Biden must rethink US approach to the South China Sea. Early signs are not promising
- The Biden administration has a chance to forge stability in the region and undo the damage of Trump’s ‘America first’ policy. But, so far, there has been no indication of a softening of the US approach to China
The new Joe Biden administration has an opportunity to re-engage with China on the South China Sea, rebuild trust, forge stability and simultaneously increase its soft power by treating Southeast Asian countries with respect.
President Biden inherits a dicey situation. Under Trump, the US was perceived as trying to make China either stand down from its claims or defend them militarily. This “retreat or fight” scenario is quite risky and may result in military confrontation.
During his campaign, Biden wrote an article for Foreign Affairs in which he said: “The United States does need to get tough with China.” He suggested building a united front of allies and partners to confront what he called China’s “abusive behaviours and human rights violations”. But he also said he would try to cooperate with Beijing on matters of mutual benefit.
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Make no mistake. The US policy goal is likely to remain the same – American primacy in Asia. But the goal can be accomplished in a less militarily aggressive and more transparent manner that does not purposely and unnecessarily obstruct China’s peaceful rise. The Biden team’s approach is likely to be different from that of the Trump administration’s.
It should include re-establishing communication channels to ensure that the Chinese side understands US concerns, and vice versa. Of course, there will be some issues on which the two sides will fundamentally disagree and, on these, the US will be firm. But there are many areas where differences can be reduced and managed.
Both sides had long valued stable military relations, before they became strained under Trump. The Biden administration has an opportunity to return to a more stable, tacit agreement to disagree – at least on the South China Sea. It could tone down its rhetoric and tit-for-tat responses.
China’s rival claimants in the South China Sea neither welcome, nor are likely to join in, US military intervention. An important additional objective of an adjusted approach to the South China Sea would be to reestablish trust in Southeast Asia; the US should demonstrate it can handle its differences with China competently and peacefully.
This is about showing respect and giving face to Asean leaders, in other words, differing from the arrogant America first approach of the Trump administration.
As Campbell wrote in Foreign Affairs, reversing the situation “will be challenging and require diplomatic finesse, commercial innovation, and institutional creativity”. Specifically, it will require “serious US reengagement: an end to shaking down allies, skipping regional summits, avoiding economic engagement, and shunning transnational cooperation”.
A small step forward would be for the US and China to reaffirm their crisis management mechanisms so that neither side is surprised to the point that an unintended clash occurs. Several communication mechanisms already exist and reinvigorating them would seem a logical step.
This was also affirmed by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin during a call with his Japanese counterpart Nobuo Kishi; Austin said the US was opposed to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea.
Presumably, the Americans knew this would send a negative signal to the Chinese right off the bat. China responded predictably. It urged the US and Japan not to endanger peace and stability in the region, or hurt the interests of third parties.
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Although the Biden administration is reviewing the hard-line policies of the Trump administration towards China, the initial round of calls with foreign nations did not indicate any softening of the US approach.
During a call with Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin, the new US Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, said the US would stand with Southeast Asian maritime claimants in the face of Chinese pressure. The US military also sent a message to China by deploying a carrier strike group to the South China Sea to “to ensure freedom of the seas”.
The overall message from the new administration so far is one of continuing confrontation, rather than of compromise and cooperation. When in a hole it is best to stop digging unless one wants to make it deeper on purpose.
The US must be willing to accommodate to some degree China’s international interests and aspirations – although the issues, the timing and how much to accommodate remain points to be negotiated. But China must also be willing to seize this opportunity to move forward.
Mark J. Valencia is adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China