As tensions with China rise, U.S. foreign policy thinkers are dusting off ideas from the Cold War—and questioning the long-standing consensus for engagement with Beijing
By ANDREW BROWNE
The Wall Street Journal
June 12, 2015
Writing in 1967, at the height of the Cold War, Richard Nixon proclaimed a new American ambition: to “persuade China that it must change.”
“Taking the long view,” he wrote, “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors.” Four years later, having ascended to the White House, Nixon engineered an “opening to China” that promised to turn the communist giant into a diplomatic partner, one that would adopt America’s values and maybe even its system of democracy.
For many Americans today, watching the administration of President Xi Jinping crack down hard on internal dissent while challenging the U.S. for leadership in Asia, that promise seems more remote than ever before. In his recently published book “The Hundred-Year Marathon,” Michael Pillsbury—an Asia specialist and Pentagon official under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—writes that China “has failed to meet nearly all of our rosy expectations.”
U.S. foreign policy has reached a turning point, as analysts from across the political spectrum have started to dust off Cold War-era arguments and to speak of the need for a policy of containment against China. The once solid Washington consensus behind the benefits of “constructive engagement” with Beijing has fallen apart.
The conviction that engagement is the only realistic way to encourage liberalization in China has persisted across eight U.S. administrations, Republican and Democratic alike. Jimmy Carter bequeathed Nixon’s policy to Ronald Reagan; George W. Bush to Barack Obama.
The turmoil in U.S. policy has been especially evident in recent months. An unprecedented stream of advisory reports from leading academic centers and think tanks has proposed everything from military pushback against China to sweeping concessions. The prescriptions vary, but their starting point is the same: pessimism about the present course of U.S.-Chinese relations.
The mood shift in Washington may end up being every bit as consequential as the one that came over the U.S. immediately after World War II, when it dawned on America that the Soviet Union wasn’t going to continue to be an ally. That is when the legendary U.S. diplomat and policy thinker George F. Kennan formulated his plan for containment.
In a 1947 article in Foreign Affairs, he wrote that the U.S. “has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” Kennan’s strategy—to bleed the Soviet Union through nonprovocative resistance—offered comfort to Europeans who feared that they faced a stark choice between war and capitulation.
A similar anxiety about China’s actions and intentions has now taken hold among many Asians. U.S. friends and allies in the region are flocking to America’s side to seek protection as Mr. Xi’s China builds up its navy, pushes its fleets farther into the blue ocean and presses its territorial claims. In what is just the latest assertive move to alarm the region, China is now dredging tiny coral reefs in the South China Sea to create runways, apparently for military jets.
The U.S. is resisting. President Obama’s signature “pivot” to Asia—designed both to calm anxious U.S. friends and to recognize the region’s vast strategic importance in the 21st century—is bringing advanced American combat ships to Singapore, Marines to Australia and military advisers to the Philippines. Japan, America’s key ally in Asia, is rearming and has adjusted its pacifist postwar constitution to allow its forces to play a wider role in the region. The purpose of much of this activity is to preserve the independence of smaller Asian nations who fear they might otherwise have no choice but to fall into China’s orbit and yield to its territorial ambitions—in other words, to capitulate.
For its part, China is utterly convinced that the U.S. is pursuing a policy of containment. Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister (and himself a China expert), summarized Beijing’s perception of U.S. goals in five bullet points in a recent Harvard study: to isolate China, contain it, diminish it, internally divide it and sabotage its political leadership.
To be sure, the new tension in U.S.-China relations is not anything like the Cold War stare-down that preoccupied Europe for decades, when NATO and Warsaw Pact tanks faced each other across lines that neither side dared to cross. But in one important respect, history is repeating itself: Both China and the U.S. have started to view each other not as partners, competitors or rivals but as adversaries.
China’s missile and naval buildup, as well as its development of new cyber- and space-warfare capabilities, are aimed squarely at deterring the U.S. military from intervening in any conflict in Asia. Meanwhile, many of the Pentagon’s pet projects—Star Wars technologies such as lasers and advanced weapons systems such as a long-range bomber—are being developed with China in mind.
So what, specifically, should America do? In one of the most hawkish of the recent think-tank reports, Robert D. Blackwill, a former U.S. deputy national security adviser and ambassador to India under President George W. Bush, and Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who also served on the National Security Council staff under President Bush, write that engagement with China has served to strengthen a competitor.
It is time, they declare, for a new grand strategy: less engagement and more “balancing” to ensure the “central objective” of continued U.S. global primacy. Among other things, America should beef up its military in Asia, choke off China’s access to military technology, accelerate missile-defense deployments and increase U.S. offensive cyber capabilities.
For Michael D. Swaine, also of the Carnegie Endowment, this is a certain recipe for another Cold War, or worse. He outlines a sweeping settlement under which America would concede its primacy in East Asia, turning much of the region into a buffer zone policed by a balance of forces, including those from a strengthened Japan. All foreign forces would withdraw from Korea. And China would offer assurances that it wouldn’t launch hostilities against Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province.
Such arrangements, even if possible, would take decades to sort out. Meanwhile, warns David M. Lampton, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, U.S.-China ties have reached a tipping point. “Our respective fears are nearer to outweighing our hopes than at any time since normalization,” he said in a recent speech.
The West has been in this position before. Optimism about the prospects of transforming an ancient civilization through engagement, followed by deep disillusion, has been the pattern ever since early Jesuit missionaries sought to convert the Chinese to Christianity. Those envoys adopted the gowns of the Mandarin class, grew long beards and even couched their gospel message in Confucian terms to make it more palatable. The 17th-century German priest Adam Schall got as far as becoming the chief astronomer of the Qing dynasty. But he fell from favor, and the Jesuits were later expelled.
