US President Donald Trump has gone head-to-head with China in the South China Sea. Image: Facebook

MANILA – The 11th hour appointment of a group of hardline Donald Trump loyalists to top Pentagon positions has raised the prospect of an escalation of tensions in the South China Sea in the weeks ahead.

Trump’s perfunctory dismissal this week of Defense Secretary Mark Esper has raised concerns in some quarters of a Trump initiated parting blow aimed at China and its expansion in the contested sea in his twilight days in office.

The Pentagon move comes as Trump and his Republican Party allies refuse to concede that Democratic rival Joe Biden won the November 3 election. Trump is expected to file legal challenges to the resounding result against him in the days ahead.

While US rivals such as China may relish post-election mayhem and festering polarization, there are simultaneous worries about Trump’s possible final acts in office.

Trump’s firing of Esper and appointment of new Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C Miller has raised widespread speculation about the motivation behind the move.

Miller, previously the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, is widely seen as a hardline Trump loyalist. Some believe the move will pave the way for Trump to withdraw US forces from the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Then-National Counterterrorism Center Director Christopher Miller testifies before a House Homeland Security Committee hearing about “Worldwide threats to the Homeland” on Capitol Hill on September 17, 2020, in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/AFP

Esper’s departure was followed by the resignations of other top US defense officials, including US undersecretary of defense for intelligence Joseph Kernan, undersecretary of defense for policy James Anderson and chief of staff to the secretary of defense Jen Stewart.

As such, the Pentagon’s top positions are now dominated by Trump loyalists, including the controversial former general Anthony Tata, who once berated former US president Barack Obama as a “terrorist leader.”

Kash Patel, a former member of the National Security Council’s staff, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the former acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict in the Pentagon, are also now in top positions.

In the past year, Esper has been a relatively stabilizing figure in the Trump administration, seen by some as a strong advocate for more robust military-to-military diplomacy with China. At the same time, the US and China have jousted in the South China Sea with competitive shows of force.  

Cognizant of Trump’s flair for the dramatic, strategic observers foresee a possible upsurge in strategic adventurism ahead of Biden’s assumption of power.

Chinese defense experts, meanwhile, sense that the Pentagon’s new hawkish leadership may embolden regional allies, especially Taiwan, to up the ante.

US Marines have reportedly started a four-week training operation to boost Taiwanese troops’ combat readiness against China. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has described the exercise as a “provocative move that challenged China’s bottom line.”

In a regional media interview, Chinese military commentator Song Zhongping warned that the late hour appointment of Miller may undermine defense diplomacy with China.

American Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry conducting operations on April 28, 2020 in the South China Sea. Photo: Samuel Hardgrove/AFP/US Navy

“Pentagon officials may not have time to deal with military to military exchanges between the US and China during the two-month transition, and some diplomatic and defense issues might be postponed,” Song said.

For his part, Biden has indicated no letting off of China. Eager to restore America’s global reputation and strategic influence, President-elect Biden has been on a diplomatic tear pro-actively reaching out to allies and partners across the world.

In recent days, the incoming Democratic president has conducted high-stakes conversations with like-minded powers across Asia, hoping to forge a coalition to secure the Indo-Pacific amid the rise of China. 

That would indicate policy continuity rather than change, with an incoming Biden administration seemingly ready to embrace Trump’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) doctrine.

It also appears to signal a reinvigorated multilateral effort to build a robust strategic coalition against China with key allies such as Japan, Australia, South Korea as well as new strategic partners such as India. 

During his conversations with Japan’s newly-elected Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Biden underscored shared commitments to “a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

He also reiterated America’s alliance commitments to Japan, especially in light of China’s intrusions into the disputed Senkaky islands in the East China Sea.

Biden reassured Tokyo that mutual defense obligations under Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty will be automatically applied in the event of attacks by a third party on the Okinawa Prefecture and the Senkaku Islands.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden gestures after speaking during election night at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, early on November 4, 2020. Photo: AFP/Angela Weiss

The president-elect also held conversations with Australia, another major ally embroiled in festering disputes with China in recent months. The two allies discussed ways to expand cooperation on climate change, public health as well as geostrategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has been at loggerheads with China over a host of issues ranging from Beijing-imposed trade sanctions to Covid-19, warmly congratulated Biden over Twitter writing, “There are no greater friends and no greater allies than Australia and the US.”

“I look forward to strengthening even further our deep and enduring alliance, and to working with him closely as we face the world’s many challenges together,” the Australian leader added.  

Biden was also quick to reach out to Seoul following years of acrimonious relations under the Trump administration, which attacked preexisting trade and military agreements with South Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who repeatedly opposed Trump’s punishing sanctions against North Korea as a threat to peace negotiations in the Peninsula, was also enthusiastic about potential warmer ties under a Biden administration. 

Biden and Moon reaffirmed their “firm commitment to a robust ROK-US alliance and peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula.”

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meanwhile, was the first prominent populist leader to congratulate the newly-elected US president for his “spectacular victory” and thanked Biden and his part-Indian Vice President Kamala Harris for “your contribution to strengthening Indo-US relations was critical and invaluable.”

“I look forward to working closely together once again to take India-US relations to greater heights,” Modi wrote on Twitter, underscoring rapidly warming strategic ties between the two powers.

Throughout the year, India has been embroiled in bloody skirmishes with China over disputed territories in the Himalayas.

In a major departure from India’s age-old policy of strategic “non-alignment”, Modi is intent on solidifying defense ties with the US in order to keep Beijing’s ambitions at bay.

China has yet to congratulate the president-elect, with China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin flippantly stating “We noticed that Mr Biden has declared election victory… but that the US presidential election result will be determined following US law and procedures.”