What do U.S. aircraft carriers want to “get” when they enter the South China Sea again?

This is the first time that China has monitored US warships entering the South China Sea since the new US president took office.

It should be noted that this time, the US warships are only operating in the high seas of the South China Sea, not in the exclusive economic zone or territorial waters claimed by China.

Even when China is the most unfriendly, the U.S. government is still consciously avoiding provoking China. Less than a week after Biden took office, what signal did the US aircraft carrier send to China and its neighboring countries when it entered the South China Sea again?

In the face of Trump’s legacy of “hot” South China Sea policy, how will the US government choose?

1. My predecessor’s “South China Sea heritage” is a little hot

Between the two goals of protecting the dominant position of the West Pacific and stabilizing Sino US relations, the trump administration has shifted the balance to the former and adopted a series of measures to deter and balance.

One of the means: military

From 2017 to 2020, U.S. Navy ships, including all kinds of aircraft carrier strike groups, enter and leave the waters of Xisha and Nansha to perform their “freedom of navigation” tasks more and more frequently year by year. It has become “normal” for US warships to cruise within China’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. Sometimes they even launch provocations within the 12 nautical mile territorial waters of China’s sovereign islands and reefs.

In addition, the United States has encouraged Britain, Australia and other extraterritorial countries to participate in the “freedom of navigation” operation in the South China Sea. In 2014 and 2016, at the invitation of the Obama administration, China participated in the biennial “Pacific Rim military exercise” sponsored by the United States and participated by many countries;.

However, in 2018 and 2020, the trump administration cut off important communication opportunities between the navies of the two countries on the ground of “military expansion” in the South China Sea. At the same time, the United States and other South China Sea claimants and concerned countries, including the Philippines, often hold military exercises in the West Pacific, in which the intention of deterrence is hard to ignore.

The second means: Diplomacy

As an important part of the realization of the India Pacific strategy, the trump administration has taken the initiative to strengthen diplomatic interaction and security ties with Southeast Asian countries. In the first two years of his administration, the president and a number of senior officials focused on visiting Southeast Asian countries, effectively improving military relations with Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and other countries.

The most impressive is the visit of then defense minister Matisse to Vietnam in 2018. At this time, China and the United States are wrestling with each other in the South China Sea, and China’s fruitful achievements in the construction of islands and reefs are disturbing the United States. In this year, he visited Vietnam twice, which helped the United States and Vietnam reach a series of consensus on bilateral and international relations, as well as specific cooperation matters in dealing with the problems left over by the Vietnam War.

The U.S. move has a clear goal & mdash; & mdash; to take concrete actions to repair the war damaged relations between the two countries, strengthen mutual trust and cooperation in the military and defense fields, and work together to restrain the development of the South China Sea.

Third means: Economy

In the later period of his administration, trump imposed several sanctions on Chinese enterprises and individuals involved in the construction of islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

In August 2020, the U.S. Department of Commerce listed 24 Chinese enterprises and several personnel in the “entity list” of sanctions, on the grounds that they participated in China’s construction of artificial islands and reefs in the South China Sea, accelerated the “militarization” of the South China Sea, and violated the “sovereignty” and “rights” of other countries;. Subsequently, the United States expanded the list many times.

On January 14 this year, the last week of Trump’s term of office, the US Department of defense added nine enterprises at one time, bringing the total number of Chinese enterprises sanctioned to 44. The individuals to be sanctioned are mainly state-owned enterprise executives and Chinese Navy officials who organize or participate in the construction of islands and reefs. They will be subject to visa restrictions from the United States.

The fourth means: Law

Although the United States has not yet ratified the United Nations Convention on the law of the sea, the trump administration has raised the tone of “according to law” to resolve territorial disputes. On the one hand, the United States tries to deny China’s claim of sovereignty based on history with the principle of customary international law. US officials have repeatedly questioned the effectiveness of the “Nine Segment line.”. On the other hand, the United States has increased its support for other countries to launch judicial challenges against China.

