Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 19 February 2021

Biden Stakes America’s Claim in the Pacific Against China

The new administration is drawing red lines against Chinese aggression. That only works if you are willing to back it up with action.

Taiwan’s navy takes off. 
Taiwan’s navy takes off.  Photographer: Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s administration is trying to start strong in the Indo-Pacific. Within days of taking office, Biden’s team publicly reaffirmed U.S. commitments to three frontline states — Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines — that are facing some of China’s sharpest pressures.

Although the commitments themselves are not novel, this initiative is meant to get out in front of a surge of Chinese assertiveness in maritime Asia. It also illustrates how a new administration is approaching the challenge of deterrence in a dangerous theater. That approach involves choosing red lines carefully, articulating them clearly, and defending them vigorously — a reasonable strategy, but one that a changing military balance is gradually making harder to sustain.

The moves began shortly after the Jan. 20 inaugural, when Biden told Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga that that the bilateral defense treaty covers the Senkaku Islands, which Tokyo administers but China claims. The administration subsequently affirmed that the U.S.-Philippines defense treaty applies not just to the main islands of that archipelago, but also to Philippine armed forces and possessions in the South China Sea.

Taiwan, by contrast, is not a U.S. treaty ally, but amid menacing Chinese military activity and escalating threats toward the island, the administration announced that American support for Taipei is “rock solid.” All along the so-called first island chain — the line of features dividing China from the open Pacific — the Biden administration is saying it will not tolerate military challenges from Beijing.

In some ways, this is nothing new. The U.S.-Japan and U.S.-Philippines treaties go back decades, as does an ambiguous American commitment to Taiwan. The Barack Obama administration announced in 2014 that the U.S.-Japan treaty covers the Senkakus; the Donald Trump administration clarified America’s commitment to the Philippines in the South China Sea.

But the statements of support offer clues about how Biden is approaching an increasingly dangerous regional environment, a strategy that reflects lessons of the Obama years as well as growing anxiety about Chinese intentions.

The relevant lesson from Obama is not to speak loudly and carry a small stick. Obama’s administration had a tendency to outline maximalist goals that it had little chance of achieving with the resources it was willing to commit. Most infamously, Obama declared that Bashar al-Assad must leave power in Syria, but never made obtaining that outcome a major priority. He drew his red line against large-scale use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, but then declined to intervene militarily when that red line was crossed blatantly.

In the South China Sea, U.S. officials under Obama repeatedly declared that China should not engage in the building of artificial islands, coerce its neighbors or build up its military capabilities, yet never consistently dissuaded Beijing from these activities. The result was to deplete U.S. credibility with friends and rivals alike, while raising the risk that confusion about what Washington really would not tolerate might eventually invite sharper challenges.

Where the Obama administration succeeded, it identified interests that it was truly resolved to defend and communicated that resolve clearly. In 2016, Obama apparently headed off a major crisis at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea by informing Beijing that deploying military capabilities on the disputed reef might fundamentally disrupt the bilateral relationship and even trigger the U.S. defense commitment to the Philippines.

This approach is grounded in deterrence theory, which holds that specific warnings, attached to specific and credible consequences, are the best way to discourage aggression. It is particularly important as tensions rise and the potential for miscalculation grows at multiple points along China’s maritime periphery.

Yet there are lingering questions. Biden hasn’t yet made clear how he will respond to Chinese coercion that falls short of U.S. red lines and treaty commitments — the “gray zone” where Beijing has made vast strategic gains in the past 10 years. Some officials have called for increasing U.S. naval patrols in the South China Sea to illustrate that Washington absolutely will not tolerate constriction of freedom of navigation in that critical waterway.

Those operations, while helpful, won’t necessarily address the steps China has taken to build islands illegally, deploy advanced military capabilities and otherwise turn the South China Sea into a militarized lake. That issue has confounded two consecutive administrations, because Beijing’s actions have, collectively, shifted the strategic situation — even if each individual step doesn’t amount to a provocation worth a significant American response.

There is also the matter of whether American red lines will remain credible over time. So far, China has mostly avoided testing clear U.S. commitments, because it fears it would lose any major conflict that resulted. But that may change. As the People’s Liberation Army completes its modernization program, increases its ability to hold American forces at bay, and develops greater military dominance over its neighbors, it might become more confident about the outcome of a clash in the Taiwan Strait or East China Sea.

U.S. strategy thus places a premium on maintaining the military edge that will keep deterrent threats credible — at a time when maintaining that edge will require extensive American investments, new approaches to bringing U.S. power to bear in contested environments and greater contributions from American allies and partners. And all this amid the strain that Covid-related expenditures and sky-high deficits will eventually impose on the federal budget.

In a turbulent Western Pacific, America’s red lines will only remain as solid as the military power that backs them up.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:

Hal Brands at Hal.Brands@jhu.edu 

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