No Blinken in Beijing reset for the South China Sea

MANILA – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to China, the first in half a decade by a top US official, raised widespread hopes of a rapprochement between the world’s two leading and increasingly opposed powers. Blinken’s visit was supported by many regional states, especially in Southeast Asia, which has become a theater of competition between the two superpowers in recent years, most heatedly in the contested South China Sea. Yet just over a week later, the South China Sea remains a tinderbox amid a dearth of military-to-military diplomacy between the two superpowers, rising anti-China sentiments in certain parts of Asia and beyond, and growing US domestic skepticism about the desirability of a Sino-American détente. Heading into an election year, US President Joe Biden is in no position to appear weak in his dealing with China, which is now firmly in the firing line on both sides, Democratic and Republican, of the US political divide. Meanwhile, anti-Western hawks in China are demanding nothing less than a reversal of US sanctions, including those imposed on Defense Minister Li Shangfu, as well as withdrawal of the Pentagon’s assets from the Asian power’s peripheries to resume regular military communications. There is no sign any of that is about to happen. Meanwhile, China was particularly irked by the visit of a US aircraft carrier to Vietnam’s Da Nang Bay, the first such docking since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Sensing a long-term showdown between the two superpowers, China skeptics and nationalist elements in the Philippines are agitating for a harder policy line, including a proposal to take their South China Sea disputes with Beijing to the United Nations General Assembly. Indonesia, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is leading the way in holding the first-ever joint ASEAN naval exercises in September, though Jakarta recently shifted the proposed area for the drills outside of waters claimed by Beijing under its nine-dash line. Although reviving a semblance of diplomatic engagement, Blinken offered no concessions to China during his trip. If anything, top US officials have reiterated their commitment to continuously push back against Beijing’s wide-reaching maritime claims and rising naval assertiveness in the adjacent waters. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Chinese President Xi Jinping for roughly 35 minutes in the Great Hall of the People. Image: Pool / Facebook In response, ultranationalist elements in China have openly warned of military confrontation unless the US radically alters its ways in the region. The Global Times, a state-backed nationalist mouthpiece, recently warned, “military tensions between China and the US have yet to see an immediate de-escalation after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China,” since “both countries’ warships and warplanes, including aircraft carriers, spotted operating in sensitive waters in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea on China’s doorstep over the past few days.” The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier recently conducted drills with French, Japanese and Canadian warships in the Philippine Sea and East China Sea before crossing into the South China Sea for a port call in Vietnam, only the third since end of hostilities between the one-time adversaries.    “If the US really wants to control risks of accidents or seek dialogue, it should stop saying one thing and doing another, and stop making military provocations around China,” Chinese experts told the Global Times, referring specifically to the USS Ronald Reagan’s week-long deployment to the South China Sea. Meanwhile, pro-Beijing analysts such as Mark Valencia have warned of structural challenges for any sustainable Sino-American thaw, since “even if better military-to-military communications are reestablished, dangerous incidents will still occur…because they do not stem from misunderstandings and miscommunications but are rooted in deeper differences regarding the international order and strategic interests.” To be sure, there is not much domestic support for a US-China détente in America. The Pew Research Center’s latest poll shows historic levels of mistrust toward China – as well as doubt in the Biden administration’s ability to deal effectively with the rising superpower. More than four out of give Americans expressed unfavorable views of China compared to just over 50% a decade earlier. As many as two-thirds of Americans see Chinese military power as a “critical threat” in the coming decade, while a significant plurality expressed fears of a potential war over Taiwan. The poll shows public skepticism about Sino-American cooperation even supersedes early-Cold War era mistrust towards the Soviet Union. Crucially, as many as  65% of Americans were either “not too confident” or “not at all confident” in the Biden administration’s ability to strike a favorable d

No Blinken in Beijing reset for the South China Sea

MANILA – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to China, the first in half a decade by a top US official, raised widespread hopes of a rapprochement between the world’s two leading and increasingly opposed powers.

Blinken’s visit was supported by many regional states, especially in Southeast Asia, which has become a theater of competition between the two superpowers in recent years, most heatedly in the contested South China Sea.

Yet just over a week later, the South China Sea remains a tinderbox amid a dearth of military-to-military diplomacy between the two superpowers, rising anti-China sentiments in certain parts of Asia and beyond, and growing US domestic skepticism about the desirability of a Sino-American détente.

Heading into an election year, US President Joe Biden is in no position to appear weak in his dealing with China, which is now firmly in the firing line on both sides, Democratic and Republican, of the US political divide.

Meanwhile, anti-Western hawks in China are demanding nothing less than a reversal of US sanctions, including those imposed on Defense Minister Li Shangfu, as well as withdrawal of the Pentagon’s assets from the Asian power’s peripheries to resume regular military communications.

There is no sign any of that is about to happen. Meanwhile, China was particularly irked by the visit of a US aircraft carrier to Vietnam’s Da Nang Bay, the first such docking since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sensing a long-term showdown between the two superpowers, China skeptics and nationalist elements in the Philippines are agitating for a harder policy line, including a proposal to take their South China Sea disputes with Beijing to the United Nations General Assembly.

