Multiple aircraft fly in formation over the USS Ronald Reagan, a US Navy aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. Photo: Kaila V Peters / US Navy

All the pieces are falling into place for a new era of US-China confrontation in the South China Sea under the newly inaugurated Joe Biden administration.

On Wednesday, Beijing said its deployment of a squadron of fighter jets into Taiwan’s airspace last weekend was meant as a “somber warning” to “external powers”, a thinly veiled threat to the US.

On the same day, the US State Department said in a statement that the US’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines “will apply to armed attacks against Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea.”

China’s recent moves have raised the potential for such armed attacks against rival Southeast Asian claimants in the sea.

On January 22, China’s National People’s Congress approved a new Coast Guard Law, which for the first time legally authorizes Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) forces to fire on foreign vessels in “waters claimed by China” – meaning the South China Sea.  

Earlier drafts of the newly-approved CCG legislation called on CCG forces to use “all necessary means” to protect Chinese sovereignty and interests in China-claimed waters.

The Coast Guard Law specifically empowers the CCG to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organizations or individuals at sea.”

The law reportedly also gives the CCG the authority to board and inspect foreign vessels, fire at threatening foreign vessels, and even to demolish other claimant states’ civilian and military structures over contested land features in the area.

A Chinese Coast Guard ship at sea. Photo: AFP

The move is a clear shot across the bow of neighboring countries that have simmering South China Sea disputes with China. It also sends a warning to the US, which has recently ramped up its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the contested sea.

China’s wide-reaching “nine-dash line” claims over 80% of the South China Sea, stretching into the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and even Indonesia.

China also recently announced new rounds of large-scale military drills in the contested waters just days after the US carrier group, led by the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, conducted its latest FONOP in the South China Sea.

Biden’s emerging team has signaled its commitment to continue the predecessor Donald Trump administration’s tough stance in Asia’s contested waters through expanding naval deployments and providing assistance to regional allies and partners.

During his confirmation hearing last week, new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured lawmakers of proactive US global leadership, saying “American leadership still matters,” and “The reality is the world simply does not organize itself.”

During a phone conversation with Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin, Blinken “reaffirmed that a strong US-Philippine alliance is vital to a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” according to Wednesday’s State Department statement.  

“Secretary Blinken also underscored that the United States rejects China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea to the extent they exceed the maritime zones that China is permitted to claim under international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention,” it said, echoing the outgoing Trump administration’s hardline.

Antony Blinken during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 19, 2021, in Washington. Photo: AFP/Alex Edelman/Getty Images

At the same time, Beijing is wasting no time in testing Biden’s wherewithal and commitment to maintaining the US’ position as the region’s preeminent military and naval power.

The CCG could soon be at the naval forefront of that challenge. Over the past decade, the CCG has led Beijing’s so-called “gray zone” operations across disputed waters. Nominally “white hulls” presenting as a civilian law enforcement agency, the CCG operates under the direct command of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLA-N).

With some of the world’s largest armed vessels, the CCG has also served as an escort for China’s armada of Maritime Militia Forces (MMF), which have been swarming and harassing other South China Sea claimant states in recent years.

The CCG’s “Monster” 12,000-ton 3901 cutter, for instance, is even bigger than America’s 8,300-9,300 ton Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers as well as its 9,800-ton Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers.

During the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2019, then Malaysian defense minister Mohamad Sabu lamented, “Yes, our navy ship is no match for Chinese coast guard ship, but actually China’s coast guard ship outsizes almost every Navy in the Southeast Asian region.” 

Since December that year, Malaysian has been at loggerheads with China following its decision to deploy the West Capella oil drillship into Beijing-claimed waters in the South China Sea.

A flotilla of CCG vessels has continuously harassed Malaysia’s efforts to unilaterally develop energy resources within its northern waters, which overlap with Beijing’s nine-dash line. The CCG has also been involved in violent clashes with Vietnamese fishing vessels while overseeing the de facto occupation of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan maintain relatively advanced civilian and military infrastructure over a dozen contested islands across the Spratly Islands.

Source: Facebook

If firmly implemented, the CCG could under the new law soon be embroiled in direct armed clashes with other claimant states, potentially drawing the PLAN as well as US naval forces into any maritime fray.

The timing of China’s provocative new legislation, passed on January 22, is also curious since it came only a week after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s charm offensive across Southeast Asia, which included official visits to Myanmar, Indonesia and Brunei, and a final two-day visit to the Philippines.

During Wang’s visit to Manila, the two sides emphasized “strong and manifold ties that bind the Philippines and China”, following discussions over proposed multi-billion-dollar investments and large-scale Chinese-made vaccine shipments. 

The Beijing-friendly Rodrigo Duterte administration initially sought to downplay the new CCG legislation. Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said only: “We hope that no country will do anything in the West Philippine Sea that would worsen the situation.”

But that official silence broke when Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr took a more critical tone in a formal diplomatic complaint. 

“After reflection, I filed a diplomatic protest,” said Locsin over Twitter on Wednesday, walking back his initial comment saying China’s passage of the new supposedly domestic law was “none of our business.” 

“While enacting law is a sovereign prerogative, this one – given the area involved or for that matter the open South China Sea – is a verbal threat of war to any country that defies the law,” the Filipino diplomatic chief said over Twitter.

A US treaty ally, the Philippines has been likely emboldened by the tough stance of newly-confirmed US Secretary of State Blinken and Defense Secretary LIoyd Austin on China in recent days.

Philippine and US Marines during a surface-to-air missile simulation as part of exercise KAMANDAG on Octoer 10, 2019. Photo: Lance Cpl. Brienna Tuck/US Marine Corps

But Beijing has given no indication of backing down. It announced large-scale military drills from the Gulf of Tonkin to the west of the Leizhou Peninsula in southwestern China from January 27 to 30 in yet another “somber warning” to the Biden administration.

China is yet to release details of the exercises, but they are clearly the latest instance of muscle-flexing by the Asian superpower in its adjacent waters. There are signs that China is even doubling down on its expansive military footprint in the South China Sea by upgrading its military facilities as well as overall living conditions for large numbers of PLA troops stationed in disputed land features. 

The Chinese soldiers stationed in the Fiery Cross Reef, the command and control center for Beijing’s military operations in the hotly contested Spratlys, have recently received new kits, which feature camouflage clothing and state-of-the-art comfortable fabric for hot tropical weather.

“The new combat clothing is… more suitable to wear in the South China Sea environment. It allows higher training efficiency and more vigorous patrol activities,” one PLA soldier giddily told Chinese state media.