Michele Flournoy, formerly an under-secretary of defence in the Obama administration, has been floated as a potential pick for Defence Secretary under the President-elect. But Ms Flournoy has previously suggested American forces should be placed in the South China Sea to increase deterrence. The contested waters have been central to the US’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific, with President Donald Trump’s senior staffers and Chinese officials sparring over claims of “sovereignty” in the ocean.
Ms Flournoy wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs earlier this year calling for a boost in the American naval presence in the South China Sea.
She said that Washington is losing the ability to counter Beijing’s military aggression in the contested waters.
As a result of Beijing’s “strongly held beliefs about the United States as a declining power”, Ms Flournoy proposed the US should heavily increase deterrence in the area to fight a “miscalculation” of weakness.
She added: “For example, if the US military had the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan; they would have to wonder whether it was worth putting their entire fleet at risk.”
She also recently reiterated her anti-China stance and her desire for a tougher American defence in the Indo-Pacific.
In an interview with Defence News, Ms Flournoy said: “We have to have enough of an edge, that first and foremost we can deter China from attacking or endangering our vital interests and our allies. That means resolve.”
But the former under-secretary also desired a change from the Trump administrations “myopic” view of China, and expressed a desire for some cooperation between Beijing and Washington.
She added: “There are a whole set of threats, whether it’s preventing the next pandemic, or dealing with climate change, or dealing with North Korean nuclear proliferation where, like it or not, we have to deal with China as a partner or we cannot solve the problem.”
Observers have poured cold water on Ms Flournoy’s proposals for a huge US Navy presence in the South China Sea, saying China is prepared to hit back should the US massively ramp up maritime deterrence.
Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University’s Centre for American Studies said to the South China Morning Post: “Such a threat could hardly work, because the PLA has already and always taken direct American interference into calculation when planning for military operations on Taiwan.”
Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, also noted Ms Flournoy and the incoming-Biden administrations attitudes towards China were expected.
He added: “Irrespective of who’s in the White House, the ability to sustain credible deterrence and if necessary, defeat [People’s Liberation Army] aggression against Taiwan in line with the Taiwan Relations Act, would have been seen as a given.”
Mr Biden, after beating Mr Trump in the US election, has made clear he will be firm on China in the same way as his predecessor.
During the Democrat’s campaign, he lambasted Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “thug” and vowed to lead an international campaign to “pressure, isolate and punish China”.
Mr Biden also was brutal in his assessment of the Chinese detention and treatment of Uighur Muslims, which he regarded as “genocide”.
But the former Vice President is also expected to pursue the “US ‘national interest’” and collaborate with China on climate change policy.
Under the Trump administration, Washington has ramped up pressure on Beijing over the South China Sea.
Mike Pompeo, Mr Trump’s Secretary of State, lashed out at China’s claim of “sovereignty” over the disputed waters, and said in July: “We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.”
As part of this anti-Chinese policy, the US has also ramped up arms sales to Taiwan this year, enraging Beijing.
In 2020, the US has sold $4.981 billion in weapons and vehicles to Taiwan, with the most recent being 100 Harpoon Coastal Defence Systems for $2.37 billion.