The optimal strategy for dealing with a rising China is containment. It calls for the United States to concentrate on keeping Beijing from using its military forces to conquer territory and more generally expand its influence in Asia. Toward that end, American policymakers would seek to form a balancing coalition with as many of China’s neighbors as possible. The ultimate aim would be to build an alliance structure along the lines of NATO, which was a highly effective instrument for containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The United States would also work to maintain its domination of the world’s oceans, thus making it difficult for China to project power reliably into distant regions like the Persian Gulf and, especially, the Western Hemisphere.
Containment is essentially a defensive strategy, since it does not call for starting wars against China. In fact, containment is an alternative to war against a rising China. Nevertheless, war is always a possibility. There is no reason the United States cannot have substantial economic intercourse with China at the same time it implements a containment strategy. After all, Britain, France, and Russia traded extensively with Wilhelmine Germany in the two decades before World War I, although they had also created the Triple Entente for the purpose of containing Germany. Even so, there will probably be some restrictions on trade for national security reasons. More generally, China and the United States can cooperate on a variety of issues in the context of a containment strategy, but, at root, relations between the two countries will be competitive.
Given its rich history as an offshore balancer, the ideal strategy for the United States would be to stay in the background as much as possible and let China’s neighbors assume most of the burden of containing China. In essence, America would buck-pass to the countries located in Asia that fear China. But that is not going to happen, for two reasons. Most important, China’s neighbors will not be powerful enough by themselves to check China. The United States will therefore have little choice but to lead the effort against China and focus much of its formidable power on that goal. Furthermore, great distances separate many of the countries in Asia that will be part of the balancing coalition against China—think of India, Japan, and Vietnam. Thus, Washington will be needed to coordinate their efforts and fashion an effective alliance system. Of course, the United States was in a similar situation during the Cold War, when it had no choice but to assume the burden of containing the Soviet Union in Europe as well as in Northeast Asia. In essence, offshore balancers must come onshore when the local powers cannot contain the potential hegemon by themselves.
There are three alternative strategies to containment. The first two aim at thwarting China’s rise either by launching a preventive war or by pursuing policies aimed at slowing Chinese economic growth. Neither strategy, however, is a viable option for the United States. The third alternative, rollback, is a feasible strategy, but the payoff would be minimal.
Preventive war is an unworkable option simply because China has a nuclear deterrent. The United States is not going to launch a devastating strike against the homeland of a country that can retaliate against it or its allies with nuclear weapons. But even if China did not have nuclear weapons, it would still be hard to imagine any American president launching a preventive war. The United States is certainly not going to invade China, which has a huge army; and crippling China with massive air strikes would almost certainly require the use of nuclear weapons. That would mean turning China into a “smoking, radiating ruin,” to borrow a phrase from the Cold War that captures how the U.S. Air Force intended to deal with the Soviet Union in the event of a shooting war. The nuclear fallout alone from such an attack makes it a nonstarter. Furthermore, it is hard to know for sure whether China will continue its rapid rise, and thus whether it will eventually be a threat to dominate Asia. That uncertainty about the future also cuts against preventive war.
Slowing down Chinese economic growth is certainly a more attractive option than nuclear war, but it, too, is not feasible. The main problem is that there is no practical way of slowing the Chinese economy without also damaging the American economy. One might argue that the Chinese economy would suffer greater damage, thus improving America’s relative power position vis-à-vis China at the same time Chinese growth was slackening. But that is likely to happen only if the United States can find new trading partners and China cannot. Both conditions are necessary.
Unfortunately, many countries around the world would be eager to increase their economic intercourse with China, thus filling the vacuum created by Washington’s efforts to cut back its trade with and investment in China. For example, the countries in Europe, which would not be seriously threatened by China, would be prime candidates to take America’s place and continue fueling Chinese economic growth. In short, because China cannot be isolated economically, the United States cannot slow its economic growth in any meaningful way.
Britain actually faced the same problem with a rising Germany before World War I. It was widely recognized in the British establishment that Germany’s economy was growing at a more rapid pace than Britain’s, which meant the balance of power between the two countries was shifting in Germany’s favor. A fierce debate ensued about whether Britain should try to slow German economic growth by sharply curtailing economic intercourse between the two countries. British policymakers concluded that this policy would hurt Britain more than Germany, in large part because Germany could turn to other countries that would take the exports it sent to Britain, as well as provide most of the imports Germany received from Britain. At the same time, the British economy would be badly hurt by the loss of imports from Germany, which would be hard to replace. So, Britain continued to trade with Germany—even though Germany gained power at Britain’s expense—simply because it was the least-bad alternative.
The third alternative strategy to containment is rollback, in which the United States would seek to weaken China by toppling regimes that are friendly to Beijing and perhaps even by fomenting trouble inside China. For example, if Pakistan is firmly in China’s camp, which is certainly possible in the future, Washington could seek to help bring about regime change in Islamabad and help put in place a pro-American leader. Or the United States might attempt to stir up unrest inside China by supporting irredentist groups in Xinjiang or Tibet.
Although the United States mainly pursued a containment strategy against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, we now know that it engaged in elements of rollback as well. Not only did it try to foment unrest inside the Soviet Union during the late 1940s and early 1950s, but it also tried to overthrow numerous government leaders around the world who were perceived to be pro-Soviet. In fact, Washington launched several covert operations targeting China directly in the 1950s and 1960s. These efforts at rollback had only a small effect on the balance of power between the two superpowers and did little to hasten the demise of the Soviet Union. Still, American leaders pursued rollback where and when they could, and there is little reason to think future policymakers in Washington will eschew this policy against a powerful China. However, containment will be America’s most effective strategy by far.
There is a small possibility China will eventually become so powerful that the United States will not be able to contain it and prevent it from dominating Asia, even if the American military remains forward deployed in that region. China might someday have far more latent power than any of the four potential hegemons the United States confronted in the twentieth century. In terms of both population size and wealth—the building blocks of military power—neither Wilhelmine Germany, nor imperial Japan, nor Nazi Germany, nor the Soviet Union came close to matching the United States. Given that China now has more than four times as many people as the United States and is projected to have more than three times as many in 2050, Beijing would enjoy a significant advantage in latent power if it had a per capita GNI (gross national income) equivalent to that of either Hong Kong or South Korea.
All that latent power would allow China to gain a decisive military advantage over its principal rivals in Asia, especially when you consider that China would be operating in its backyard, while the Unites States would be operating more than 6,000 miles from California. In that circumstance, it is difficult to see how the United States could prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon. Moreover, China would probably be the more formidable superpower in the ensuing global competition with the United States.
But even if China’s GNI does not rise to those levels, and it ends up with not quite as much latent power as the United States, it would still be in a good position to make a run at hegemony in Asia. All of this tells us the United States has a profound interest in seeing Chinese economic growth slow considerably in the years ahead. That outcome might not be good for American prosperity, much less for global prosperity, but it would be good for American security, which is what matters most.