In July 2020, then Secretary of state pompeio issued the latest version of the US position statement on the South China Sea issue, criticizing China’s implementation of “power politics” in the South China Sea in an unprecedented strong tone to seek to establish “maritime empire”;.

He also clearly expressed the support of the United States for the final ruling of the 2016 “international arbitration tribunal” on the China Philippines South China Sea dispute case, and formally denied China’s relevant claims in the South China Sea. This statement is the biggest adjustment of the US position on the South China Sea sovereignty dispute after the Meiji reef incident between China and the Philippines (the United States began to pay attention to the South China Sea dispute) in 1995.

2. Contain, but consciously avoid provoking China

In fact, if we consider it within the framework of the overall geopolitical goals and national interests of the United States, we will find that Trump’s South China Sea policy is only a concrete reflection of the increasingly tough attitude of the United States towards China in the past 25 years.

As China’s Navy’s “anti intervention / regional denial” capability continues to rise, the United States feels that its global maritime hegemony is under threat. In 2009, the close encounter between the & quot; impeccable & quot; survey vessel and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea made the United States fully aware that its freedom of movement in and out of the Western Pacific may be restricted by China.

Soon, the United States listed freedom of navigation, which is closely related to its trade, resource exploitation and military deployment in the Asian waters, as its most important national interest in the South China Sea, and gradually shifted its strategic focus to the Western Pacific, targeting the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

To put it more bluntly, for the United States, if it wants to maintain its all pervasive presence in the global waters, the vast waters within the & lt; nine segment line & gt; & lt; should not & gt; belong to China. Under this understanding, the United States is bound to take action step by step to deny China’s claim to sovereignty in the South China Sea.

What the trump administration has done is just to make this long-term goal public and written: the inherent logic of the US position on the South China Sea issue has not changed, but to follow this logic and take a step forward & mdash; & lt; Indo Pacific Strategy & gt; is just following & lt; Asia Pacific rebalancing Strategy & gt; On the basis of the core, the scope of American interest concerns is extended to the Indian Ocean.

Shortly after pompeio’s statement, the center for strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a us think tank, held a seminar on the South China Sea issue with the participation of important scholars and officials.

There are Philippine scholars (Richard J. Heydarian revealed that during Trump’s administration, US military aid to the Philippines doubled. At the same time, the U.S. defense commitment to the Philippines has become clearer, from the previous use of vague terms such as “Pacific region” to the clear scope of “South China Sea”. The military protection of the Philippines has also been strengthened to cover all Philippine aircraft, ships and soldiers attacked by a third party in the disputed area of the South China Sea.

For the Philippines, Vietnam and other relevant countries, as long as the United States does not insist on dragging them into a direct confrontation with China, allows them to continue to carry out “shuttle diplomacy” between China and the United States, and benefits from it, then Trump’s South China Sea policy will still have a market in Southeast Asia.

However, although the United States has substantially “chosen the side” in the South China Sea sovereignty dispute, it is still very cautious in its diplomatic language and consciously avoids arousing China’s “overreaction”;.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Stilwell further explained Pompeo’s statement. He specially stressed that the US policy changes are limited to the matters raised by the Philippines and the contents of the arbitral tribunal’s ruling, and reiterated that the US claims on disputed territorial sovereignty over the South China Sea still “do not hold a position.”;.

It is not difficult to see that Stilwell tried to ease the legal disputes and political hostility that Pompeo’s statement may bring.

It can be seen that even if the trump administration is the most unfriendly one to China on the South China Sea issue, and even if the United States always pursues the logic of “balance of rights” in its geopolitical competition with China, so far, Washington has not made up its mind to have a “showdown” with Beijing, there is still room for dialogue between the two countries in the South China Sea.

On the South China Sea issue, Biden’s government has not made clear its position or issued specific policies.

On January 23, the “Roosevelt” aircraft carrier sailed into the South China Sea. The time point of this incident is more subtle

Is the U.S. military carrying out the tasks assigned during the trump period and has not yet had time to adjust?

