China's Folly of Self-Containment
Image Credit: DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

China's Folly of Self-Containment


Over the last several months, an interesting debate has occurred concerning the future of American grand strategy. What defined such ideas during the roughly half century struggle between the USSR and the United States was the doctrine popularly known as containment. America and its allies attempted to constrain Moscow and its communist partners across economic, political and military domains. At times, tensions flared with many fearing such a stance could lead to World War III, and even a nuclear holocaust.

Today, a new bipolar competition is taking shape. While not a global chess match for influence or a new “Cold War” as some theorize,  the United States and the People’s Republic of China faceoff in a competitive contest in the Asia-Pacific and larger Indo-Pacific region. In November 2011 in a now famous long form op-ed in Foreign Policy, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out American’s strategy of a “pivot” to Asia. Chinese pundits and media have panned the pivot or now respun “rebalance” as a blatant attempt to contain China’s rise.  One Chinese professor even remarked, “The pivot is a very stupid choice… the United States has achieved nothing and only annoyed China. China can’t be contained.”

I agree — unless China makes the choice to contain itself.

Clearly Beijing has interconnected itself into the global economy and international system with enormous success. U.S. – China bilateral trade stood at a jaw-dropping US$536 billion last year. China is now the second largest economy in the world. With an expanding middle class, it is also expected to become the world’s largest energy importer. Indeed, the nature of today’s interlinked global financial system serves as the ultimate insurance policy against any U.S.-led containment strategy.

Yet, despite China’s growing economic integration, it seems leaders in Beijing have been doing a pretty good job of creating a regional environment that is wary of its intentions.  China has made a number of controversial strategic moves that have alarmed the international community. The result has been an ever increasing number of nations looking to each other as well as the United States out of fear that China’s rise could have dangerous consequences for their own national interests.

A short survey of the last several years — while by no means exhaustive — gives rise to a disturbing narrative: Beijing is attempting to slowly but surely gain regional hegemony in Asia. While it is unclear if such moves are part of a coordinated master plan or a clumsy series of unintended blunders by various actors in China’s government, the result is the same — a region on edge that fears Beijing’s intentions.

A good starting point as any would be Sino-Japanese tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. While Tokyo is not completely innocent — escalating tensions last year by nationalizing three of the disputed islands, Japan has controlled the disputed area since the early 1970s. Beijing has raised the stakes by sending a steady stream of non-naval maritime vessels, surveillance planes, and now even fighter jets close to the disputed area.  Japan has responded by scrambling its own fighter planes in an increasingly dangerous standoff. Recent op-eds in Chinese state media went so far as to question Japan’s control over Okinawa.

Conservative Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, responding to the threat posed by Beijing, is looking to revamp and strengthen Japan’s military — with historic implications. Japan’s recent annual defense paper noted, “China has attempted to change the status quo by force based on its own assertion, which is incompatible with the existing order of international law.”  Creating even more tension, Tokyo has protested a recent Chinese move to assemble a gas drilling rig near a hotly disputed area in the East China Sea. As reports correctly note, the rig is in China’s area of control, however, there is concern it could take gas from Japanese controlled territory.

Extending beyond the maritime arena, tensions in the Indo-Pacific concerning China and its neighbors also involve one of Beijing’s BRIC counterparts, India. Both nations have been at odds over an ongoing border dispute that spans several decades.  Recently tensions have been exasperated by incursions of (some of which have a strange, almost comical nature) small bands of Chinese troops crossing over what is referred to as the line of actual control (LoAC).  While such incidents have not lead to conflict, considering each side is ramping up their military capabilities, one could argue Chinese actions are creating tensions that can only push New Delhi, however weary, closer to Washington. Combined with reports that Chinese undersea naval forces have deployed to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), India may seek stronger relations with America in an effort to hedge its bets.

Then there are the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. China’s effective seizure last year of Scarborough Shoal, well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), has created a dangerous precedent. In various panels I have attended here in Washington and during recent travels to the region, it is clear that Beijing’s actions last summer have put many on edge.  The Philippines has begun modernizing its armed forces — an obvious response to recent troubles with China. Tensions this summer have also been exasperated by Chinese activity near Filipino-held Second Thomas Shoal.

The above collection of incidents —  a result of historical tensions, economic competition, and budding nationalism, certainly has many starting origins. It would be inaccurate to single out China as the cause of all of Asia’s strategic tensions or to label it Asia’s next boogeyman.  Yet, there is one common denominator in all of these territorial squabbles — China. In almost all of the Asia’s strategic tensions, Beijing somehow enters into the mix.

The danger for Beijing is quite clear. A narrative is quickly developing (in the media and in foreign policy circles globally) that whatever China’s intensions, the People’s Republic in the years to come will use its economic and military muscle to achieve its aims in the region — utilizing an aggressive posture if necessary. While America’s pivot clearly has a military component to it, with China being the obvious target, many could argue quite convincingly that Washington is merely reacting to Chinese military advancements that specifically target U.S. capabilities and actions over the last several years.  The collective consequences of China’s recent moves risk creating an environment where its rise to regional and even global superpower status is effectively blocked — a self-created containment if you will.