Indonesia, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is leading the way in holding the first-ever joint ASEAN naval exercises in September, though Jakarta recently shifted the proposed area for the drills outside of waters claimed by Beijing under its nine-dash line.

Although reviving a semblance of diplomatic engagement, Blinken offered no concessions to China during his trip. If anything, top US officials have reiterated their commitment to continuously push back against Beijing’s wide-reaching maritime claims and rising naval assertiveness in the adjacent waters.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Chinese President Xi Jinping for roughly 35 minutes in the Great Hall of the People. Image: Pool / Facebook

In response, ultranationalist elements in China have openly warned of military confrontation unless the US radically alters its ways in the region.

The Global Times, a state-backed nationalist mouthpiece, recently warned, “military tensions between China and the US have yet to see an immediate de-escalation after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China,” since “both countries’ warships and warplanes, including aircraft carriers, spotted operating in sensitive waters in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea on China’s doorstep over the past few days.”

The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier recently conducted drills with French, Japanese and Canadian warships in the Philippine Sea and East China Sea before crossing into the South China Sea for a port call in Vietnam, only the third since end of hostilities between the one-time adversaries.   

“If the US really wants to control risks of accidents or seek dialogue, it should stop saying one thing and doing another, and stop making military provocations around China,” Chinese experts told the Global Times, referring specifically to the USS Ronald Reagan’s week-long deployment to the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, pro-Beijing analysts such as Mark Valencia have warned of structural challenges for any sustainable Sino-American thaw, since “even if better military-to-military communications are reestablished, dangerous incidents will still occur…because they do not stem from misunderstandings and miscommunications but are rooted in deeper differences regarding the international order and strategic interests.”

To be sure, there is not much domestic support for a US-China détente in America. The Pew Research Center’s latest poll shows historic levels of mistrust toward China – as well as doubt in the Biden administration’s ability to deal effectively with the rising superpower. More than four out of give Americans expressed unfavorable views of China compared to just over 50% a decade earlier.

As many as two-thirds of Americans see Chinese military power as a “critical threat” in the coming decade, while a significant plurality expressed fears of a potential war over Taiwan. The poll shows public skepticism about Sino-American cooperation even supersedes early-Cold War era mistrust towards the Soviet Union.

Crucially, as many as  65% of Americans were either “not too confident” or “not at all confident” in the Biden administration’s ability to strike a favorable deal with China.

Heading into a tough and polarizing re-election campaign in the coming months, with the next presidential poll held in November 2024, Biden is in no political position to offer any meaningful concessions to China, even if he meets President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of summits in Asia (G20) and the US (APEC) later this year.

Rising anti-China sentiments are mirrored in America’s former colony, the Philippines. Latest surveys show that the Asian superpower is mistrusted by as many as seven out of 10 Filipinos. Sensing an opportunity for a more confrontational policy, nationalist elements in the Philippines are upping the ante in the South China Sea.

Former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who played a key role in his country’s historic arbitration award victory against China in 2016 at an arbitral tribunal at The Hague, is pushing for new diplomatic measures to deter China in the contested sea.

In particular, he has called on the Philippine government to take the arbitral award under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which China has duly ignored, to the UN General Assembly.

“That will be put to a vote. I think we will win there [since] the majority of the members of the [General Assembly] are coastal states. They are afraid that their big neighbors might seize their exclusive economic zones,” the former magistrate said in a forum last month.

With the Ferdinand Marcos Jr administration largely dispensing with its predecessor’s pro-China policies and instead expanding defense ties with the West, a number of senators have publicly backed Carpio’s proposal.

Leading opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros recently filed a resolution that calls on the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to seek the UN General Assembly’s support against China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

“It’s also based on my belief that the UN must be able to tell China to ‘stop what you’re doing and start behaving properly,’” Hontiveros said, emphasizing the need for soliciting “meaningful political weight” against Beijing in global platforms.

A Philippine flag flutters as the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) anchors off Manila Bay, June 26, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Ted Aljibe
A Philippine flag flutters as the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) anchors off Manila Bay, June 26, 2018. The US warship was recently back in the neighborhood. Photo: AFP/ Ted Aljibe

Crucially, even staunch allies of former president Rodrigo Duterte, who actively courted China and soft-pedaled the two sides’ maritime disputes, are also now taking a tougher stance.

Senator Francis Tolentino, Duterte’s former political adviser, has  called for the formation of a “new Quad” with allies the US, Japan and Australia to counter China, while also backing Caprio’s proposal for a more aggressive diplomatic offensive against China.

“I think Carpio is right to elevate this to the consciousness of the member states of the [UNGA] since China has been disregarding the arbitral ruling,” declared Tolentino, who specializes in international law.

“But we have all the documents, not just the arbitral ruling, but also [the reports on] the bullying and other violations that China has been committing in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian