Unstoppable China: US Needs an Updated Version of Kennan’s Containment Policy

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Kennan’s containment strategy became the US policy to counter Communist USSR till the end of the Cold War. Now decades later US and its allies again face a new communist rival, China that perceives US as enemy and seeks to dominate the region and Globe. Odd Arne Wasted asserts that US now needs an updated version of Kennan’s containment strategy to restrain Chinese expansion to save world from another Cold War.

There are two factors behind unprecedented growth of China; first the Chinese economic growth that saw the increase nine folds since its reforms in 1978, and second, the dictatorial role by unelected Chinese Communist Party (CPP). CCP limits all kinds of freedom of Expression and associations. Under Xi Jinping, CCP has further restricted the limited freedom that was given during President Xiaoping. Private markets and businesses too have been controlled by Government. Chinese government keeps claiming that their model of economy is superior to that of West. Xi claims that Chinese model is new trail for developing countries to achieve modernization and speed up development. He criticizes democracy as a tool to manipulate poor countries and rob their resources. Just like the Soviet propaganda, Chinese government with their strong nationalism and greatness of China has been able to inculcate pride among its people. The party also claims that the US is out there to undo Chinese growth, just like the Soviet era propaganda used to do.

Xi insists that one party dictatorial rule is necessary to protect the territory from abuse of foreigners. He makes his claims by tracing history. Till 1949 China suffered humiliations at the hand of foreigner’s multiple times. China is the de facto empire not the nation state, most of the  inner Mongolians, people of Tibet and Xinjiang are not Chinese, they have been dominated by mainland Chinese (Hans), if they resist their rule they end up in prison camps. Externally, China has issues with each of its neighbors. It threatens democratic Taiwan, has it territorial issues with Philippines, Taiwan and Japan and claims all the South China Sea.  Comparative toUSSR, China is far ahead in economy viz a viz America. Militarily, however, China is far behind than US. America has 20 times more nuclear warheads. It has superior air force and more importantly US has potential allies in Beijing’s neighbor.

Yet the balance of power in East Asia in the last decade has tremendously shifted in favor of China. Today, China has enough military capabilities to face US if not defeat in the region. Its missiles now can easily hit the American bases in Pacific. US is no more the superior power in Indo-pacific region. Problems would increase as China’s naval capabilities and technology tend to increase massively with few years from now. Even US enjoys greater military strength over China than USSR back in the Cold War yet China has the capability to reach parity, which the former USSR could not.

The similarities between former USSR and China are striking. Just like the USSR tried to dominate Europe, China is trying to dominate East Asia, the region that is important for Washington as was the Europe. The methods of China are also same i.e. the political and military extortion. China is deemed to dominate and become the master of East Asian region if US fails to counter its growth. Like the USSR, China is courteous in public and adheres to international norms but in CCP’s internal mechanism the US is considered enemy that is planning to contain China through internal and external coercion.

 China is not the USSR for one thing. Soviet Ideology could thrive only by the defeat of US capitalism. China has no such beliefs, it sees US as enemy that creates trouble for its aims and growth but Beijing does not believe that US has to be defeated to attain these aims. Besides, Chinese society is more similar to the US than the Soviet Union ever was. Unlike the USSR, which suffered more than 30 years of wars and revolution, China by contrast lived peacefully. Two-third of the Chinese population has known nothing other than peace. China-Vietnam war ended 30 years ago and Korean War ended 70 years ago. On one hand, last few decades have demonstrated the peace and values that people fear to lose, while on other hand, long time peace have inculcated the loose talks of war, people in China are often heard talking about war against the US to avoid getting hammed by Pentagon.

The power structure has also changed since the Kennan’s time. During the Cold War there was bipolarity and war was purely ideologically based but today the world is different in terms of polarity as it is more multipolar now. War between two powers would not lead to bipolarity rather it would drag other great powers too since it is not ideologically based, economic power counts more. If the US and China go to a war, they would be devastated which would provide space to other powers and we would have the world of regional hegemons.

Under the previous Trump administration the US lost its credibility. Its fiscal policies and unilateral actions, in the past few years, led its allies to question Washington’s reliability. Now the Kennan’s policy needs to be updated more than ever. US and Chinese economy have been intertwined. The Soviet Union contained its economy through its ideology, but the case of China is different. US is the biggest trading partner of China. Sanctions, tech bans or travel barriers won’t stop Chinese economic expansion unless the de facto state of war makes it impossible. China is more becoming self-reliant causing no damage to the US prestige and the US may need to contain China in the context of continued economic interdependence.

Finally, China has more cards to play in the international arena than the former USSR. Its appeal to Climate change, global unity, trade and inequality finds more traction abroad. Since the US has failed to lead in these issues, China may convince the world that authoritarian regimes are more capable in handling global issues than democracies do.

Even though, the patterns of conflict are different than the Cold War but that does not mean Kennan’s policy is irrelevant. He envisioned US involvement in Europe at that time and now similarly US needs to focus more on Asian countries that fear Chinese aggression. Just like Marshal Plan and NATO were created to counter USSR, US needs now to build potential allies in Asia with the political and economic dimensions. Probably Economic aspect is more worthy of attention as China is more of an economic power. The US withdrawal from Trans-Pacific Partnership in Trump’s era was a disaster in terms of foreign policy. It not only created a vacuum for China to fill in but also lost the faith of its allies and proved US as an unreliable partner in Asia. America may need to contain China and for that purpose, it should look beyond Asia and create a suitable environment. US should never leave Russia as a dissatisfied scavenger in the international system. It should cooperate militarily and economically with Moscow otherwise the worst nightmare of the US would come true in the form of the Sino-Russia Alliance.

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Karam Ali
About Karam Ali 2 Articles
Karam Ali is a student of International Relations at National Defence University, Islamabad

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