Putting aside America’s pivot, nations in the region are also beginning to step up their diplomatic and military efforts to balance against Chinese actions.  Nations across the Asia-Pacific have fueled what could be called a budding arms race. Vietnam, who fought a bloody war with China in 1979 and has a long history of territorial tensions with Beijing, is acquiring new submarines from Russia. Taiwan is attempting to develop its own asymmetric military force. On a recent visit to the Philippines, Prime Minister Abe promised support to Manila’s coast guard. Many have argued a recent large Russian military exercise in the Far East was sent as a possible signal to China.

In the end, Beijing is the one who holds the cards to reverse the trend of such a narrative — a narrative that it largely has itself to blame for creating. Taking an aggressive stance against neighbors over rocks, islands or reefs will only serve to feed into regional tensions. Accidently or not, troops crossing disputed borders only feeds the narrative that Beijing is a regional bully — pressing forward where it can to gain advantage . Beijing should recall that history shows us that the rise of any nation to global stature creates natural tensions. Harvard’s Graham Allison recently noted that “in 11 of 15 cases since 1500 in which a rising power rivaled a ruling power, the outcome was war.”

With the odds stacked against it, Beijing would be wise to do all it can to reverse just a narrative. If it does not, its own self-containment could be the end result — or worse.

August 14, 2013 at 01:38

And yet the US and England didn't fight. In fact, they were on the same side. WW2 was about Germany, Italy, and Japan trying to gain dominance.

August 14, 2013 at 01:34

Sometimes a good thumping is what is needed to get one's act together. For the US armed forces' sake, I hope the casualties aren't too high.

August 6, 2013 at 03:58

exacerbate not exasperate

August 4, 2013 at 11:50

Dear readers, just look at the history of china. For the last few thousands years, whenever china and chinese faced competent military forces, they lose ALL of them. For example, Japan, Britain, Manchuria, Mongolia, just to name a few. All the braggings from chinese posters would not wash away all the shame and humiliation.

August 2, 2013 at 07:06

If China is going to be a great military power, then it might be a necessity for the Chinese to actually develop its own indigenous hardware and software wouldn't it? Since China has clearly ordered Russian SU-35s fighters, Lada attack submarines, and S-400 Missile systems from Russia just recently, I seriously doubt the PLA can actually build anything indigenously without copying as usual.

Let's face it! The only thing China has practiced is the 'copy & paste' method of indigenous development!

August 2, 2013 at 06:53

In a nutshell, the Chinese party created the very containment that they have been fearing! That in itself shows why Beijing is the number one failure of foreign policy and soft power strategy in the 21st century, as everyone of China's neighbors is buying anti-ship missiles in response to the way China invaded Scarborough Shoal inside the Phillippine EEZ.

The author is right! China has no one to blame but themselves for this outcome!


August 1, 2013 at 11:35

As someone living in one of these countries in Asia, let me just tell you right now that it is very uncomfortable having China banging at our door and stealing pieces of our EEZ. Right now, America’s best diplomats in the region are the PLA generals who make bold statements not far from the ones made in 1940s Japan.

August 1, 2013 at 03:07

@Mishmael:  Why bother going through that meny words when the simple and best solution is for your china to follow the international laws and order?  Why does you china avoid any opportunity to be at the international court to resolve any dispute with its neighbors?

July 31, 2013 at 23:25

Hard to believe this when the US has already deployed two missle shields aimed and near the borders of Russia and China. US states it has nothing to do with South China Sea issues but North Korea and Iran. Yet it is proven that neither ‘rogue’ countries either pocess nuclear weapons or the capabilty reach the Americas continent. Beijing’s agressive nature or not; Washington will continue to contain China as they see them as their biggest threat to their national security by 2017. US also published AirSea Battle dicotorine, an invasion strategy on China, meaning the Pentagon has planned of dealing with China even if she managed to make peace with her neighbours. Is is Bejing reacting as the US is bringing the battle to them, Teritorial issues solved or not, The US empire will come to confront China. This is what and will happen in the Waters of Asia in the coming decade or two. Propagandizing the people of West and antagonising China as an aggressor will lead to no where. The people must understand what their leaders are doing to the world and what dire consequences it’ll bring to others around them.

Oro Invictus
July 31, 2013 at 14:37

Ah, just noticed some mistakes. Corrections are as follows:

“A judge doesn’t sentence a petty thief and an armed robber to the same degree of punishment just because they committed a similar class of crime, yet this does not mean he is not impartial. A scientist faced with two modes of research does not engage in both equally if one is far superior to the other, and this is not bias. By attempting to criticize things in equal measure simply for the sake of “balance”, one invariably becomes unbalanced.”

Oro Invictus
July 31, 2013 at 10:44


It’s not really a conscious decision, it’s simply that the PRC’s actions have become more questionable of late and the US’ and others' relatively benign. Mind you, the issues I describe above are common to all nation-states, not simply the PRC; it’s all just a matter of relative severity.

