The Buzz

Is America Trying to Contain China?

Conservative observers in China tend to overestimate the China factor in US foreign and security policies. In their view, every aspect of US foreign policy – the alliance system, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the response to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – aims to contain China’s rise.

The China-US relationship is a mix of good and bad news: if we ignore the positive part, we easily reach negative conclusions. There are many positive trends in the China-US relationship: increasing interdependence between the two economies, increasing interactions in the security sphere, more frequent contact and exchanges between the two militaries, including China’s participation in RIMPAC, the two memorandums of understanding reached during President Obama’s visit to China last November, and more. These would all be impossible if the United States was containing China.

An objective depiction of US policies in the Asia Pacific needs to treat them as an indispensable part of the overall US strategy to maintain global hegemony. In the Asia-Pacific, Washington aims to maintain its superior position in this region, and takes into consideration the policy impact on other regions as well. US policies prepare for any uncertainty that might threaten the US position in the Asia-Pacific. This does not deny the connection between China and US foreign policies, but it draws an indirect, rather than direct, connection between them. The United States has no intention to contain China as a whole, but it opposes Chinese behavior that is perceived as detrimental to US superiority in this region, with behavior referring to the combination of capabilities and intentions.

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With the rise of China’s military and economic power, the United States is strengthening its ability to counter anti-access/area-denial capabilities to ensure freedom of operation in a crisis. When invited by China’s neighbors to get more involved in the region, the US has to fulfill commitments to signal that it possesses capabilities and volition to ensure stability in the world. The United States will only contain China when China’s behavior is perceived to challenge regional orders in negative ways. The problem is the strong disagreement between the US and China over the definition of behavior that can be characterized as “challenging.”

The United States also has misperceptions: it believes that China will drive the US out of Asia when it is powerful enough. Many believe that China talks of a “peaceful rise” only because it doesn’t yet have the capability to remove the US. President Xi Jinping’s call for “Asian security by Asian countries themselves” at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) last May in Shanghai confirmed those worries. Some even argue that China has signaled that it is time to drive the US out.

This is false. Let’s put aside the question whether China welcomes the US presence in Asia; what matters more is whether China respects and accepts the US presence in Asia. This depends on two factors. First, does US involvement reflect the wishes of the majority of Asian countries? Second, is the US aligning with some countries against other countries in specific cases?

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China’s rise has raised concerns among some Asian countries, and they welcome increasing US involvement in Asian affairs as a reliable balancing power. China also recognizes the US’s historic contribution to stability and prosperity in the Asia Pacific, although some recent US behavior is, from China’s perspective, disturbing. Still, China generally acknowledges the preference of some Asian countries to invite the US to Asia. In addition, China doesn’t possess the capability to ensure stability and security in this region, so it accepts a constructive US presence in Asia at this moment.

Does China welcome the US presence in Asia in the long term? As long as mutual distrust persists between China and the US, the answer is no, because China will always be concerned with the prospect of the US aligning with countries against China, or even forming an anti-China alliance. However, the fact that strategic distrust cannot be eliminated doesn’t mean that China will drive the United States out of Asia by coercion or by force. China aims to win the hearts of neighboring countries, which means that it intends to encourage them to see the US presence as counterproductive. This is China’s long-term goal.

Professor Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University recently wrote that in the future China and the US will compete for high-quality friends. China has a long way to go to catch up with the United States in this regard, but China has made its initial endeavors.

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