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South China Sea: Biden has a chance to allow diplomacy to lead instead of military action

Screenshot 2021-03-01 090802
Illustration: Craig Stephens

Under US President Joe Biden, one of the first American defence department acts was to create a task force to review its military approach to China. This is sorely needed. US-China relations are at a nadir, particularly over the South China Sea.

Indeed, the goal of previous administrations of maintaining primacy in the South China Sea is probably unsustainable, and their progressively militarist approach has clearly been ineffective, counterproductive and risky.

So far, the Biden approach continues to put the military cart before the diplomatic horse. But this only begets tit-for-tat responses from China that increase militarisation and frighten Southeast Asian countries that would suffer from any conflict. Yet this may only be a temporary holdover to strengthen the US bargaining position.

Still, any change in emphasis must begin soon or Biden will be seen as continuing the pursuit of unsustainable hegemony. But what needs to be changed?

First, the United States needs to reconsider its goals in the region and the South China Sea. Maintaining the status quo is not acceptable to the US or China’s rival claimants because it is inexorably evolving in China’s favour.

Biden’s appointment of Kurt Campbell as Indo-Pacific policy coordinator offers hope of a change. He thinks there is “the need for a balance of power; the need for an order that the region’s states recognise as legitimate; and the need for an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both.”

Presumably Campbell means more emphasis on “soft” balancing – the use of economic and diplomatic tools to constrain a powerful state. Perhaps the US goal will change from primacy to maintaining presence and influence in the region while deterring coercion of its allies and partners.

Campbell wants to “persuade China that there are benefits to a competitive but peaceful” Indo-Pacific. He and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have urged a policy of “competitive coexistence” – “accepting competition as a condition to be managed rather than solved”.

Indeed, a goal change would allow diplomacy to come before military action – or at least work in tandem. Campbell thinks the present situation can be reversed but “will be challenging and require diplomatic finesse, commercial innovation, and institutional creativity” as well as “require serious US reengagement: an end to shaking down allies, skipping regional summits, avoiding economic engagement, and shunning transnational cooperation”.

What would be the main elements of a better approach?

To begin, the US should better choose the use of its military. It should not and probably cannot push back militarily against every Chinese violation of what it views as the international order in the South China Sea. It should switch the focus of its response to China’s intimidation of its rivals to economic and political sanctions rather than gunboats.

The US should dial down its rhetoric and criticise the behaviour, not the actor, and especially refrain from attacking the leadership or the entire system of government as Mike Pompeo did. Rather, it should try to persuade China that it can benefit from a competitive but peaceful region that offers China a role in the regional order and a predictable commercial environment – provided it plays by the rules that it has some influence in shaping.

The task force should reassess if US freedom of navigation operations are worth the risk of confrontation and conflict. It should do the same for its provocative intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes in China’s near-shore waters.

The US needs to modify its position of conflating commercial freedom of navigation – which China is not threatening – with freedom of navigation for warships and warplanes.

The taskforce needs to address the fact that the US is not a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and that there are different interpretations of “freedom of navigation”. This would set the stage for negotiating its meanings and appropriate responses and then incorporating that understanding in the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

The US should reopen military and back-channel diplomatic communications. It is high time it makes clear its “red lines” and the rationale for them. For China, whose body politic has become increasingly nationalistic, any public loss of face could trigger its own red-line response.

This might be a US military confrontation forcing a public climbdown by China’s military, or an attack or blockade of its military installations on features it occupies that it considers vital to its nuclear deterrence.

US red lines would include blatant violations of commercial freedom of navigation or an attack on an ally’s forces or territory, such as the Philippines. This also applies to a Chinese attempt to occupy and build on Scarborough Shoal or enforce an air defence identification zone over disputed South China Sea waters.

The US needs to rebuild confidence in Southeast Asian countries that it respects them and their interests, and that it can and will handle its differences with China competently and peacefully.

Biden needs to attend Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits, listen carefully, and offer, wherever he can, what they want – not solely what the US wants. This will show respect and give face to Asean leaders – a gesture sorely missing in Trump’s approach.

The US needs to work on balancing, at least for now – accommodating to some degree China’s legitimate international interests and aspirations by negotiating a sharing of power.

Achieving balance while fending off China’s aggressiveness, avoiding kinetic conflict and keeping Southeast Asia on board will require strong doses of Campbell’s “diplomatic finesse”. We will see if this approach – rather than one favouring the use of the military – will prevail.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China