The disappointment in the U.S. today is heightened by the fact that engagement with China has promised so much and progressed so far. Trade and technology have transformed China beyond anything that Nixon could have imaged, and the two countries are each other’s second-largest trading partners. China is America’s biggest creditor. More than a quarter million Chinese students study at U.S. universities.
But the ideological gap hasn’t narrowed at all—and now Mr. Xi has taken a sharp anti-Western turn. Mao Zedong made the bold decision to cut a deal with Nixon, confident enough to embrace American capitalists even while pressing the radical agenda of his Cultural Revolution. Later, Deng Xiaoping struck a pragmatic balance between the opportunities of economic engagement with the West and the dangers posed by an influx of Western ideas. “When you open the window, flies and mosquitoes come in,” he shrugged.
Today, Mr. Xi is furiously zapping the bugs. A newly proposed law would put the entire foreign nonprofit sector under police administration, effectively treating such groups as potential enemies of the state. State newspapers rail against “hostile foreign forces” and their local sympathizers. The Chinese Communist Party’s “Document No. 9” prohibits discussion of Western democracy on college campuses. And as Mr. Xi champions traditional Chinese culture, authorities in Wenzhou, a heavily Christian coastal city dubbed China’s “New Jerusalem,” tear down crosses atop churches as unwanted symbols of Western influence.
The backlash against the West extends well beyond China’s borders. For decades, China accepted America’s role as a regional policeman to maintain the peace and keep sea lanes open. But in Shanghai last year, Mr. Xi declared that “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia.”
Washington feels a certain sense of betrayal. America’s open markets, after all, smoothed China’s export-led rise to become the world’s second-largest economy, and the two economies are now thoroughly enmeshed.
Still, it would be a mistake to assume that mutual dependence will necessarily prevent conflict. Pre-World War I Europe was also closely entwined through trade and investment.
Even the U.S. business community, once Beijing’s staunchest advocate in Washington, has lost some of its enthusiasm for engagement. James McGregor, a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China and now the China chairman of APCO Worldwide, a business consultancy, recalls helping to persuade U.S. trade associations to lobby for China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, which happened in 2001.
That unity of purpose, he says “has been splintering ever since.” Today, “they all believe that China is out to screw them.”
China’s fears notwithstanding, the Obama administration remains very much in favor of engagement. Last year’s high-profile deal on climate change showed that cooperation is still possible. Ahead of a planned summit in the U.S. in September, the two countries are hammering out an ambitious bilateral trade agreement. And it is often pointed out that not a single problem in the world, from piracy to pollution, can be solved without their joint efforts.
In an increasingly awkward dance, however, the Obama administration is trying to sustain this policy of engagement while also ramping up its military options in Asia. China is playing a similar game. And it is not clear how long both sides will be able to continue before there is a clash, by accident or design.
Mr. Obama himself sometimes strikes adversarial postures on China. In trying to push a massive Asia-Pacific free-trade zone through a resistant Congress, he has been invoking a China threat. “If we don’t write the rules, China will write the rules out in that region,” he told The Wall Street Journal in April.
He also has pursued a campaign—ultimately futile—to prevent allies such as Britain and Australia from signing on to a Chinese regional development bank. Although the bank will help deliver much-needed infrastructure, the White House interpreted it as part of a bid to undermine America’s leadership in global finance.
For its part, China believes that the U.S. will never accept the legitimacy of a communist government.
Mr. Xi has proposed a “new model of great-power relations,” designed to break a pattern of wars through the ages that occur when a rising power challenges the incumbent one. But America has turned him down, unwilling to accept a formula that not only assumes that the two countries are peers but seems to place them on the same moral plane.
Appropriately, perhaps, tensions are coming to a head in the Spratly Islands, an archipelago of reefs and sandbars in the South China Sea so hazardous that old British Admiralty sailing charts marked the entire area as “Dangerous Ground.”
In this mariners’ graveyard, China has massively expanded several reefs through dredging; one boasts a runway long enough to land China’s largest military planes. China’s neighbors regard them as outposts for an eventual Chinese takeover of the whole South China Sea. The Pentagon presents them as a threat to the U.S. Navy’s unchallenged right to sail the oceans.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is considering a show of force—and is under political pressure to do so. Last month, Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, complained that the U.S. response to the island-building has been too passive. “I see no price whatsoever that China is paying for their activities in the South and East China Seas,” Mr. Corker said. “None. In fact, I see us paying a price.”
Neither side wants a war. Mr. Xi is not anti-West in the manner of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and so far, he has not acted rashly, as Mr. Putin has by grabbing territory in Ukraine. China still needs U.S. markets and know-how to rise. A war against America would be an economic catastrophe for China.
The U.S.-China relationship has weathered storms before. Recall the days following the Chinese army’s 1989 assault on pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square, when cooperation between the countries went into a deep freeze. But President George H.W. Bush calculated that the U.S.-China relationship was too important to sacrifice, and he quickly sent emissaries to Beijing to ensure that it remained intact.
Today, surely, that calculation carries no less weight. Moreover, trying to contain China would be immensely costly: Neither country can succeed economically without the other. Kennan’s containment strategy worked against the Soviet Union because it was economically weak, with almost no commercial ties to America. But today’s China is an economic powerhouse, and its double-digit military budgets are supported by a deep and diversified industrial base.
Set against these realities, however, is the fact that the U.S.-China relationship has lost its strategic raison d’être: the Soviet Union, the common threat that brought the two countries together.
Opposition to Moscow was the logic that drove Nixon’s opening to China. But even Nixon, a tough-minded realist who was focused on the balance of power, wasn’t sure how his opening to China would ultimately play out. As he told the late New York Times columnist William Safire not long before Nixon’s death in 1994, “We may have created a Frankenstein.”
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