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Top White House Asia Aide Moves to State Department as US-China Challenges Heat Up 

FILE - Kurt Campbell, who was then the National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to examine his nomination to be deputy secretary of state, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 7, 2023.
FILE - Kurt Campbell, who was then the National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to examine his nomination to be deputy secretary of state, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 7, 2023.

The Biden administration is now focusing on implementing its goals for the Indo-Pacific, said analysts, as a White House strategist who initiated policies for the region moves to the State Department.

Kurt Campbell, who served as Indo-Pacific coordinator for the White House National Security Council, initiated strategies that moved allies and partners to cooperate on challenges across the region, from counterbalancing China's rise to offsetting North Korea's threats. He is going to a new position at the State Department.

He takes on the role of the deputy secretary of state, a position vacant since July when Wendy Sherman retired. The Senate confirmed Campbell on February 6 after President Joe Biden nominated him for the position in November.

Campbell's position as the Indo-Pacific coordinator will be left unfilled, the Financial Times reported on February 6. Experts said that if the Biden administration did not fill the Indo-Pacific position, it would be a signal that Washington was now focusing on implementing the strategies Campbell set in place.

"Important initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific strategy and the Camp David summit are among the results of the decision by the incoming Biden administration to create a brand-new position of Indo-Pacific coordinator," said Daniel Russel, who served as the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs during the Obama administration.

"Now that those and other initiatives have been launched and that interagency coordination on Indo-Pacific policy has matured, the administration's challenge is in implementation and the need for a 'coordinator' in the White House has diminished," Russel said Tuesday via email. He is the vice president for International Security and Diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Biden appointed Campbell as the White House Indo-Pacific coordinator in January 2021. Creation of the position came amid China's increasing assertiveness in the region.

Campbell was instrumental in bringing together South Korea and Japan for a summit with the U.S. at Camp David in August. The two moved beyond their historical animosity and agreed to work together against China's regional aggression and North Korea's missile launches.

Campbell led the inaugural meeting of the Nuclear Consultative Group held in July in Seoul to strengthen the bilateral alliance and reassure South Korea of U.S. nuclear deterrence in the region.

He also revamped the informal transregional agreement known as the QUAD among Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. in March 2021 and played a key role in creating a trilateral security partnership among Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., or AUKUS, in September 2021. China views both as security ties threatening its rise to dominance in the region.

Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, said via email on Tuesday that Campbell's "central role over the past three years in defining strategies to compete [with], cooperate [with], and confront China marks a clear path for engaging allies and partners, dealing with China, and helping the U.S. negotiate from strength."

Cronin continued, "His absence as Indo-Pacific coordinator will be significantly mitigated by his presence at the State [Department] and the outstanding team he has left at the White House to help carry out a vision he helped to mold."

But concerns remain about the unfilled position for a region fraught with rising threats from North Korea and coercive moves by China, according to some analysts.

Dennis Wilder, senior director for East Asia at the White House's National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, said via email, "The Biden administration should reconsider its decision not to keep the position at a time when there is so much uncertainty about North Korea and China's intentions."

North Korea's state media KCNA said on Thursday that the country tested new surface-to-sea missiles under the supervision of leader Kim Jong Un the day before. It was the regime's fifth cruise missile test this year as Pyongyang threatens to take more aggressive moves against South Korea.

China continues to antagonize its neighbors in South China Sea with maritime maneuvers to assert its claim of sovereignty over disputed territories.

Aside from security issues, Wilder, currently a senior fellow for the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University, said, "A major priority left undone in the Biden Indo-Pacific strategy is trade policy."

Wilder said via email on Wednesday, "The IPEF [Indo-Pacific Framework] attempt to deal with this issue is stalled by congressional resistance because of concerns over the labor, human rights and climate change policies of partner nations. The administration must find a way to balance the robust security alliances and partnerships with an equally effective set of regional economic policies."

The IPEF includes four pillars: trade; supply chains; clean energy, decarbonization and infrastructure; and tax and anti-corruption. Biden launched the IPEF in Tokyo in May 2022 to set up sustainable common standards among countries in the region. The IPEF partners including South Korea and Japan account for 40% of the global economy.

China, not an IPEF member, perceives it as an ineffective effort to reduce its economic influence. He Weiwen, a senior fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, told the official Global Times in 2023, "The IPEF is neither a trade agreement nor an economic community. It's just a framework, meaning that it will have no real efficacy."