Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Chinese Military Takes Aim While Biden’s China Strategy Takes Shape

Sean Quirk
Wednesday, February 17, 2021, 9:01 AM

A Chinese simulated strike on a U.S. aircraft carrier, naval operations in the South China Sea and Biden’s ally-focused China strategy.

The Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz Carrier Strike Groups conduct dual-carrier operations in the South China Sea on Feb. 9, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt)

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The U.S. and Chinese militaries have continued to confront one another near Taiwan and in the South China Sea in the early weeks of the Biden administration. Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft conducted a simulated strike against a U.S. aircraft carrier in January 2021, while Taiwan has experienced near-daily incursions into its airspace by Chinese aircraft. The U.S. Navy’s persistent operations in the South China Sea and diplomatic pronouncements from senior U.S. officials indicate that the Biden administration is largely staying the course in confronting Chinese intimidation in the region. Yet, unlike the Trump administration, Biden and his team appear keen to bring U.S. allies alongside to form a “united front” on military, economic and diplomatic dimensions of the U.S.-China relationship.

Tension Near Taiwan

On Jan. 23, Chinese military aircraft simulated an attack on the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) Carrier Strike Group as it entered the South China Sea through the Bashi Channel, south of Taiwan. Thirteen Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force Navy (PLAN) aircraft flew into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) when the simulated attack occurred. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense reported the Chinese aircraft consisted of eight H-6K bombers, four J-16 fighter jets and one Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft. The PLA aircraft remained more than 250 nautical miles away from the Theodore Roosevelt but were heard confirming orders for the simulated release of anti-ship missiles against the carrier. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command stated that the carrier strike group was conducting routine maritime security operations in the South China Sea and the Chinese aircraft “at no time” posed a threat.

The United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) exchanged accusations about the PLA aircraft. The U.S. State Department spokesperson noted a “pattern of ongoing PRC attempts to intimidate” Taiwan, adding that the U.S.-Taiwan relationship was “rock-solid.” He called on Beijing to “cease its military, diplomatic and economic pressure against Taiwan.” On Jan. 24, the day after the U.S. statement, an even larger group of 15 PLA aircraft, including 12 fighters, entered Taiwan’s ADIZ. The ADIZ lies between the southern end of Taiwan and the Taiwan-controlled (but PRC-claimed) Pratas Islands (Mandarin: Dōngshā Qúndǎo). In response to questions about the Chinese aircraft, a spokesperson for the PRC Ministry of Defense said that “Taiwan independence means war.” He stated that the aircraft were in response to “external interference and provocations by ‘Taiwan independence’ forces.”

Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s airspace have increased dramatically over the past two years. PLA aircraft started crossing the Taiwan Strait in March 2019, after nearly two decades of both militaries staying on either side of the strait’s “median line.” The PLA then conducted near-daily incursions into Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ in 2020. However, these common sorties usually consist of one to three surveillance aircraft, not the dozen or so bombers and fighters seen Jan. 23–24. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense began publishing real-time updates about the ADIZ incursions in September 2020.

On Feb. 4, the USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) transited the Taiwan Strait, marking the first such transit under the Biden administration and of 2021. In 2020, the U.S. Navy conducted 13 Taiwan Strait transits and broke its 2016 record of 12 transits. USNI News reported that two PLAN guided-missile frigates shadowed the John S. McCain during its recent transit. A spokesperson for the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “China paid close attention to and monitored from start to end the passage of [the John S. McCain].”

U.S. Operations in the South China Sea and Beyond

Soon after its Taiwan Strait transit, the John S. McCain conducted a freedom of navigation operation near the Paracel Islands (Mandarin: Xīshā Qúndǎo; Vietnamese: Quần đảo Hoàng Sa) in the South China Sea on Feb. 5. It was the first freedom of navigation operation of the Biden administration. In a detailed press release, the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet said that the operation upheld international law “by challenging the unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and also by challenging China’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands.” The PRC invaded and seized the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam in 1974. The PRC has since occupied the Paracels, claiming a straight baseline around the island chain as a mid-ocean archipelago since 1996. Under Articles 7 and 47 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), only archipelagic states—not continental states like China—can draw such straight baselines around island groups. The Seventh Fleet said that through Beijing’s straight baseline claim around the Paracels, “China has attempted to claim more internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf than it is entitled to under international law.”

On Feb. 9, the Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz (CVN 68) Carrier Strike Groups conducted dual-carrier operations in the South China Sea. The carrier strike group commanders said that the operations served “to show our partners and allies in the region that we are committed to promoting a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” as well as to ensure “the lawful use of the sea that all nations enjoy under international law.” The Global Times, a newspaper run by the Chinese Communist Party, dismissed the dual-carrier operations, saying “the US is fully aware of the power of China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles.” The Global Times also cited a PRC analyst for the proposition that the operations were “a move by some hardliners in the new US administration aimed at pressuring China and displaying strength to US allies in the region.” Following the last U.S. dual-carrier operations in the South China Sea in July 2020, the PLA launched multiple DF-26 and DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles (so-called “carrier killers”) into the South China Sea.

Earlier, on Jan. 28, members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad: Australia, India, Japan and the United States) and Canada completed Sea Dragon 2021, a multilateral anti-submarine warfare exercise in Guam. Maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft from the U.S. Navy, Royal Australian Air Force, Japan Maritime Self Defense Force, Indian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force participated in the annual exercise. The U.S. Navy said the exercise aimed to demonstrate advanced anti-submarine warfare tactics and strengthen alliances and partnerships in the Pacific. The Quad’s militaries last conducted joint anti-submarine warfare training during the Malabar Exercise off India in November 2020.

