Can Donald Trump Avoid a Dangerous South China Sea Showdown?

Can Donald Trump Avoid a Dangerous South China Sea Showdown?

Greater risks loom on the horizon.

For this reason, the Trump administration should explore how the United States and China might work together to stabilize the relationship before launching unilateral policies that would only deepen the spiral of distrust. The new administration should challenge China to reassure the United States and the region with concrete deeds that its intentions are truly peaceful. For example, the administration could step up cooperation on North Korea and agree to a freeze on new military activities in the South and East China Seas. The Trump administration should reaffirm the One China policy and indicate its willingness to explore ways of implementing the rebalance in ways that appear less threatening to China’s security.

Such an approach will not necessarily solve all the problems in the relationship. The new administration must be prepared to demonstrate U.S. resolve to protect its interests and allies by maintaining a robust U.S. military posture, by reaffirming treaty commitments to allies and statutory responsibilities to Taiwan, and by taking effective measures to counter the growing North Korean threat—even if those actions produce Sino-U.S. tensions. The credibility of those actions, and the willingness of others to back the United States despite the risk of tensions with China, will be all the greater if the administration combines resoluteness with reassurance where possible—and leaders in Beijing should do the same. There are opportunities for further collaboration on issues ranging from Korea to the South China Sea, cyber to space, peacekeeping mission to counter-piracy cooperation, and transparency as well as confidence-building measures. The future of these two great nations is not preordained; it is being written in real time. Leaders on both sides need to avoid premature rushes to judgment about the other’s hostile intentions that could become self-fulfilling prophesies.

The above is drawn from a forthcoming report, “A Glass Half Full?: The Rebalance, Reassurance and Resolve in the U.S.-China Strategic Relationship.”

Jim Steinberg is University Professor of Social Science, International Affairs, and Law, and Former Dean, Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He is also Former Deputy Secretary of State. Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. They previously wrote Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S.-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2014).

Image: The amphibious assault ship USS Bataan conducts a live-fire exercise. Flickr/U.S. Navy