Elections have consequences, both domestic and foreign. There is a consensus among China observers that Beijing hopes for a Joe Biden win this November, because the last time Biden was in charge, as vice president of the United States, China completed its control of the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is one of the most important bodies of water on the planet. Besides China, multiple nations including Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines have their own, sometimes overlapping, claims to portions of the South China Sea. In addition to historic claims, according to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a nation has sovereignty over waters extending twelve nautical miles from its land and exclusive control over economic activities 200 nautical miles out into the ocean.
However, using its own map with a “nine-dash line,” China claims that it has historic rights to about 90 percent of the South China Sea, including those areas that run as far as 1,200 miles from mainland China and which fall within 100 miles of the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. No other country in the world either recognizes the legitimacy of China’s nine-dash–line map or its historic claim.
The disputes between China and its neighboring Asian countries are not simply about who has the rightful claim historically but are predominantly about economic rights. The South China Sea is rich with natural resources such as oil and gas. It accounts for 10 percent of the world’s fisheries and has provided food and a way of living for millions of people in the region for centuries. The region is also one of the busiest trading routes, with about one-third of global shipping and more than $3 trillion worth of global trade passing through this area annually.
When Xi Jinping became Communist China’s supreme leader in 2013, he regarded transforming China into a maritime power, including the expansion in the South China Sea, as a key component to his great Chinese rejuvenation. According to the Chinese Communist Party’s own publication, “On the South China Sea issue, [Xi] personally made decisions on building islands and consolidating the reefs, and setting up the city of Sansha. [These decisions] fundamentally changed the strategic situation of the South China Sea.”
China started land-reclamation efforts in the South China Sea in 2013. Beijing initially proceeded slowly and cautiously while evaluating the Obama-Biden administration’s reaction. It sent a dredger to Johnson South Reef in the Spratly archipelago. The dredger was so powerful that it was able to create eleven hectares of a new island in less than four months with the protection of a Chinese warship.
When it became clear that the Obama-Biden administration wouldn’t do anything serious to push back, China ramped up its island-building activities. China insisted that its land-reclamation efforts were for peaceful purposes, such as fishing and energy exploration. However, satellite images show there are runways, ports, aircraft hangars, radar and sensor equipment, and military buildings on these manmade islands.
Noticing the Obama-Biden administration’s unwillingness to push back on China’s island-building activities, China’s smaller neighbors decided to find other means of addressing the crisis at hand. In 2013, the Philippines filed an arbitration case under the UNCLOS over China’s claims of sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected the majority of China’s claim of the South China Sea. It also ruled that China’s island build-up was not only unlawful but also a blatant violation of the Philippines’ economic rights and that it “had caused severe environmental harm to reefs in the chain.” Beijing chose to ignore the ruling and press ahead with more island construction and militarization.
Without U.S. intervention, small countries such as the Philippines have little means to enforce the ruling and halt China’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea. Former U.S. defense secretary Ash Carter criticized the Obama-Biden administration for giving Beijing a rare strategic opening for its island-building. As the Obama administration stood by, China was able to reclaim an estimated 3,200 acres of land on seven features in the South China Sea.
The Obama-Biden administration bore the prime responsibility for not forcefully stopping China’s South China Sea expansion early on. The administration’s soft approach and wishful thinking gave China a four-year strategic window to turn the South China Sea into China’s backyard pond and the most dangerous water on this planet, a reality the rest of the world now has to live with.
It was reported that between 2010 and 2016, 32 out of the 45 major incidents reported in the South China Sea involved at least one Chinese ship. Fishermen from the Philippines and Vietnam can’t even fish in their own nations’ water safely without being harassed by Chinese coastal guards and militarized Chinese fishing boats. The Chinese Navy also has responded to the U.S. Navy’s “freedom of navigation” operations in an increasingly defiant and aggressive manner. Some national-security experts predict that the first real Sino–U.S. war could be fought in the South China Sea.
The Trump administration ended China’s unchallenged expansion in the South China Sea by announcing in July that the United States supports the 2016 Hague ruling and opposes several of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. In the same month, the U.S. Navy also sent two aircraft carriers to waters near the South China Sea when China held a large military exercise. Following the U.S. lead, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, who had appeased Beijing since he came to office in 2016, recently told Beijing to follow international law, including The Hague ruling to resolve any dispute in the South China Sea.
Biden might have adopted harsh rhetoric against China, but his past actions — and inactions — speak louder than his words. The last time when Biden was in charge, China completed its expansion in the South China Sea. Should Biden get elected this November, Beijing believes that Biden is someone it could do business with and expects him to revise the Trump administration’s hard line policies toward China. The recent revelation of Hunter Biden’s questionable dealings in China shows that Beijing has invested heavily to cultivate a good relationship with the Biden family for decades. A four-year Biden presidency will likely give China’s Xi ample time to fulfill his ambition: putting the final building blocks of a Sino-centric world order, turning China into a technology powerhouse through the completion of the “Made in China 2025” initiative, and possibly taking Taiwan by force.