On July 6, the Asia Society Institute hosted a conversation with Kurt Campbell, who currently serves as Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs on the National Security Council. The conversation was led by Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd and Vice Presidents Daniel Russel and Wendy Cutler. The conversation was broader than just China, but China was a main focus. It touched on the following issues: China's international assertiveness, the Chinese view of the United States, the possibility of a new cold war, Australia-China relations, and U.S.-Taiwan relations.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Campbell expressed his view of China's newfound assertiveness on the world stage:

I will tell you I was out of government for 10 years. Coming back in, I was astonished by some of the things I read and saw and experienced and have had diplomatic engagements about, and one of them is just undeniable: a very assertive, determined China that wants to play the leading role on the global stage, and has really quite unsentimental views of the United States and really, I think, wants to reshape the operating system of Asia, this complex mix of freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes and sort of the forward deployment allied partnership with a different system, with components of the previous system but things that will clearly favor China. I think, quietly, a lot more anxiety about very very negative economic tools that China has used in certain countries, that has been concerning as well.

He also discussed how he saw the Chinese view of the United States, and noted that "rumors of [the U.S.] decline are greatly exaggerated":

I'll just conclude by saying, we'd get a chance to get a sense of what Chinese friends, how they do analysis of the United States. I think the more ideological people around President Xi do believe that the United States is in a hurtling, fundamental decline. And they look at various indications of that: January 6th, issues associated with deep divisions in the United States.

I think it is up to the United States more than anything else to make clear that this is a storyline that we have seen before. We've seen in Vietnam, we've seen during the economic crisis in the 90s, and then again in the global economic crisis in 2008-2009, worries about, that the United States was in descent and would no longer be able to play its traditional role. These views have permeated Asia, you see a lot in Southeast Asia and Singapore, in China, other countries more quietly.

The most important ingredient in our effort going forward is to dispel those concerns, and make clear that the United States, that rumors of our decline are greatly exaggerated, that we have the wherewithal, the will and the determination to continue to play a leading role in the global community, but particularly in the Indo Pacific in the period going forward.

During the Q & A, various other issues were raised. Kevin Rudd asked about the possibility of a "cold war" between China and the United States. Campbell suggested stepping away from the “framing of the Cold War” because “it causes us to fall back on patterns of thinking in framing that is in no way helpful.” He believed that “competition” and “alignment of policies” would coexist in the new period of the U.S.-China relations, but it would be challenging to "come up with a strategy that presents China with both opportunities but also very clear challenges." While Campbell believed in the possibility that "the United States and China can coexist and leave live in peace," he admitted that it would be "enormously difficult." The full exchange was as follows:

Kevin Rudd: Do you think we can avoid a second cold war with China? And how would we go about doing that?

Kurt Campbell: Thank you Kevin. So I don't like the framing of the Cold War very much. I've appreciated the work that you've done on this, I'm fearful that that framing obscures more than it illuminates, and I think it causes us to fall back on patterns of thinking in framing that is in no way helpful, really fundamentally, to some of the challenges presented by China.

In the United States, part of what we have to do is, I think, the term is "think differently." The two most recent experiences for us, one has been a hot war, a long 20 year unsatisfactory set of engagements across the Middle East, which focused a lot on special warfare, and, you know, small troop movement capabilities and overhead support. Before that was a 40 year campaign with a country we had very little to do with except for, you know, nuclear tipped missiles, not a lot of economic engagement. Very little, you know, people to people engagement or societal interaction. So, I'm not sure those are the best models more generally.

But if you're asking the question, do I believe that the next little while, in terms of the relationship between the United States and China, will be different than this previous period that we broadly described as "engagement," I do. I believe that the defining characteristics of the period ahead will be around competition, and also at the same time, finding areas in arenas where the United States and China can, it's not necessarily cooperation Kevin, I don't really like that narrow definition, it might be just alignment of policies, areas where we need to understand that purposeful efforts on both of our parts, like on climate change, hopefully – we had hoped on the pandemic, that has been quite a disappointment -- would be important as we go forward.

