Response to Biden’s Backing of Trump Policy on South China Sea


CONTACT: Jessica Rosenblum, [email protected], 202.800.4662

WASHINGTON, DC — Quincy Institute’s East Asia Director Michael Swaine issued the following statement in response to the Biden administration’s announcement that the Biden administration would uphold a Trump-era rejection of nearly all of China’s significant maritime claims in the South China Sea:

“Blinken used the anniversary of the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea to repeat the usual mantra about observing the “rules-based international order,” which the U.S. government has violated on many occasions and has yet to define clearly. But more than this, Blinken’s comment reflects the United States’ default in handling China: emphasizing criticism and deterrence above virtually all else. It is a limited tool box and, in the case of the South China Sea issue, is in many ways counterproductive.  

Where is the overarching U.S.-China strategy that combines deterrence with engagement and– yes– in some areas reassurance? China is not going to put its hands up and cry “surrender” in the South China Sea because the United States beats the deterrence drum yet again. And Washington is not going to go to war with a nuclear-armed China over disputed rocks in the area, or in defense of a treaty (UNCLOS) that it has itself never ratified. So what exactly is the strategy? More Freedom of Navigation operations by US warships to challenge China’s maritime claims? More bluster?  

Yes, China’s claims in the South China Sea are excessive, alongside those of others, and it does bully others over them and should be called on that. But the only real way to stabilize the area is for the United States to promote restraint in the use of force through explicit pledges by all parties, the placing of limits on militarization, and clear pledges not to restrict commercial shipping.  

None of this will happen through bilateral posturing and tit-for-tat saber rattling. If China will not cooperate in creating such understandings, then other claimants will need to overcome the sharp differences that exist among themselves and develop more effective defense measures, most likely with U.S. assistance. But that should not be the “go-to” option for the U.S. at present. Multilateral diplomacy, restraint, and clearer U.S. actions in defining and supporting international law-based regimes are needed to eliminate charges of hypocrisy.”