Biden trumps Trump’s truculent China Seas policy

Apr 2, 2021

Many had hoped that under new US President Joe Biden, the U.S. would moderate its goals and behaviour vis a vis China, especially where they militarily confront each other in the China Seas.  But U.S. China policy has so far not only continued that of former President Donald Trump but even trumped its hypocrisy,  condescension, confrontation and militarism.

Many had hoped that under new US President Joe Biden, the U.S. would moderate its goals and behaviour vis a vis China, especially where they militarily confront each other in the China Seas. That hope had some basis because Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell and his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have publicly advocated ‘competitive coexistence’ with China. Moreover, China seemed to be open to a reset in relations.

But U.S. China policy has so far not only continued that of former President Donald Trump but even trumped its hypocrisy, condescension, confrontation and militarism.

What is motivating this policy? Hugh White concludes that the Biden team’s vision is for the US-China relationship to return to the way it was when it [implicitly] acknowledged American dominance.  Now “the distribution of wealth and power has shifted fundamentally.­ The idea that America can convince or compel China to conform to its vision of a US-led rules-based order is a fantasy.”

Nevertheless, the U.S. dominance policy persists. A main take away from the much anticipated 18-19
March meeting in Alaska between top U.S. and China foreign policy officials was that the fundamental US goal in Asia and the South China Sea is continued hegemony. The U.S. will continue to try to dilute and blunt China’s rise by
combining multinational resources and sharing the burden of doing so.  It will try to carrot and stick nations into 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, allies and partners may not participate in meaningful ways, and militarily the U.S. may become overextended in numbers, capacity, supply and support.   The U.S. is gambling that India and others will join its anti-China grouping. India is the principal potential country of concern to China in such a grouping. However, it is steadfastly nonaligned and moreover does not measure up to US preferred standards of democracy and human rights. These facts could present serious obstacles to a closer relationship.

The confrontation in Alaska made public the fundamental gaps in the US-China relationship despite some analysts’ attempt to dismiss it as ‘playing to their respective domestic audiences.’   Indeed, it is what it is. Apparently, the U.S. now believes that the fundamental differences cannot be bridged and that China has crossed a Rubicon of intent to alter the international order that the U.S. is defending because it preferentially benefits from it.

It has probably revealed its hand now because it now likely regards conflict as inevitable and does not want to give China “more time to develop technological and military capabilities before the inevitable diplomatic breakdown.” 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 [emphasis added] _.”

This explains the US ‘guns ablazing’ approach to the meeting. It had already set the stage for confrontation by arrogantly insisting that the meeting be held on US soil, slapping sanctions on senior Chinese officials, and publicly criticizing its policies on issues that China considers its internal affairs. The U.S. obviously knew that these actions would sour the atmosphere and scotch any chance of a positive outcome and progress between the two giants. To China and objective observers, it seemed that the U.S. was saying ‘forget about compromise or co-operation – it is my values, norms and status quo – or else.’

China returned fire pointing out defects in the U.S. governing system.  Blinken acknowledged faults in the US system of governance but claimed that after every crisis “ _ _ _ We’ve come out stronger, better, more united, as a country.” was preposterous whistling by the US graveyard of civil discourse, accepted norms and unity that was American democracy.  Such fantasies cannot hide the ugly, violence-prone, cultural civil war that has made American democracy dysfunctional. The Biden China team presaged its diplomatic confrontation with a ‘get tough’ militaristic policy in the China Seas. In the East China Sea, the U.S. does not take a position on the sovereignty of the Diaoyu (Senkakus)– only as to who should administer them. It pointedly ignores China’s reasonable claims to the features and their attendant maritime space.   Much to China’s dismay, Japan—who unreasonably claims there is no sovereignty dispute—has- with U.S. support- been salami-slicing the situation toward a sovereignty fait accompli.

Now the US has agreed to joint military exercises with Japan practising their defence against an invader (China).  This also trumps Trump’s policy. The U.S. approach to the South China Sea issues is also an exercise in hypocrisy and militarism. The complex of US-China South China Sea issues is a bellwether of their relations because these issues reflect their fundamental differences regarding the ‘international order’ and are thus at the forefront of their tactical and strategic confrontation. Moreover, US policy toward China and the South China Sea drives US policy toward Southeast Asia. Under Biden, the U.S. has continued the Trump administration’s backing with the threat of use of force its demand that China abides by its interpretation of the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS).

A statement from the US –instigated Quad meeting that took place shortly before the US-China meeting declared “We will continue to prioritize the role of international law in the maritime domain, ;particularly as reflected in [UNCLOS] and facilitate collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.”  The hypocrisy here is palpable. The U.S. has refused to ratify UNCLOS yet has the gall to unilaterally interpret and enforce its own interpretation of its provisions – – – especially those pertaining to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Because the U.S. is worried that China may constrain its intelligence probes that China considers provocative and occasionally violations of UNCLOS, it cleverly conflates the contrasting concepts of commercial and military freedom of navigation to convince others that China is threatening commercial navigation.

Ironically it is China that is more economically vulnerable to its commercial sea lanes being “choked” by the U.S. – not the other way around. Also, by making its own peculiar interpretation of freedom of navigation the core of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific construct, the U.S. is deceitfully drawing in others that do not agree with its interpretation. Indeed, the U.S. insists that in addition to China, India and all littoral ASEAN states except Singapore violate its interpretation of freedom of navigation and it demonstrates its disagreement with gunboats. Yet,  unlike China, India bans military activities in its EEZ without its permission, while Vietnam—like China- requires prior notification for warships to enter its territorial seas.

Blinken has demonstrated his own hypocrisy. In 2016 he told the US House of Representatives that China “Can’t have it both ways” by being a party to UNCLOS but rejecting the provision that stipulates “the binding nature of any arbitration decision”.

Yet the U.S. is trying to do precisely that—pick and choose which provisions it will abide by in a treaty it has not even officially accepted! Shortly before the Alaska meeting, Blinken publicly criticized China’s use of “coercion and aggression.”  But coercion is exactly what the U.S. is using to enforce its unilateral interpretation of freedom of navigation.

To regain and retain its moral leadership, the U.S. needs to ‘walk the talk’ by demonstrating that its values and system of government are the best of all, for all and that it can and will maintain a competitive edge with China economically and technologically.

An edited version of this article appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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