The United States is expected to take a more contained approach to the South China Sea under Joe Biden, but the disputed waters will remain a potential hotspot in the relationship between Beijing and Washington, observers say. Joe Biden is expected to pay more attention to the South China Sea but his policies will be more balanced and more contained. One possible change is a reduction in the number of freedom of navigation operations conducted by the US Navy in the sea.
The patrols have been a regular feature of US military operations since Barack Obama was in the White House but became more frequent under Trump, who gave more flexibility to the Pentagon to plan its naval patrol schedules in the contested waters. American forces have conducted eight freedom of navigation operations this year, the same number as in 2019, but up from six in 2018 and four in each of the previous three years. The US says the manoeuvres are necessary to maintain balance in the region, but Beijing regards them as provocative and has condemned them.
The people Biden chose to fill key defence positions would affect Washington’s relationship with Beijing in the South China Sea, but whoever they were, the tensions were unlikely to go away any time soon. Among the front-runners for the post of defence secretary is Michele Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defence for policy under Obama and is known for advocating a tough stance on China.
Biden would follow the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy with “a lot of continuity”, including in the South China Sea, even though he may seek to find some potential areas of cooperation, such as climate change in spite of the predominance of great power competition.
A softer approach from the US might prompt China to be less aggressive and be increasingly careful in making policies.
We might see a softening from China on its policies on the South China Sea, territory that is disputed between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours – Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
China has been very aggressive when it comes to the South China Sea. It has created artificial islands for military purposes in the disputed territory. The area reportedly holds 7.7 million barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves, which are almost equivalent to the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia.
Under Biden, who has pledged to work on more engagement not only with China but also the other parties to the dispute, China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea could subside.
When the ties between China and the US improve, China is likely to avoid pursuing policies that may endanger its relations with the White House.
Not only that, the potential ending of the US-China trade war by Biden, although it may take some time to materialise, will also improve the region’s export and import figures due to the improved prospects of Southeast Asian countries trading with the two world’s largest economies.
The focus on international co-operation and the possible end of the trade war thus open the possibility for Southeast Asian nations to not only restore their economies but also to lessen their dependence on either China or the US./.