Trump should get tough in the South China Sea


Smart diplomacy could produce stronger, more self-reliant Asian allies

When U.S. President-elect Donald Trump addresses the issue of the South China Sea, he will be starting from where incumbent President Barack Obama left off: criticism of Chinese militarization of the area and violations of international law, and U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations through the contested waters.

Trump has taken a clear position on the South China Sea. He feels personally insulted by what China is doing there and has hinted he could use trade as a bargaining chip to pressure Beijing to curtail its advance, raising the possibility of economic sanctions or other retaliation.

He wants to consult Japan and other Asian countries as their economies depend on trade that transits the sea. He also wants these countries to bear more of the defense burden against China. Trump does not rule out the use of U.S. military force in the South China Sea but rightly says that he does not plan to publicly reveal his military strategy.

“A strong military presence will be a clear signal to China and other nations in Asia and around the world that America is back in the global leadership business,” read a statement on Trump’s campaign website, which also included a pledge to expand the U.S. Navy.

Freedom of navigation operations are likely to be an early friction point. China now shadows U.S. Navy vessels and airplanes in the South China Sea. It sometimes engages in threatening behavior such as dangerously close passes by fighter jets. Trump could make U.S. rules of engagement for these encounters more aggressive.