Biden China team puts militarist cart before the diplomatic horse

Feb 8, 2021

By doubling down on Trump’s ‘in your face’ pursuit of military domination, the Biden China team seems to be proffering more of the same to the region — instability and a drift toward confrontation and conflict.

Most observers did not expect the Biden administration to change the fundamental goal of continued US primacy in Asia. But many did hope that the new administration’s approach would be softer in tone and tenor and thus a relief from the dangerous and counterproductive rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration.

But so far the Biden administration seems to be proffering more of the same – instability and a drift toward confrontation and conflict.

America’s approach to the South China Sea issues is a subset of overall US policy toward China and the region. But it is a bellwether because they are at the forefront of their tactical and strategic confrontation and a nexus of their fundamental differences regarding the ‘international order’. Moreover, US policy toward China and the South China Sea drives its policy toward Southeast Asia.

Under the Trump administration, America’s approach to the South China Sea issues was for China an inconsistent hodge-podge of lies regarding intent; hypocrisy; demands; confrontation; and military intimidation.  For Southeast Asia it was an incoherent mixture of ‘you are either with us or against us’; America First nationalism; and embarrassment of its leaders by Trump’s repeated absence from their annual summits.

Under Trump, China perceived the US as trying to make it either stand down from its claims and occupations or defend them militarily.  This ‘retreat or fight’ strategy was quite risky and if continued may well eventually result in military confrontation.

Indeed, the Biden administration has inherited a dicey and dangerous situation. Starting with the ‘pivot’, but culminating in the Trump administration’s arrogant and ignorant approach, the US and China have become locked in a duel driven by mistrust. Relations – overall and in the South China Sea in particular – are at a nadir. Both have escalated the situation in tit-for-tat actions and statements.

But President Biden and his National Security Council ‘Indo-Pacific Coordinator’ Kurt Campbell appeared to have a seminal opportunity to adjust the US policy and approach toward the South China Sea and thus snatch the region’s deeply desired stability from the jaws of confrontation and conflict. It was hoped that the goal of continued primacy could be advanced in a less militarily aggressive, more nuanced, multinational, incentive laced manner that does not purposely and unnecessarily obstruct China’s peaceful rise and lead to kinetic conflict.

Campbell has written that 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”. But he also stoked hopes of changes in approach toward this goal.

He thought the present situation could be reversed but that it “will be challenging and require diplomatic finesse, commercial innovation, and institutional creativity, serious re-engagement; an end to shaking down allies [and] skipping regional summit”. He wants to “persuade China that there are benefits to a competitive but peaceful Indo-Pacific”. But these sentiments seem at odds with the initial rhetoric and actions of the Biden administration.

Indeed, rather than following Campbell’s prescription, it seems to China that the Biden administration is ‘doubling down’ on Trump’s ‘in your face’ pursuit of military domination. In a series of provocative statements and actions, Biden invited Taiwan to his inauguration, reaffirmed its commitment to assist Japan in its defence of the disputed Senkaku rocks and proclaimed that it would continue the Trump ‘get tough’ strategy toward China.

Confirming the continuity of a ‘hard line’, Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the US would build on and carry forward the Quad — a US-led incipient anti-China military coalition including India, Japan, and Australia.

They also deployed an aircraft carrier strike group to the northern South China Sea to “ensure freedom of the seas” as well as four nuclear-capable B52 bombers to Guam to “reinforce the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region” through “strategic deterrence”. The U.S. also sent a guided missile destroyer through the Taiwan Strait–the first under Biden–an action certain to irritate Beijing.

And so it goes. This is the same old tried and failed attempt to intimidate China and reassure Southeast Asia with displays of military force. But all it begets is a tit-for-tat response from China that views the US moves as hostile and provocative. The overall message so far from the new administration to China and concerned Indo-Pacific countries is one of confrontation rather than compromise and cooperation.

All this raises the question as to whether Campbell has been ‘outmaneuvered’ by China hardliners. The early signs are a far cry from his professed desire to work in conjunction with US allies. In fact, it seems that the militarist cart is ahead of the diplomatic horse.  As Michael Swaine and colleagues suggest, the US should “couple deterrence with far more active diplomatic efforts, strengthen crisis management mechanisms and confidence-building measures with Beijing. It can also shift militarily to a strategy of denial from a distance using its drone and missile superiority.

But what can the US do right away to get the horse in front of the cart – or at least in tandem with it?  Both sides have long valued stable military relations, which have frayed under Trump. The Biden administration has an opportunity to return them to a more stable tacit agreement to disagree—at least on the South China Sea. It could tone down its rhetoric and tit-for-tat military responses. China’s rival claimants do not welcome them nor are they likely to join in US military intervention. Indeed, an important adjunct objective of an adjusted US approach to the South China Sea would be the re-establishment of trust in Southeast Asia that it can and will handle its differences with China competently and peacefully.

Of course – as Campbell says – this new approach would require “a strong coalition of both allies and partners and a degree of acquiescence and acceptance from China”, does seem to be expressing a desire to at least discuss means to improve relations. But without changes in the tone and tenor of the US approach, the chances of stability in the South China Sea look slim indeed.

This is a condensed article republished from Asia Times 05 February 2021. 

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