In the South China Sea, it’s ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’

WASHINGTON — The new Biden administration has been reversing many of the Trump administration’s policies in areas such as immigration and energy, but when it comes to confronting China’s actions in the South China Sea, at the highest levels of power the song remains the same.

In its opening weeks, the Biden administration has signaled it will continue many of the Trump administration’s hardline policies toward China. And it has not backed off heavy naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region, after a U.S. ship conducted “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) earlier this month. Then Feb. 9 the Navy announced that two carriers were operating together in the hotly disputed South China Sea.

The destroyer John S. McCain transited the Taiwan Strait Feb. 4, which China denounced as a provocation, and the following day the McCain performed a FONOP challenging competing claims in the disputed Paracel Islands, a patrol that was accompanied by what experts noted was an extraordinarily detailed explanation.

On Feb. 9, China’s Foreign Ministry slammed the Navy’s two-carrier exercise in the South China Sea, saying it was “not conducive to peace and stability in the region,” and that China would “work together with regional countries to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Just 21 days into Biden’s presidency, and with a remarkably small sample size, the emerging policy on China looks nearly indistinguishable from the Trump policy, which has led many China watchers to believe that a policy of strategic competition with Beijing — in the maritime realm and beyond — is here for the long term. Or at least for Biden’s.

“What we’re seeing across the board is a new administration that isn’t going to throw it out of the playbook of the last four years and that accepts sort of the logic of prioritizing China and competition towards Beijing,” said Eric Sayers, a vice president at Beacon Global Strategies and a former Asia hand at the Senate Armed Services Command and at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

“They’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to have our own grammar, we’re going to do things a bit different and put our priorities in different places,’ but at the same time they haven’t backed off from some of the areas that that their skeptics said they would.

“There is continuity in the South China Sea, but it’s its continuity of the Trump approach, not a return of the Obama approach.”

Critics have argued that the Obama administration failed to take stronger measures to oppose China’s increasingly aggressive stance in the South China Sea, and was slow to react as China began building military bases on disputed features there.

But Biden’s approach appears more assertive. In the wake of the McCain’s FONOP in the Paracels, the Japan-based U.S. 7th Fleet released a detailed statement Feb. 5, specifically calling out a Chinese claim that dates to 1996 and would extend China’s territorial sea out to the features there. By extension, this logic would grant them most of the infamous-yet-ambiguous “nine-dash-line” claim seeking expanded rights.

“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the sea, including freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations,” the 7th Fleet statement said.

China has never fully articulated what rights it claims in the South China Sea.

China’s Parcaels claim led to a violent clash with Vietnam in 1974 that left China in de facto control of the features, though it has remained contested ever since. That claim almost certainly infringes on Vietnam’s rightful exclusive economic zone, which, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, extends 200 miles, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and former senior aid to the chief of naval operations.

“What they’ve been trying to do is argue that the Paracels are an extension of China and, therefore, allow you to draw a straight line around the features,” Clark said. “So, this essentially supports their argument about the nine-dash line, because the Paracel’s are south of Hainan Island. Essentially, you’ve got this extension of Chinese sovereignty well into the South China Sea as a result of drawing a straight line from the Paracels to Hainan to the Chinese mainland. And then it’s the same thing on the other end of the Chinese coast, which infringes on the [exclusive economic zone] that rightfully belongs to Vietnam.”

In response to the McCain FONOP, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered a muted response, saying China monitored the operations, and called on the United States to have a more constructive role in the region.

“China will continue to stay on high alert and is ready to respond to all threats and provocations at any time, and will resolutely safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Wang Wenbin, the spokesperson. “We hope the U.S. side will play a constructive role for regional peace and stability, rather than the opposite.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks after reviewing the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy fleet in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Xi is calling on the PLAN to better prepare for combat amid tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks after reviewing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Xi is calling on the PLAN to better prepare for combat amid tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)

The competition continues

Despite radically different positions on a range of national security issues, when it comes to the China relationship, Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump have charted similar courses thus far.

Both Biden and new Secretary of State Antony Blinken have signaled the need for some cooperation, particularly on tackling climate change. But the Biden administration has also held the line on the 2020 decision by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to formally reject China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea and has backed Pompeo’s late-hour determination that China’s actions against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province constituted genocide.

During calls with counterparts in Vietnam and the Philippines, new Secretary of State Antony Blinken made clear the U.S. was not backing off its rejection of excessive Chinese claims of maritime rights and that the U.S. was committed to maintaining a rules-based order in the South China Sea.

In a State Department readout of a Jan. 27 call between Blinken and Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin, Blinken said the United States rejected China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea “to the extent they exceed the maritime zones that China is permitted to claim under international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention,” according to a statement from State spokesman Ned Price.

“Secretary Blinken pledged to stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC pressure,” the statement reads.

It also made clear the U.S. would defend against attacks on Philippines military or government assets.

“Secretary Blinken stressed the importance of the Mutual Defense Treaty for the security of both nations, and its clear application to armed attacks against the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea,” the statement reads.

