The Trump-Xi Summit: A Rocky Relationship Takes Center Stage

The Trump-Xi Summit: A Rocky Relationship Takes Center Stage

The Trump administration must assure the effectiveness and survivability of U.S. and allied forces in the Asia-Pacific region.


President Xi Jinping’s upcoming meeting with President Trump is a crucially important opportunity to take stock of the state of U.S.-China relations. Prior to taking office, Trump advocated a tougher line on China, decrying China’s economic policies and, to a lesser extent, its actions ranging from military activities in the South China Sea to its support for North Korea. He even implied that absent progress, he might rethink the long-standing “One China” policy. The president’s post-inauguration letter to Xi and the follow-up visit by Secretary Tillerson seem to have dispelled the prospect of a radical shift, but the concerns Trump has expressed mirror a view voiced by many politicians and China scholars—that China is pursuing a range of policies hostile to U.S. interests, and that a more assertive American approach is needed to reverse the deteriorating trend in U.S.-China relations. But while many Americans are rightly worried about China’s expansionist tendencies in the South China Sea, assertive behavior towards Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, and theft of American intellectual property as well as problematic activities in cyberspace, there remains a real danger of a difficult summit—and a general downturn in U.S.-China relations more broadly—if we fail to address these concerns in proper perspective. With China now well established as the world's number two military power, the consequences of a serious deterioration in the relationship could be worse than at any point since the Korean War.

We share many of the concerns about China’s actions in the South and East China Sea, its application of pressure on its neighbors to conform to its desired policies, and its failure to address economic policies, which are inconsistent with its avowed support for open and fair trade. These actions require a resolute and sustained U.S. response, an effort which began with President Obama’s “rebalance” policy and which must be reinforced by the new administration. Additionally, the Trump administration has a crucial need to sustain U.S. regional economic engagement in the wake of Washington’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement


At the same time, it is important not to lose sight of the positive dimensions of Sino-U.S. relations, not only on cooperative endeavors such as climate change, but also in managing the areas of our considerable differences. There is a danger that in overstating the state of the “China threat” the new administration might be driven to adopt policies that would exacerbate, rather than stabilize, U.S.-China relations by skewing the country’s China policies too far towards confrontation. What is often seen as prudent “hedging” against future Chinese hostility could become instead a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The record over the past several years has been mixed. For example, in the South China Sea, there are serious questions about whether China is adhering (in spirit as well as letter) to the commitment that Xi Jinping made to President Obama not to militarize the disputed islands. At the same time, China has, at least thus far, taken a low-key response to the 2016 decision of the Law of the Sea arbitration panel (which rejected almost of all China’s positions) and avoided provocative acts, such as unilaterally declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone or interdicting shipping in waters it claims. It has also agreed to a protocol on naval safety at sea with the United States. On cyber, a number of prominent U.S. experts reported significant declines in cyber economic espionage following the 2015 Obama-Xi “agreement,” while former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper last year simply stated that the “jury is out” regarding China’s compliance. On North Korea, China supported new sanctions following North Korea’s missile launch and announced plans to halt coal imports, while at the same time engaging in economic reprisals against South Korea for its decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system. On Taiwan, China appears to have taken some steps to pressure President Tsai Ing-wen to accept the 1992 consensus on cross-strait relations (reducing mainland tourists, blocking Taiwan’s participation in ICAO). But it has prudently reacted in rather low-key fashion to President Tsai’s famous phone call with president-elect Trump and her meetings with senior Republican leaders during her January stopover in the United States.

Of course, many areas of concern remain. After a period of relative tranquility in the East China Sea, last summer China stepped up its actions challenging Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku islands. Chinese mercantilist economic policies restrict access for and discriminate against U.S. firms, while benefiting from the relatively open American market. China’s rapid military modernization risks triggering an arms race in East Asia.

This is, of course, far from a stellar report card. The question for U.S. policymakers is whether to view the glass as half full, or half empty. As Robert Kagan observed in 2011, expecting a rising China not to build or flex its muscles would be like expecting a tiger cub not to grow teeth. At the same time, as we wrote in our 2014 book, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, China as the rising power has the greater responsibility to demonstrate to the region and the world its peaceful intentions. By seizing and building on the positive side of the ledger sheet, the United States and China can provide mutual reassurance that each does not seek zero-sum gains at the other’s expense, and thus potentially avoid unneeded confrontation that might come from exclusively focusing on the problematic side of China’s actions. The trick is to do this at the same time that U.S. policy must also demonstrate, both to China and to friends in the region, Washington’s resolve to respond to those actions that threaten its legitimate interests.

The Obama rebalance was a step in the right direction to achieve these twin goals. Going forward, the Trump administration should build on that effort by demonstrating a willingness to try to address legitimate concerns of China, while making clear that China, too, must take concrete actions to alleviate the concerns raised by its own activities.

This is particularly important as the Trump administration pursues its planned defense buildup. President Obama began the process of shifting military resources to the region, and there is need for further efforts to assure the effectiveness and survivability of U.S. and allied forces. But Trump and his advisors need to take care that the buildup does simply trigger an arms race that benefits neither side. This is a particular danger in the nuclear field. To date, the nuclear competition between the United States and China has been restrained—in sharp contrast to the early U.S.-Soviet nuclear competition. But President Trump’s statements about a possible nuclear arms buildup—even when American nuclear forces exceed China’s by more than tenfold—could stimulate both offensive and defensive measures that will make neither side more secure. On the conventional side, the Trump administration should learn from the Obama administration’s experience with its Air-Sea Battle doctrine and find ways to strengthen deterrence in the region without pursuing a potentially escalatory offensive strategy that would complicate crisis management in a region where crises are inevitable.

Similarly, on North Korea, the United States and the Republic of Korea are right in insisting that enhanced defenses are needed to respond to North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. But America should also be prepared to listen to China’s concerns about how such a deployment might affect China’s security, and consider operational adjustments (such as the Green Pine radar developed by Israel) that will be effective against intended targets while limiting unneeded U.S.-China tensions. This will also strengthen America’s hand in insisting that China effectively enforce the UN sanctions on Pyongyang and use its diplomatic clout to bring North Korea to the table.

In the South China Sea, American freedom of navigation operations remain a cornerstone of long-standing commitment to maintain agreed international maritime rules. But the United States should pursue them in ways that reflect long-standing practice, including the avoidance of unnecessary publicity. China will know we have asserted rights—it is not necessary to grab the cable news headlines to make that point. And the Trump administration should demonstrate its own commitment to international norms by pushing for Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty.

This is, of course, only a partial list of possible steps. What is just as important as any specific measure is the overarching recognition that an ongoing process of signaling resolve while also offering reassurance is the only viable way forward in U.S.-China relations. Given China's newfound power and assertiveness on the regional stage, Trump faces a challenge in many ways greater than his predecessors contended with. But that also means he has a chance to achieve a truly historic success in stabilizing U.S.-China relations in an era when the People’s Republic of China is approaching several dimensions of superpower status. It is an opportunity not to be squandered.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. James Steinberg was the deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration and Dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, where he remains a university professor. O’Hanlon and Steinberg are coauthors of A Glass Half Full?: the Rebalance, Reassurance and Resolve in U.S.-China Relations.