Yes, the US Does Want to Contain China (Sort Of)


Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking at a panel discussing tensions in the South China Sea, hosted by the Project for the Study of the 21st Century. At the very end of the event, one audience member raised a question that is central to the U.S.-China relationship today: China believes the U.S. is seeking to contain its rise. Is Beijing right?

To listen to U.S. policymakers, the answer is unequivocally no. On his first visit to China, in November 2009, Obama explicitly addressed the issue: “[W]e do not seek to contain China’s rise. On the contrary, we welcome China as a strong and prosperous and successful member of the community of nations.”

The rhetoric has been consistent throughout Obama’s administration. In July 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reassured his Chinese hosts that “the U.S. is not, as we have said many times, in a rivalry competition with China in terms of trying to contain it or otherwise.” In November 2014, during Obama’s second visit to China, he sought to “debunk the notion… that our pivot to Asia is about containing China.”

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On one level, this is absolutely true. But at the same time, it’s false. It all depends on how we define the term “containment” and what that actually implies about the United States’ goals vis-à-vis China. Let me explain.

First, the word “containment” is problematic. It specifically refers to a previous U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, which involved using military, political, and economic policies to halt Soviet expansion and influence. To this end, as critics have rightly pointed out, it’s ridiculous to charge the U.S. with adopting a containment policy toward China when the U.S.-China relationship today is in no way comparable to the morbid state of U.S.-USSR ties during the Cold War. Washington and Beijing have scores of annual high-level bilateral and multilateral dialogues and do nearly $600 billion in bilateral trade each year (by comparison, U.S.-USSR trade totaled only $24 billion for the entire period from 1985-1992).

“Containment” as it’s classically envisioned is not what we’re seeing today. However, the sentiment behind the containment policy of the Cold War is at play in today’s U.S.-China relationship. A 1950  National Security Council memo to then-U.S. President Harry Truman laid out the framework of the U.S. response to the Soviet Union. The end goal: achieving “the process of Soviet accommodation to the new political, psychological, and economic conditions in the world” – with those “new conditions” of 1950 being the post-war international order that serves as today’s status quo. In this sense, the U.S. goal toward China – seeking to shape its growth so that Beijing will be a “responsible stakeholder” in the U.S.-led world order – is the same goal Washington had for its relationship with Moscow.

So the word “containment” is not quite right. Saying the U.S. wants to “check” or (to use an even more anodyne word) “channel” China’s rise might be a more accurate phrasing. In other words, the U.S. does not want to prevent China from growing powerful, per se, but does want to prevent the use of that power in ways unacceptable to the United States.

This is what Obama meant when he said in January 2011, “[W]e welcome China’s rise. We just want to make sure … that that rise occurs in a way that reinforces international norms and international rules, and enhances security and peace, as opposed to it being a source of conflict either in the region or around the world.”

This contradiction — between containment and “checking” — is summarized by Joseph Bosco in a June piece for The Diplomat:

American policy from Richard Nixon’s opening to the present has been designed to help China shake off historic shackles, lift its people out of poverty, and bring it into what Richard Nixon called the family of nations. The policy succeeded beyond Nixon’s dreams, but Xi Jinping’s China Dream has become a potential nightmare for the West.

This hits the salient points. The U.S. does have a real and demonstrated interest in seeing China both stable and prosperous; at the same time, Washington is increasingly wary of how China seeks to use the strength that comes with its prosperity. On the one hand, the United States does not want to contain China (in the Cold War sense); on the other hand, no U.S. policymaker is eager to see the “China dream” as envisioned by Xi Jinping become a reality.

As Ashely Tellis and Robert Blackwill put it in their recent assessment of U.S.-China relations, “Because of profound differences in history, ideology, strategic culture, and domestic politics, the United States and China have diametrically opposed and mutually incompatible perceptions regarding the future balance of power in Asia.” And given those “diametrically opposed” views on a future Asian order, it’s ludicrous to suggest that the United States has no interest in checking China’s ambitions.

That, essentially, is what Chinese policymakers mean when they complain that the U.S. rebalance to Asia is meant to “contain” China. And in that sense, they’re absolutely right. China envisions a new security order for the Asia-Pacific, one where Asian countries “completely abandon” the old order (predicated on the U.S. alliance system). China’s Belt and Road project seeks to reshape Asia (and even Europe) economically, making China the center of the region’s financial and trade initiatives. And ideologically, China opposes U.S. interpretations of a number of existing global standards and rules, from the legality of military surveillance within another state’s exclusive economic zone to the way the Internet is conceived of and governed. In each of these cases, it’s in the U.S. interest to block, check, or redirect these ambitions – leaving China howling, not unjustifiably, that it’s being “contained.”

As my outline of the two sides’ differing visions above demonstrates, China is also guilty of using misleading diplospeak. China’s repeated claim that it “has no intention to shut the U.S. out of Asia” (most recently reiterated by Foreign Minister Wang Yi on August 5) is also both true and disingenuous. China does not benefit from an Asia where the U.S. is entirely absent, economically or even militarily (U.S. forces play a useful role, for example, in keeping North Korea from making a dangerous mistake). But Beijing does want to diminish the U.S. role in Asia, making China at least an accepted equal in setting the agenda for the region. That is what China truly means when it talks of “mutual respect” and having the U.S. accept its “core interests” – a “new model” of relationship whereby the United States accepts parity with China, which by necessity would entail reduced influence for Washington in Asia.

These contradictions are getting worse, not better, as time progresses and the chances of China turning its dream into reality rise. Part of the problem is that both sides continue to hide the true issues at stake with comforting slogans – the U.S. doesn’t want to contain China; China doesn’t want to kick the U.S. out of Asia. Technically true on both counts – but deliberately misleading and thus a major source of distrust on both sides. At this point, the rhetoric is largely meaningless — just diplomatic white noise — and both sides should think about abandoning it in favor of more realistic frame for their relationship.

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