What ‘Containing China’ Means

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What ‘Containing China’ Means

Traditional Cold War definitions of containment don’t really apply to US policy toward China.

George Orwell implored partisans to political debates to use words precisely. Terms flung around cavalierly, whether out of malice or simple carelessness, have a way of losing all meaning. They mislead, or degenerate into epithets. ‘The word Fascism,’ Orwell said, ‘has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.”’

He might have said the same of ‘containment,’ a perennial in discourses about US-China relations. It’s a mantra among US policymakers that ‘the United States does not seek to contain China.’ President Barack Obama has uttered these words. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated them last autumn. Functionaries at all levels routinely follow suit. Nor is this a uniquely American statement. Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard added her voice to the chorus during an April meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao, disavowing any policy of containment.

Yet many Chinese commentators insist with equal vehemence that the United States, Australia, and other Asian states are indeed constructing an alliance to hem China in. ‘Asia Version of NATO Resurfaces with Gillard’s Asia Visits,’ blared a headline in People’s Daily, editorializing on meetings at which Gillard denied any such thing. In a similar vein, Rear Adm. Yang Yi, the outspoken director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at China’s National Defense University, observes that for many of his countrymen, ‘US actions are perceived as a strategy to contain China. Some more radical Chinese scholars have already pointed out a “C-shaped ring of encirclement,” while others argue that the United States is organizing an “Asian version of NATO” directed at China.’ Among other things, Yang urges Washington to desist from naval exercises in China’s exclusive economic zone—thereby appeasing popular sentiment in China.

(Whether such views are really confined to a radical fringe is an open question. Last December, Qiushi Journal, an official publication of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, published an article alleging that US leaders have deployed six strategies to contain China. The article recommends seven counterstrategies. It’s noteworthy for both its official provenance and its strikingly bellicose, martial overtones.)

But let’s take an Orwellian look at the containment analogy. What precisely are US officials pledging not to do, and what is it that Chinese observers are fretting about? The obvious reference point for the containment analogy is US Cold War policy toward the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent Maoist China. Containment got its start in 1946 with diplomat George F. Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ from Moscow and a spinoff 1947 Foreign Affairs essay titled ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct.’ In a nutshell, Kennan postulated that Soviet communism must either expand or wither and die. If the West applied ‘counterforce’ at points of Soviet expansion, steadying countries menaced by subversion or military aggression, it could gradually drain the ideological fervour from communism. Deprived of theatres for exporting Marxist ideology, the Soviet system would mellow, metamorphosing into something the West could live with. Or, it would fall.

Here’s the rub. While US administrations from both parties accepted the general logic of containment for over 40 years, they executed this policy quite differently (which is why John Lewis Gaddis entitled his classic history of the Cold War Strategies of Containment). Indeed, Kennan’s brainchild started diverging from his vision almost as soon as the ink dried on the X article. In his memoir, he declares ruefully that ‘what I was talking about when I mentioned the containment of Soviet power was not the containment by military means of a military threat, but the political containment of a political threat.’ In particular, language espousing ‘the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points’ was ‘at best ambiguous, and lent itself to misinterpretation.’ US political and economic support would empower nations to resist Soviet-backed subversion on their own. Not counterforce but non-military counterpressure was his tool of choice.

Kennan insisted that the ‘main task of containment’ was to keep four ‘vital regions’ of the world where ‘the sinews of modern military strength could be produced in quantity’—namely the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the industrial regions of Germany—out of Soviet hands. For him, containment was a matter of defending certain vital points on the map, not a long, rigid perimeter. Walling off the Soviet bloc and sending soldiers to man the ramparts in large numbers was alien to Kennan’s strategic vision. He bemoaned the baleful effects of the Korean War, which deflected containment onto a more military, more ‘symmetrical’ tangent. NSC-68, a 1950 report to President Harry Truman, recommended undertaking ‘a rapid build-up of political, economic, and military strength in the free world.’ A full-bore military build-up would foster ‘a tolerable state of order among nations’ while fielding adequate defences ‘in the event that the free world is attacked.’ Korea seemed to vindicate this more hawkish interpretation of containment, setting the tone for decades of Cold War.

Bottom line? There were many varieties of containment during the Cold War. Which is it that Beijing fears, and is Washington really bent on such a policy? To allow precision in discourse about US policy toward China, we have to ask whether contemporary China is like the Soviet Union of Kennan’s heyday, warranting US countermeasures like the ones Kennan prescribed. Is China an expansionist power that must spread its ideology to survive and thrive?

No. Like other rising powers, China hopes to modify the current order to suit its interests. That’s different from the Soviet—or, for that matter, the Maoist—paradigm of exporting revolution across the globe. Beijing bullies its neighbours from time to time, but it has little desire to subvert them—destabilizing its own frontiers in the process. On its face, then, the containment analogy is a false one. It’s true, but trivial, when US officials say they have no plans to contain China’s rise. There’s nothing to contain in the Cold War sense.

Then does the related ‘Asian NATO’ metaphor fit? Loosely, at best. The Atlantic alliance was founded to help Western European nations devastated and impoverished by war resist a mortal military threat. It is also a formal alliance whose commitment to mutual defence is codified by treaty. NATO members have gone to great lengths to assure ‘interoperability’ among their military hardware, on the logic that armed forces with compatible hardware fight better. They maintain a standing headquarters and integrated military command. And so forth. The hub-and-spoke US alliance network in Asia therefore bears a passing resemblance to NATO at most. That will remain true in all likelihood, unless Beijing embarks on a truly domineering foreign policy—uniting Asia the way Soviet power once united a frightened North Atlantic community. China has considerable say in its own destiny.

Americans and Chinese should retire the Cold War analogies for US policy toward China. Geographic encirclement by a hostile alliance is what worries Yang Yi’s radical scholars. But all US competition with China is not containment, and all alliances involving the United States are not NATO. Much like the sloppy language George Orwell railed against, such metaphors obscure more than they clarify.