Biden to warn Beijing against meddling in South China Sea


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President Joe Biden will warn China about its increasingly aggressive activity in the South China Sea this week during summits with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Two senior US officials said Biden would express serious concern about the situation around the Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands where the Chinese coast guard has used water cannons to prevent the Philippines from resupplying marines on the Sierra Madre, a rusting ship that has been lodged on the reef for 25 years.

Biden will stress that the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Sierra Madre, said the officials, adding that he expressed “deep concern” when he spoke to President Xi Jinping on Monday.

“China is underestimating the potential for escalation. We’ve tried to make that clear in a series of conversations . . . that our mutual defence treaty covers Philippine sailors and ships and by extension . . . the Sierra Madre,” one official told the Financial Times.

“China needs to examine its tactics or risk some serious blowback.”

Admiral John Aquilino, head of US Indo-Pacific command, recently issued a similar warning to a delegation of retired Chinese military officers and Cui Tiankai, China’s former ambassador to the US, according to people familiar with the situation. Indo-Pacom did not comment. The Biden administration has also enlisted other retired US officials to deliver similar private messages to Beijing.

The officials said the US was wary of establishing a “red line” with Beijing. “If you give the Chinese a red line, they will go just short of that and do everything but,” said one official.

The second official said China may think its actions fall below the threshold of the US commitments under the mutual defence treaty.

“The reality of their rules of engagement and the way that responsibility evolves may mean that ultimately they don’t have perfect control over that fact,” the official said. “We would not want to create an artificially clean distinction when they themselves are not fully able to control their own actions.”

 Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, said the “greatest risk of a direct US-China military confrontation today is at Second Thomas Shoal”.

“If Beijing directly attacks Philippine ships or armed forces, Washington would be compelled to respond,” she said. “A major political crisis between the US and China would ensue, and, at worst, a wider military conflict.”

Jose Manuel Romualdez, Philippine ambassador to the US, said the two allies hoped that the treaty would never have to be invoked, but warned, “we will not hesitate to do so” if warranted.

The Second Thomas Shoal is one of many contested features in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines grounded the Sierra Madre on the reef in 1999 as part of its effort to reinforce its claims to the feature. The Philippines military has stationed marines on the ship who need to be periodically resupplied.

China says Manila is bringing construction materials to the shoal to reinforce the rusty second world war-era ship, which is at risk of disintegrating. It also accuses Manila of reneging on a promise years ago to remove the ship — a claim that the Philippines has rejected.

Dennis Wilder, a former top CIA China analyst, said Beijing was trying to test what the US response would be if China attempted to remove the Philippine marines from the Sierra Madre and destroy the vessel. He said it probably wanted to build a military outpost on the reef as it has done elsewhere in the South China Sea.

“A base closer to the Philippines would both secure China’s claim in the area and provide a forward operating location for combat operations against US forces operating from Philippine territory in a Taiwan Strait conflict,” said Wilder. 

Jeff Smith, an Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, said the US should adopt a tougher stance. “The US should participate in joint resupply missions with Filipino forces and explore options to replace the deteriorating Filipino ship,” he said.

“The US cannot repeat the same mistakes it made in 2012, when China set a terrible precedent by using military coercion to seize control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines.”

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