Days before Joseph Biden takes his oath as the 46th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump steered his country to a dangerous, head-on collision with the emerging global power, China, over two sensitive issues.
US State Secretary Mike Pompeo has lifted all restrictions in engaging with Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province and would not discount using force to reunite the tiny island with the mainland.
Then, Pompeo pushed China harder against the wall by taking more action, including visa restrictions, against some Chinese officials and private individuals linked to the maritime dispute to preserve a “free and open” South China Sea.
China reacted angrily, raising temperatures in the strategic waterway in which the Philippines has national interests, claiming parts of the sea believed to have rich deposits of energy resources.
As Biden takes over the White House, will he reverse Trump’s policies on China? Will the United States and China enter a new phase in their bilateral relations?
Under Trump, China was regarded as a serious threat to American military and economic supremacy in the world. Tensions between the two powers escalated as the friction went beyond from Taiwan and South China Sea to space, trade, and technology,
Trump has banned American investors from pouring capital into Chinese companies linked to the People’s Liberation Army, delisting some companies in the US capital markets.
The Trump administration feared China has been taking advantage of its close cooperation with American engineers, scientists and businessmen by stealing American technology to catch up and even overtake the US in the field of defense, space, engineering and science and technology.
China hopes to have improved relations with the United States as it prepares to send high-level government and business delegations to Washington once Biden settles in.
However, it is too early to predict warm and friendly relations between Washington and Beijing as there are pressures for Biden to keep the pressure on China to become a more responsible member of the international community.
Biden is expected to push Chinese leader Xi Jinping to improve the
human rights situation, not only in western province of Xinjiang but also in tiny Hong Kong as authorities have been cracking down on pro-democracy activists and legislators.
There were other indications Biden might not abandon Trump’s anti-China policies, although there could be some slight modifications as Trump left no room for closer cooperation and friendship.
Biden’s appointment of Kurt Campbell as his key Asia policy expert at the national security council could signal a change in policy towards China.
As the key architect of the Obama-era “pivot to Asia” policy, Campbell would like to see a less ambivalent and firmer United States to engage with a more assertive China, which has built island-fortresses in the disputed sea, intruded more often in East China Sea, threatened Taiwan with invasion, took more repressive actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and challenged India in the Himalayas.
Campbell was also worried that China was using economic coercion not only with smaller countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia but with larger countries, like Australia.
But, unlike Trump who attempted to exclude China in building a new security and economic architecture, Campbell would like Beijing to take part in international decision-making, recognizing small states’ apprehension of taking sides between two powers as what Trump had envisioned in his Indo-Pacific strategy.
Trump’s containment strategy by enlisting Australia, India and Japan through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and probably later, South Korea and Southeast Asian allies and partners, has only increased tensions with China, bringing them closer to potentially dangerous limited conflicts in the region.
Campbell’s “pivot to Asa” calls for the dispersal of US forces, which are based in South Korea, Japan and Guam, to more areas in the Indo-Pacific to make them less vulnerable to attacks.
But it suggested Campbell would not totally abandon American military supremacy in the region. Biden has also earlier indicated he would not abandon Trump’s elevated tariffs imposed on China’s exports to protect its economy which had suffered from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic — the two priority domestic concerns.
The Philippines, as a traditional security ally of the United States, could be dragged into the US-China friction as Washington seeks to maintain its supremacy in the region.
Under Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr, the Philippines has found a voice to resist Chinese encroachment into its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), filing dozens of diplomatic protests since he took over in 2018.
Locsin has single-handedly restored the country’s pride as President Rodrigo Duterte and officials around him have remained submissive to China, appeasing Beijing every time the Department of Foreign Affairs made a protest.
Locsin’s confidence in challenging China comes from the backing he is getting from the United States, which in July announced a policy taking a position to support the Philippines in its arbitration victory at the Hague in 2016.
The US military has also made dozens of freedom of navigation patrol operations in the South China Sea and was joined by other countries like Australia, India, Japan and some Western European countries.
Campbell’s idea of bringing in China into the international decision-making was a good idea. It will reduce tension in the region as it will not compel Southeast Asian states, including the Philippines, to choose which side to support, an unwise move that could break up the cohesion of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
At the annual meetings of Asean, there were indications the bloc was becoming more polarized between China and the United States.
Brunei, Cambodia and Laos are fiercely loyal to Beijing but Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam are allied with Washington. Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand are gravitating towards China.
But the limited presence of American forces in the Philippines makes the country an ally of the United States despite Duterte’s effort to slide to China.
Campbell’s proposal to disperse the US military would make the Philippines a potential base for American military projection because of its strategic location, close to the main theater of action in Taiwan Straits and South China Sea.
The United States has access to five local military bases in the country under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the US might be planning to expand its presence if Campbell’s proposal would push through.
Last year, Locsin argued for a permanent US presence to counter China’s creeping influence in the region and help the country fight Islamist militancy in the south.
Duterte is stepping down in June 2022 and it is still uncertain who will replace him and the next leader could swing back the country to the United States, allowing more US troops in the country.
Little changes are expected in Washington’s China policies under Biden. The US-China rivalry will remain and the Philippines can be caught in the middle of this big power game.