The period that was broadly described as engagement” with China, argued Kurt Campbell, the coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs in the US National Security Council “has come to an end.” This comment – a part of a broader discussion on the US’s shifting “strategic focus on Asia” – made headlines across the continent. From Japan and Singapore to India, Campbell’s candid take was breaking news. Yet, there was little that Campbell and his colleague Laura Rosenberger – the Senior Director for China and Taiwan in the NSC – said, in a 50-minute-long discussion last week that was either novel or ground-breaking.
Senior officials, like Campbell, have outlined the intellectual framework of what America’s approach to China ought to be in at least a dozen or more publications in the past five-six years. A “sustainable approach to, and relationship with, Beijing,” Campbell has long argued, “requires honesty about how many fundamental assumptions have turned out wrong.” The bottom line for Campbell is that Chinese behaviour cannot be modified. Attempts in doing so, from Richard Nixon’s approach in the early 1970s – that broke the Cold War ice with Mao Zedong – to the decision to support China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, ultimately, Campbell believes, facilitated China’s rise and led it to become Washington’s “most dynamic and formidable competitor in modern history.”
When Campbell says that the era of “engagement” with China is over, what he seems to really mean is that the Joe Biden administration has set itself on a path to completely rewire America’s advance. Rather than trying to change China, the senior NSC staffer has argued in the past, the US should focus “more on its own power and behaviour,” including those of its “allies and partners.” Competition with China does not necessarily mean the end of engagement in practice. Indeed, as he and Jake Sullivan – Biden’s National Security Advisor – have written together, the objective is a “steady state of clear-eyed coexistence on terms favourable to US interests and values.”