The direct language and restating of U.S. policy so early in the Biden White House was a deliberate signal that there has been no significant shift in policy with the new team, said Bonnie Glaser, who leads the China Power Project at Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It is essentially a restatement of Trump policy, articulated by Pompeo in mid-2018 and mid-2020,” Glaser said. “It reaffirms that the Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the South China Sea and that the U.S. opposes Chinese maritime claims that are inconsistent with UNCLOS.

“The fact that U.S. policy was stated very clearly within the first week of the Biden administration demonstrates U.S. commitment to alliances and U.S. willingness to push back against Chinese actions in the South China Sea that undermine the interests of the U.S. and its allies and partners.”

The U.S. Navy's guided-missile destroyers Sterett and John S. McCain transit the South China Sea. (MC3 Cheyenne Geletka/U.S. Navy)
The U.S. Navy’s guided-missile destroyers Sterett and John S. McCain transit the South China Sea. (MC3 Cheyenne Geletka/U.S. Navy)

What remains unclear is how that will impact Defense Department acquisitions priorities going forward.

On Feb. 4, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin launched a force-wide posture review to address if the military has the right capabilities in the right places to address the threats the country faces. And in comments Feb. 10 at the Pentagon, Biden said Austin had ordered a China task force to ensure the DoD is pursuing the right concepts and technologies.

“Today I was briefed on a new DoD-wide China task force that Secretary Austin is standing up to look at our strategy, operational concepts technology and force posture and so much more,” Biden said. He added that the task force would map out the course that would incorporate allies and partners and a whole-of-government approach to meet the China challenge.

There have been some clues as to what the administration is thinking coming in the door. In response to a question about the Trump administration’s late-hour force structure assessment, new Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said she was inclined to support many, but not all, of the themes in the assessment.

“There’s some really interesting operational themes that I’m attracted to,” Hicks said. “There’s a focus on increasing use of autonomy. There’s a focus on dispersal of forces and there’s a focus on growing the number of small surface combatants relative to today.”

Hicks’ discussion of “dispersal of forces” is seemingly a reference to the Navy’s plans to fight in a more spread-out manner, using sensors on unmanned autonomous platforms linked to manned platforms to push capabilities to more places for less money than it would cost to spread those sensors around on manned platforms.

That likely means the Navy’s networking effort, Project Overmatch, upon which the whole concept depends will go forward. By extension, the broader Air Force-led Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control network will likely be a priority as well.

She also pointed to increasing investments in small surface combatants, which is another means of starting to reduce the cost of spreading around significant capabilities for less money.

The next-generation Constellation-class Frigate was awarded last April to Fincantieri and its Wisconsin shipyard Marinette Marine.

It is unclear if hypersonic missiles, a key Trump-era priority aimed at giving the military the ability to rapidly strike Chinese targets at extremely long ranges, will endure as a priority in the Biden administration.

‘A little tougher than what I thought’

But to date, national security-minded conservatives have welcomed the Biden team’s embrace of many of the Trump administration’s hardline China positions.

In his confirmation hearing, Blinken drew some distinctions between his views on the China relationship and the Trump administrations’ but largely said he agreed with many of the steps the previous White House took, including the recent declaration that China was engaged in genocide against the Uighur population in Xinjiang. The response seemed to catch Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, off guard.

“You do agree?” a seemingly surprised Graham asked, adding haltingly that “we’re on a good start here. So, this … Really, I … I just very much appreciate that.”

Sailors aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the South Chia Sea watch the destroyer John Finn approach for a replenishment at sea. (MC1 Chris Cavagnaro/U.S. Navy)
Sailors aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the South Chia Sea watch the destroyer John Finn approach for a replenishment at sea. (MC1 Chris Cavagnaro/U.S. Navy)

In the highest-level to date interaction between the U.S. and China since the new administration took office, Blinken released a statement saying the U.S. was not backing down on China’s destabilizing role in the region.

“Secretary Blinken stressed the United States will continue to stand up for human rights and democratic values, including in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and pressed China to join the international community in condemning the military coup in Burma,” Price’s statement read.

For its part, China released a statement saying it wanted the U.S. to “uphold the spirit of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, focus on cooperation and manage differences, so as to push forward the healthy and stable development of bilateral relations.”

Seth Cropsey, a Reagan and George H.W. Bush-era DoD official who is now a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, said that so far Biden’s policies have been encouraging.

“They are a little tougher than what I thought I was going to see,” Cropsey said. “For example, I don’t think that any of Taiwan’s representatives to Washington had been invited to attend the inauguration and Biden did that. They have said that they’re going to continue to arm sales to Taiwan … and we don’t know that that means but it’s a positive thing to say.”

Cropsey said holding off on high-level engagements with China until consulting with allies in the region was a smart move, and he was impressed with Blinken’s upholding of Pompeo’s determination that China was committing genocide against the Uighur population in Xinjiang and the continuation of naval activity in the South China Sea.

“Look, it’s impossible to tell where this is going to lead and whether it is the keel of the Biden administration policy, but it looks encouraging so far.”

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