20.01.2022 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The Biden Administration Heats Up the South China Sea


As part of its strategy to develop a global coalition against China in and around the Indo-Pacific, the US has been, for past many years, paying very close attention to what can be called ‘territorial flashpoints’ surrounding China – Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang – to demonise and delegitimise China as a global power. Tapping into existing internal/regional tensions with a view to creating a space for Washington to play its role as an external balancer, or a dominant ally of states fearing a “dominant” China, is a key part of the US Indo-Pacific strategy. Its most recent manifestation is a 47 page paper published in January 2022 by the US State Department. “Limits in the Seas” shows how the US is likely to foment fresh trouble around the South China Sea to achieve its dominant role. At the same time, the fact that the US continues to publish policy papers that focus solely on military related problems and does not have a real, feasible economic programme to offer to the Indo-Pacific states means that the US, unlike China, has a very little chance of creating a relationship that offers mutual interdependence rather than a one-way offer of “protection” against China – a policy unlikely to last beyond few years.

Even though the Biden administration campaigned on the basis of being “different” to the Trump administration in all aspects of politics, including foreign policy, China – and the Indo-Pacific – is one key issue where the Biden administration is faithfully following in the footsteps of its predecessor. In this context, the 47 page policy paper broadly reflects what Mike Pompeo called in his July 2020 visit to Laos the US resolve to not “allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.” Stamping the US as the only guarantee against the Southeast Asian states’ sovereignty, Mike said that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law.”

The latest State Department policy builds on the role Mike Pompeo dreamt of. Detailing the “unlawful claims” of China, the paper concludes,

“The PRC’s claims to sovereignty over maritime features that do not meet the international law definition of an “island” and fall entirely beyond a lawful territorial sea are inconsistent with international law and not recognized by the United States and other States.”

The US State Department, acting as a self-appointed judge of South China Sea, gives a verdict that extends China’s “unlawful” claims to other areas as well, including Beijing’s “asserted intention to establish baselines around other “island groups” in the South China”, China’s “claim to maritime zones “based on Nanhai Zhudao”, China’s claim to “historic rights in the South China Sea.”

The “judgment” comes not only at a time when the US is increasingly engaged in an ideological competition with Beijing, but its persistent efforts to advertise Beijing as a threat to the US-led international order have failed to garner the support it hoped it will receive from across the world. As it stands, even in as sensitive regions as Taiwan, the fear of Chinese aggression is on the decline, even though the Biden administration has been trying to convince Taiwanese of an immediate “Chinese invasion.”

As a recent poll published by Taiwan’s Commonwealth Magazine shows, about 64 per cent of Taiwanese believe that a war with China will not breakout across the Taiwan Strait within a year. This figure is 15.4 per cent higher than in last years’ survey, indicating that all US warnings of a “Chinese invasion” have completely failed to change public opinion against China.

It was only in December 2021 when the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, warmed of “terrible consequences” if China invades Taiwan. Referring to an earlier statement by Taiwan defence minister that China could invade Taiwan by 2025, Blinken said that the US was/is “resolutely committed” to protecting Taiwan.

Despite the warnings, the trend indicated in the survey actually shows that the US-Taiwan propaganda about Chinese invasion is falling on deaf ears, as more and more people join a huge lot of people that does not actually see a Chinese invasion at all.

But while the US needs to support Taiwan against China for geo-political reasons, it remains that the US, by projecting an imminent “Chinese invasion”, immensely benefits economically. The US sells billions of dollars in weaponry to Taiwan. Facts speak for themselves:

In 2021, the Biden administration approved a US$750 million deal to sell high-tech munition kits to Taiwan with a view to what the US called bringing stability in the region by sending a signal to China of America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security. In October 2020, the Trump administration confirmed the sale of different weapon systems – sensors, missiles and artillery – to Taiwan that have a total value of US$1.8 billion. In 2010, the US approved a US$6.4-billion arms sale to Taiwan which included assets such as PAC-3 surface- to-air missiles and upgrades to Taiwan’s F-16 fighter fleet. Prior to this, the George W Bush administration offered to sell Taiwan roughly $18 billion of equipment in 2001, including diesel electric submarines.

So, the US rhetoric to “contain” China boils down, in many ways, to economics i.e., US sales of weapon systems to all “territorial flashpoints” that involve China. Wittingly or unwittingly, the US policy will fail to allow for a long-term US entrenchment in the Indo-Pacific, for the fast changing public opinion vis-à-vis China shows that the US and its allies in Taiwan will no longer be able to profit from it. While China does want to reunify Taiwan, an unreal US/Taiwan government’ insistence on an actual invasion could very well backfire, further changing the public opinion vis-à-vis both China and the US/its Taiwanese allies.

This possibility extends not just to Taiwan, but to a host of other Indo-Pacific states that the US thinks are facing a threat from China. In reality, what China has done, despite tensions in the South China Sea, is integrate the region economically via the world’s largest trade pact, the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership. Seeing the potential of integration and economic interdependence, the space for military conflict will continue to shrink, resulting in fewer and fewer openings for the US to insert itself in the region and exploit for geo-political and economic benefits.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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