The Trump administration needs to make it clear that the current balance of power in Asia, while uneasy, is acceptable, but Chinese hegemony is not.

That is the argument Ely Ratner makes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs:

“In recent years, however, China has begun to assert its claims more vigorously and is now poised to seize control of the sea. Should it succeed, it would deal a devastating blow to the United States’ influence in the region, tilting the balance of power across Asia in China’s favor.” […]

“U.S. policymakers should recognize that China’s behavior in the sea is based on its perception of how the United States will respond. The lack of U.S. resistance has led Beijing to conclude that the United States will not compromise its relationship with China over the South China Sea. As a result, the biggest threat to the United States today in Asia is Chinese hegemony, not great-power war. U.S. regional leadership is much more likely to go out with a whimper than with a bang.”

The commentary comes amid uncertainty regarding the Trump administration’s foreign policy in the region. Many have noted that North Korea has distracted Washington from the issue of the South China Sea, with some speculating that Trump is holding off pressure on that issue – as he implied he has with trade – in exchange for help on the Korean peninsula.

The foreign policy establishment, led by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, tried to reassure allies in the region this week that the US is not ceding influence in the Pacific to China.

Speaking to lawmakers on Wednesday Mattis said of naval exercises that” This (Freedom of Navigation exercise) is our policy. We will continue this.” He added, “could it change if circumstances change? Of course, but right now Secretary Tillerson and I give him the military factors — and we’re in league together on this, so I don’t think anything is going to change.”

Well-known China politics watcher Bill Bishop expressed his worry this week that this status quo is not enough and even a shift to a harder line policy from Washington may be too little too late, adding color to Ratner’s argument:

“As I wrote almost two years ago, 吃硬不吃软 (chi1ying4 bu4 chi1ruan3), defined by the invaluable Pleco as ‘be open to coercion, but not to persuasion’ is a concept worth learning. This seems to describe the CCP’s approach to the world, especially in the Xi Jinping era”

Ratner’s conclusion echoes many voices in Washington, but it is entirely dependent on cooperation from other regional actors. If the political trajectory of Southeast Asia continues on its current course, regardless of whether the US sacrifices friendly relations with Beijing to hold the line in the South China Sea, we can hardly expect other countries to follow suit.