to continue to invest, be disciplined about and focus on.
Jordan Schneider: Which risk profile to you is scarier? The one in which the US is too tight with its export controls and other restrictions around these critical technologies — or the one in which the US is too loose?
Kurt Campbell: That’s a very sort of up or down question.
It’s complicated, but if you’re forcing me to answer, I would probably be more worried about too loose.
But I would just point out that much of our international system over decades has been designed [such] that, at its core, are efficiencies and lowest costs for production, accepting certain capabilities and technologies are better done in some places than others. Right?
But I think we’re probably heading into a new period where a new set of calculus is important, resilience, durability, the opportunity to be able to count on more than one source of supply. All those steps build redundancy into the system. I think probably those steps are smart and they will continue.
But it is a substantial reorientation of the system that had been about just-in-time that had been about maximizing efficiency over resiliency.
I think we’re reorienting towards a system that’s more predictable. It may be higher-cost in certain areas, maybe slightly slower, but we think we’ll probably be more durable in event of a crisis.
Jordan Schneider: Huawei recently announced it could fab a seven-nanometer chip. The way I read the October 2022 export controls, the line was set a little higher than that. How would you define success for these restrictions?
Kurt Campbell: That differs according to various technologies more generally. 5G, AI, semiconductors — each of those have slightly different comparative assessments associated with them.
I would say that the key here is that there are some technologies that we’ve innovated that we would prefer to inhibit from animating certain military and security capabilities in China. We’ve stated clearly, and I think we’ve taken steps to prevent the proliferation of some of those capabilities and technologies that will be challenging under the best of circumstances.
Ultimately, what our technology frame has to be about is running faster, making the appropriate investments, the smart investments, to work more closely with allies and partners and to realize that that is going to be an essential feature of global leadership.
I think with the various initiatives involved with domestic investments in technology, that’s exactly what the Biden administration has sought to do.
There are active debates about how effective or successful certain kinds of limitations or steps designed to limit the outflow of technology to China can be.
That’s why, ultimately, the most important steps that we can take are about running faster, about investing in capabilities in the United States. I think those are steps that are generally widely appreciated.
Historical Parallels: The USSR and China
Jordan Schneider: I was pleasantly surprised to discover your first book was an archival history of relations between the Soviet Union and South Africa, of all things.
Kurt Campbell: It’s a bestseller. It’s amazing you got a hold of it.
Jordan Schneider: We have our ways here at ChinaTalk.
You made this interesting argument that the US bought into the National Party line that they were about to succumb to a total onslaught. In fact, the US maybe overweighted the ideological bent of the Soviet Union’s approach to South Africa and Africa more broadly.
Compare that to Rush Doshi’s book on China’s grand strategy. How does the foreign policy of the late Soviet Union stack up against that of China today in terms of its ideological commitment to global preeminence?
Kurt Campbell: There is an apples-and-oranges quality to trying to compare both the Cold War to this period of competition with China. But it is an interesting arena of thought to try to understand how important ideology is in various periods in particular regimes.
My sense is that currently at the highest levels of China, again, I think an ideological frame is central to understanding them. I think they think in terms of correlations of power, periods of history, and often see the United States through that lens — late-stage capitalism and the like.
I think in the 1970s and 1980s, I think there were clear signs inside the Soviet regime of the challenges that the country was facing.
Remember, even though we may have got it wrong in the United States, I think internally they understood that they were not meeting their five-year plans, that they were facing challenges about putting too much money into the military-industrial part of the economy, and they were not innovating in the way that was necessary.
Some of the Soviet theorists on the military side worried about the kinds of investments that the United States was making and that the Soviets were not keeping up. A Soviet leader named Ogarkov thought about sort of what he referred to as the revolution in military affairs.
I don’t think the Chinese believe in any way that they have elements of decline in their system.
I think what animates them is not only a sense of aggrievement at the highest level — the idea of reversing decades or a century of what they call humiliation — but also a sense that China’s time has come, that this remarkable accumulation of power and capacity now has to exert itself fully to a leading role on the global stage.
So it’s hard to compare and contrast. But I will also say that you can sense in some of the interactions between President Xi and President Putin in Russia — even though Putin is running a country that theoretically is not ideological — that he is a man of the Soviet era, and they both together bemoan the treachery of Mikhail Gorbachev.
It’s very clear that this early period of partnership between the Soviet Union and China, something that Xi Jinping’s father was deeply involved in, clearly animates both of their psychologies.
That’s a long and not very good answer to a very good question. But I do think more time has to be given to sort of thinking about this role of ideology. I do think in various eras of Soviet power, beginning at the turn of the last century, they were more ambitious about internationalizing their model, obviously, the Communist International.
I don’t think there are signs of a similar kind of ideological international approach of China. I think in many respects, they feel that they are unique, and that can’t be replicated.
