How Biden Should Handle the South China Sea Disputes


The future of U.S.-Chinese relations may well hinge on disputes in a distant sea where the United States has no direct claims of sovereignty or unique maritime rights. The South China Sea is arguably at the crux of future U.S.-Chinese great-power relations. In addition to the critical Taiwan issue, the South China Sea is the arena where competing paradigms are clashing and the chance of war is more likely than anywhere else. While China views the South China Sea as the cornerstone on which to make its ambitions to become a superpower concrete, the United States sees the dispute as a key part of its security strategy and goal of strengthening alliances and strategic partnerships in the region. The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden  is unlikely to seek confrontation with China the way that President Donald Trump’s administration did. Yet, the new administration should seriously consider continuing some of the current U.S. strategies in the South China Sea, including strong support for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states, strong condemnation of China’s illegal actions in the disputed sea, and support for disputants’ deterrence by denial capabilities. In any case, the administration should make it clear to China that the United States will not be leaving the region anytime soon.



U.S. Interests in the South China Sea

The U.S. government’s primary interests in the South China Sea are to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region and to deny China the ability to dominate the maritime arena. More specifically, the United States seeks to guarantee trade routes and free sea-lanes, strengthen defense ties with its allies and partners in the region, and balance China’s rising power. The official maritime objectives of the Department of Defense are to safeguard freedom of navigation for maritime vessels as recognized by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, deter conflict and coercion, and promote states to pursue international law. Until recently, the U.S. position had been deliberately ambiguous, taking no position on the validity of specific sovereignty claims. The U.S. government only expressed concern that China was not following the rules-based order set by the law of the sea. The United States had also done relatively little in response to the 2016 arbitration ruling in favor of the Philippines and against Chinese actions in the South Sea. This changed in July 2020 when U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced his strong support of the ruling, chastising China’s claims as “completely unlawful,” and suggesting that the United States could come to the defense of the disputants if targeted by China.

The United States has responded to the South China Sea dispute and its growing rivalry with China in multiple ways. Starting with the Obama administration’s Asia pivot strategy in 2011, which was toughened by the Trump administration, the United States conducts freedom of navigation operations in the disputed waters, pursues multistate exercises in the region, places diplomatic pressure on China for its illegal construction and militarization of maritime features and the over-extensive nine-dash line claim, and pursues targeted economic sanctions on Chinese companies involved in the reclamation, building, and militarization of artificial islands. The 2017 National Security Strategy directly calls out China for its militarization of artificial islands seized by China, threatening the free flow of trade and sovereignty of other states, and undermining regional stability. The National Security Strategy explicitly states that the United States will “maintain a forward military presence capable of deterring and, if necessary, defeating any adversary,” with an implicit focus on China.

U.S. Strategies and Operations

The United States has carried out 23 freedom of navigation operations since October 2015, with frequency and intensity increasing each year. The official purposes of these operations are to challenge excessive maritime claims and to ensure freedom of navigation, but unofficially, they credibly signal resolve and U.S. capabilities while limiting the potential for military escalation. Although the United States justifies the operations strictly in the context of upholding a broader worldwide position on freedom of navigation, they indirectly serve as part of the U.S. deterrence strategy against China. From China’s perspective, even if freedom of navigation operations are conducted in all claimants’ waters, they are clearly targeted at China.

In July 2020, the United States sent two aircraft carrier strike groups — the Nimitz and Ronald Reagan — to conduct freedom of navigation operations and naval drills in the South China Sea, which were conducted at the same time as Chinese naval exercises in disputed waters. The U.S. Navy has also conducted several joint military exercises and carrier group transits with allies and security partners in the region, through or near the South China Sea. In 2019 alone, the United States conducted 85 military exercises — including Balikatan conducted with the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, and Rim of the Pacific, the largest international maritime exercise, involving the armed forces of 10 states, including Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, and until a couple of years ago, China, before it was kicked out.

The combined U.S. strategy of freedom of navigation operations, promotion of a rules-based order, military exercises, and support for allies and strategic partners in the region are designed to send a clear signal to China that the United States will continue to maintain its military presence in the region as well as to support its regional allies and security partners. These current strategies are all necessary, but not sufficient. China continues to flout international law, pursue low-level coercive actions against the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Indonesia, and challenge the U.S. military presence in the region. China does all this through anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy, and more recently, power projection. Most importantly, both the Obama and Trump administrations have been unwilling to actively deter China from seizing and militarizing many maritime features that China has built into artificial islands or outposts in the South China Sea due to the fear of military engagement. The United States is understandably unwilling to engage militarily with China, but this caution also holds back America’s ability to effectively signal full resolve for the U.S. intolerance of China’s actions in the South China Sea.

