President Joseph Biden’s State Department strategic policy guidelines for U.S. foreign policy going forward declare that “the Indo-Pacific region is becoming the key to shaping the international order in the 21st century.” The U.S. approach to issues in the South China Sea is only a subset of overall U.S. policy toward China and the region. But it is a bell-wether because these issues are at the forefront of Sino-American tactical and strategic confrontation and a nexus of their fundamental differences regarding the “international order.”
Moreover, U.S. policy toward China and the South China Sea drives U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia. In this context, U.S. policy towards China in the South China Sea will be a major challenge and harbinger for Biden’s broader Indo–Pacific foreign policy.
Biden has proclaimed that “Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy” and Blinken has echoed this by claiming that diplomacy – not militarism- will always come first. “Real strength isn’t bluster and bullying.” Yet so far Biden’s team is continuing more of the same mixture of hypocrisy, demands, confrontation, and military intimidation that characterized the Trump administration’s Asia policy.
Indeed, it seems to China’s leadership that the Biden administration is doubling down on Trump’s “in your face” pursuit of an ineffective, militarily risky, and counterproductive approach. In the first six weeks of Biden’s administration, the U.S Navy executed two Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, three war-ship transits of the sensitive Taiwan Strait— to demonstrate “the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific” — and deployed three aircraft carrier strike groups to the South China Sea to “ensure freedom of the seas” and a “free and open Indo Pacific.”The U.S also deployed four nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to Guam to “reinforce the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region” through “strategic deterrence.”
US reconnaissance flights around China have increased 40% since Biden took office. Despite Biden’s and Blinken’s stated aspirations, these actions are perceived in the region as offensive — not defensive — actions as some U.S. officials might claim.
The Biden administration has also signaled that it will continue its tactics of military intimidation. It has announced that U.S. warships and fighter jets will join the planned deployment of the U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group to the South China Sea.
The fundamental question is whether the Biden administration will continue the U.S. goal of hegemony in the region or shift toward the “balance” and “competitive coexistence” advocated by Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell and his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
Many Southeast Asian countries are wary because these U.S. actions send a signal that continuing instability in the South China Sea is more likely under the Biden administration than an approach that prioritizes stability. Indeed, they think it will only continue the cycle of tit-for-tat military actions and reactions that increase the possibility of conflict and collateral damage for Southeast Asia.
They also fear that the U.S. will force Southeast Asian states to choose between supporting the U.S. or supporting China. Moreover, they worry that the US will create a political and military mess and then pull out as it did from Vietnam — leaving its ‘allies and partners’ to deal with what it leaves behind – including an angry and vengeful China. Indeed, we are currently seeing another version of this movie in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In truth, the U.S.’s free and frequent use of military threat and force has become a modus operandi, an established pattern that would take monumental courage to change. As Harvard professor Stephen Walt says: “U.S. actions have caused enormous suffering in other countries — through sanctions, covert action, support for thuggish dictators, and a remarkable ability to turn a blind eye to the brutal conduct of close allies — not to mention America’s far flung activities.”
Is this what we can expect in the Biden era? The free pass given to Saudi Arabian Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the civilian collateral damage of continuing bomb and drone strikes in Syria and elsewhere indicate that it is. Southeast Asian nations are right to be concerned. Blinken has proclaimed that “we will not promote democracy through costly military interventions.” But he has also said, “At the same time we will continue to have the world’s most powerful armed forces. Our ability to be effective diplomats depends in no small measure on the strength of our military”. So which will it be in Asia — and in particular in the South China Sea?
Obviously, the two tools — diplomacy and military intimidation — will be integrated and applied in a manner calibrated to the specific situation. But Blinken’s speech and U.S. actions so far do not provide evidence or even hope that such integration is forthcoming — at least for the South China Sea.
Indeed, the militarist view seems to be prevailing. This is worrying because it seems that despite the best intentions, the U.S. will always be at war. This is because it considers its values and form of government — as dysfunctional as it is — to be threatened by rival sets of values and types of governance — to the point that it uses its superior military to contain and constrain such “threats.” That is what seems to be happening in the South China Sea.
All this raises the question as to whether Biden, Blinken, and Campbell have been “outmaneuvered” by China hard liners. The early signs are a far cry from their professed desire to lead with diplomacy rather than raw power. Indeed it would seem that the militarist cart is still ahead of the diplomatic horse. If there is to be a new U.S. approach to the South China Sea conundrum, China and Southeast Asia need to see a signal — and soon. However, the two-plus-two meeting between Blinken and Sullivan and China’s counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi in early March was a missed opportunity to send such a signal and the outcome did not augur well for US-China relations in the South China Sea.
Another version of this piece appeared in Asia Times