The steps that they’ve taken internationally have been to provide capacities, either technology or police services or whatever, at the behest of local authoritarians, whether it’s in Africa or the Pacific or South Asia, to try to prop up leaders that tend to be more flexible on issues that matter to China.
Rush Doshi’s book is sensational. My Soviet Policy Towards South Africa is not.
Jordan Schneider: Hey … yours is like a six and a half or seven [out of 10].
Kurt Campbell: No, not really. I actually won an award several years ago in Britain. [I] remember I got a call about it and they said, “Congratulations. Soviet Policy Towards South Africa’s won an award.” I think, “Oh, terrific. What was it?” It was like the book made most irrelevant by history.
Jordan Schneider: Ha!
Kurt Campbell: No, seriously!
Jordan Schneider: It’s coming back…
Kurt Campbell: No, it’s not…
Jordan Schneider: If you could assign Xi one book, what would it be?
Kurt Campbell: Let me just begin to broaden that question just a little bit.
I think some of the things that we hear from people in China today suggest that the kind of information and the people that President Xi gets information from is increasingly limited, and that sometimes it’s hard in the system currently to speak truth to power.
We are seeing a repeat of history of the kind that we saw in the Maoist period, where only a certain kind of leader, a certain kind of information, makes it to the very top.
So that does concern us — that you like very much for the people that you’re engaging with to have a deep, full understanding of the world in which they’re operating.
I think what we see in a variety of places like Ukraine — we think China’s calculus and decision-making has been informed by a number of things that are concerning. We can talk more about that as the interview goes on.
When you asked me [what I would want Xi] to read, what [would be] one book or one article: I’d just like him to have a general library card where he could go in and get access to a variety of things and sort of double-check the information — rosy often — that he’s receiving from his underlings and his staff.
Deterrence, Then and Now
Jordan Schneider: The China we’re seeing today — for all the objectionable things they’re doing around the world — is very different than Mao making global revolution. That’s a better thing for the world.
How does this compare to the Cold War, and what can the US do to shape the contours of competition?
Kurt Campbell: Deterrence is a huge part of what we’re involved in a variety of places trying to make clear that provocative or adventurous activities that are antithetical to the maintenance of peace and stability will be resisted.
It is true that there were periods that Mao talked openly about nuclear weapons use and was quite prepared to take risks — calculated risks often, but very much prepared to take those risks. I think President Xi, in certain circumstances, has shown a propensity to take certain risks, but also has been careful in other circumstances and, if anything, I find elements of his approach not easy to predict.
I wouldn’t have anticipated, for instance, such a deep Chinese commitment to President Putin. It doesn’t seem to me to be fundamentally in Chinese interests.
But the more you understand the mindset of both leaders, I think you start to appreciate what animates that partnership.
But a variety of things — in previous periods when I worked on China, I found that their diplomats were some of the most expert and capable in the world. They generally followed certain tenets that you could come to expect.
So, for instance, when it became clear in the 1990s that some of the most important challenges for China would be from the sea, from their eastern seaboard, they quickly settled almost all their territorial disputes with the many countries that they bordered.
What you generally saw was a China that would seek to take on one or two challenges and then try to either hold or settle so that they wouldn’t find themselves operating simultaneously on several fronts at once.
What’s surprising and a little concerning is how China has been prepared to move out in a variety of circumstances against a number of countries in ways that I think create more unity of purpose for some of these countries.
There are a number of countries that would prefer a different kind of relationship, but have found it difficult. I think India, for instance, wants a deeper technology partnership, but because of the steps that China has taken along the line of actual control in 2020 and before, it’s made India much more resistant and reluctant to take those steps. Again, it’s a very good, broad question.
I’m struck personally by how much China in recent years has either intentionally or unintentionally alienated countries that otherwise would have preferred to partner with them.
Jordan Schneider: Do you think Xi or the post-Xi CCP would be content with living under an American operating system?
Kurt Campbell: I actually would probably take issue with your question. I do not believe that what is being suggested or articulated is the idea of living “under an American operating system.”
I would argue that if you look at the last sixty or seventy years, that operating system [is] complex. You’ve done your homework, so you know the pieces of it — peaceful resolution of disputes, open lines of communication, freedom of navigation, [and] all the different elements that go into that.
I think I would argue that the last seventy or eighty years have been fantastic for Asia. In fact, I think you’d find people that would say, “Look, this operating system has been great for China, maybe not as great for us. We lost a lot of jobs, lost a lot of innovation during that period.” I would probably try to push back against that.
But I think there is an undeniable quality of Chinese growth and prosperity during this period. I think you could argue now this is largely due to the hard work of the Chinese people. But this larger context which we helped build, delivered for China some of the very best periods, decades in China’s history. Now they would take full credit for that. But the truth is that the United States helped provide that context.
