President Biden is going into a high-stakes meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping with one man in particular close by his side: Kurt Campbell, the director of Asia strategy at the National Security Council.
Campbell, who has also been nominated to be deputy secretary of State, is described as the architect of the Biden administration’s strategy toward confronting China. Supporters praise his “creative diplomacy” in building coalitions among allies in the Indo-Pacific, and his acute understanding of how military power can be wielded.
Among Republicans, conservatives and Democrats, Campbell elicits respect — a rare distinction in Washington.
“Kurt is as experienced a hand in high policy as we have in either party in our government,” said Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.
Cronin is longtime friends with Campbell. The two were colleagues at the University of Oxford and both are Navy reservists. He described Campbell as having a deep well of experience in the Indo-Pacific.
“He’s been working specifically on these issues from the very beginning of the Clinton administration, at least. And I worked with him on these issues back then. And he’s worked closely with our allies and partners, so he’s always been poised to have the trust of our allies.”
Campbell will head into the meeting with Biden and Xi as a known quantity on the Chinese side, according to experts interviewed for this article, adding that this familiarity will help Biden’s diplomatic efforts.
He’s also a respected figure among America’s closest regional allies — Japan, South Korea, Australia and India. It’s those relationships that he’s focused on deepening to shape the environment around China, increase pressure on Beijing and limit its choices in the region.
Campbell has been involved with a number of initiatives meant to counter China, including the state visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; Biden’s summer summit with Japan and South Korea at Camp David and the birth of AUKUS, the trilateral Indo-Pacific security partnership with the United Kingdom and Australia, in September 2021.
A diplomat from an Asian country, who asked for anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press, said Campbell has made an impression as someone who makes time to connect personally with people from the Indo-Pacific who are working in Washington. The diplomat described Campbell as showing “genuine modesty,” a trait that is not necessarily present in the intense power-play dynamics of Washington.
Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security, and a friend of Campbell’s for nearly two decades, said that description is “totally true.”
“He definitely makes time and tries to be helpful to people across the board,” he said, while also crediting Campbell for creativity and “boundless energy and initiative.”
An administration official who worked closely with him in the leadup to Wednesday’s Biden-Xi meeting said Campbell led a team that managed “incredibly delicate diplomacy” while “overseeing broad strategic work that has strengthened our alliances in the Indo-Pacific.”
“Kurt’s approach buttresses one of President Biden’s greatest strengths as a leader on the world stage: his knack for leader-to-leader diplomacy,” the official said.
Campbell has served as the National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific since the start of the president’s term in office. During the Obama administration, he served as assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
He’s also one-half of a D.C. power couple. His wife, Lael Brainard, is Biden’s director of the National Economic Council. The two have three daughters, and Campbell is quick to show colleagues and friends photographs and videos.
Biden administration officials talk about a two-pronged approach to competing with China that involves investments in the U.S. to put it in a stronger economic position, while deepening relationships with allies abroad to bolster its global position.
“The administration has put a lot emphasis on renewing the domestic sources of strength so as to be more competitive in taking on the China challenge. And Kurt’s role has been and will be focused on the foreign aspects of that … Lael’s got more of the domestic economic side of that equation,” Fontaine said.
A senior administration official briefing reporters last week said Biden is heading into his meeting with Xi “with game-changing investments in American strength at home” and “having deepened our alliances and partnerships abroad in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.”
But even as the White House projects confidence, they are setting low expectations for breakthrough agreements or consensus with a leader who is viewed as more authoritarian at home and aggressive abroad.
The president is focused on reestablishing military-to-military channels that China severed in the wake of what China viewed as a provocative visit by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taiwan in August 2022.
A whole host of topics will be on the table between Biden and Xi, including Israel’s war with Hamas, Russia’s war in Ukraine and North Korea’s nuclear weapon saber-rattling.
“There’s a lot of crises and important equities in other regions of the world. But the administration wants to focus, despite it all, on the Indo-Pacific as its priority theater and China [as] his priority challenge,” Fontaine said. “And I think having Kurt go over to the State Department is one expression of that.”
Biden nominated Campbell for deputy secretary of State on Nov. 1. The process has been bogged down by bureaucratic and political hurdles, but some predicted it would ultimately end with success.
“My sense is at a time when the nomination and confirmation process is not exactly a well-oiled machine, the support for Kurt’s nomination among both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, seems extraordinarily high, which is notable,” Fontaine said.