With the impending US transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, there are few signs that either America or China intends on backing down in the South China Sea including over the future of Taiwan.
The incoming Biden administration has already signaled it will tighten the screws on China, hewing closer to the Trump administration’s tough policies on China than its Democratic predecessor under Barack Obama, who is now widely accused of soft-pedaling on early signs of China’s expansionist designs for the region.
Meanwhile, China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) recently conducted live-fire exercises in disputed South China Sea waters, flexing its Harbin Z-9 helicopters and advanced anti-ship missiles during simulated war games.
The exercises took place in Sanya, the southern tip of Hainan island, from where China launched its first domestically-built Shandong aircraft carrier last December.
The provocative drills follow unprecedented “four seas” naval and aerial wargames held by the PLA across its adjacent waters in recent months, as well as the announcement of two new “administrative regions” cutting across the South China Sea.
China’s latest muscle-flexing also revealed, based on satellite imagery, China’s progress in building a new dry dock in Hainan, one that will be large enough for the country’s next-generation Type-003 supercarrier.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC said in new research that China’s military activities in the area, including exercises, trainings, port visits and operations, increased by about 50% to 65 in 2020 from 44 in 2019, according to analysis of state media reports.
It’s not clear the Biden administration will take the developments lying down, however. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s pick for national security adviser, has recently called for the intensification of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) against China in the South China Sea, marking a potential escalation of Trump’s policy.
“We should be devoting more assets and resources to ensuring and reinforcing, and holding up alongside our partners, the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” said Sullivan during a podcast hosted by a Center for a New American Security fellow. “That puts the shoe on the other foot. China then has to stop us, which they will not do.”
The FONOPs have become the US’ most potent challenge to China’s wide-reaching claims in adjacent waters, with US warships passing through the 12 nautical mile radius of Beijing-occupied islands and land features across the South China Sea.
The US’ other major regional partners, including Japan, Britain, France and India, have also conducted similar “access” operations, albeit in a less confrontational manner.
In contrast to the US Navy, European warships have not entered deep into the 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed islands, but have nonetheless conducted naval maneuvers close enough to signal their opposition to Beijing’s maritime claims and potential threats to freedom of navigation and overflight in the area.
Australia has consistently conducted aerial patrols in the South China Sea, another more subtle form of reasserting the rights of non-claimant states to free and unimpeded access to international sea lines of communication.
Earlier this year the Australian navy joined US’ FONOPs in the area, in what experts saw as the first multilateral undertaking of such a high-stakes naval maneuver.
Over the past four years, the Trump administration adopted a dramatically tougher position in the South China Sea, with annual FONOPs increasing from two to three annually in the final years of the Obama administration to as many as ten last year.
Despite major operational disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, including the forced grounding of the USS Roosevelt due to an outbreak on board, the US Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) managed to conduct as many as eight FONOPs this year.
Not only has the Trump administration increased the frequency of FONOPS, but it has also sharpened their edge, often simultaneously deploying two state-of-the-art warships deep into Chinese-claimed waters, including areas around the Beijing-occupied Scarborough Shoal, which falls well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
At times, multiple FONOPs operations have come in quick succession, including two such operations in two days this year. The Trump administration has also backed up the naval operations with aerial patrols, with reportedly more than 2000 US military aircraft surveillance missions in the area in the first six months of this year alone.
On top of this, the Pentagon, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, has also teamed up with the US Coast Guard for joint drills in the area while boosting capacity-building among regional allies.
This has coincided with expanded Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and military exports to frontline states, including smart bombs, cruise missiles, refurbished frigates, and likely advanced jet fighters to the Philippines, a major claimant state in the South China Sea.
The Trump administration also made the unprecedented decision to effectively back the maritime claims of China’s rivals in the South China Sea, while signaling its commitment to come to the rescue of allies such as the Philippines if there were an outright conflict with China in the area.
To Beijing’s consternation, Washington has also stepped up its assistance to Taiwan, another South China Sea claimant state which is considered by China as a renegade province that must eventually be incorporated with the mainland.
The Trump administration cleared up to $5 billion worth of arms sales to Taiwan this year, while top US officials, including Navy Rear Admiral Michael Studeman and US Health Secretary Alex Azar, have made unprecedented visits to the self-governing island.
So far, the Trump administration has provided 11 arms sale packages to Taiwan, including recently a $280 million Field Information Communications System (FICS).
According to the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the new Taiwanese acquisition is “designed to provide mobile and secure communications” and help the country “modernize its military communication’s capability” amid growing electronic and conventional warfare threats from Beijing.
The US recently moved forward with several arms sales packages for Taiwan, including approving the sale of weapons-ready MQ-9B remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and AGM-84H standoff land attack missile expanded response (SLAM-ER) missiles.
During a major conference in Taipei earlier this month, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, a staunch critic of Beijing, criticized China’s activities in the South China Sea, which she said have become “increasingly militarized.”
“Authoritarian forces consistently attempt to violate the existing norms-based order,” said the Taiwanese leader, while calling for greater assistance from fellow democratic nations.
“Taiwan has been at the receiving end of such military threats on a daily basis, [but] [w]e’re more determined than ever to continue developing our self-defense industries and safeguard our sovereignty and democracy,” she added.
During a speech at the same event in Taiwan, Kurt Campbell, a former US diplomat for East Asia and likely a top policy adviser in the incoming Biden administration, made it clear that there is a bipartisan consensus to support Taiwan.
Together with Ely Ratner, another leading foreign policy adviser to Biden, Campbell has become among the most prominent former Obama administration officials to advocate for a tough stance on China, from the South China Sea to Taiwan. Campbell was seen as a chief architect of Obama’s “pivot” policy towards Asia from the Middle East.
“There is a broad group of people across the political aisle that understand the profound strategic significance and our strategic interests in maintaining a strong relationship with Taiwan,” said the former Obama top Asia policymaker, likely signaling the incoming Biden administration’s commitment to continue supporting Taiwan.