The Debate

Help Wanted: Who Will Run U.S. China Policy?

With National Security Adviser Tom Donilon leaving, who will be President Obama’s point person on China?

With U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon stepping down in July, President Obama will once again need to find an individual to serve as his point person on China.

Even by DC standards, the Obama administration has witnessed a high-level of turnover in the individuals spearheading China policy. In the initial years of the administration’s first term, Jeffrey Bader and James Steinberg seemed to take the lead in running the China portfolio. At the time, Bader was serving as senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council, and Steinberg was serving as Hillary Clinton’s Deputy at the State Department.

Both men were well qualified for the position, and got along well, having worked together on China policy during the Bill Clinton administration and later at the Brookings Institution. Indeed, in his memoirs on his time serving in the Obama administration, Bader refers to Steinberg as his mentor. Both were also strong advocates of constructive engagement with China, and in this was reflected in numerous ways from candidate Obama effort to avoid criticism of China during the 2008 Presidential campaign, and the way Steinberg was given the chance to float his catchphrase “strategic reassurance” to explain its policy towards  China very early on.

They also both left the administration earlier, with Bader returning to the Brookings Institution in March 2011, and Steinberg leaving in July of that year) to become the Dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. Long before then, there were signs that Steinberg at least was having a tough go of it in his position, partly because the administration began taking a tougher line on China (some say he left the administration over disagreements with Donilon, although he always send he’d only stay two years).

After their departure, the administration appeared to lean most heavily on Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Tom Donilon, who had been promoted to National Security Adviser in October 2010, to craft and execute China policy (for Campbell, all of Asia really).

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Campbell, in particular, was eminently qualified to lead Asia policy, having founded and lead an Asia consulting firm for years and previously served as deputy director assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific, among countless other positions. Donilon had spent much of his career working on politics but had been chief-of-staff to then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher and clearly had President Obama’s ear. Both seemed to take a harder line on China than Bader and Steinberg had, but they don’t appear to have gotten along as well given the ongoing disagreement on who deserves the credit for the pivot.

When Donilon steps down in July both men will have returned to the private sector, with Campbell leaving earlier this year. Thus, once again, President Obama will need a new point person to handle China policy (It’s likely that Donilon will stay on through the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue scheduled for the second week of July, although that dialogue is led by the State and Treasury Departments).

Personnel turnover is of course a fact of life in the U.S. policymaking system. But as the importance of U.S.-China ties rises, this level of turnover could be damaging to the bilateral relationship. True, the U.S. certainly had to contend with this issue during the Cold War, but there’s a fundamental difference. Namely, during the Cold War nearly every senior foreign policy official was a Soviet hand of some degree or another.

This is hardly the case with China today. Indeed, the principals on the Obama national security team are notable for their lack of Asia and China experience. John Kerry has always been most involved in the greater Middle East (extending to Afghanistan and Pakistan), and his tenure at the State Department so far has strongly suggested this will be the region he intends to devote most of his energy on.

Obama’s nominee as UN ambassador, Susan Power, has spent her career advocating for U.S. intervention in genocides and civil wars most notably in Africa and Europe. Incoming National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s background is also primarily in Africa and intervention promotion. Moreover, her tenure as UN Ambassador has hardly endeared her to policymakers in Beijing.  Not only did she call Russia and China’s veto of sanctions against the Syrian regime “disgusting and shameful” and then vigorously defend doing so (which, to be fair, might have been U.S. policy rather than her personal words), but she has also stuck to a harder line with China on North Korea then most the administration in recent months.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has far more background and experience in Asian affairs than either of the other three, but like Kerry the Middle East has by Hagel’s own admission been his life’s work. Moreover, U.S. diplomacy with China cannot be spearheaded by a defense secretary, at least if relations are going to be improved.

It’s unclear at this point who Obama might turn to as his point person on China once Donilon’s gone. One possibility if Daniel R. Russel, who Obama nominated last month as Kurt Campbell’s replacement as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (he’s yet to be approved by the Senate). A career diplomat with extensive experience in Japan in particular, Russel worked most recently at the White House serving as the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Asian Affairs, and is rumored to be close to Obama’s chief of staff, Dennis McDonough.

Still, given how top-heavy this administration is said to be on foreign policy, Obama might want his point person to be someone who is working at the White House, such as deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken.