A US naval officer looks through binoculars on the bridge as the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) conducts routine operations in the South China Sea. Photo: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cody Beam

As US President-elect Joseph Biden struggles to grasp the helm of government, foreign-policy pundits are prescribing what the US can and should do about seriously frayed US-China relations.

A major nexus of their confrontation is the South China Sea, and there are things each could do to re-establish a sense of stability there. But what will Biden’s approach likely look like?

The current situation is dicey and dangerous. Under President Donald Trump, US-China relations overall and in the South China Sea in particular rapidly deteriorated. Both countries have escalated the situation with belligerent rhetoric and military posturing and they are locked in a dilemma driven by mutual distrust. Each claims to be responding to the other and neither wants to make the first move to de-escalate.

A clash has become a distinct possibility. Indeed, China has been expecting and preparing for the worst.

The South China Sea is at the crux of the US-China strategic contest for regional dominance and this is unlikely to change. The current US approach is to “meet China’s greater assertiveness with a more assertive use of force of its own.” According to former US defense secretary Mark Esper, the US is aggressively building “capabilities … we need to deter China from committing to a major confrontation.”

Aircraft carriers the USS Ronald Reagan (bottom) and USS Nimitz were both recently deployed for drills in the South China Sea. Image: Handout/US Navy

He poured gasoline on the fire by declaring, “Goodwill and best wishes do not secure freedom. Strength does.”

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-associated Global Times, fired back. He warned that “the US should be reminded to distance itself from China’s core interests. Don’t play with fire off China’s coast … and don’t overdo it in the South China Sea.”

This is the situation Biden inherits. No one – including China’s leaders – expects fundamental changes in US policy regarding China and the South China Sea. But there will probably be important improvements in style and process.

Restraint and an emphasis on diplomacy would be a welcome change from the Trump administration’s bullying and belligerent style.

Indeed, the Trump administration’s “it’s my way or the highway” and “you are either with us or against us,” as well as its attacks on the ruling Communist Party of China and calls for regime change accompanied by military threats in the South China Sea, contributed greatly to increasing tension in the region.

In contrast, the Biden administration is likely to foster stability instead of the unpredictability and seemingly purposeful and unnecessary provocations that have characterized the Trump administration.

But at base, US policy is unlikely to change. After all, its official National Security Strategy issued in December 2017 declared China a “strategic competitor” and a “revisionist nation.”

The US has concluded that it and China are engaged in a “geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” in the Indo-Pacific region. That is why there is likely to be more of the same from Biden including a continuance of the pursuit of the anti-China-tinged “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” construct and the “Quad.”

The Barack Obama administration pressed the “pivot to Asia,” tried to enhance military agreements with its treaty allies in Asia, and promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement – the one that Trump withdrew from as one of his first official acts. These may be re-emphasized or revived.

During the campaign Biden wrote that “the United States does need to get tough with China.” He suggested building a united front of US allies and partners to confront what he called China’s “abusive behaviors and human right violations.” But he did say he would try to cooperate where possible. Biden’s projected cabinet will likely include both China hawks – such as Michele Flournoy – and more open-minded influencers – such as Susan Rice.

China certainly hopes that relations will improve under Biden. Vice-Foreign Minister Le Yucheng called on the new American administration to meet the Chinese side halfway and move relations forward “along the right track.” The Biden administration has an opportunity to return relations on these issues to a more stable agreement to disagree, including in the South China Sea.

China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier (C) sailing during a drill in the South China Sea, April 18, 2018. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

So what could the two sides do to seize the moment? Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on US-China Relations, has suggested that China could explicitly or implicitly recognize the international arbitration decision invalidating its historic claim to much of the South China Sea. (See his keynote speech to the Inaugural Symposium on Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance, November 5-6, China National Institute for South China Sea Studies.)

It already seems to be doing so by offering joint development with majority ownership by opposing claimants. That satisfies the opposing claimants’ sovereignty claims while they tacitly acknowledge China’s historic claim to part of the resources. This could be recognized and encouraged by the US. It could decrease the frequency and provocativeness of its “freedom of navigation operations” and intelligence probes in and over China’s waters.

Unfortunately, US-China relations under Biden have not started on an auspicious note. China was among the last major powers to congratulate him on his victory. Then Biden reassured new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga that the US would defend Japan’s administration of the Senkakus in the East China Sea.

China also claims sovereignty over these features and responded predictably, urging the US and Japan not to endanger peace and stability in the region as well as hurt the interests of third parties.

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are seriously concerned that conflict between the US and China in the South China Sea will hurt them and have publicly urged them to show more restraint. If the two antagonists heed these pleas, they could begin to reset their military-to-military relationship.

A first step would be to restart communications such that neither side is surprised or “threatened” to the point that an unintended clash occurs. Ironically, in the weeks before Trump unceremoniously terminated him as defense secretary, Esper had begun to reach out to China to improve communications. It is to be hoped that this effort will continue and expand.

After relations return to a stable agreement to disagree, a tactical bargain might be considered. China might refrain from further occupation, construction and “militarization” on its claimed features. It would also refrain from any provocative action such as occupying and building on Scarborough Shoal, harassing other claimants in their claimed exclusive economic zones and declaring an air defense identification zone over disputed waters.

The US, in turn, would decrease or cease altogether its provocative freedom of navigation operations there as well as its “close-in” intelligence probes.

But this is clearly down the road – if ever. For now, all eyes are on the incoming Biden administration to see where relations and the situation in the South China Sea will go from here.

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