Biden's US to remain active in South China Sea, but confront China less: analysts

By Viet Anh   November 20, 2020 | 05:00 pm PT
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is likely to mobilize the power of multilateral mechanisms to deal with the South China Sea and other issues involving China, analysts say.

"I expect President-elect Biden will be considerably more hawkish on China than some fear, the entire Democratic Party has shifted in that direction given China’s moves in the South China Sea, Xinjiang, Hong Kong," Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a U.S. think tank, told VnExpress International.

The South China Sea is known as the East Sea in Vietnam.

He said the difference with Donald Trump would be that Biden would be able to bring allies and partners along more effectively, particularly Europeans who are key to any hope of imposing a "real diplomatic and economic cost" on China.

In September, the U.K., France and Germany, the European Big Three, sent a common note verbale to the U.N., which was considered an unprecedented criticism of China’s East Sea actions. It said China's exercise of its so-called "historic rights'' in the sea does not comply with international law.

The three, parties to the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), said the integrity of UNCLOS needs to be maintained and underlined the importance of the unhampered exercise of the freedom of the high seas, in particular the freedom of navigation and overflight.

Dr Euan Graham, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore Office, reckoned that Biden's policy on the East Sea would not look very different from Trump's, but have more emphasis on alliances and multilateralism.

"The U.S. presence and freedom of navigation operations - FONOPs will continue. Less resort to sanctions."

Dr Oriana Skylar Mastro, center fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University in the U.S., said the East Sea issue would be a priority for Biden, and he will possibly be more aggressive on the diplomatic front, including increasing involvement with ASEAN and coordination with regional partners.

He is also likely to maintain a U.S. military presence and routine operations in those waters, but those tools would no longer be the sole levers used to ensure disputes are resolved peacefully and all countries respect international law and norms, she said.

Because he plans to lead with diplomacy, Biden would work hard to improve the U.S.’s relations with countries in the region and increase its engagement with regional and international institutions, she said.

"So he will also use these means to address challenges in the South China Sea."

Less confrontational with China

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a history of working together, but the U.S.-China relationship is much more fractured now than it was when Biden was vice president under Barack Obama. Photo by Reuters/Lintao Zhang.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a history of working together, but the U.S.-China relationship is much more fractured now than it was when Biden was vice president under Barack Obama. Photo by Reuters/Lintao Zhang.

Mastro said that while the U.S.-China competition would continue, it would be less confrontational in nature.

China poses challenges and problems to the U.S. and its allies and partners, but Biden is less likely to treat China as an enemy even as the U.S. works to improve its power and influence in the region and in the world in the aftermath of Trump, she said.

Graham too said since Biden has many problems to address at home including a heavy debt burden, his immediate priority would be to avoid a major confrontation with China. Other major U.S. problems are the raging Covid-19 pandemic and deep division after the election.

He hoped the Philippines would support the U.S. presence more directly under Biden. More regular visits hosted by Vietnam and other regional countries and cooperation with Japan and Australia are in the expected list.

While things could improve in the short-term, Graham said, Beijing would continue to push. China believes the U.S. is a declining power and would likely draw a response reluctantly from Biden after testing the U.S. resolve.

Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said the strategic competition between China and the U.S. would be the principal driver of change in the Indo-Pacific region.

He expected Chinese military modernization in the region to continue to accelerate, grey zone coercive activities to continue and a rules-based order to be contested.

Pham Quang Vinh, former deputy foreign minister, said great power competition poses some questions to regional countries - would the military race accelerate, would unintended conflicts break out and would it help maintain peace and safety in the East Sea?

In this context, it is the responsibility of ASEAN, a regional mechanism respected both by the U.S. and China, to judge powers' actions based on international law, especially UNCLOS, and common interest, he pointed out.

For example, the bloc needs to strongly protest if it sees a country violate littoral countries' exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, he said.

"ASEAN must discuss with major powers and partners about great power competition becoming uncontrolled, badly affecting peace, stability and security in the region."

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