May 21, 2024


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Biden warns Beijing against interfering in the South China Sea

Biden warns Beijing against interfering in the South China Sea

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

Two senior US officials said Biden will express grave concern about the situation around Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands where the Chinese Coast Guard used water cannons to prevent the Philippines from resupplying Marines on the Sierra Madre, a rusting ship. Which has been placed on the reef for 25 years.

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

“China is downplaying the possibility of escalation. We have tried to make this clear in a series of talks… that our mutual defense treaty covers Filipino sailors and ships and therefore… the Sierra Madre,” one of the officials told the Financial Times.

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

Adm. John Aquilino, head of U.S. 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 United States, according to people familiar with the situation. IndoPacom did not comment. The Biden administration has also recruited other retired US officials to deliver similar special messages to Beijing.

The officials said the United States was wary of setting a “red line” with Beijing. “If you give the Chinese a red line, they will go below that and do everything else,” one official said.

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The second official said China may believe its actions fall below the threshold for US obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty.

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

“The greatest risk of a direct military confrontation between the United States and China today is at Second Thomas Schull,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund.

She added: “If Beijing directly attacks ships or the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Washington will be forced to respond.” A major political crisis between the United States and China would entail, in the worst case, a broader military conflict.

Jose Manuel Romualdez, the Philippines' ambassador to the United States, said the two allies hope the treaty will never be invoked, but warned: “We will not hesitate to do so” if necessary.

Second Thomas Shoal is one of several disputed features in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines installed the Sierra Madre on the reef in 1999 as part of its efforts to strengthen its claim to the feature. The Philippine Army has deployed marines on board the ship who need to be resupplied periodically.

China says Manila is bringing construction materials to the shoal to reinforce the rusting World War II-era ship, which is in danger of disintegration. It also accuses Manila of reneging on its promise made years ago to remove the ship, an allegation the Philippines has rejected.

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Dennis Wilder, a former senior CIA China analyst, said Beijing is trying to test the US response if China tries to remove Philippine Marines from the Sierra Madre and destroy the ship. He said it might want 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 secure China’s claims in the region and provide a forward location for combat operations against US forces operating from Philippine territory in the Taiwan Strait conflict,” Wilder said.

Jeff Smith, an Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, said the United States should adopt a tougher stance. “The United States should engage in joint resupply missions with Philippine forces and explore options to replace the deteriorated Philippine ship,” he said.

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