Commentary: Trump’s playbook on China in the South China Sea has some lessons for the Biden administration

Commentary: Trump’s playbook on China in the South China Sea has some lessons for the Biden administration

Clearing the conceptual hurdle of “militarisation” needs to be the first essential step, says RSIS’ Collin Koh.

USS Ronald Reagan
This US Navy photo shows the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (left) and ships from the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group in formation on Oct 6, 2019 in the South China Sea. (Photo: AFP)

SINGAPORE: The fateful meeting between then US president Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in the White House in 2015 has often been upheld by Washington as a clear example of Beijing’s perfidy over the South China Sea disputes.

The issue revolves around Xi’s assurance at this meeting with Obama that China would not militarise the disputed Spratly Islands. Accusations and counter-accusations over this issue have contributed to growing tensions between the two countries since. 

For example, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin at a press conference on Sep 28, the Spratlys are “Chinese territory” and therefore, deploying “defensive facilities” on “Chinese territory” amounts to an exercise of national sovereignty and self-defence granted by international law.

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Instead, he argues, the Americans are the “biggest driver” of militarisation in the South China Sea because of their frequent close-in reconnaissance missions and military exercises. 

Wang’s statement isn’t new – it has been China’s consistent narrative on militarisation in the South China Sea.

For the sake of peace and stability in the South China Sea, can this issue finally be put to rest with the incoming Biden Administration?   

DEFINING MILITARISATION 

Clearing the conceptual hurdle of “militarisation” needs to be the first essential step. Militarisation may refer to a continuum of actions, from stationing a squad of lightly-armed troops to deploying nuclear-tipped missiles in a location. 

That appears straightforward. But what about construction of airstrips and harbours?

This is where the water gets murky. These facilities are “dual-use” – for instance, the same airstrip may support flight operations of both civilian airliners and combat aircraft.

In the Single Draft Negotiating Text (SDNT) of the proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea adopted in 2018 by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China, Vietnam was the only party which attempted to define “militarisation”, which it refers to as “installation, deployment or development for any purpose…of any weapon of offensive nature”.

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of uninhabited island of Spratlys in the disputed South China Sea
An aerial view of an uninhabited island of the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea, Apr 21, 2017. (File photo: REUTERS/Erik De Castro)

This formulation is problematic: How does one determine “weapon of offensive nature” when most armaments fulfil both defensive and offensive requirements? It really depends greatly on how the user chooses to employ the weapon. 

Compounding the challenge is that modern weapon systems are mobile and therefore, do not have to be permanently deployed in-situ. 

As and when politically expedient, these weapons can be deployed to and withdrawn from the disputed area, thus allowing one to scale up and down the escalation ladder in times of crisis.  

Practically speaking, therefore, it is difficult to determine clearly what amounts to “militarisation”. 

Parties involved in the South China Sea disputes engage in various types of militarisation in the area. 

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Most notable of all Spratlys outposts are those of China, replete with airstrips, harbours, bunkers, and other dual-use infrastructure, which help sustain Beijing’s power projection and enable its use of coercion against other claimants in the South China Sea.

RESPONDING TO CHINA’S FAIT ACOMPLI

A sizeable Chinese boat swarm, which reportedly included the maritime militia, which appeared off Philippines-held Thitu Island in the Spratlys last year had been able to sustain their operations because of nearby Subi Reef, another major Chinese artificial island outpost. 

In the Vanguard Bank standoff with Vietnam late last year too, the Chinese geological survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 stopped over at nearby Fiery Cross Reef. 

These outposts fulfil their utility as convenient “pit stops” that obviate the need for Chinese assets to regularly return to their mainland bases for replenishment and other purposes, thus allowing continuous operations with minimal interruptions for protracted periods. 

The chance to forestall this eventuality has passed with the Obama administration, which had the opportunity to confront China over its island-building and militarisation in the Spratlys. 

FILE PHOTO: A ship of Chinese Coast Guard is seen near a ship of Vietnam Marine Guard in the South
FILE PHOTO: A ship (top) of the Chinese Coast Guard is seen near a ship of the Vietnam Marine Guard in the South China Sea, about 210km off shore of Vietnam. (Reuters/Nguyen Minh)

After all, the extensive and pervasive American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities could not have missed the massively obvious Chinese dredging work and land reclamation work in the area. 

The Obama administration instead chose not to risk losing Beijing’s cooperation over other hot-button issues such as climate change.

By now it should have been evident that Beijing’s fait accompli has drastically altered the state of play in the South China Sea. 

The recurring spiral of military posturing and counter-posturing between China and the US also demonstrates the difficulty in reaching any bilateral consensus on the issue of militarisation. 

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Notably in early July, in response to Chinese military drills in the South China Sea, the US Navy in early July dispatched the Nimitz and Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups in a rare dual-carrier show of force. 

Beijing countered with a series of maritime strike exercises, including the reported launch of an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) the following month.

Not to be outdone, the Ronald Reagan returned to the South China Sea in the middle of August, to which the Beijing responded with a fresh set of war games, lobbing two ASBMs into waters close to the Chinese-held Paracels later the same month. 

Soon after, the US destroyer Mustin conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) off the Paracels.

INHERITING THE “WICKED PROBLEM”

There appears to be a recent shift towards a more comprehensive American strategy with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s statement on the South China Sea in July in which he said: “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.”

Until then, the Trump administration coped with Beijing’s fait accompli via a largely militaristic approach – aptly expressed in the US Navy’s routine presence and FONOPs.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seen here in November 2018, has sharply criticized China over the
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seen here in November 2018, has sharply criticized China over the South China Sea. (Photo: AFP/MANDEL NGAN)

But these have fallen short in rolling back Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea, especially recurring incidents of Chinese coercion against Southeast Asian claimant states. 

But the regular military presence in the South China Sea does signal Washington’s continued commitment towards regional peace and stability, and at least serves to deter Beijing against undertaking more drastic measures, such as forcibly evicting other claimants from those non-Chinese occupied features in the Spratlys. 

The incoming Biden administration will inherit the same Chinese fait accompli in the South China Sea. 

But rolling back on certain policy actions already set in place by the Trump administration, such as FONOPs, would transmit a wrong signal about continued American security commitment to the region and thereby potentially embolden Beijing to undertake more aggressive actions.

In any case, the eventual Code of Conduct is not likely to preclude American military presence in the South China Sea, notwithstanding Beijing’s proposals in the SDNT seeking to preclude foreign military presence in the area. 

Several ASEAN parties certainly wish to maintain the sacrosanct sovereign freedom of engaging with any foreign military partners they so desire.

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But the code is unlikely to address the “wicked problem” of militarisation in the Spratlys. This is going to be another challenge that the Biden administration will inherit as an enduring legacy from previous administrations.

With Beijing’s increasing economic clout in the region, it becomes more pertinent for Washington to work on a comprehensive strategy that limits China’s ability to further alter the status quo in the South China Sea using an ever-expanding array of tools of statecraft, beyond militarisation and including economic pressure such as sanctions.

The Biden administration may do well to continue with certain pre-existing policies, such as FONOPs and blacklisting of Chinese entities involved in the South China Sea build-up.

But rather than adopt a unilateral approach, it may also help to adopt a more consultative approach towards regional allies and partners, ensuring that US policies in the South China Sea run in sync with their prevailing concerns and interests.

Collin Koh is research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University based in Singapore.

Source: CNA/ml