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Biden administration prepares for calibrated competition with China in Southeast Asia

Since 2011, Washington has been drawn to the South China Sea dispute although it is not a party to the overlapping territorial claims in the disputed waters. This is because the maritime row affects the conduct of American diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region, the possible use of US forward-deployed forces in the first-island-chain, and the management of Washington’s security commitments in Southeast Asia. The US does not take any position on littoral states’ respective claims in this territorial dispute. Nevertheless, Washington is determined to protect its interests in terms of: a.) ensuring the free and unimpeded flow of commerce along some of the world’s busiest sea-lanes of trade and communication; b.) secure the US Navy’s ability to conduct naval operations in these waters; c.) protecting American companies that operate in the region; and d.) managing its formal treaty alliances with states involved in the dispute.

Less than one-week after his inauguration, President Joseph Biden started his China policy which one analyst described as “the most aggressive concentration of moves against a foreign power that any peacetime administration has ever launched in modern times.” These moves included inviting the Taiwanese representative to the inauguration, pledging to continue the arms sales to Taiwan, and announcing that high-level talks with China would only happen after the US has consulted its close allies. This led one former State Department official to comment that these moves are troubling to anyone who (mistakenly) thought that the Biden Administration would prioritize “global issues over great power competition.”

President Biden made it clear that East Asia and the US-China strategic competition would be the heart of his foreign policy. This is based on his own personal view that reflects the American foreign policy establishment’s thinking on China. Since 2016, foreign policy experts and analysts associated with the Democratic Party have changed their benign views of China. During the Clinton and Obama years, they assumed that welcoming China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and engaging it in several strategic dialogues, and collaborative efforts would make it a more open society and, more importantly, a responsible stakeholder in the rules-based international system. Unfortunately, the opposite happened as China pursued its expansionist efforts in the South and East China Seas. From these expert’s perspective, the US must embark on a sustained and calibrated strategic competition with China, bringing all of America’s national resources into play.

For the Biden Administration, competing with China is not simply a matter of being “tough.” Rather, it should start from the basic assumption that China is ignoring international law, not extending reciprocity to its trading partners, and threatening to unravel the rules-based international order. The competition stems from the two fundamentally different economic and political systems with their respective visions of the international order. This requires a cleared-eyed, strategic, and firm response from the US. Such a response must go beyond the notion that the competition between the two great powers should only be a contest of realpolitik in the realms of geopolitics and geoeconomics. It would require a national strategy that would help build-up America’s overall capabilities to better confront China. This is because the competition with China would not be played out on old and undated geopolitical arenas but in laboratories, information campaigns, in academia, in technology platforms, and in the global alignments of values and norms.

The Biden Administration also indicated that it will pursue greater collaboration with like-minded countries around the world to confront the risk and danger presented by China. Specific to the region, the US is seeking to reaffirm and rebuild its alliance with Japan, South Korea, and its new security partners across the region.

One week after his inauguration, President Biden sent a clear warning message to China that there will be a cost to its expansionist moves in the South and East China Seas. He and his top security officials conveyed US support for allies such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, signaling Washington’s rejection of China’s expansive claims in the seas within the first-island-chain.

Secretary Antony Blinken, in a phone call, reaffirmed the Biden Administration’s position that a strong US-Philippine alliance is vital to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. In late February, the two sides met to narrow down issues and iron out whatever differences about a possible new Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). A successful conclusion to a renegotiated VFA between the Philippines and the US will enable Washington to play a major security role in Southeast Asia in the face of Chinese maritime expansion in the South China Sea. For Philippine Department of National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, this will ensure that the US will remain “a stabilizing force in the Indo-Pacific region and a counter-balance to China.”


Dr. Renato De Castro is a Trustee and Convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the Stratbase ADR Institute.

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