Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 7 April 2024

Biden poised to warn Beijing against aggressive tactics in South China Sea

► Fears over Philippines base ► President to underline US defence pact ► Bid to get Japan into Aukus

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO — WASHINGTON · 8 Apr 2024


Joe Biden will warn China about its increasingly aggressive activity in the South China Sea this week as he holds summits with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Two senior US officials said Biden would express serious concern about the situation around the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands where the Philippines military has stationed marines on board a rusty ship called the Sierra Madre.

The Chinese coast guard has used water cannons to prevent Manila from resupplying the marines.

Biden will stress that the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Sierra Madre, said the officials, adding that he expressed “deep concern” when he spoke to President Xi Jinping last week.

“China is underestimating the potential for escalation,” one official told the Financial Times. “We’ve tried to make that clear in a series of conversations . . . China needs to examine its tactics or risk some serious blowback.”

The move comes as Washington pushes for Japan to be involved in the Aukus security pact between the US, UK and Australia, which aims to be a deterrent against China.

The countries’ defence ministers will announce today that they will launch talks related to Pillar II of the alliance, which involves collaboration on technologies such as undersea capabilities and hypersonic weapons, according to people familiar with the situation. The allies will also begin talks on bringing new members into the pact.

Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, said the “greatest risk of a direct US-China military confrontation today is at Second Thomas Shoal”.

“If Beijing directly attacks Philippine ships or armed forces, Washington would be compelled to respond,” she said. “A major political crisis between the US and China would ensue, and at worst, a wider military conflict.”

Officials said the US was wary of establishing a “red line” with Beijing. “If you give the Chinese a red line, they will go just short of that and do everything but,” said one official.

The second official said China may think its actions fall below the threshold of the US commitments under its mutual defence treaty.

“The reality of their rules of engagement and the way that responsibility evolves may mean that ultimately they don’t have perfect control over that fact,” the official said. “We would not want to create an artificially clean distinction when they themselves are not fully able to control their own actions.”

Admiral John Aquilino, head of US Indo-Pacific command, recently issued a similar warning to a delegation of retired Chinese military officers and Cui Tiankai, China’s former ambassador to the US, according to people familiar with the situation. The Indo-Pacific command did not comment.

The Biden administration has also enlisted other retired US officials to deliver similar private messages to Beijing.

China says Manila is bringing construction materials to the shoal to reinforce the second world war-era ship, which is at risk of disintegrating, and accuses Manila of reneging on a promise to remove the ship — a claim the Philippines has rejected.

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