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

Most observers did not expect the Joe Biden administration to change fundamental US goals regarding the South China Sea. But many did hope that the new administration’s approach would be softer in tone and tenor and thus a relief from the dangerous and counterproductive rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration. But so far the Biden administration seems to be proffering more of the same – continuing instability and a drift toward confrontation and conflict.

Of course, the US approach to the South China Sea issues is a subset of overall US policy toward China and the region. But it is a bellwether because it is at the forefront of Beijing’s and Washington’s tactical and strategic confrontation and a nexus of their fundamental differences regarding the “international order.”

Moreover, US policy toward China and the South China Sea drives its policy toward Southeast Asia.

Under Donald Trump’s administration, America’s approach to the South China Sea issues was for China an inconsistent hodgepodge of lies regarding intent; hypocrisy; demands; confrontation; and military intimidation. For Southeast Asia it was an incoherent mixture of “you are either with us or against us”; America First nationalism; and embarrassment of its leaders by Trump repeatedly not attending the annual ASEAN summit.

Under Trump, China perceived the US as trying to make it either stand down from its claims and occupations or defend them militarily. This “retreat or fight” strategy was quite risky, and if it is continued, it may well eventually result in military confrontation.

Indeed, the Biden administration has inherited a dicey and dangerous situation. Starting with the “pivot” but culminating in the Trump administration’s arrogant and ignorant approach, the US and China have become locked in a duel driven by mistrust. Relations —overall and in the South China Sea in particular – are at a nadir. Both countries have escalated the situation in tit-for-tat actions and statements.

But new President Joe Biden and his National Security Council “Indo-Pacific coordinator” Kurt Campbell appeared to have a seminal opportunity to adjust the US policy and approach toward the South China Sea and thus snatch the region’s deeply desired stability from the jaws of confrontation and conflict.

Most observers were not naive. They knew that the ultimate US policy goal of primacy in Asia would remain the same, although they differ on whether or not that is reasonable or achievable. But it was hoped that the goal could be accomplished in a less militarily aggressive, more nuanced, multinational, incentive-laced manner that does not purposely and unnecessarily obstruct China’s peaceful rise and lead to kinetic conflict.

Campbell has written that there is “a real need for a balance of power; a need for a regional order recognized as legitimate; and the need for an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both.” But he also stoked hopes of changes in approach toward this goal.

He said he thought the present situation could be reversed but that it “will be challenging and require diplomatic finesse, commercial innovation, and institutional creativity … serious re-engagement; an end to shaking down allies [and] skipping regional summits….” He wants to “persuade China that there are benefits to a competitive but peaceful Indo-Pacific.”

But these sentiments seem at odds with the initial rhetoric and actions of the Biden administration.

Indeed, rather than following Campbell’s prescription, it seems to China that the Biden administration is doubling down on Trump’s “in your face” pursuit of military domination.

In a gesture certain to anger Beijing, a representative of Taiwan was invited to Biden’s inauguration. Then in a response to a trap set by new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Biden took the bait by reassuring him that the US would defend Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands despite China’s claim to sovereignty over them.

Before committing US blood and treasure to defending far-flung disputed islands on Japan’s behalf, Biden might have at least waited until his team got their policy act together. But this commitment was promptly reaffirmed by Biden’s Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. He and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi also agreed “to oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the South China or East China Seas.”

Biden and Austin must have known these statements would send a negative signal to China right off the bat. China responded predictably, urging the US and Japan “not to endanger peace and stability in the region.”

Then new Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that he agreed with Trump’s “get tough” strategy toward China but disagreed with his tactics. This indicated a continuance of Trump’s goals. He said “we will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security and values in the Indo-Pacific region – that includes deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan.”

In a call to Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Blinken reaffirmed that the US rejects Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. China responded by requesting that the US respect its efforts to settle the disputes peacefully.

Confirming the hardline continuity of Trump’s policy, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that the US would build on and carry forward the Quad, a US-led incipient anti-China military coalition including India, Japan and Australia.

The new administration also weighed in on Beijing’s “threats” to Taiwan. Referring to China’s military aircraft flying through Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, the US State Department said that “the United States notes with concern the pattern of [Beijing’s] ongoing attempts to intimidate its neighbors including Taiwan” and that the flights “fit a pattern of destabilizing and aggressive behavior.”

But rather than trying to intimidate Taiwan, the Chinese bomber and jet-fighter sorties and their simulation of an attack on an aircraft carrier were probably a response to the US deployment of a carrier strike group to the northern South China Sea to “ensure freedom of the seas.” Indeed, China said they were meant as a “somber warning to external powers.”

The US also deployed four nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to Guam to “reinforce the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region” through “strategic deterrence.”

And so it goes. This US behavior is the same old tried and failed attempt to intimidate China and reassure Southeast Asia with displays of military force. But all it begets is a tit-for-tat response from China, which views the US moves as hostile and provocative.

The overall message so far from the new US administration to China and concerned Indo-Pacific countries is one of confrontation rather than compromise and cooperation.

There are other signals that the US will continue its tactics of military intimidation. It has announced that its warships and fighter jets will join the planned deployment of the UK’s Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group to the South China Sea. This is in keeping with the anti-China reorientation of the US Defense Department budget and its organization initiated by Mark Esper, one of Trump’s defense secretaries.

All this raises questions as to of whether Kurt Campbell has been outmaneuvered by hardliners on China. The early signs are a far cry from his professed desire to work in conjunction with US allies.

In fact, it would seem that the military cart is ahead of the diplomatic horse. As Michael Swaine and his colleagues at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft suggest, the US should “couple deterrence with … far more active diplomatic efforts, strengthen crisis-management mechanisms and confidence-building measures with Beijing.” Meanwhile with its drone and missile superiority, it can shift militarily to a strategy of denial from a distance.

What can the US do right away to get the horse in front of the cart – or at least in tandem with it?

Both sides have long valued stable military relations, which frayed under Trump. The Biden administration has an opportunity to return them to a more stable tacit agreement to disagree, at least on the South China Sea. It could tone down its rhetoric and tit-for-tat military responses. China’s rival claimants do not welcome it nor are they likely to join in US military intervention.

Indeed, an important adjunct objective of an adjusted approach to the South China Sea would be the re-establishment of trust in Southeast Asia that the US can and will handle its differences with China competently and peacefully.

Of course – as Campbell says – this new approach requires “a strong coalition of both allies and partners and a degree of acquiescence and acceptance from China.” China is offering at least to discuss means to improve relations. But without changes in the tone and tenor of the US policy approach, the chances of stability in the South China Sea look slim indeed.

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.