So it’s not as if this period has meant shackles for China. They have grown. They have developed. They have matured technologically in so many different ways. I don’t think we’re suggesting that the United States wants to somehow curtail all elements of Chinese growth.
But what we’re concerned [about] are some manifestations that seek to alter this system in ways that are antithetical to the interests [of] not just the United States, but all of these countries.
Terms of Engagement
Jordan Schneider: You recently said there’s a danger in being a “wildly ardent suitor” when it comes to engagement. What’s the bullish case for engagement? What can we realistically achieve in the next eighteen months?
Kurt Campbell: We believe that finding some careful arenas where the United States and China can work together — whether it’s on fentanyl or certain elements in climate change. We could go through a list together. I think those things are areas that we’d like to see continue.
We’d like very much some educational initiatives to continue. Just the general policy and practice of no surprises, I think, can be an effective ingredient in this era of diplomacy and statesmanship.
I think continuing high-level engagement, practical areas of communication in an environment in which competition remains the dominant theme in our relationship is what we can hope for and work towards. I think that’s what we will be inclined to do.
There’s a constant table setting in diplomacy with China, and I think there [are] certain things that, if you are involved in it, you see on a regular basis.
One is that the idea that the ball is always in our court. We’re always going to be the [ones] that are going to have to take some steps. The other is that we want diplomacy more than they do and that somehow that makes us needy.
Now, the truth is that because we are and have been a great power in many respects, China is ascending to this. We actually take, frankly, more seriously some of the responsibilities of being a global power and the communication that we think is required in that evolution. I think we take that probably more serious than China. So we are quite keen on establishing certain military communications and other lines of interaction.
But at the same time, I think allies and partners are unnerved if they feel that the United States is too enthusiastic about the need to settle down in some sort of discussions and that we will give away some things that will be important in deliberations. Much of that is a residue from an earlier period.
I think we’re likely heading into a different period in which there’s less focus on who wants diplomacy more. Most of these countries want a predictable, steady degree of communication between the United States and China — sort of not too cold, not too hot.
I think that probably is where the United States lands as well. I think the interesting question and the one that we cannot answer is [that] currently in [the] recent period, China does seem interested and prepared to engage in diplomacy with the United States. But how long will that last?
Jordan Schneider: Is the concept of “face” in diplomacy a real thing, particularly in East Asia? I feel like Western politicians also get embarrassed. If Americans orientalize this concept, can Asian countries weaponize this and use it to manipulate us?
Kurt Campbell: Well, let me answer the first part of the question.
Anyone who’s worked in Asia understands that a huge element of diplomacy is the idea of face. In many respects, face can be more important than the actual reality of agreements reached or issues discussed. We see that in encounters not just with China, but with many countries in the Indo-Pacific.
However, I think your first point is a wise one.
Americans, other leaders have face, too. They can be embarrassed, they can find themselves on the other ends of things that are difficult to explain.
I find it interesting that oftentimes the interlocutors in China that are most focused on their face have less or lesser focus on ours. But the truth is that it goes both ways.
I think an effective diplomacy would have several characteristics. One, I think, [is that] trying to avoid surprises is important — and secondly, recognizing that there is a dignity to engagement, and you have to show your counterpart appropriate respect.
We’re not always great at that, by the way. So this is in many respects aspirational.
Jordan Schneider: Speaking of interlocutors, parties come and go. You’ve had plenty of transitions in South Korea and the Philippines. You have new people to talk to. Is it weird when folks disappear on you? What does it mean?
Kurt Campbell: I mean there’s disappearing and there’s disappearing. Right? So it is sometimes sad when you work closely with a counterpart and they either retire or go on to a new assignment.
But oftentimes you see those people again. People who really work on the Indo-Pacific in these various places, when they retire, they often retire into positions in which they continue to be actively involved.
Jordan Schneider: Yeah, that’s not quite what I was getting at…
Kurt Campbell: I know. I get it. I’m trying to answer delicately your question — but there are probably a few senior people in the Chinese system I don’t know if we’ll ever see again. That is unusual, yes.
Paid subscribers get access to the second part of our conversation. We discuss:
How he hopes and fears Biden’s Asia policy will be remembered;
Whether we need a national conversation around the US’s commitment to Taiwan;
How the shadow of Tiananmen impacts Chinese politics today;
What advice Kurt has for think-tankers looking to impact policy;
How regional expertise matters for policymakers, and the decadal legacy of Sovietologists like Gates, Rice, and Blinken;
What today’s China-watchers can learn from the last generation of Kremlinologists;
What President Eisenhower’s Solarium Project can teach us about the Executive Branch;
How Yerevan stacks up to Fresno;
Why Kurt Campbell thinks the viola is superior to the violin.