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Foreign Policy

Obama’s Face in Biden’s Mirror

Jan 06, 2021
  • Luo Liang

    Assistant Research Fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies

Joe Biden will soon become the 46th president of the United States, so it’s natural to ask: In what ways will the veteran politician, with his decades of experience in the U.S. Congress and as vice president, reframe the country’s domestic and foreign policies - especially those related to the South China Sea? Biden was an important campaign partner and deputy to President Barack Obama for eight years. Will he inherit the genetic code of Obama’s South China Sea policy?

With Obama’s pivot to Asia and rebalancing strategy, the U.S. seized upon the South China Sea as an important theater for containing a rising China and seeking dominance in the Asia-Pacific.

In the field of military security, the U.S. engaged in frequent close-in surveillance operations in the area, continually testing and challenging China’s bottom line of territorial sovereignty.

In bilateral relations, the U.S. steadily strengthened ties with allies and partners, supported and encouraged acts of aggression by such claimant countries as the Philippines and Vietnam, maneuvered conspicuous improvements in the U.S.-Vietnam relationship and directed the Philippines’ South China Sea arbitration from behind the scenes to pressure China.

On historical and legal issues in the region, it twisted facts and the rules of international law, using “freedom of navigation” operations to attack China’s nine-dashed line in the South China Sea, together with other legitimate maritime rights and interests.

In the crafting of regional rules, it intentionally poisoned the atmosphere for consultations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. It interfered with those consultations and influenced them by various means.

Through negative rhetoric it rampantly sensationalized China’s legitimate rights-preserving moves, such as normal construction on landforms in the South China Sea.

In short, the Obama administration’s South China Sea policy took on various aggressive forms and characteristics that fomented constant instability in the region, despite China’s aspirations for peace. 

No doubt clearing up the mess left behind by the Donald Trump administration and bringing order out of chaos is the most thorny task for the incoming Biden administration. Most likely, the South China Sea won’t be on the priority list in the new administration’s foreign policy agenda. However, against the overall backdrop of the U.S. electorate favoring a tougher approach to China, maintaining the Obama-era stance may be a viable option for the Biden team. It may want to continue with the U.S. presence and further exert pressure in the region.

First, Biden is likely to continue the U.S. military’s normalized high-intensity “freedom of navigation” operations and frequent close-in surveillance operations in the South China Sea. During the Obama presidency, the U.S. military defined each such cruise as a “one-time” incident and proceeded cautiously, even once suspending the operations, which didn’t resume until 2016.

After Donald Trump assumed office, the White House delegated decision-making on the matter such that the Pentagon enjoys more flexibility and autonomy. It is predictable, therefore, that the U.S. military’s FNOs will be more frequent, targeted and politically charged. Even such countries as Japan and Britain may participate when opportunities arise.

Second, Biden is likely to pick up the political legacy of the South China Sea arbitration - a legal dispute involving China in which an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines. The U.S. directly concocted the arbitration during the Obama administration. During his tenure as vice president, Biden had on multiple occasions openly urged China to accept the “verdict” of the arbitration panel.

After assuming office, Biden will undoubtedly play the South China Sea arbitration card again. Reiterating the validity and binding nature of the ruling will be a ghost that haunts bilateral ties. This will help feed the media and create public opinion hot spots, thereby undermining China’s relations with the Philippines and ASEAN. On the other hand, it will subtly encourage Vietnam and Malaysia to take legal actions against China, possibly leading to new international arbitrations.

Third, the U.S.-Vietnam relationship will likely warm up again. During the Obama presidency, Vietnam was seen as an important partner in Southeast Asia. The U.S. lifted its embargos on arms sales and expanded defense cooperation. Vietnam took advantage of the momentum to implement a “balance of powers strategy.”

Meanwhile, China and Vietnam have seen conflicts and standoffs arise in the past few years, owing to maritime disputes. Once those advocating a tough China policy in Vietnam come to power and restore unilateral exploitation of oil and gas resources in disputed waters, China-Vietnam maritime contradictions will inevitably intensify, which will create precious opportunities for the Biden administration.

Opening Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang to the U.S. in exchange for such military equipment as ships and warplanes is an important strategic fulcrum for the U.S. military’s in-depth intervention in the South China Sea. Vietnam’s role as the cat’s paw in the region will become even more vivid.

Judging from the policy agenda Biden has revealed so far, his foreign policy priorities after inauguration will focus on returning to the multilateral international framework, repairing relations with allies and partners and assuming global leadership once again. A new China policy may not be composed easily, which is why U.S. interaction with countries in the South China Sea region, such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, deserves particular attention.  

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