US Presidential Election 2020
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The USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) anchored off Manila Bay in 2019. File photo: AP

Joe Biden won’t soften US stance on South China Sea, experts say

  • While his administration will be more civil than Trump’s, Washington will continue freedom of navigation operations in the disputed waterway, analysts say
  • Biden has over the years become increasingly critical of Beijing, calling President Xi Jinping a ‘thug’ and attacking China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang
The United States will take a far more civil and consensus-driven approach to international relations under Joe Biden’s presidency, but while the “eccentric” and “destabilising” anti-China rhetoric will be gone, analysts say, his administration is likely to be as tough as President Donald Trump’s on issues such as the South China Sea.

“Given Biden’s background [as a veteran lawmaker], we will see more heads brought to bear on the problems worldwide,” said Professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, at a virtual forum on Monday organised by the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of the Philippines.

Southeast Asia specialist Carl Thayer, also speaking at the event, said there would be less pressure on regional states to take sides amid the US-China tensions.

China would ‘seize’ the Philippines in a war with the US: former military chief Bautista

The US alliance with Japan and South Korea would be “less antagonistic” under Biden, whose officials were likely to hold “informal talks over coffee” with stakeholders to “come up with a strategy to push back” against China, said Thayer, emeritus professor of politics and visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales.

Both experts said Washington was likely to continue its policy of holding freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea, and also to deepen efforts to include the Philippine-held Kalayaan Island Group in the contested waterway by expanding the definition of the word “Pacific” in the US-Philippine-Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT).

Members of the Democrats Abroad Philippines hold slogans with images of President-elect Joe Biden in Makati, the Philippines. Photo: AP

Under the pact, signed in August 1951, an armed attack “on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific” would trigger a mutual response of aid.

Thayer said that the treaty was signed before the Philippines made claims to the Kalayaan Island Group, which includes Pag-Asa island, a region where Chinese fishing vessels and coastguard ships have reportedly been swarming in recent years. Under the Obama administration, he said, Washington’s position was that it could not guarantee the treaty covered that particular area, because the Pacific region stopped on the east coast of the Philippines.
That stance changed u​nder Trump with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s July pronouncement that Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea were “unlawful”, Thayer said, adding that “Trump really did not intervene much” in the waterway and basically left the issue to his secretaries of state and defence.

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Thayer warned that a “black swan [event] that could harm the Biden administration” would be if Trump were to set up his own television station and started undermining Biden’s presidency.

A supporter of engagement with Beijing since the 1970s, Biden has met Chinese President Xi Jinping at least eight times over his five-decade career in politics, even playing basketball with him once, according to The New York Times.
Yet the president-elect’s stance towards the world’s second-largest economy hardened over the past decade: on the campaign trail, he blasted Beijing for its actions in Hong Kong, dubbed its policies towards Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region as “unconscionable” and called Xi a “thug”.

“This is a guy who does not have a democratic – with a small ‘d’ – bone in his body,” Biden said during the February 25 Democratic Party primary debate with Bernie Sanders. “This is a guy who is a thug and who in fact has a million Uygurs in reconstruction camps, meaning concentration camps.”

In the same debate, Biden said he once told Xi that the US would defy China’s no-fly zone in the South China Sea, and that “we flew B-1 bombers through it”, adding: “We’re going to make it clear, they must play by the rules – period, period, period.”

Beijing has not officially congratulated Biden on his victory.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave mostly vague answers at a daily briefing on Monday, saying that it hoped the new administration would “work in the same direction as us going forward” – but sidestepping questions about the trade deal, what tangible moves China expected from Biden, and Beijing’s stance on relations with Washington.

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“We always believe that China and the US should enhance communication and dialogue, manage differences on the basis of mutual respect, expand cooperation on the basis of mutual benefit and promote the sound and stable development of bilateral relations,” ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters.

State-run media outlets such as China Daily have filled some of the void, as the newspaper expressed hope that relations could be “reset for the better”.

The Global Times newspaper called on Beijing to communicate with the Biden team “as thoroughly as it can” to bring US-China relations to a state of “great predictability”.

“China should not harbour any illusions that Biden’s election will ease or bring a reversal to China-US relations, nor should it weaken its belief in improving bilateral ties,” it said in an editorial on Sunday night. “China must become a country the US cannot suppress or destabilise, and make it that cooperation with China is the best option for the US to realise its national interests … This is the ultimate principle.”

Additional reporting by Bloomberg