In the South China Sea, Biden Is Outdoing Trump’s Bluff and Bluster

April 7th, 2021 - by Mark J. Valencia / Archive.Today

The US Will Continue to Try to Blunt China’s Rise and Cement US Hegemony in Asia 

Mark J. Valencia / Archive.Today

 (March 29, 2021) — Many had hoped that under President Joe Biden, the United States would moderate its China-facing goals and behavior, especially in the seas near China. That hope had some basis because Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan — now Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator and national security adviser — had advocated a “competitive coexistence” with China.

But Biden’s China policy is turning out to be a continuation of the Trump adminstration’s, possibly trumping it in its hypocrisy, condescension, confrontation and militarism.

Indeed, a main takeaway from the March 18-19 Alaska meeting between top US and China foreign policy officials was that the fundamental US goal in Asia is continued hegemony. This means the US will continue to try to dilute and blunt China’s rise, combining multinational resources to share the burden of doing so. With the use of carrots and sticks, it will try to persuade nations to join a grand anti-China alliance, while keeping China at bay with its military. 

It is not at all certain that this strategy will succeed. Indeed, US allies and partners may not participate in meaningful ways and the US may overextend militarily. But this is the gamble the US takes in running roughshod over China’s interests in the region, rather than integrating them into the international order.

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Apparently, the US now believes that their fundamental differences cannot be bridged and that China has crossed a Rubicon in its intent to alter the global order the US helped to build and from which it preferentially benefits. It is likely to now regard conflict as inevitable and be wary of giving China “more time to develop technological and military capabilities before a diplomatic breakdown”, as some analysts have warned.

Supporting this conclusion is US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s declaration that “China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system — all the rules, values, and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to”.

This conclusion is also supported by the US guns-a-blazing approach to the Alaska meeting. It had set the stage for confrontation by arrogantly insisting on meeting on US soil, slapping sanctions on senior Chinese officials, and publicly criticizing Chinese policies on issues Beijing considers internal affairs.

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The US knew it would sour the atmosphere and scotch any chance of a positive outcome. To China and objective observers, it seemed the US was saying: forget about compromise or cooperation, it is my values, norms and status quo — or else.

Biden’s China team has also shown this attitude with its get-tough, militaristic policy in China’s near seas. In the East China Sea, it has been seen to favour Japan’s claim to the Senkaku Islands over China’s despite an officially neutral position.

Much to China’s dismay, Japan claims there is no sovereignty dispute over what China calls the Diaoyu Islands, and the US appears to be facilitating Japan’s salami-slicing of the situation towards a fait accompliThe US has even agreed to joint military exercises with Japan designed to defend the Japan-controlled islands.

In the South China Sea, the US continues to confront China with palpable hypocrisy. It has continued the Trump administration’s position of demanding, through threat of force, that China abides by the US interpretation of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

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The recent US-instigated summit of the Quad — or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal security grouping that includes India, Australia and Japan — has also declared the grouping’s intention to prioritize the role of international law in the maritime domain, particularly UNCLOS.

Yet the US has refused to ratify UNCLOS while unilaterally interpreting and enforcing its own interpretation — especially on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Because it is worried that China may constrain its provocative intelligence probes, it cleverly conflates commercial and military freedom of navigation to persuade others that China threatens commercial navigation.

Ironically, China is far more vulnerable to its commercial sea lanes being choked by the US than the other way around.

By making its unilateral interpretation of free navigation the core of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” construct, the US is deceitfully drawing in others that do not agree with its interpretation. Indeed, the US insists that in addition to China, India and all littoral ASEAN members except Singapore violate its interpretation of freedom of navigation — and then demonstrates the same with its gunboats.

Unlike China, India bans any military activity in its exclusive economic zone without its permission, while Vietnam — like China — requires prior notification for warships to enter its territorial seas.

In 2016, Blinken told the House of Representatives that China “can’t have it both ways”, being a party to UNCLOS but rejecting binding arbitration decisions. Yet the US is trying to do precisely that — pick and choose which provisions it will abide by, in a treaty it has not even ratified. The Quad and the US claim to want a region “unconstrained by coercion”. Yet coercion is exactly what the US is using to enforce its unilateral interpretation of freedom of navigation.

To regain and retain its moral leadership, the US needs to show that its values and system of government are the best for all, and that it can and will maintain a competitive edge with China economically and technologically — not just militarily. So far, the US seems to be failing in that, and relying instead on bluster, bluff and implied use of force.

This is not the hallmark of a great and successful nation. The US should reconsider its militaristic and confrontational approach to China in its near seas.

Mark J. Valencia is adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

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