Monday, July 18, 2011

Should China be 'contained'?

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Henry Kissinger's secret trip to Beijing, which launched the process of mending a 20-year breach in diplomatic relations between the United States and China. That trip, and President Richard Nixon's subsequent visit, represented a major Cold War realignment. The US and China put aside their intense hostility in a joint and successful effort to contain an expansionist Soviet Union.

Today, the Soviet Union has vanished, and Chinese power is growing. Some in the US argue that China's rise cannot be peaceful, and that the US, therefore, should now adopt a policy of containing the People's Republic. Indeed, many Chinese officials perceive that to be the current American strategy. They are wrong.

After all, Cold War containment of the USSR meant virtually no trade and little social contact. Today, by contrast, the US not only has massive trade with China, but also extensive social contact, including 125,000 Chinese students attending universities in the US.

With the end of the Cold War, the containment of the Soviet Union ushered in by Kissinger's visit could no longer serve as the basis for US-China relations. Moreover, relations with China cooled after the Tiananmen Square shootings in 1989, and the Clinton administration had to devise a new approach.

When I was supervising the Pentagon's East Asia Strategy Review in 1994, we rejected the idea of containment of China for two reasons. If we treated China as an enemy, we were guaranteeing an enemy in the future. If we treated China as a friend, we could not guarantee friendship, but we could at least keep open the possibility of more benign outcomes.

In addition, it would have been difficult to persuade other countries to join a coalition to contain China unless China resorted to bullying tactics, as the Soviets did after World War II. Only China, by its behaviour, could organise the containment of China by others.

Instead of containment, the strategy that the Clinton administration devised could be termed "integrate but hedge" - something like Ronald Reagan's "trust but verify" approach to strategic agreements with the Soviets. On one hand, the US supported China's membership in the World Trade Organisation and accepted Chinese goods and visitors. On the other hand, the Clinton-Hashimoto Declaration of April 1996 affirmed that the US-Japan security treaty, rather than being a Cold War relic, would provide the basis for a stable and prosperous East Asia. (read more)