The Trump Administration concludes its management in an assertive manner in the region and passes the baton to the Biden Administration, which seems to be committed to multilateralism and cooperation.

With the world at a standstill due to Covid-19, the Asian giant has taken the opportunity to resume a whole series of operations with the aim of expanding its control over the territories around its coastline, goal . Such activities have not left the United States indifferent, and despite its internal status complex, it has taken matters into its own hands. With Mike Pompeo's visits throughout the Asia-Pacific, the US has stepped up the process of containing Beijing, which has taken the form of a quadruple alliance between the United States, Japan, India and Australia. The new executive that the White House will inaugurate in January may involve a renewal of US action that, without breaking with the Trump Administration, recovers the spirit of the Obama Administration, that is, guided by greater cooperation with the countries of the Asia-Pacific and a commitment to dialogue.

Airstrip installed by China on Thitu or Pagasa Island, the second largest of the Spratlys, whose administration has been internationally recognised for the Philippines [Eugenio Bito-ononon Jr].

Airstrip installed by China on Thitu or Pagasa Island, the second largest of the Spratlys, whose administration has been internationally recognised for the Philippines [Eugenio Bito-ononon Jr].

article / Ramón Barba

During the pandemic, Beijing has taken the opportunity to resume its actions in Asia Pacific waters. In mid-April, China proceeded to designate land in the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Archipelago and Macclesfield Bank as new districts of the city of Sansha, a town on China's Hainan Island. This designation management assistant caused subsequent protests from the Philippines and Vietnam, who claim sovereignty over these areas. Beijing's attitude has been accompanied by incursions and sabotage of ships in the area. See the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat, which China denies, arguing that it had suffered an accident and was carrying out illegal activities.

China's actions since the summer have been increasing instability in the region through military exercises near Taiwan or confrontations with India due to its border problems; on the other hand, in addition to the Philippine and Vietnamese civil service examination towards Chinese movements, there is growing tension with Australia after the latter requested an investigation into the origin of the COVID-19, and the increase in maritime tensions with Japan. All this has led to a response from the United States, which claims to be a defender of free navigation in the Asia-Pacific, justifying its military presence by emphasising that the People's Republic of China is not in favour of free transit, democracy or the rule of law.

US makes a move

Tensions between China and the US over the current dispute have been on the rise throughout the summer, with both increasing their military presence in the region (Washington has also sanctioned 24 Chinese companies that have helped militarise area). All of this has recently been reflected in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's visits to the Asia-Pacific in October. Prior to this round of visits, he had made statements in September at the ASEAN Virtual Summit urging countries in the region to limit their relations with China.

The dispute over these waters affects Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia, countries which, along with India and Japan, were visited by Pompeo (among others) in order to ensure greater control over Beijing's actions. During his tour, the US Secretary of State met with the foreign ministers of India, Australia and Japan to join forces against the Asian giant. Washington then signed in New Delhi a military agreement of exchange of data satellites to better track Chinese movements in the area, and made a state visit to Indonesia visit . It should be recalled that Jakarta had so far been characterised by a growing friendship with Beijing and a worsening relationship with the US over a decrease in Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) aid. However, during Pompeo's visit , the two countries agreed to improve their relations through greater cooperation in regional, military procurement, intelligence, joint training and maritime security.

This move by Washington has therefore implied:

  • The consolidation of a quadruple alliance between India, Japan, Australia and the United States, which materialised in joint military exercises in the Bay of Bengal in early November. It is worth recalling that this is in addition to Washington's traditional allies in the region (the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand). In addition, the possibility of closer ties with Vietnam remains open.

  • The expansion of its military presence in the area, increasing the flow of materiel sold to Taiwan, also highlighting the visits of high-level Washington officials throughout July and the following months.

  • Return of the destroyer USS Barry to the waters of the South China Sea with the goal to serve as a symbol of civil service examination to Chinese action, and as a defender of freedom of navigation, peace and stability.

  • Indonesia will move its Naval Combat Force (permanently based in Jakarta) to Natuna, islands bordering the resource-rich South China Sea that are disputed between the two countries.

  • ASEAN takes a stand for peace and stability and in favour of UNCLOS 1982 (which sets out the governing legal framework for the law of the sea framework ) at the summit held in Vietnam on 12-15 November.

