Balance, Not Containment: A Geopolitical Take from Canberra

Balance, Not Containment: A Geopolitical Take from Canberra

Mini Teaser: It does not follow that if a policy of "engagement" has its problems, a policy of "containment" must be flawless. The language that has arisen to discuss U.S. China policy is itself seminally misleading.

by Author(s): A.D. McLennan

The pages of The National Interest have abounded in recent months
with analyses, prognostications, predictions, and arguments over what
to do with and about China. Robert Zoellick argued persuasively for
the need to rebuild a bipartisan consensus on U.S. policy toward
China, and both he and Paul Wolfowitz have urged that such a
consensus take as its touchstone the recognition that the problem is
one of accommodating the rise of a new power (the Wilhelmine Germany
analogy), and not that of containing an implacably hostile
imperialism (the Stalinist postwar Soviet Union analogy). It is hard
to deny, too, the good sense of recognizing the essential tension
between China's rush toward economic development and its ossified
political system, a tension that Henry S. Rowen and others maintain
will be resolved in the end in a relatively benign way, in favor of
democracy. And it also makes sense, as Bruce Cumings has suggested,
for Americans to understand the historical--and, in some cases, the
very subjective--origins of their own images of China before setting
off to propound U.S. interests in Beijing.

Less persuasive, however, are some of the means advanced to achieve
these goals. Zoellick's argument, for example, that the ASEAN
Regional Forum (ARF) could effectively engage China on regional
security issues takes insufficient account of China's zero-sum view
of international relations--a view generic to East Asia. It also
underestimates the damaging collateral effects that might attend such
an "engagement" policy line, especially on the U.S.-Japanese
alliance, and especially bearing in mind the skill that China has
demonstrated in manipulating multilateral security diplomacy to its
strategic advantage.

That said, it does not follow that if a policy of "engagement" has
its problems, a policy of "containment" must be flawless. The
language that has arisen to discuss U.S. China policy is itself
seminally misleading; both "engagement" and "containment" arguments
usually assume that the Sino-American bilateral relationship is so
central that it will, in future, control all major regional outcomes.
This is not so. The Sino-American relationship will be the main
factor in the game, no doubt; but U.S. policy toward China, as with
policy toward any major power, must fit into a larger picture in
which Japan, Korea, Russia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other states will
inevitably play a part. In this essay I shall examine this dynamic
and consider what such a fit involves, for even the advocates of a
containment strategy, simple in principle though it may be, are
obliged to begin with a realistic awareness of Asian complexities.

China's Strategic Opportunity

To understand where China is going we might start by remembering
where it has been. Several stages distinguish the development of
China's foreign policy since 1949. First there was Beijing's alliance
with Moscow. Then came the Sino-Soviet split, which led China to
pursue a revolutionary foreign policy directed against both
superpowers. Then followed the Cultural Revolution, during which
China had barely any foreign policy at all. By 1969, Beijing was on
the brink of a war with the Soviet Union that it could only have
lost. As the chaos of the Cultural Revolution gave way to a new
internal balance, China redefined its relationship with America to
oppose a formidable expansion of Soviet power. In the Cold War's
final two decades, China played a major part in defeating Soviet
designs. It tied down Soviet forces in the Far East and outmaneuvered
Hanoi and Moscow by countering Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, where
the Soviet Union had sought to outflank China and to challenge
America's position at the junction of the straits linking the Pacific
and Indian Oceans.

With the collapse of the Soviet empire, China entered a new stage in
its foreign policy, one as yet without a name. But named or not, it
is clear that China is a major beneficiary of the Cold War's outcome.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has removed its main strategic
threat, and in doing so has also removed its strategic dependence on
America. At the same time, Beijing has embraced the transition to
capitalism under party control, unleashing the economic energy of its
people and far outpacing the social dynamism of its Russian neighbor.
Largely as a consequence of all this, China is feeling its oats.
Already identifying itself as one of the world's two most powerful
nations, China foresees its economy soon overtaking that of the
United States in sheer size. It is obviously eyeing a larger place in
the sun, and its rise has captured the imagination of political
cognoscenti all over the world--an achievement that, by itself,
contributes much to the élan of Chinese assertiveness.