But I do think that the period ahead has some similarities in terms of the early periods of our own Cold War in the United States. There was a lot of domestic needs, a lot of concerns about the definition of what it is that we were facing, a lot of exaggeration of certain kinds of challenges, a lot of underestimation of our own capabilities. You see some traditional characteristics that you see it each time the United States has been challenged by a foreign country. We saw even in elements of the period in the 1980s when we were worried about Japan.

I will say, I think this time is going to be much more difficult. I worry sometimes that the Chinese leadership, one hopes to find ourselves in a situation that a degree of coexistence of recognition that the Indo Pacific and the world is big enough for two great powers. Some of what we've seen from President Xi and his colleagues suggests that China's ambitions surpass that, those are things that, but those can't really be handled through persuasion. I think they have to be dealt with through performance. And so that's why I say the most important elements associated with our strategy and for anyone, any American president, is to ensure that we've taken the right steps on technology or education or mustering an effective coalition of allies.

I will say that, you know, oftentimes people will say and I would just take issue with that, like, oh this is just a continuation of Trump policy. That's just completely incorrect. I think there are elements of the analysis that are comparable, but the way that President Trump tried to engage kind of in an erratic way, only in a bilateral context between the United States and China, is just incorrect. We really need to work this in a way that engages with other countries who share our interest in sustaining elements of, again, if you look at the operating system, Kevin, that we managed to create, and the end China participated in this as well, it led to the greatest accumulation of wealth and the lifting of people from poverty in human history. And so we should be very careful before we meddle with it too much.

And so, you know, the challenge ahead will be to come up with a strategy that presents China with both opportunities but also very clear challenges for taking steps that are antithetical to the maintenance of peace and stability, and that will be challenging, so anyone who tells you like, oh, this strategy is settled, and it's certain, it's not, it will take a significant period to refine it. There will likely be periods of uncertainty, perhaps even periods of occasional, you know, raised tensions. Do I think it's possible that the United States and China can coexist and leave live in peace? Yes, I do. But I do think the challenge is going to be enormously difficult for this generation and the next.

Keven Rudd than asked for Campbell's thoughts on the China-Australia relationship, and here Campbell saw little chance of "a different kind of [China] diplomacy towards Australia":

Kevin Rudd: Here in Australia, where I am at the moment, you'll be more than acutely conscious of the fact that Australia's been on the rough end of the pineapple as we would say here in the relationship with China, and the bottom line is, it's been problematic. The economic frictions have been significant. Some of the exporters are hurting. In terms of your management of, let's call it your aggregate relationship with China, and as it was seeking to the extent possible, to restabilize relations also between China and some of your allies, if I was asking you to bring out a crystal ball and see how the second half of the year might go, do you see some light on the horizon, for example in the China-Australia relationship?

Kurt Campbell: Kevin that's a good question. You know, there are a lot of theories about how China conceptualizes Australia. I think from our perspective, it looks at least to some level that there is an attempt to cut Australia out of the herd, and to try to see if they can affect Australia to completely change how it both sees itself and sees the world. I think the United States, President Biden, Secretary Blinken, National Security Council Sullivan, others have tried to make clear that we're not going to leave Australia in the field, and that's just not going to happen. And if anything what we've seen over the last six to eight months is a deepening intensifying relationship between Canberra and Washington, even on issues, these are not completely like minded governments, but I think, a tremendous sense of common purpose with respect to some of the challenges that we were facing in the Indo Pacific and the opportunities.