The ratio decidendi behind the Chinese performance

As a first approach to the ratio decidendi behind China's actions, it is worth recalling that since 2012, taking advantage of regional instability, the Asian giant has been citing its historical right over the South Sea territories to justify its actions, arguments that were rejected in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Based on the argument that Chinese fishermen once frequented the area, it claimed to justify the appropriation of more than 80 per cent of the territory, which has since pitted Beijing against Manila.

On the other hand, Luis Lalinde, in his article China and the importance of dominating the Surrounding Sea (2017) gives a more complete view of the matter, alluding not only to historical reasons, but also to economic and geopolitical reasons. First, more than half of China's hydrocarbon supply transits the Asia-Pacific region, which is also the world's main economic hub. In addition, Beijing has been deeply affected by the "century of humiliations", characterised by a lack of Chinese control over its territory due to maritime invasions. Finally, the dominion of the seas, together with the already achieved continental weight, are vital for China's hegemonic projection in a area of ever-increasing economic weight at the global level. This is why the so-called "string of pearls" has been established for the defence of strategic, security and energy supply interests from the Persian Gulf to the South Sea.

Lalinde's arguments justify China's actions in recent years; however, Bishop (2020), in the Council on Foreign Relations, states that the reason behind China's recent attitude is due to issues of internal instability, while a small sector of the Chinese intelligentsia is critical and distrustful of Xi's leadership, sample . They argue that the pandemic has weakened the Economics and the Chinese government so that through foreign policy actions it must appear strong and vigorous. Finally, the importance of control of the seas in relation to the Silk Road project should be borne in mind. On the maritime side, China is investing heavily in Indian and Pacific ports, which it does not rule out using for military purposes (see ports in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Pakistan). Among the main opponents of this alliance are the United States, Japan and India, also opposed to China's belligerent attitude, as we have seen.

Biden era: opportunities in a complicated scenario

Joe Biden's presidency will be marked by major challenges, both internal and external. We are facing a United States marked by a health crisis, with an increasingly polarised society and with a Economics whose recovery, despite the measures adopted, raises doubts as to whether it will be a "V" or a "W". Moreover, relations with Latin America and Europe have been deteriorating as a result of the measures taken by President Trump. 

The relationship between China and the US has fluctuated in recent years. The Obama Administration, aware of the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific region, coupled with the opportunity that the Silk Road presents for Beijing to expand its economic and military dominance, introduced its Pivot to Asia policy in its second term, beginning to fund and provide aid to countries in the region. During the years of the Trump Administration, the relationship with Beijing has deteriorated considerably, putting Biden in a scenario in which he will have to face a trade war, the technological degree program battle for 5G, as well as regional security and human rights issues.

The countries of the region are demanding an effective response from the US giant to contain China in which Washington's promise of a free and open shipping zone is realised. However, the US has to be cautious, as with the exception of Vietnam, the Philippines, and to some extent Indonesia and Singapore, the other countries in the region do not feel an urgent need for US intervention. However, with the exception of Cambodia, the rest of the countries do not approve of the possibility of Chinese hegemony either.

In general, experts suggest that in the midst of this storm, the new US president will adopt a cautious but continuist attitude. Probably, in line with the Obama Administration, he will tend towards a commitment to multilateralism, economic alliances subject and regional integration without exercising an authoritarian attitude, reducing the aggressiveness of the Trump Administration, but being firm in his stance. This implies looking for different areas in which to cooperate, such as climate change, the reduction of Freedom of Navigation Missions, or the increase of Capacity Building.

A look into the near future

We will have to keep a close eye on the Trump administration's latest developments in relation to this conflict, as well as the measures that Biden adopts during his first months in office. However, everything suggests that, in this increasingly tense status , Washington will adopt a cautious stance. As we have seen, Pompeo's trips have served the US to reaffirm its presence in the region, assuming a leadership role and providing the response that some countries, such as the Philippines, desire. However, although, as has been said, we will have to keep an eye on the coming months, with instructions already established, it is most likely that Biden will continue the Trump Administration's line, but with a focus on regional integration, multilateralism, diplomacy and economic cooperation in order to win new support, strengthen its alliances and contain Beijing, thus justifying its presence in the region as the only power capable of bringing together regional forces to prevent a feared Chinese hegemony.

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