Biden’s Emerging China Strategy

Amid official phone calls between Biden administration officials and their foreign counterparts, Biden’s China strategy has begun to take shape. The Biden administration has thus far been in tune with the Trump administration on U.S. engagement with India vis-a-vis China. On Jan. 27, the White House published a readout between U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. Sullivan reaffirmed the Biden administration’s commitment to a U.S.-India strategic partnership based on a “shared commitment to democracy.” The two men also discussed “close cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region” for regional security.

The call follows outgoing U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien’s Jan. 15 declassification and publication of the 2018 U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific. The framework served as the “overarching strategic guidance” for the implementation of Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy and stated that a “strong India … would act as a counterbalance to China.” The framework’s “desired end states” included cooperating with India “to preserve maritime security and counter Chinese influence in South and Southeast Asia” and seeing that India “takes the leading role in maintaining Indian Ocean security.”

A Feb. 8 phone call between President Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi affirmed “continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad.” India is the only country in the Quad that is not a treaty ally of the United States, and its continuous border clashes reveal significant tensions with China. PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi has derided the Quad as an “Indo-Pacific NATO” that would undermine regional security.

On Feb. 10, the White House published a much less cordial readout of the first official phone call between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which reportedly lasted two hours. Biden affirmed “preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific”' as a U.S. priority. The readout indicated areas of potential U.S.-China cooperation in climate change, global health security and weapons nonproliferation. But Biden also “underscored” concerns about Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Beijing’s “increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan.” In contrast, reports from the Chinese government-controlled media emphasized the cordiality of the phone call, while also stating, “Taiwan, Hong Kong-related issues, and Xinjiang-related issues are China’s internal affairs, which are related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Prior to the Biden-Xi call, “senior administration officials” from the White House outlined Biden’s five-part strategy toward China. The strategy consists of (a) rebuilding the “home front” by repairing the U.S. economy; (b) engaging allies, particularly “the Quad”; (c) investing in the technology sector; (d) conducting a China trade policy “off the baseline” of Trump’s tariffs; and (e) maintaining a strong defense posture. Officials highlighted that the U.S. Navy under the Biden administration had already conducted a South China Sea freedom of navigation operation, transited the Taiwan Strait and conducted naval exercises with regional partners.

Biden officials have also drawn parallels to the Trump administration for their strategy. One senior official stated, “We looked at what the Trump administration did over the last four years and found merit in the basic proposition of an intense strategic competition with China,” despite the “deep problems with the way in which the Trump administration went about that competition.” Such a sentiment echoes Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s Senate confirmation testimony, in which he said “President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China,” even though he “disagree[d]” with the manner in which Trump implemented his policies.

Perhaps the principal feature distinguishing the Trump and Biden approaches is the latter’s emphasis on alliances. Biden held numerous phone calls with allies prior to his call with Xi—a move administration officials said was intentional in order to repair the frayed alliances the administration inherited from Trump. From demanding more financial contributions from South Korea and Japan for hosting U.S. troops to withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the Trump administration was often at odds with the allies it needed to compete with the PRC. Biden’s pre-Xi calls included those with the heads of state of—in chronological order—Japan, South Korea, Australia and India. Biden’s official call with Xi also followed “extensive consultations” with U.S. allies in Europe about a new China strategy, as well as a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Biden has argued for a “a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behavior” in trade.

Earlier the same day as the Biden-Xi call, Biden launched a Pentagon review of his administration’s defense approach to China. A Department of Defense China task force “will study the [U.S.] military’s footprint in Asia, technology, intelligence, the role of allies and partnerships, and other areas of the strategy,” according to administration officials. The administration aims to add military perspectives to a China strategy in what Biden says “will require a whole-of-government effort, bipartisan cooperation in Congress and strong alliances and partnerships.” According to the Wall Street Journal, the task force is likely to assess the requirement and frequency of U.S. freedom of navigation operations to counter Chinese maritime claims. A Jan. 27 call between Secretary Blinken and his Philippine counterpart reaffirmed that the United States rejects China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea that exceed those permitted under UNCLOS. Blinken also “pledged to stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC pressure.” A Feb. 4 call between Blinken and his Vietnamese counterpart similarly expressed protecting “a rules-based South China Sea.”


At the Diplomat, Yoshiyuki Ogasawara argues that the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands may be the “new flashpoint in the South China Sea.” Ogasawara says that only 500 Taiwanese Marines are stationed there, and it would be “almost impossible to defend” should the PRC attempt to seize it. Almost equidistant (170 to 265 nautical miles) from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines, the Pratas Islands lie at the northern end of the South China Sea and could function as a “gatekeeper” for the PRC to monitor foreign navies entering the contested sea. Ogasawara argues that the PLA’s frequent military exercises in the area—such as the Taiwan ADIZ incursions—may be “an apparent attempt to cut off the supply line between the Pratas Islands and the island of Taiwan.” In October 2020, Hong Kong air traffic controllers blocked a Taiwanese military-charter plane from entering Hong Kong airspace enroute to Pratas.

(Although not mentioned by Ogasawara, five Hong Kong activists fled the city by boat in July 2020 and reportedly made it to Pratas before being transferred to Taiwan by the Taiwan Coast Guard. If Pratas becomes a passageway to Taiwan for pro-democracy activists fleeing Hong Kong, Beijing could become incensed and respond with force.) Ogasawara concludes that President Xi may decide to seize Pratas to show some “progress” toward the unification of Taiwan for the centennial anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021, while avoiding the robust U.S. response that might follow a PRC invasion of Taiwan itself.

Sean Quirk is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School. He holds a BA in Political Science from Columbia University and served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy for five years. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency of the United States Government.

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