Australia was also, Prime Minister Morrison was a leading supporter of us moving ahead with the Quad, and has encouraged us substantially to step up our game, both in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. I don't know if it's for me, Kevin, to say whether I see an easing, or improving in relations between Australia and China in the next little while. I do want to just say, and again I count on you, Kevin, often to help us understand this new phase in in Chinese diplomacy and engagement. I will say, having been a diplomat now in various capacities for 30 years, you became comfortable, I thought that China had a series of tells, if you will, about how it would operate internationally, and how it would engage more generally. And one of them was that China would rarely try to take on, you know, more than one big foreign policy challenge simultaneously. In the 90s when it sought to basically create capacity for working to its East with its sea engagements and recognizing that maritime power was going to be more important. You were the one who taught me in the 90s that look at what China had done, basically tying down all those countries that it had difficult relations with, border disputes, over a period of one year, basically sorting all of this out. So it was able to basically muster and focus in one area.

What we've seen of late, really, is China taking on many countries simultaneously, much greater assertive actions across the Taiwan Strait. ... Now, I would have thought, previously, that given what we had seen in the success of President Biden's visits to Europe and a sense of other countries basically finding common cause with the United States that China would be in the midst right now of a recalibration. A sense of pulling back and rethinking of some of its actions, particularly against Australia, a country, frankly, that if you'd asked me 10 years ago, what country was most likely to start thinking about, we have to have a different kind of relationship with China, and maybe, you know, kind of thinking differently about the United States, it might have been Australia. I think that is completely gone now. And I'm not sure that they have the strategic thinking to go back to a different kind of diplomacy towards Australia right now, I see a harshness in their approach that appear appears unyielding.  I don't want to be pessimistic for Australia, I know Australia's tried quietly and carefully. But I see little yield. And if anything, a rising sense of nationalism and a sense of aggrievement and a determination to continue to prosecute a very assertive case internationally across the board, and you saw that a little bit in President Xi's, you know, 100 year speech.

Finally, Daniel Russel asked about Campbell's thoughts on the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, and Campbell said "[w]e support a strong unofficial relationship with Taiwan, [but] we do not support Taiwan independence":

Daniel Russel: I want to ask about Taiwan. I know it's a delicate topic but, and you know as Assistant Secretary, you are the person who more than anyone made the effort to show respect for Taiwan, to promote Taiwan's dignity, but we're in a very different era, this is an environment, kind of zero sum. US-China engagement, it feels like the growing friction. China's driving a series of incremental moves by the US, is edging closer and closer to the line that separates unfficial relations with official relations, which in effect can hollow out America's one China policy. So I guess my question is how much love is too much love for Taiwan. What's the right way, what's the wrong way for us to, you know manifest that respect and that support, which is not only important but utterly consistent with both the one China policy and Taiwan Relations Act.

Kurt Campbell: Look Danny, it's a good question. I'll be careful here. We support a strong unofficial relationship with Taiwan, we do not support Taiwan independence. We fully recognize and understand the sensitivities involved here. We do believe that Taiwan has a right to live in peace. We want to see its international role, particularly in areas like vaccines and issues associated with the endemic, they should have a role to play here, they should not be shunned in the international community. So I think it is a balance, but it's a balance that the United States accepts and supports. We do very much support Taiwan's dignity, its remarkable achievements as we go forward. And we've tried to send a very clear message of deterrence across the Taiwan Strait. And I must say, I'll try to be careful here, I know how much engagement the Asia Society has in Hong Kong, one of the reasons why the international community and the United States is so clear about our dissatisfaction by what China has undertaken in Hong Kong is a clear sense that quietly behind the scenes, Chinese interlocutors have studied and tried to make an assessment, if we can do this, what's the international response and what does that tell us about what the response would be with respect to Taiwan. I just want to underscore that such an effort would be catastrophic. But at the same time we need to signal when China has taken steps that are completely antithetical to the international order that the international community has to take, you know, steps to signal that accordingly. That's important, not only for Hong Kong, but it's also important for other things that China might contemplate. So, Danny, I completely agree with you, it's a very delicate, it's a dangerous balance, but it's a balance that must be maintained, that the United States has extraordinarily important interests in the maintenance of peace and stability, but other countries are coming to recognize that as well. Japan, Great Britain, other countries recognize that the maintenance of peace and stability is in the profound interests of international stability.