China ups ante in South China Sea

TO THE QUICK - Jerry Tundag (The Freeman) - January 27, 2021 - 12:00am

After patiently waiting with the rest of the world to see who emerges as the next American leader and seeing that it was going to be Joe Biden, China, its calculations long made and done, acted swiftly to preempt everyone in the South China Sea. It authorized its Coast Guard, civilian in nature in virtually all countries, to fire at any foreign vessel that might stand in the way of China's interests in the disputed waterway.

Whatever foreign policy Biden may have started toying with for the South China Sea, he is now confronted with the need to rethink and reconfigure clearly. He could not have anticipated the strange but effective new marching order. Involving the Coast Guard was a stroke of genius for China, even if highly risky and dangerous. It now broadens the scope of what China can enforce, and how, according to its laws.

The order frees up the Chinese People's Liberation Army navy to concentrate on purely sovereign state security matters in a vital seaway through which trillions of US dollars’ worth of commerce sail annually. The Chinese Coast Guard, on the other hand, can now police the area to enforce more civilian-in-nature interests with a decidedly military approach like it had always loved to do but had a hard time doing.

I have a strong suspicion that going into his presidency, Biden must have considered nothing more substantial than tweaking the long-standing US policy in the South China Sea of just jawing at China, like confronting the emerging giant with simple freedom of navigation sail-throughs. Such jawing at China will no longer be enough once China's Coast Guard starts firing at the puny vessels, military or otherwise, of the other claimants.

The US is not a claimant to anything in the South China Sea. That is why it has to be very cool and calculating in plotting and carrying out its moves in the disputed area. Its interests lie solely in keeping the area free to the flow of commerce. But such commerce is not exclusive to America. The rest of the world also needs the waterway for their own goods.

And that is why Biden's predecessor Donald Trump correctly tried to involve the navies of other countries in patrolling the area and had been successful with at least Australia and Japan. But commerce and sovereign issues are never the same. If things become too hot in the area and make it untenable for commercial purposes, other routes can be found and charge the added cost to overhead.

But sovereign issues can never be compromised. Unfortunately, it is in sovereign issues that America is least committed. Its borders are secure thousands of miles away. The closest to anything sovereign America can get is its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, a claimant to sovereign rights in the area.

But the mutuality of that mutual defense treaty is untested. The treaty bound the two countries to interests that arose in the cold war and therefore largely American. With no sovereign interest in the South China Sea, Biden will do no policy shift in the area, the US will just maintain the noise and rattle its sabre, but never unsheathe it, not even for the Philippines. At best it can just give the sabre to the Philippines and let it fight its own war.

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