Biden to warn Beijing against meddling in South China Sea

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President Joe Biden is warning of China's aggressive actions in the South China Sea this week during a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Two senior U.S. 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 used water cannons to prevent resupply of sailors aboard the corroded ship Sierra Madre. It has been locked in rock for 25 years.

Biden will insist that the US-Philippines mutual defense agreement applies to the Sierra Madre, which officials said he expressed “deep concern” when he spoke with President Xi Jinping on Monday.

“China is underestimating the escalation potential. We tried to make it clear in a series of conversations. . . Our mutual defense agreement covers Filipino seamen and ships and by extension. . . Sierra Madre,” an official told the Financial Times.

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

Admiral John Aquilino, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, issued a similar warning to representatives of recently retired Chinese military officers and former Chinese ambassador to the US Gui Tiancai, people familiar with the situation. Indo-Pcom did not comment. The Biden administration has enlisted other retired US officials to deliver similar personal messages to Beijing.

Officials said the US was wary of establishing a “red line” with Beijing. “If you give the Chinese a red line, they will not only do it, but they will do everything,” said one official.

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A second official said China's actions could fall below the threshold of U.S. obligations under the Mutual Security Treaty.

“The reality of their terms of engagement and the way responsibility is shaped ultimately means they don't have proper control over that reality,” the official said. “We don't want to artificially create a clean distinction when they themselves are not fully in control of their own actions.”

Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, said, “The biggest risk of direct US-China military conflict today is at a second Thomas Shoal.”

“If Beijing directly attacks Philippine ships or armed forces, Washington will be forced to retaliate,” he said. “There will be a major political crisis between the US and China, and at worst, a wider military conflict.”

Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez said he hoped the two allies would never have to implement the agreement, but warned that “we will not hesitate to do so” if warranted.

Second Thomas Shoal is one of the many contested features of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. In 1999 the Philippines ground the Sierra Madre on the reef as part of an effort to bolster its claims to the feature. The Philippine military has stationed marines on board and they must be resupplied from time to time.

China says Manila is bringing construction materials to the shoal to strengthen a rusting World War II-era ship that is in danger of breaking up. It also accuses Manila of reneging on a promise it made years ago to remove the ship – which the Philippines has reneged on.

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Dennis Wilder, a former CIA China analyst, said Beijing was trying to test what the U.S. response would be if China tried to destroy the ship by removing the Philippine navy from the Sierra Madre. He said he wanted to set up a military outpost on the reef, as he had done elsewhere in the South China Sea.

“A base close to the Philippines would protect China's claim to the area and provide a forward operating 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 US should take a tougher stance. “The United States should participate in joint resupply missions with Philippine forces and explore options to replace the deteriorating Philippine fleet,” 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 wrest control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines.”

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