One area where a Biden administration is not expected to differ from President Trump’s policies is concerning China’s claims to the South China Sea. While Joe Biden and his cabinet may cool down the rhetoric towards Beijing, experts and analysts believe actual policy will not change.
Experts told the South China Morning Post that Biden would not soften the US’s stance on the South China Sea, pointing out it was the Obama administration that began challenging Beijing’s claims to the waters.
The experts said Biden would likely continue sailing warships near Chinese-claimed islands in the South China Sea, operations known as Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). FONOPs to challenge Beijing’s claims in the waters started under the Obama administration in 2015, shortly after Chinese President Xi Jinping publicly pledged not to militarize islands and reefs China claimed in the South China Sea.
During the final presidential debate, Biden bragged about the Obama administration’s tough stance against China’s claims to the South China Sea.
“When I met with Xi, and when I was still vice president, he said ‘we’re setting up air identification zones in the South China Sea, you can’t fly through them.’ I said, ‘we’re gonna fly through them. We just flew B52/B1 bombers through it. We’re not going to pay attention,’” Biden said at the debate.
This year has seen a significant uptick in US military activity in the South China Sea. US aircraft carriers have regularly drilled in the disputed waters throughout the year, and a Beijing-based think tank recorded a sharp rise in US military flights in the region.
The South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI) recorded 67 flights of US reconnaissance aircraft in the South China Sea in July, compared with 49 in June and just 35 in May. In September, the SCSPI recorded 60 US flights in the region.
In July, the US formally rejected most of China’s claims to the waters. The Trump administration has also sought cooperation from Asian countries to counter China in the region, something a Biden administration will likely continue.