NEW DELHI: In 2009, India and US began their first official-level dialogue on China and the Asia-Pacific. The Indian side was represented by Gautam Bambawale, then joint secretary in MEA and the US by the assistant secretary, Kurt Campbell.

Over the next couple of years, Campbell and Bambawale explored the growing convergences in their respective foreign and security policies for this region.

"That dialogue, the first of its kind between the US and India, set the stage for the 2015 Vision Statement between India and US,” said Bambawale. The Japan-India-US trilateral grouping began under their watch, which later became a summit-level exercise.

Kurt Campbell is due to be named the Indo-Pacific coordinator by US president-elect Joe Biden, and in that role, is likely to oversee the Biden administration’s approach to China and building up the Indo-Pacific policy. While Campbell may have started the ball rolling in the first Obama administration, the second Obama administration did not give that measure of importance to the “pivot” or “rebalance”. For instance, the US gave China a pass over the PCA verdict on the South China Sea in 2016. Campbell’s successor in the State Department, Danny Russel, stopped the East Asia dialogue with India as well.

But in the past four years, the Trump administration sharpened the US view of China, effectively tearing up the conventional belief that a prosperous Beijing would inevitably be a more liberal China. As China doubled down on socialism under Xi Jinping, its aggressive moves in the region became a greater cause for concern. The US has taken to sanctions, a trade war, visa restrictions and 5G bans, openly challenging the Chinese regime. The pandemic in 2020 only intensified the open opposition between the US and China.

In its dying days, the Trump administration this week lifted the curbs on diplomatic contact with Taiwan, something that may have been fraying, but had been maintained as the proverbial fig leaf. This week, the Trump White House also declassified its Indo-Pacific strategy as well as the notes of the former deputy national security adviser, Matt Pottinger.

However, it seems fairly clear that Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy will not be very different from Trump’s. As Campbell and Doshi say in an essay in Foreign Affairs this week, “A strategy for the Indo-Pacific today would benefit from incorporating three lessons from this episode of European history: the need for a balance of power; the need for an order that the region’s states recognize as legitimate; and the need for an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both. Such an approach can ensure that the Indo-Pacific’s future is characterized by balance and twenty-first-century openness rather than hegemony and nineteenth-century spheres of influence.”

Campbell will find many familiar faces in New Delhi, as will the new CIA chief, William Burns. In addition, the possible appointment of Ely Ratner possibly in the Pentagon as rumoured, and Rush Doshi in the National Security Council to head China policy, would be a sign of reassurance in New Delhi.

For many looking in at the Biden administration, Campbell may also balance John Kerry who, as Biden’s special envoy on climate change, could be tempted to make concessions to China, as many Indian analysts have feared, particularly as climate change is sought to be part of the new National Security Council. Meanwhile, Washington insiders say Ely Ratner’s appointment may make up for the new defence secretary’s lack of Asia (read China) experience.

India is invested heavily in the Indo-Pacific, the trilateral and the Quad — an investment that has only intensified in the past couple of years. Campbell’s appointment would ease some of the apprehension in this part of the world that the new US administration may be softer on China.