 Indeed, while I try and temper my posts whenever possible not to simply criticize one party when others are involved, I’m not going to criticize everyone in equal measure just for the sake of “balance”. It’s a rather unfortunate argumentative fallacy which has emerged among diplomats and journalists that a balanced article must be critical to everyone in equal measure. It invariably ends up with either one side being overly-criticized or the other under-criticized all in the sake of balance. A judge doesn’t sentence a petty thief and an armed robber just because they committed a similar class of crime, yet this does not mean he is not impartial. A scientist faced with two modes of research does not engage in both equally if one is far superior to the other, this is not bias. By attempting to criticize things in equal measure simply for the sake of “balance”, one invariably becomes unbalanced.

That said, if we get an article about the US’ increasing invasion of its political structure by corporate interests or the economic stratification occurring there, you can fully expect blistering condemnation of the US on my part. Ditto for Japan concerning Abe's attempts to try and skew history to lessen the scale of atrocity committed by Japan during the second World War. Criticism where deserved and all that. 

July 31, 2013 at 04:47

Which international law?

do you, perhaps, mean to reference the 1992 passage of the law in the PRC which proclaimed that all of the South China Sea was Chinese Territory, in direct countermand to the 1996 UNCLOS which declared that nations have a right to a 200 nautical mile zone of economic exclusivity?

That's not international law. 

July 31, 2013 at 04:41


but i am curious as to your shift in attitude, Oro; there was a time not so long ago when you would have criticised all parties equally, yet now you direct your ire against the PRC with at least as much force as myself and "Whichwaydidhegogeorge." May i ask what circumstances and evidence promted the shift in your opinion?

Needless to say, the shift with the PRC's Coast Guard is not promising either, for it represents a shift from civilian and paramilitary force in the ECS and SCS to exclusively paramilitary and military force.

July 31, 2013 at 04:33

yes, but U.S defense contracts are not competitive, in order to prevent to much complaint amongst "concerned citizens." This means that most of what Boeing et al have put out over the last little while is utter junk; the F-22's stealth coating is water soluble and it cannot outmaneuver the Euro-Fighter Typhoon in close combat; The F-35, from what I've heard, has less maneuverability, less firepower, and less range than the aircraft it was designed to replace. Finally, the U.S has designed all its ground systems based upon the assumption of air-superiority, meaning that should the U.S Airforce be defeated in combat, the rest of the force will fall apart. Lastly, the Abrams has not had any meaningful capability upgrades since the mid 1990s, and is effectively a 75-ton modern day sherman; its jet engine is vulneable to being lit on fire, its main gun cannot penetrate the frontal 30-degree arc of the Leopard, T-90, ZTZ-99 (much less its A1 and A2 variants), and it boasts no outstanding anti-missile defenses, unlike the Merkava, T-90 and ZTZ-99. Deploying the U.S military as it currently is against the PRC in a full-scale war would be an utter disaster. As such, the defense contractors and the Pentagon would be well advised to simply upgrade what they already have to international standards, rather than continue to spend wasteful billions on weapons systems that don't work.

July 31, 2013 at 04:20


i do hope, for your sake, that what you said was sarcasm; given that the U.S has all but officially launched the second cold war by announcing formal aerial and naval rotation through the pacific, as it did with europe during the 20th century, I doubt that your plan would garner any goodwill, especially since it's The U.S and practically every other pacific nation versus China…

Little Helmsman
July 31, 2013 at 01:00

The problem is China’s outdated dictatorship. There is accountability for the rulers of China if the misbehave or lead a nation into an abyss. I’m afraid miscalculation will be very likely because dictatorships usually breed arrogant leader who get in situation way over his head. China will be different except that it is so large that it will have repercussions throughout the world.

July 31, 2013 at 00:32

@ John,

All you've said are just wishful thinking ,  illusions & delusions, if you will.  The cold stark reality is China in this 21st century, will  never be able to  become a regional hegemon let alone the global one. Economically, China will be, at best sinking into the lost decade like Japan before, but ,of course, far worse than Japan due to its remaining a developing not developed country like Japan when the latter's economy collapsed. This factor will define China's future status in the region in the years to come. Militarily, China is still a regional not yet a world-class military like the Soviet Union's in the Cold War, & still far lagging behind the US'. Additionally, the constant internal instability (socail, political unrest & innate separatist tendency) will consume much of Chinese ability &energy  to project power far from its periphery. Particularly, today's neighborhood is not  friendly at all to China. Surrounded by all strong formidable hostile neighbors such as Japan , India , Russia (with grave concern for its vast resource-rich Far East bordering China), Asean, Australia etc., China will find itself ensnared  in a complex invisible &  inescapable web encircling it. The Cold War Soviet Union was a vast empire with a clear-cut hardline ideology ( communism vs. capitalism) & a strong military even far stronger than the US' & its NATO combined, whereas  today's China without any real ideology against the West, an economy totally dependent on the latter's markets for survival, a military still nothing to the US' & its allies' ( & even to the Soviet Union's before) ! So, don't waste time & energy for dreaming of revisionist hegemony or  'finlandizations of its smaller neighbors' like the Soviets in the Cold War . China will  be a regional power for sure, but not a dominant one in the decades to come.

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