South China Sea: will Joe Biden take a more cautious approach in the disputed waters?

Laura Zhou

Laura Zhou in Beijing

Published: 6:00pm, 14 Nov, 2020 SCMP

A Sea Hawk helicopter lifts off from the American aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan during an exercise in the South China Sea in July. Photo: Reuters

A Sea Hawk helicopter lifts off from the American aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan during an exercise in the South China Sea in July. Photo: Reuters

The United States is expected to take a more contained approach to the South China Sea under Joe Biden, but the disputed waters will remain a potential hotspot in the relationship between Beijing and Washington, observers say.“I think he [Biden] will take a different approach to [US President Donald] Trump,” said Wu Shicun, head of the National Institute of South China Sea Studies, which advises the government.“He is likely to pay more attention to the South China Sea but his policies will be more balanced and more contained.”

One possible change is a reduction in the number of freedom of navigation operations conducted by the US Navy in the sea, Wu said.https://www.youtube.com/embed/BcMR2ZCcheI

The patrols have been a regular feature of US military operations since Barack Obama was in the White House but became more frequent under Trump, who gave more flexibility to the Pentagon to plan its naval patrol schedules in the contested waters.ADVERTISING

American forces have conducted eight freedom of navigation operations this year, the same number as in 2019, but up from six in 2018 and four in each of the previous three years. The US says the manoeuvres are necessary to maintain balance in the region, but Beijing regards them as provocative and has condemned them.

“The US military operations in the South China Sea have affected Sino-US relations and increased tensions,” Wu said.

US aircraft carriers and their strike groups take part in a drill in the South China Sea in July. Photo: EPA-EFE

US aircraft carriers and their strike groups take part in a drill in the South China Sea in July. Photo: EPA-EFELe Hong Hiep, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said the people Biden chose to fill key defence positions would affect Washington’s relationship with Beijing in the South China Sea, but whoever they were, the tensions were unlikely to go away any time soon.

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Among the front-runners for the post of defence secretary is Michele Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defence for policy under Obama and is known for advocating a tough stance on China.

“The South China Sea has become an important battleground for US-China strategic competition, where the US can mobilise countries in the region against Beijing, using China’s excessive territorial claims as the rallying call,” Le said.

“As such, under the Biden administration, the US and its allies are likely to continue to maintain or even strengthen their involvement in the South China Sea.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/8eqtl0ym1p8

Meanwhile, Beijing has been stepping up its engagement with its Southeast Asian neighbours.At a video meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Thursday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said boosting relations with the 10-member bloc was one of Beijing’s priorities.He also called for the negotiations of a code of conduct for the South China Sea to be expedited. In 2018, Li proposed a three-year timeline to create such a code. A second reading of the negotiating draft began in January but the process was halted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Wu said that Washington’s policy to reject most of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the political turmoil in Malaysia, and possible leadership changes in Vietnam and the Philippines over the next two years would complicate the negotiation process.

Le said that despite those hurdles, Beijing was keen to finalise the code.“[A] deepening US-China rivalry may encourage China to accelerate the negotiations,” he said.

“On the other hand, it may also prompt Washington to back nations to resist some of China’s key demands, such as excluding countries from outside the region from conducting military exercises or marine economic activities in the South China Sea.”

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