Not all is smooth sailing, of course. Domestically, China's economy
is spread unevenly between south and north, coast and interior.
Agriculture, having once led the way, now lags, and this, together
with the increasing withdrawal of the state from the industrial
sector of the economy, is generating unprecedented labor dislocation
and internal migration. These phenomena, in turn, are deepening the
strains on China's national unity, strains that reflect problems of
size, regional and ethnic differences, and a historical propensity to
fragment. Finally, with Deng Xiaoping's death, contests for power may
test the political system to the utmost.

Already that political system, still led by the Communist Party,
lacks legitimacy--as must be the case when economic success is
achieved by embracing capitalism, and when, until recently, foreign
policy success was achieved by siding with the premier capitalist
state against the premier communist one. As has been widely observed,
this void makes nationalist appeals and demonstrative firmness in
foreign policy important in sustaining the party's hold on power. It
also tends to raise the stature of the People's Liberation Army
(PLA), which, unlike the Soviet army, has always been more the
partner than the servant of the party. The PLA is a logical
instrument of national assertion. While China does not harbor any
vast territorial ambitions, it does entertain some, mostly expressed
in irredentist terms linked to historical claims and past "unequal"
treatment. Other nations, indeed, did take advantage of China's
weakness, none more brutally than Japan. In doing so, they hurt Han
pride and sense of superior civilization. Now, with the tables partly
turned, China expects redress of historic grievances and demands

Context matters. The end of the Cold War and the political successes
of NATO during it resolved long-standing issues of international
security in Europe--contests over hegemony and the balance of power
that underlay both world wars and the Cold War. But this happy
outcome has no parallel in East Asia, where the glue of common
strategic interests no longer binds the United States and China.
Relations among major European countries today are more predictably
non-violent than they were before the Second--or indeed the
First--World War; the same can simply not be said about Asia. Rather,
an uneasy equilibrium persists among China, Japan, and the United
States. Weakened Russia is an interested onlooker and would-be
player. Tensions focus especially on the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan,
and the South China Sea.

The larger question in all this is whether the resolution of one set
of problems critical to international order must give rise to another
set of problems, just as the strategic consequences of the Second
World War produced the Cold War. As far as Europe is concerned, the
short answer is no, it need not. But in East Asia it might--and if
Beijing uses force to achieve its aims at home and abroad, it will.
If it again brutally puts down any domestic challenges to the party's
power, and if abroad the leadership should decide to resort to force,
and to sacrifice Chinese lives in huge number in an effort to achieve
strategic goals and causes driven by raison d'état, a direct link
will again have been made manifest between absolute power and a
ruthless foreign policy. Then we will have a real problem on our
hands, one all too familiar from the experiences of the last sixty

Is there any evidence for fearing such an outcome? Yes, there is some.

Muscle Building

The collapse of the Soviet Union freed China from immense strategic
pressure on its northern border. It also liberated the PLA from the
Maoist "people's war" doctrine--defense by depth and density of
population in lieu of firepower. China is developing smaller, more
professional forces with greater mobility and striking power, both
typical goals of force modernization generally. Its improvements in
military capability have not come at the expense of economic
development--a common trade-off in many circumstances. Rather, they
have been a dividend from the PLA's own very extensive commercial

China no longer looks north strategically, but south and east to its
maritime boundaries and land borders. It accords high priority to
modernizing its maritime capability, to moving from a "brown-water"
coastal defense to a "blue-water" ocean-going navy. A continental
power's decision to go to sea signals strategic warning. China's
efforts are not on the scale of the Kaiser's naval building program
or Soviet naval expansion under Admiral Gorshkov, but they do
represent a shift in gear that is hard to ignore. They reflect a
change in strategic mentality consonant with other indicators of
growing regional strategic ambition.

Essay Types: Essay