A better Biden approach in the South China Sea

Mar 7, 2021

President Joe Biden’s Defense Department has created a taskforce to review US military relations with China and recommend any necessary changes. But what needs to be changed?

One of the first acts of US President Joe Biden’s Defense Department was to create a China task force to review its overall military approach to China and presumably recommend any necessary changes.  This is sorely needed. US-China relations overall and those between their militaries are at a nadir, particularly regarding the South China Sea.

First and foremost, the US needs to reconsider its goals in the region and the South China Sea. The prime reason for the enhanced US military presence there is to maintain its regional hegemony and the ‘international order’ it helped build and now leads to its asymmetric advantage. Its diplomatic thrust was to paint China as the sole villain in destabilizing the situation. Continuation of this bellicose policy and approach invites kinetic conflict, a catastrophe that neither party – nor Southeast Asia – wants.

So far the Biden approach continues to put the military cart before the diplomatic horse. But this only begets tit-for-tat responses from China that increases militarization on both sides and frightens Southeast Asian countries that would suffer from any conflict. Biden’s initial continuation of a militarist approach may only be a holdover to strengthen the US bargaining position. Indeed, the White House is “not in a rush” regarding its China policy. Its current focus is on “communicating with allies and partners”. But any change in emphasis must begin soon or it will be widely viewed as a continuation of the pursuit of unsustainable hegemony and the counterproductive approach to it.

However, maintaining the leaking status quo in the South China Sea is also not acceptable to the US or to China’s rival claimants because it is inexorably evolving in China’s favor.

Biden’s appointment of Kurt Campbell as Indo-Pacific policy coordinator offers hope of a change in the goal and the approach to achieving it.   He thinks there is “a real need for a balance of power; a need for a regional order recognized as legitimate; and the need for an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both”. Presumably Campbell favors more emphasis on ‘soft’ balancing – the use of economic and diplomatic tools to constrain a powerful state. Perhaps the US goal will change from primacy to maintaining presence and influence in the region while deterring coercion of its allies and partners. Campbell wants to “persuade China that there are benefits to a competitive but peaceful Indo-Pacific.”  He and new National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have urged a policy of ‘competitive coexistence’ – ”accepting competition as a condition to be managed rather than solved”.

A change in goal would create the opportunity to put the diplomatic cart before the military horse – or at least in tandem with it.  Campbell thinks the present situation could be reversed, but that it “will be challenging and require diplomatic finesse, commercial innovation, and institutional creativity, serious reengagement; an end to shaking down allies [and] skipping regional summits.”

What would be the main elements of a better approach?

To start with, the US should better choose the use of its military. It should not and probably cannot push back militarily against every violation by China of what it views as “the international order” in the South China Sea. It should switch the primary focus of its response to China’s intimidation of its rivals to economic and political sanctions – – rather than gunboats.

The US should dial down its rhetoric and “criticize the behavior, not the actor,” and especially refrain from attacking the leadership or the entire system of government as Pompeo did.  Rather it should try to ‘persuade’ China that it can benefit from a “competitive but peaceful region” that offers a role for it in the regional order and a predictable commercial environment – provided it plays by the ‘rules’ that it has some influence in shaping.

The task force should reexamine the costs and benefits of US Freedom of Navigation Operations to determine if continuing them, especially repeating particular ones, are really worth the risk of confrontation and conflict. It should do the same for its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes (ISR) in China’s ‘near shore’ waters that China finds so provocative.

The U.S. needs to modify its position that conflates commercial freedom of navigation—which China is not threatening—with freedom of navigation for warships and warplanes. Most now see through this masquerade and that undercuts US claims of transparency and altruism.   The task force needs to address the fact that the US is not a party to UNCLOS and that there are different interpretations of “freedom of navigation”.  This would set the stage for negotiating its meanings and appropriate responses to violations thereof and then incorporating that understanding in the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

The U.S. should reopen military and back channel diplomatic communications. It is high time that they make clear their ‘red lines’ and their rational for them. For China, whose body politic has become increasingly nationalistic, any public national loss of face and resultant loss of respect for leadership could trigger a crossed ‘red line’ response.  This might be a US military confrontation forcing a public climb down by China’s military, or an attack or blockade of its military installations on features it occupies.

The US ISR probes in the South China Sea detect, track and if necessary target China’s nuclear submarines that are its main deterrence against a first strike.  China’s response has been to develop on some of the features it occupies the capability to neutralize these probes in time of conflict. So for China these installations are critical to its survival in a nuclear conflict with the U.S. and thus constitute a ‘redline’.

 For the U.S., ‘redlines’ would include blatant violations of commercial freedom of navigation or an attack on the forces or territory of an ally like the Philippines or on Taiwan forces on Pratas.  This also applies to a China attempt to occupy and build on Scarborough Shoal.  Any attempt by China to enforce an Air Defense Identification Zone over disputed waters in the South China Sea might also qualify.

The U.S. needs to rebuild confidence in Southeast Asian countries that it respects them and their interests and that it can and will handle its differences with China competently and peacefully. For Southeast Asia as a whole, half the battle is just showing up. Trump did not. Biden needs to attend ASEAN summits; listen carefully; and offer, wherever he can, what they want –not solely what the U.S. wants. This will show respect and give face to the ASEAN leaders –a gesture sorely missing in the arrogant America First approach of the Trump administration.

The U.S. needs to keep ‘its eye on the prize’ – balancing–not primacy, war or withdrawal –at least for now. To do so it has to accommodate to some degree China’s legitimate international interests and aspirations by sharing power–when, on what issues, how, and how much are to be negotiated.

Achieving balance while fending off China’s aggressiveness, avoiding kinetic conflict and keeping Southeast Asia on board will require strong doses of Campbell’s “diplomatic finesse”. We will see if this approach – or one favoring the use of the military- will prevail.

Another version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post

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