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GORDON CHANG: Biden’s Warnings Fall Flat As China Swarms Key US Ally’s Waters

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Gordon G. Chang Contributor
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The Philippine Navy announced that during the afternoon of April 15 it had observed 55 Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea, Manila’s designation for the South China Sea.

China is swarming the waters of the Philippines, hoping to intimidate Manila into surrendering territory. President Joe Biden and the U.S. State Department keep on issuing warnings, but Chinese President Xi Jinping continues to ignore them, which suggests that deterrence is failing and an incident leading to war could occur at any time.

Of the vessels spotted Monday, 48 were from China’s maritime militia, six from the Chinese Coast Guard, and one from the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

China’s intrusions that day were spread across the South China Sea. Twenty-six of the vessels were spotted at Scarborough Shoal, six at Second Thomas Shoal, 20 near Pagasa Island, two near Panata Island, and the remaining one at Lawak Island.

Beijing claims all the features and waters inside its infamous “cow’s tongue,” now defined by ten dashes on official maps, which encloses about 85 percent of the South China Sea. Those waters, the Chinese proclaim, are its “blue national soil.”

China’s expansive claims to Philippine features in that body of water were invalidated in 2016 by a tribunal adjudicating Philippines vs. China, brought under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The U.S. Secretary of State at the time, John Kerry, said that Beijing should accept the 2016 ruling, but unfortunately also announced that Washington would not take sides. Backing Beijing’s position on talks, he then pressured Manila to negotiate with China. Kerry, in short, could not bring himself to uphold the centuries-old American policy of defending international waters and airspace.

Beijing, with virtually no legal support, has consistently maintained that the decision in favor of Manila “is illegal, null, and void.” “We do not accept or acknowledge the so-called award,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared on X on the 18th of this month.

Second Thomas Shoal, where Manila in 1999 grounded the Sierra Madre, a World War II-era vessel, is now a flashpoint. There, Chinese vessels have recently engaged in rammings, water-cannon attacks, and other dangerous acts. On March 5, China wounded four Filipino sailors at Second Thomas.

In response, the Biden State Department issued written warnings — two last month on March 5 and 23 — that the U.S. would use force against China to discharge its obligations pursuant to Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.

Biden has orally issued similar warnings, for instance on October 25 of last year and on April 11. On the 11th, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited the White House for defense talks, the first ever Japan-Philippines-U.S. trilateral summit.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s words and displays of solidarity have not impressed Xi. His blue, white, and gray hulls — the maritime militia, coast guard, and navy, respectively — have stepped up aggressive tactics.

Has deterrence failed? True, China has not recently landed troops at a Philippine island, shoal, or reef. Yet the persistent pressure applied to the Philippines suggests Xi is not terribly worried about America opposing his adventurism.

Why would he feel so bold? For one thing, the Clinton administration in 1995 did nothing after China seized and later fortified Mischief Reef, 130 nautical miles from the Philippine island of Palawan and in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

More recently, China took Scarborough Shoal. Philippine authorities there had lawfully detained Chinese poachers in early 2012, and China’s vessels then swarmed the feature, only 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon and about 550 nautical miles from China’s Hainan.

Washington then brokered an agreement for both sides to withdraw their craft, but only Manila complied. Beijing has been in firm control of Scarborough ever since. The Obama administration, while Vice President Biden was in charge of foreign policy, did not oppose the audacious Chinese seizure.

When Chinese leaders, generals and admirals saw Washington’s failure to act, they began moving against Second Thomas Shoal and other Philippine reefs and islets in the South China Sea, went after Japan’s islets in the East China Sea, and began reclaiming and militarizing features in the Spratly chain. Biden as vice president legitimized the worst elements in the Chinese political system by showing everyone that aggression works.

Now, Biden as president has legitimized hostile acts elsewhere. His foreign policy collapsed after the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Since then, Beijing has been waging proxy wars on three continents: Europe in Ukraine, Africa across its northern rim, and Asia in Israel and surrounding areas.

Biden’s failure to oppose China’s wars — he seems much more interested in restraining victim Israel than aggressor Iran — must be convincing Xi that he has a green light to do whatever he wants. After all, Xi apparently now believes he is boss of the world. “Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years,” the Chinese leader told Russian President Vladimir Putin after their 40th in-person chat, in Moscow on March 22 last year. “And we are driving this change together.”

Biden is now trying to reestablish deterrence. Britain and France desperately attempted to do that in late summer 1939 when they warned Germany that they would declare war if it invaded Poland. Then, German leaders did not believe the British and the French would in fact fight because for three years they had failed to make good on previous warnings.

The United States, therefore, is left with only risky options to deter China in the South China Sea. “Once a country loses credibility and prestige, it must fall back on military force to achieve its aims,” Gregory Copley, the president of the International Strategic Studies Association and editor-in-chief of Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, told this author. “The U.S. has lost both around the world.”

Thanks to Biden, America is now the Britain and France of our decade, and the world is again on the brink of global conflict. Some 55 craft in Philippine waters tell us that China thinks it has a free hand.

Republished with permission from the Gatestone Institute. Gordon G. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China and China Is Going to War,” a Gatestone Institute distinguished senior fellow, and a member of its Advisory Board. Follow Gordon G. Chang on X (formerly Twitter).

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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