Containment and China: What Would Kennan Do?

Containment and China: What Would Kennan Do?

Kennan would recognize that China does not merit a containment strategy as he originally conceived it, nor could any such strategy succeed against China.

This clearly implied a desire to prevent the spread of Chinese influence within the region that sounded much like the original containment goal of preventing the extension of Soviet influence. More importantly, Kennan’s idea of erecting “firm barriers” against Chinese influence and “standing in the path” of an expansion of Chinese power seemed to echo his prescription in the “X” article for containing Soviet communism: through the “adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.”

This, arguably, is what the United States is pursuing today through various policies and strategies that seek to counterbalance—and thus limit the spread of—Chinese influence within East Asia relative to that of the United States. Many observers, both Asian and American, saw that as a central goal of the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to East Asia, and wanted it to be. And the U.S. diplomatic and economic engagement, security cooperation, and military deployments that the Trump administration has sustained in the region—now within the framework of pursuing “a free and open Indo-Pacific”—are all widely perceived as being aimed at the same goal. Kennan would have approved of this approach, having essentially endorsed it as early as 1960.

But this is precisely the goal and the set of U.S. policies which Chinese leaders today routinely characterize as “containment.” Many other East Asian observers, including among close U.S. allies, probably think of it the same way and support it as such. Washington may define the word differently, recognize that China represents a different kind of challenge than the Soviet Union, and thus frame U.S. strategy toward China in other terms. But denying that Washington has a containment policy on the grounds that it is not applying the same strategy it applied to the Soviet Union is only talking past Beijing, because what the Chinese (and some of their neighbors) describe as “containment” is simply this perceived U.S. effort to limit China’s influence in the region relative to Washington’s. The disagreement is only semantic. The bottom line is that Kennan today would essentially be advocating what the Chinese have chosen to call “containment.” A version of his doctrine is thus operative in East Asia even though it has renounced or changed its name.

There is another core element of Kennan’s original containment doctrine that applies in East Asia today: the requirements on the U.S. side. In the “X” article, he observed that “the issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the over-all worth of the United States as a nation among nations.” American success ultimately depended, he wrote, upon “the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country that knows what it wants” and “is coping successfully with the problem of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power.” The same conditions apply equally if not more so today, and not only with respect to U.S. relations with East Asia. Seventy years after Kennan wrote those words to describe the fundamental prerequisite to American “containment” of external challenges, the country is again facing a self-imposed test of the United States as a nation among nations.

Paul Heer is an adjunct professor at George Washington University and former National Intelligence Officer for East Asia (2007–15). This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press).