Since coming into office, the Biden administration has made one of its top priorities strengthening relations with Asia – in part, to counter top rival China.
That priority will be tested in the South China Sea, where territorial disputes have long simmered between Brunei, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Beijing claims almost the entire body of water, which stretches across more than 1 million square miles, and has expanded its military presence by transforming tiny islands and reefs into airstrips. Tensions have been dialing up since March, when more than 200 Chinese vessels entered waters near Philippine islands.
In his first speech to Congress, President Joe Biden said he had told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that the United States intends to maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific, “not to start conflict but to prevent one.” The line between those two can be thin in this always-tense region, though. And with China-U.S. relations at their chilliest in decades, the South China Sea symbolizes a wider competition for influence between the world’s top two economies.