Or does Biden need to & lt; light a fire & gt; to show his posture when he takes office?

There is no final conclusion. However, from the domestic and international situation of the new government, we can make a preliminary estimate.

3. Showdown or pose?

On the one hand, Biden is facing more complicated domestic and international situations than when Trump came to power.

At the moment, the US COVID-19 is raging, and the anti epidemic policy of the last government has been badly in need of adjustment. The domestic economy, which has been badly hit by the epidemic, needs to be revival. In addition, the U.S. presidential election in 2020 is full of strange phenomena. On January 6, Trump’s supporters violently attacked Congress. A series of events have made the democratic freedom that Americans are proud of widely questioned.

Internationally, the trump administration has frequently “retired” and “broken the treaty” to implement unilateralism on the ground of “America first”. The “trade war” launched by the United States not only targets China, but also involves Japan, South Korea and other allies. Trump’s series of operations have affected many countries and organizations that have always been in the same camp with the United States, including the European Union.

In this situation, Biden should first consider two issues:

How to prevent the political opposition from taking drastic actions again, so as to ensure the peaceful and effective transition of power to the new government?

How to rebuild America’s prestige as a leader of the free world?

In foreign affairs, Biden is likely to make repairing the relationship between the United States and its Western allies and other partners an important issue. Therefore, in the early days of his administration, the Biden administration may maintain symbolic military deterrence such as “freedom of navigation”, but it will not deepen the challenge to China’s bottom line.

The “Roosevelt” incident on January 23 can be understood as Biden’s government’s attempt to send the right signal to China and its Southeast Asian allies in a timely manner, so as to prevent any party from misjudging the further measures that the United States may take in the South China Sea in the future.

Specifically, it is intended to appease Southeast Asian countries, indicating that the new government, like its predecessor, will put the territorial and security interests of regional allies and partners in the South China Sea in an important position. At the same time, it is intended to show a “preemptive” attitude towards China, indicating that the determination of the United States to maintain its military presence in the South China Sea and its dominant position in the West Pacific will not diminish with the change of regime.

The US Indo Pacific Command disclosed that the “Roosevelt” aircraft carrier strike group set out from San Diego on December 23 last year to carry out “routine training” in the Indo Pacific region, including fighter operations, sea strike exercises, ground air cooperative tactical training, etc. According to US military sources, the purpose of the operation is to ensure freedom of navigation, stabilize partnership and promote maritime safety;.

It should be noted that this time, the US warships are only operating in the high seas of the South China Sea, not in the exclusive economic zone or territorial waters claimed by China. This shows that the U.S. military’s action is still based on more careful exploration, rather than intended to challenge China’s bottom line; the aircraft carrier can also be seen as a “card” that the United States wants to negotiate with China, not just a military deterrent.

On the other hand, like any president, Biden’s South China Sea policy still needs to serve the overall strategic objectives of the United States and its important interests in the South China Sea.

As the commander of the three armed forces, Biden’s action at the beginning of his administration can at least show that the two parties in the United States can basically keep pace on the South China Sea issue.

In the long run, Biden’s vision will not leave the South China Sea, and his policy in the Western Pacific region will not go beyond the traditional idea of “a conservative power containing emerging countries”.

In fact, Biden is a high-profile supporter of the return of the United States to the Asia Pacific region and a positive contributor to the Asia Pacific rebalancing strategy. In his second term, Obama was vice president. In 2013, when expounding the new strategy of the United States, he once declared in a high profile that “the United States has returned” and believed that more energy and resources should be invested in the Asia Pacific region.

In a word, in the short term, the new government will probably put its main task on self-healing. Even if it has a voice, it is unlikely to increase investment in the South China Sea on a large scale immediately. In the long run, the United States is still pursuing maritime hegemony and containing China, and we still need to be vigilant against possible events.

China, which is making steady progress on the road of becoming a maritime power, expects the experienced senior diplomat President Biden to make a judgment that is in line with the sound development of Sino US relations and conducive to promoting the interests of the two countries and even the region.

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