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Cold Peace: America’s New South China Sea Strategy

Mar 11, 2021

Joseph Biden’s victory in last year’s presidential elections was meant to usher in a new era in American foreign policy and, for some, even mark a return to the ‘good old days’ of the Obama administration. 

Throughout the campaign and beyond, Biden repeatedly presented himself as the antithesis to former President Donald Trump, who upended America’s decades-old foreign policy consensus by unabashedly embracing trade protectionism, militaristic posturing, and personalistic rule. 

In a bid to end the Trump-initiated “New Cold War”, Biden also made it clear that he is open to “work with China when it benefits the American people,” raising hopes of improved ties between the two superpowers. 

And yet, the new administration’s foreign policy has so far, especially in Asia, followed Trump’s. The unmistakable continuity is most apparent in Biden’s South China Sea policy, which seems just as assertive as his predecessor’s, though with more rhetorical refinement and diplomatic finesse. 

Under Biden, we have seen (i) the intensification of naval deployments to the disputed waters, (ii) proactive enlistment of other major powers for an undeclared anti-China coalition, and (iii) a conscious effort to win over estranged allies, which are at the forefront of the Asian maritime disputes. 

Extreme Competition 

Biden’s cabinet may be the most racially diverse in the country’s history, which might mask that it’s one of the most ideologically uniform. Pacifists, progressives and anti-war activists are absent from key positions of the government, especially in the national security establishment. 

The public rhetoric and ideological position of Biden’s top cabinet members reflects a perceptible drift towards a more hawkish Democratic foreign policy, especially on China. In fact, Biden himself telegraphed this seismic shift by describing the Asian powerhouse as America’s “most serious competitor” and warning of “extreme competition” amid the ongoing scramble over shaping the 21st century global order. 

And it’s in the deep blue waters of the South China Sea, an artery of global trade, where the strategic coordinates of this perilous superpower rivalry are most visible. Just weeks into Biden’s term, the destroyer USS John S McCain pierced into Beijing-claimed waters as part of so-called “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPs). In response, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command reportedly expelled the American warship, a naval maneuver that risked direct collision between the two superpowers. 

Within its first month in office, the Biden administration has already overseen at least three such operations, including a dual-carrier deployment, composed of Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, to China’s adjacent waters. The US Navy’s 7th Fleet claims that the FONOPs, with the latest one involving destroyer USS Russell, “upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.” 

To put things into context, the Trump administration annually conducted, on average, half a dozen FONOPs in the South China Sea, with as many as nine in 2019 alone. The Obama administration, in contrast, conducted only two such operations in 2015 and only three in its final year office, despite its promise of quarterly FONOPs in the contested areas. 

So far, the Biden administration is on course to match, if not surpass, its Republican predecessor in terms of naval deployments to the South China Sea, a dramatic divergence from the more cautious approach of the Obama administration. And there is even the possibility that the US Navy will create a new “expeditionary” fleet to specifically focus on China, further augmenting its formidable military footprint in the Indo-Pacific. An enraged Beijing has accused the Biden administration of “seriously violating China’s sovereignty and security, gravely undermining regional peace and stability, and deliberately disrupting the good atmosphere of peace, friendship and co-operation in the South China Sea.

Yet, where the Biden administration is different from, and potentially even more aggressive than, its predecessor is a deliberate and systematic strategy of assembling a formidable coalition to constrain China’s ambitions in adjacent waters.

Democratic Security Diamond 

A decade ago, Japan’s former and longest-serving prime minister Shinzo Abe publicly advocated for the establishment of a so-called “democratic security diamond”, namely a coalition of like-minded powers against a rising China. 

Over the succeeding years, the Japanese leader energetically courted multiple U.S. administrations as well as top leaders in Australia and India to form a new axis of “Indo-Pacific” powers. The product of Abe’s strategic offensive was the consolidation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the QUAD, which is a de facto “Asian NATO” composed of the U.S. and fellow democratic powers of Australia, Japan and India. 

A cursory look at Biden’s multilateral strategy reveals a thinly-disguised plan to fulfill Abe’s dream of a “democratic security diamond” against China. In contrast to both Obama and Trump administrations, the new American leadership has fully embraced its supposed role as “as spokespersons for human rights”, because, as Biden claimed not long after his phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, “no American president can be sustained as the president if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States.” 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has even taken a liberal interventionist stance, warning the U.S. is prepared to “take action on” a full range of human rights-related issues pertaining to rivals such as China. Last month, Biden and his “alter-ego”, Blinken, oversaw a flurry of diplomatic meetings with both Quad powers as well as major European allies, reflecting a deep sense of urgency to assemble a new strategic coalition.

During the QUAD foreign affairs meeting, featuring Blinken himself, Indian Minister of External Affairs Dr S Jaishankar, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, the de facto allies discussed ways to preserve a “free and open Indo-Pacific region, including support for freedom of navigation and territorial integrity” in smaller powers in Southeast Asia.

Though China was not directly mentioned in their joint official statement, the Asian powerhouse was clearly on top of their mind. In fact, Japan’s foreign minister expressed “serious concern” over and “strongly oppos[ssed] unilateral and forceful attempts to change the status quo in the context of the East and South China Sea” after singling out China’s new maritime law, which places the country’s coast guard forces at the forefront of defending Beijing’s claims across disputed waters of the East and South China Seas.

In the same week, Biden participated in the G7 summit with fellow Western powers, while Blinken met counterparts from “E3” European powers of France, Germany and Britain, where the transatlantic allies “agree[d] to closely coordinate… [on] global challenges posed by China.”

Far from just empty talk, these meetings portend more robust strategic coordination and military cooperation between the U.S. and Indo-Pacific powers. The U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been actively courting both Asian and European allies for organizing, for instance, joint or multilateral FONOPs in the South China Sea. 

Under a new joint US-UK declaration just days into Biden’s term in office, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps personnel, along with USS The Sullivans guided-missile destroyer and a detachment of F-35B Lightning II aircraft, are expected to join Britain’s HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier striker group in the first ever major joint operation of its kind in the Indo-Pacific.

The South China Sea is one potential location for the planned drills, setting the stage for potentially similar operations with Australia, France and other major powers in the future. At the same time, the Biden administration is also courting estranged allies such as the Philippines in a bid to restore the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which is crucial to the U.S.' forward deployment capacity in the Western Pacific.

To this end, Washington has largely refrained from taking a tough stance on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial drug war and human rights record. As a sweetener, the Biden administration has also publicly reassured its Southeast Asian ally “that a strong U.S.-Philippine alliance is vital to a free and open Indo-Pacific region”, underscoring the “importance of the Mutual Defense Treaty for the security of both nations” in light of rising tensions in the South China Sea.

Biden may have jettisoned the “New Cold War’ rhetoric of its predecessor, but his South China Sea strategy raises the prospect of a “Cold Peace” of managed yet steadily rising tensions with China in the world’s most important seascape.

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