Strategy Options for the Next Presidential Administration

The most important U.S. objective in the South China Sea is to counter China’s territorial and maritime claims. The Trump administration’s more overt and aggressive position against China has effectively deterred China from seizing more maritime features, but this deterrence did not effectively prevent further militarization of the artificial islands that it controls. In the past four years, the Chinese have deployed surface-to-air (HQ-9B) missile systems and anti-ship cruise missile (YJ-12B and YJ-62) systems and positioned an increasing number of Shenyang J-11 fighters and Xian H-6 bombers on several artificial islands that China controls. This militarization provides China with extended reach into the Pacific, within target range of U.S. territories and bases. The Biden administration will have to consider how to deter through denial Chinese targeting of U.S. ships and bases and further Chinese reach into the Pacific. Rather than threatening severe punishment, deterrence by denial makes actions infeasible or unlikely to succeed. Such deterrence would ideally deny further Chinese seizures of maritime features and prevent building up of ones already acquired, particularly Scarborough Shoal, located in the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone. It is critical to meet this objective because China’s long-term goal is to acquire effective control of most or all of the maritime features in the South China Sea. This strategy will have to involve increasing resources for the Indo-Pacific Command and matching the intentions laid out by successive secretaries of defense.


Support for Southeast Asian States

The United States needs to clearly signal strong support of Southeast Asian states, both those involved in the dispute and other members of ASEAN, all of whom are being wooed economically by China. China’s intention is to persuade these states to bandwagon with China instead of balancing against China on the side of the United States. Already, a handful of ASEAN member states are ardently pro-Chinese — including Cambodia, which appears to be allowing China to build a base on its territory — or leaning toward China, including the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte. If China can effectively persuade states in Southeast Asia that the United States is not credibly willing to support them, the United States could risk these states moving into China’s sphere of influence. Despite sustained military presence, stated alliance commitments, and partnership support, the Trump administration’s record of support for these states is weak. The Biden administration should be explicit and forthcoming in its support to bolster regional security partners in their own military capabilities, many of which are dated and insufficient to defend against Chinese actions in the South China Sea. The United States could provide more reasonably priced military transfers to these states, such as surveillance drones, sea mines, land-based anti-ship missiles, fast attack missile boats, and mobile air defense. The recent announcement by the Trump administration of plans to sell Harpoon missile systems to Taiwan exemplifies such potential military transfers in the region.

Since China should continue to operate, supply, and defend the artificial islands that it built, the United States should provide support to its allies and security partners in the region that would help to frustrate the ease of Chinese movement in the South China Sea. Although several Chinese controlled islands are already built and militarized, without logistical support, the remote outposts could be considered “dead wood.” Therefore, increased deterrence by denial can slow down China’s ability to resupply the artificial islands it controls. A 2017 assessment of regional military capabilities argues that in the long run, China will be unable to enforce its maritime claims in the South and East China Seas if its neighbors are able to engage in A2/AD strategies against China and the United States is able to bolster and support such efforts. This assessment suggests that China’s neighbors could have better naval capabilities than perceived. Specifically, on the southern (Indonesian and Malaysian) and western (Vietnamese) borders of the sea, Southeast Asian states have achieved A2/AD capabilities that can deny China’s ability to command sea and air in the disputed waters. These states already have some denial capabilities that include warships armed with anti-ship missiles, aerial capabilities, and submarines that together would help deter Chinese air and sea command of these parts of the disputed seas. Extending these capabilities with U.S. support and further joint exercises with these states could better deter China’s enforcement of its maritime claims and control of maritime features, and challenge China’s consolidation of its control and command of the disputed sea. Although the maritime features controlled by China are unlikely to be overturned, the United States and its partners can work to prevent further militarization and acquisitions if they recalibrate and extend deterrence in the region.

Stronger Support from U.S. Allies

U.S. allies Japan, Australia, and India — members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — as well as South Korea, France, and the United Kingdom, should continue to play an increasing role in deterrence of Chinese expansionism jointly with the United States, militarily, politically, and economically. U.S. allies could participate in multinational deployments to international waters in the South China Sea beyond freedom of navigation operations, particularly in joint operations and exercises with disputants challenged by China. These allies should also consider increasing military and economic support for Southeast Asian states to help U.S. efforts to ensure balancing against China, and not bandwagoning with China. As members of the Quad, Japan and Australia have stepped up, while South Korea and other allies could and should follow suit.

Up to this point, U.S. strategies have partially deterred China’s continued militarization and expansionism in the South China Sea and broader Pacific region. The Biden administration should continue to credibly and assertively deter China’s strategies in the South China Sea in several ways.  These means include continued freedom of navigation operations and joint military exercises, stronger and more credible support for Southeast Asian states, consistent and greater involvement by U.S. allies to balance China’s rise, increased training for war fighting scenarios, and targeted sanctions on Chinese companies that are involved in the building or militarization of the artificial islands, or surveying in the waters of the South China Sea. The United States should be willing to follow through with the costly signals of resolve and deterrence, being prepared for some risky engagement with Chinese vessels. The Biden administration should seriously follow through on the intentions of the Obama administration’s Asia pivot, but also consider continuing some of the Trump administration’s actions. Neutralizing Chinese domination of the South China Sea deserves to be the highest priority for the next presidential administration.



Krista E. Wiegand is Director of the Global Security Program at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Tennessee. She is a specialist in territorial and maritime disputes, maritime law, and East Asian security.

Image: Nicholas V. Huynh