Strengthening trade ties, exploring cooperation in marine environmental protection and facilitating security consultations will help safeguard stability in the South China Sea
After Joe Biden took office, his administration reexamined the United States' policies on the South China Sea through the lens of the US-China strategic competition and the advancing of the US' Indo-Pacific strategy.Positioning the issue as a critical pillar to maintain US power in the region, establish maritime rules in the US way and shape a maritime and regional order favorable to the US, the US aims to disrupt the South China Sea situation and compete with China.
Despite its claim that the Indo-Pacific strategy is not to change China but to shape the strategic environment, China remains the primary target of the US.
The South China Sea holds special significance for the US. It is viewed as the forefront of the US-China strategic competition, a crucial testing ground for the maritime rules contest, and a touchstone for China's role as a major power. It is also relevant to the foundation and future of the regional order.
The US government believes that, once put into practice, China's claims in the South China Sea and policies on territorial waters and exclusive economic zones would fundamentally challenge US maritime hegemony and threaten the US-led Asia-Pacific security architecture.
In other words, the US-China competition in the South China Sea is more than a territorial dispute or disagreement over maritime rules. It is a rivalry over the foundation and future development of the regional order.
The Biden administration pursued two major approaches to maintain a balance favorable to the US, prevent China from controlling the South China Sea and safeguard US maritime supremacy.
First, it increased distributed forward military posture and frequently carried out close-in reconnaissance and military drills to expand its military presence in the South China Sea and its vicinity.
Second, it stepped up defense and security cooperation with allies including Japan, the Philippines and Australia to enhance the dispersion and resilience of US military assets in the region, thereby creating a favorable military balance.
Playing the rules card is a distinctive approach that the Biden administration used to address the South China Sea issue. The Biden administration denies parts of China's maritime claims, urges it to accept the South China Sea arbitration ruling, calls its actions as unlawful, and encourages claimants such as Vietnam to engage in legal battles with China.
In this way, the US is attempting to depict China as a disruptor of maritime rules and itself as a guardian. It aims to craft the US policy on the South China Sea as consistent with international law and make the US-interpreted maritime rules global.
Safeguarding and shaping a US-led rules-based regional maritime order is another pillar of the Biden administration's South China Sea policy. The US continues to carry out the freedom of navigation operations as an important means of upholding maritime rules and order. A US version of gray zone operations is also carried out to counter China's activities to defend maritime rights, cultivate regional allies and steer the new direction of a US-led maritime order. At the same time, the US is establishing a maritime alliance of democratic nations to back the US-led order.
The Biden administration's South China Sea policy smacks heavily of the zero-sum thinking and bloc confrontation. It has intensified the competition and confrontation between China and the US and unsettled the otherwise relatively calm situation in the South China Sea, increasing the risks of regional confrontation and even a new Cold War.
In the face of the new moves and trends in the Biden administration's South China Sea policy, the Chinese government should firmly defend sovereignty, security and development interests while upholding the principles of peace, development and cooperation. China should seek unity with its neighbors, working alongside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.
First, as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and resumes international exchanges, China should actively engage with ASEAN in face-to-face consultations and exchanges to expedite the conclusion of negotiations on the code of conduct in the South China Sea. A binding guideline will be conducive to managing crises, preventing unforeseen events, and deepening practical maritime cooperation among all parties in the South China Sea.
Indonesia, the rotating chair of ASEAN, has announced its intention to accelerate negotiations on the code of conduct, which presents a good opportunity.
Second, China should clearly state the international law and historical context of its claim on the South China Sea at bilateral and multilateral international platforms. While revealing the geostrategic intentions of countries outside the region which infringe upon the rights and provoke tensions in the South China Sea, the Chinese government should make clear its positions and cooperative attitudes regarding the South China Sea disputes, as well as the policy measures to calm the situation and plan for the future.
Finally, both economic and security measures should be used to uphold peace, stability and prosperity in the South China Sea. Such measures include strengthening economic and trade cooperation with countries in the region, promoting peace and prosperity through mutual development, exploring cooperation with related parties in areas such as marine environmental protection, fisheries conservation, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, and facilitating security consultations and exchanges with neighboring countries. Enhancing naval exchanges, holding consultations and joint drills and advancing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief cooperation will help dispel strategic suspicions, create strategic mutual trust and build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship.
The author is a professor at the Center for American Studies at Fudan University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.