China seems to have understood that Joe Biden’s South China Sea policy is going to be just as weak as his former boss, Barack Obama. Therefore, Beijing is testing Biden with the same tactics that it had once used to deceive and outdo Obama. China actually started by bringing in hundreds of vessels at Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea. Around 40 Chinese vessels are still deployed at the said Reef situated in the extreme Northeast of the Union Banks in the Spratly Islands. This has led to a major confrontation between the Philippines and China, but it is Biden whose capabilities are really being tested by the paper dragon.
Beijing is interestingly not even admitting that there is a face-off situation at the Whitsun Reef. When the news of Chinese boats in the hotly contested region first broke out, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying claimed that the vessels were only “taking shelter from the wind” and that the Philippines should actually view the situation in a “rational light.”
It is quite well understood that “shelter from the wind” is a mere smokescreen which China is using in order to effectuate its ambitions of occupying the Whitsun Reef.
Carl Schuster, a former operations director at US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center said, “If your goal is to take over a sea space and atoll without fighting for it, this is a brilliant if dishonest tactic.”
Schuster added, “Only professional seamen know it’s a lie — no one ‘shelters’ their ships in a storm area weeks ahead of a storm. If they truly are commercial craft, it is costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars a day having them sit idly lashed together.”
Yet, China believes that it can deceive Biden with its lies and therefore it has started probing whether the US President will actually do anything to deter Chinese manoeuvres in the region.
At least the Philippines does not seem very confident about the entire situation. Even Teodoro Locsin, the Foreign Affairs Secretary of the Philippines, criticised the Obama administration for failing to deter China during a similar incident in 2012 at the Scarborough Shoal. Obama’s failure to act against Chinese aggression at the time had actually encouraged Xi Jinping to execute his plans of militarising the South China Sea.
Bloomberg quoted Schuster as saying, “It is a test to see what the administration is willing to do.”
He added, “How the U.S. reacts will determine the next test. Right now, everything we have done is more rhetorical than substantive.”
Till now, the Biden administration has not gone beyond rhetoric in reference to the ongoing face-off at the Whitsun Reef. Last month, the US said that it stands by the Philippines and accused the paper dragon of using a “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke and threaten other nations.” Biden himself claimed that he would “hold China accountable to follow the rules”.
But now, Biden is facing a real test. The question is what will he do now. China, on its part, is going ahead with what is called a “gray zone” tactic. Beijing is using commercial fishing boats to pursue its geostrategic goals and at the same time, it is looking to deny that anything is amiss. The Biden administration will have to calibrate a response quickly, or else Biden will come out looking weak in face of Chinese aggression.
China’s fishing boats at Whitsun Reef are a giant smokescreen, and now it is for Biden to call Beijing’s bluff. Otherwise, Biden might end up failing at Whitsun Reef, just like Obama had failed at Scarborough Shoal.
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