The U.S.-China competition is deep, multidimensional and asymmetrical. But if there’s one geographic location, where the superpower rivalry of the century is most profound and potentially explosive, it’s in the South China Sea.
Here, in Asia’s maritime heartland, the irresistible force of China’s territorial patriotism and maritime ambitions meet the immovable object of American determination to remain the preeminent naval power in the Indo-Pacific. And to make matters more complicated, the South China Sea is also where a string of American allies and strategic partners have locked horns with Beijing.
The incoming Joe Biden administration, which has repudiated the strategic recklessness of Trump’s approach , has vowed to restore American commitment to the liberal international order. But the future of U.S.-China relations will be determined not only by the actions of its respective leaders, but also middle powers and American allies in Asia as well as imminent structural frictions in any great power rivalry.
Nonetheless, while the coordinates of Sino-American rivalry are unlikely to alter anytime soon, there is a unique opportunity to reset the terms of engagement and competition in what is arguably the world’s most important sea line of communication.
The Biden Doctrine
Much has been written about President-elect Joe Biden, including a new biography by China expert Evan Osnos. For the first time in this century, America has elected a leader, who is a consummate “centrist”, someone who believes in the value of pluralism, compromise and flexibility. This stands in stark contrast to his three immediate predecessors, each of whom exhibited a significant amount of ideological rigor while in office.
While the George W. Bush administration embraced an aggressive neo-conservative policy, which precipitated disastrous “democracy promotion” interventions in the Middle East, the Obama administration studiously avoided large-scale overseas commitments in favor of “leading from behind” multilateralism. As for the Trump administration, it embraced a strange and disruptive mélange of unilateralism, protectionism, and confrontational foreign policy, not only towards strategic rivals such as China and Iran, but also key allies in Europe and Asia.
In some ways, Biden is much more akin to former Democratic president Bill Clinton, who also showed significant strategic flexibility while in office. A cursory look at their major policy positions show that presidents Bush, Obama and Trump became, both consciously and ineluctably, the anti thesis of their immediate predecessors. As for Biden and Clinton, they are dynamic politicos, who tend to bend and twist depending on the circumstances at hand.
From the Vietnam War, to the Iraq War and its disastrous aftermath, Biden transformed from an anti-war hero to an outspoken interventionist and, just years later, an anti-war figure anew. During his vice-presidency under Obama, Biden became a pacifist gadfly, who regularly locked horns with more hawkish cabinet members, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and, most especially, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. But it’s his take on China where Biden’s strategic transformation is most remarkable.
The Dialectics of Geopolitics
A decade ago Biden advocated as Obama’s vice-president, for “strategic empathy” for Beijing. Following a 2011 trip to China, Biden confidently declared, “a rising China is a positive, positive development, not only for China but for America and the world writ large.”
Biden developed particularly warm times with Chinese President Xi Jinping following countless personal and intimate conversations, as both leaders, who similarly rose from vice-presidency to the highest office, focused on areas of common concern rather than conflict. Less than a decade later, however, we see the incoming U.S. president adopt a more strident position on China, decrying both the communist regime and its top leader with aggressive language.
The shift in Biden’s rhetoric on China is both calculated as well as indicative of a more hawkish brand of Democratic foreign policy. In the simplest terms, President Biden understands two important and intertwined developments: (i) China’s remarkable strides in the realm of science, technology and military prowess in the past decade alone, and (ii) growing anxiety among Americans, not only the policy elite but also the broader masses, over their declining position in the global system.
Surveys, for instance, show that even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. public’s view of China was taking a decidedly negative direction, thus the relative lack of large-scale, domestic backlash against Trump’s disruptive trade wars. As for the U.S. policy elite, there is growing consensus that China poses an unprecedented threat to American global primacy, thus the “New Cold War” rhetoric and the perceived need for a concerted pushback.
Against the backdrop of a China-skeptic consensus in Washington, a return to Obama era of ‘engagement’ and “G2 cooperation” looks increasingly unlikely, even more so when key allies such as Japan, India, Australia as well as the big powers of Europe, namely Britain, France and Germany, have also adopted a tougher stance on Beijing.
In an essay earlier this year, Biden himself argued, “The United States does need to get tough with China. If China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property.”
A cursory look at Biden’s top cabinet picks reveals the ascendance of China hawks among liberal establishment figures. Incoming Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are strong proponents of a U.S.-led coalition-building effort to constrain China’s ambitions, whether in the realm of infrastructure investments or maritime disputes in Asia.
Biden’s initial top pick for the Secretary of Defense is former senior Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy, known for her relatively hawkish stances on American interventions in the Middle East and her advocacy for “the need for more defense dollars.”
Perhaps, most controversially, the potential Pentagon principal argued in a June essay that the U.S. should develop the capacity to “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours.”
Where Biden’s top foreign and defense policy picks differ from the Trump administration is their emphasis on multilateralism and the importance of alliances as opposed to unilateralism and protectionism of recent years.
The incoming U.S. government will likely adopt what Henry Kissinger termed as a “differentiated” approach to avoid catastrophic conflict while pursuing cooperation on shared global concerns such as climate change, global public health, nuclear proliferation, and free trade.
But for the Biden administration’s compartmentalized foreign policy to work, it has to get the South China Sea question right. It’s precisely in that contested seascape where there is the greatest probability for the two superpowers to sleepwalk into a global conflict.
History shows that often it only takes a single, unintended yet bloody skirmish for the situation to escalate into dangerous proportions, potentially dragging the U.S. and its allies into a devastating confrontation with an ascendant China.
Therefore, it’s important that not only the U.S. and China, but also other relevant actors in the region collectively embark on a sustained and institutionalized effort to de-escalate tensions and sincerely negotiate the parameters of a mutually-acceptable outcome, consistent with international law and the interest of smaller nations.
The South China Sea is a brewing conflict that we can’t afford to get wrong, and the emergence of a more measured and multilateralist leadership in Washington provides a historic opportunity for a durable strategic reset.