中文
Home News

Invariance and change in the Biden administration's South China Sea policy

By He Weibao chinadaily.com.cn Updated : 2021-03-18 LargeMediumSmall Print

5_副本.jpg

A boat near Ganquan Island of the Xisha Yongle Islands in the South China Sea. [Photo/Xinhua]

After Joe Biden took office as US president, he quickly reversed the Trump administration's policies on climate change, immigration and other issues. Even the US policy on China has changed to some extent. However, the Biden administration has inherited most of Trump's political legacy on the South China Sea issue, and has not shown much inclination to change it so far.

During the Trump presidency, the United States took the South China Sea issue as an important means of suppressing and containing China, which made the South China Sea issue surpass the Taiwan question in that respect for a time and become the focus most likely to trigger armed conflict between China and the United States, which naturally aroused great attention from the whole world.

At that time, the Trump administration's policies regarding the South China Sea mainly comprised sending warships to the South China Sea to conduct "freedom of navigation operations" to challenge China's maritime claims; the frequent staging of military exercises; promoting the internationalization of the South China Sea issue, and constantly encouraging the allies and partners of the US, such as Australia, India, Japan and the United Kingdom to conduct "freedom of navigation operations" or sail warships through the South China Sea; denying China's maritime rights in the South China Sea; and trying to form a coalition with Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries which have disputes with China in the South China Sea.

These practices of the Trump administration threatened to undermine peace and stability in the South China Sea region, and further intensified the contradictions and differences between China and the United States. At the end of Trump's term, Sino-US relations had fallen into their lowest point in decades.

After Biden took office, he continued the basic practices of the Trump administration in relation to the South China Sea. First of all, the United States continues to conduct "freedom of navigation operations" and military exercises in the South China Sea. For example, on February 5, just two weeks after Biden's inauguration, the destroyer John S. McCain carried out Biden's first "freedom of navigation" operation in the South China Sea. Shortly after that, two US aircraft carrier battle groups conducted joint exercises in the South China Sea. Since then, the activities of US ships and aircraft in the South China Sea have been frequent.

Second, the United States continues to encourage its allies to appear in the South China Sea to show their support for a "free and open Indo-Pacific". For example, in February, France sent a nuclear-powered submarine and other warships to the South China Sea. In addition, Germany and the UK have announced that they will send warships to the South China Sea in the future.
Third, the Biden administration has not stopped trying to entice regional countries to gang up on China on the South China Sea issue. For example, just a few days after taking office, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Vietnam's Vice-Premier and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh by telephone on Feb 5. His intention to contain China was very obvious.

At present, the only thing that the Biden administration has yet to do to fully employ the Trump administration's playbook on the South China Sea issue is that it has not taken any action to deny China's claims in the South China Sea. However, the statement on the South China Sea issued by former secretary of state Mike Pompeo in July 2020 already represents the official position of the US government. The Biden administration does not have the will to change that.

Although the Biden administration has basically continued the Trump administration's policy on the South China Sea issue, there have been some changes in the specific strategies. The most obvious one is that the Biden administration has not taken any drastic new actions on the South China Sea issue. On the eve of the US election in 2020, US media reported that the Trump administration might use drones to bomb China's islands and reefs in the South China Sea. In addition, the US Marine Corps carried out exercises in the Pacific Ocean rehearsing how seize and defend islands. Although the Trump administration did not attack China's islands and reefs, the situation in the South China Sea was very tense at that time. So far, the Biden administration has not made any similar provocative moves.

However, it should be pointed out that the United States' frequent "freedom of navigation operations" and military drills in the South China Sea still increase the risk of military conflicts between China and the United States.

At present, the Biden administration's priority is to fight COVID-19 and revive the US economy. It is not Biden's desire to stir up conflict with China on the South China Sea issue. However, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech on March 3, "our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be". It seems that the Biden administration may be "adversarial" on the South China Sea issue.

In fact, the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea has not been hindered in recent years. Ships and aircrafts of the United States and other countries can navigate freely in the South China Sea. The main reason why the US government constantly hypes the South China Sea issue is to use this geopolitical lever to contain and constrain China's rise.

Because China's growing strength has challenged the US global leadership and particularly its regional hegemony in Asia, the Democratic Party and Republic Party have reached a consensus on meeting China's challenge with hard-line policies. Therefore, the Biden administration's policy on the South China Sea issue will not change fundamentally. China needs to be prepared for this.

The author is an assistant researcher of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.



分享

More Visual Resources

Close