US President Joe Biden (Photo Credit - Reuters)
US President Joe Biden (Photo Credit - Reuters)

Three key issues in Pacific theatre to shape Biden's China policy

ANI | Updated: Jan 29, 2021 14:22 IST

Washington [US], January 29 (ANI): US President Joe Biden's China policy would be shaped on three key issues in the Pacific Ocean, viz - South China Sea, Taiwan, and Taiwan Strait and Japan and a system of alliances and partners, reported CNN.
These three constitute the Pacific military flashpoints between the US and China.
In the South China Sea region, China claims almost all of the 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea. Since 2014 it has built up tiny reefs and sandbars into man-made artificial islands, fortified with missiles, runways and weapons systems -- antagonising governments with overlapping claims, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan, reported CNN.
Washington doesn't recognise those claims and regularly sends US warships and military aircraft through the region.
The US Navy performed ten freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in 2020 under the Trump administration, equaling the record number of FONOPS in 2019, according to the US Navy's 7th Fleet, reported CNN.
It follows other such high-profile developments in 2020, including the rare decision to deploy two carrier strike groups for exercises in the waterway at the same time.
That both sides have increased their activity in the waterway has alarmed analysts, who point out that the greater volume of traffic, the greater the possibility of inadvertent confrontation, reported CNN.
The US' increased presence in the region is unlikely to change, however. During his run for the presidency last year, Biden recalled how as vice president he told Chinese leader Xi Jinping how the US military would deal with Beijing's self-declared air defence identification zones in the region. "I said we're going to fly through them ... We're not going to pay attention."
Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait region is a source of a tussle between the US and China owing to Washington's support of Taiwan.
Taiwan had split from mainland China in the wake of civil war and the US has remained a decades-long ally of Taiwan since then.
Taiwan returned to the forefront of US-China tensions last weekend when Beijing sent more than two dozen warplanes into the self-governing island's air defence identification zone in a 48-hour period.
While the frequency of such drills has increased in recent years, the timing and the composition of the latest formations -- mostly fighter jets and bombers -- appeared intended to send a message to the new administration in Washington, reported CNN.
In recent years, President Xi Jinping, China has reasserted its perceived claims to the island, threatening military action and even "war" in response to what it considers to be growing calls for formal independence.
US warships transited the waterway 13 times in 2020, according to the US 7th Fleet. Recent statements from the new Biden administration suggest there will be no pullback on these actions."There's been a strong and long bipartisan commitment to Taiwan," new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his confirmation hearing last week. "Part of that commitment is making sure that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself against aggression. And that is a commitment that will absolutely endure in a Biden administration."
The third military flashpoint of the Pacific is Japan and a system of alliances and partners of the US. The US alliance with Japan is arguably it's most important. Meanwhile, the Philippines have a mutual defence treaty with the US, and alliances with other countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei in the Indo-Pacific region have deeply enraged China.

Japan has been regularly training with its US counterparts and it is centred on defending some of Japan's far-flung island possessions, the most high-profile being the Senkakus, an uninhabited rocky island chain.
Japan has administered the islands since 1972, China also claims sovereignty over them. Washington has repeatedly reaffirmed Japan's claims to the islands. In a call with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday, Biden pledged his ongoing commitment to defending the Senkakus under the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty, reported CNN.
Biden's comments have taken on additional importance in light of newly passed Chinese legislation that, in theory, would allow its coast guard ships to fire on foreign vessels that are perceived as posing a threat to territory claimed by Beijing.
Chinese coast guard vessels are regularly in the vicinity of Philippine-controlled islands in the South China Sea that China also claims as its territory. But, the Philippines too has a Mutual Defense Treaty, that was reaffirmed by US Secretary of State Blinken on Wednesday, reported CNN.
Japan and the Philippines face the same kind of Chinese threat, while allied with the US, illustrates the web of alliances and partners Washington has established around the Indo-Pacific.
"The rise of China and its disruptive impact on the regional order has pushed the two US allies closer to each other than ever," analyst Richard Javad Heydarian wrote for the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in 2019.
US, Japanese and Philippine forces have conducted joint exercises, and the Philippines last year became Japan's first major military export customer, signing a deal to buy advanced air surveillance radars.
Other countries that have been involved to some degree with the US and, or Japanese militaries in the past few years include Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.
And in 2021, analysts expect the Biden administration to be leaning on that system of alliances, reported CNN.
"Trump acted and decided quickly, then sought partners. Biden first will seek partners, then act," said Schuster, an analyst at Hawaii Pacific University.
Analysts say such moves are likely only the beginning of what is expected to be a potentially uneasy initial relationship between the new Biden administration and Beijing, reported CNN.
"China often uses a series of 'tests' to determine a competitor's intentions or willingness to respond to China's actions," said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center.
Next steps from Beijing could include large-scale military exercises near Taiwan or in the South China Sea, or stopping foreign vessels in the name of enforcing Chinese maritime regulations, said Schuster.
Beijing will be trying to determine where the Biden administration's "red lines" are, added Schuster.
But incoming Biden Cabinet secretaries have made clear where his administration will stand on Chinese territorial claims in the Indo-Pacific.
"I think China is our most challenging, our most significant challenge going forward," new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told his confirmation hearing last week.
The Defence Department would focus on convincing China, or any adversary, that taking on the US military would be "a very bad idea," said Austin. (ANI)