In the short time since President Joe Biden was sworn into office, China has flown more than two dozen combat aircraft near to the self-ruled island of Taiwan and passed a law allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels. Meanwhile, the US Navy has sent an aircraft carrier strike group into the South China Sea.
Analysts say such moves are likely only the beginning of what is expected to be a potentially uneasy initial relationship between the new Biden administration and Beijing.
“China often uses a series of ‘tests’ to determine a competitor’s intentions or willingness to respond to China’s actions,” said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.
Next steps from Beijing could include large-scale military exercises near Taiwan or in the South China Sea, or stopping foreign vessels in the name of enforcing Chinese maritime regulations, Schuster said.
Beijing will be trying to determine where the Biden administration’s “red lines” are, added Schuster.
But incoming Biden Cabinet secretaries have made clear where his administration will stand on Chinese territorial claims in the Indo-Pacific.
“I think China is our most challenging, our most significant challenge going forward,” new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told his confirmation hearing last week.
The Defense Department would focus on convincing China, or any adversary, that taking on the US military would be “a very bad idea,” Austin said.
Here’s a look at the three key flashpoints between the two sides:
The South China Sea
China claims almost all of the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea. Since 2014 it has built up tiny reefs and sandbars into man-made artificial islands, fortified with missiles, runways and weapons systems – antagonizing governments with overlapping claims, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Washington doesn’t recognize those claims and regularly sends US warships and military aircraft through the region.