Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, foreign policy wonks of all stripes have cast about searching for the Silver Bullet: What is the grand strategy to succeed containment? Where is the George Kennan of the Brave New 21st Century world?
The search began early on witoh the DOD’s 1992 Defense Planning Guidance which aimed at preventing “the re-emergence of a new rival … in the order posed formerly by the Soviet Union… from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power;” It continue through the 1990s’s with Madeleine Albright’s “indispensable nation.” That nobody has won the Kennan sweepstakes is not an indictment of the Leisure of the Theory Class. Rather, it reflects the extraordinary complexity of a world of increasing disorder and uncertainty, one where threats are many, but none rise to the level of existential threat posed by the USSR (though Putin is not doing a bad imitation).
While the debate remains open on the nature of 2015 China—aspiring hegemon or not, there are increasing concerns that China has, in fact, emerged as a peer competitor that may be challenging the current U.S.-led order.
And, this, in turn has generated a new wave of entrants into the Kennan successor sweepstakes. The object of their wonkery: the future of U.S. strategy toward China. What began as Richard Nixon’s strategic counterweight to Moscow in 1971 evolved as China began the economic reforms in 1979 that catapulted its GDP from $200 billion in 1980 to $10.3 trillion in 2014. From Nixon to Obama, eight presidents, have pursued a basic policy of cooperating where possible, supporting Beijing’s integration into the global system, managing differences, and hedging against downside risks.
But today there is a sense that the so-called “integration” strategy is proving wrong, a sense of impatience that China’s economic opening and reform has not produced the political liberalization that liberals and conservatives alike shared in supporting China’s admission into the World Trade Organization, and a concern that China is actively challenging the existing international order.
Look no further than China’s land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea to see China has not evolved into a “responsible stakeholder” of the status quo. Instead China, while participating in the current global system, (e.g. IMF, World Bank, WTO), has at the same time increasingly been advancing parallel institutions: from the “Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank” and “One Road, One Belt” new Silk Road Eurasian integration plan; to a “new security concept” of “Asia for Asians” at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building (CICA); to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) pan-Asian trade accord; and even its own alternative to Davos, the Boao Forum.
How successful all these largely aspirational ventures will prove to be is open to question. But in the think-tank world, the chattering class is now churning out reports and articles on a regular basis urging various proposals for the next Mr. X, this time focused on China.
But, we don’t need another Kennan. Why? Because the elements of an effective China strategy can be discerned from the logic and analysis of Kennan’s 1947 “Mr.X” essay in Foreign Affairs .
Of course, China is vastly different than the Soviet Union. It is not a competing economic system: there is no COMECON, a Socialist economic bloc. Nor is there a competing messianic ideology. Instead, China has long bet its future on a globalized economy and sees radical market-centered reforms as the future of a consumer-led Chinese economy.
But the key similarity is an all-powerful political monopoly of the Communist Party, some sixty million strong. As Kennan wrote of the Soviet Communist Party, “No other force in Russian society was to be permitted to achieve vitality or integrity. Only the Party was to have structure.” And, for the party, the key concept was “the principle of infallibility,” which rests on “the iron discipline of the Communist Party.” (Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is trying to make that so.)
This is the case in China—under Xi Jinping, even more so. The Politburo led anti-corruption campaign that has already targeted nearly 100,000 party members is designed to purify the party, to strengthen its Mandate of Heaven. Never mind that it is also one means by which Xi is ousting real and potential rivals and consolidating power. And never mind that corruption is rooted in the very single-party system not held into account by an independent judiciary or any external checks and balances.
Since taking over in 2012, Xi has sought to tighten controls more than any other Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. He has clamped down on the press, film, arts, social media, the internet, religious groups, and not least on non-Han minorities in Xinjiang, Tibet, NGOs, and the publishing industry. China’s harsh reaction to the popular “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong is emblematic of this mindset, as is the fact that the budget for China’s internal security forces now exceeds that of the PLA.
Efforts to exert political control have gone as far as censoring textbooks with “Western values.” The Party’s Central Committee circulated a directive called Document #9 which warned that the party needed to get rid of anything that promoted Western “universal values” like democracy, constitutionalism, civil society and a free press. Even economic and legal texts have been rejected, professors penalized.
It is hard to escape the element of absurdity here. Root out Western values, yet send 230,000 students (including Xi’s daughter) to school in the United States. How does that work? But it does create a climate of intimidation, which after all, is its larger purpose.
This increasing authoritarian control is incompatible with the radical economic reforms which Beijing sees as essential to change its outmoded investment–driven export-led growth model with a consumer-centered economy. How do you create a 21st century knowledge, innovation-led economy when researchers can’t even read Western textbooks or access research papers on the internet?
In fact, that unlike the USSR, China is not an autarchic, separate economy creates circumstances of additional vulnerability. The more it needs to reform, the more there is tension with its internal political control dynamics.
So how do we apply Kennan’s strategy?
First on the security side, the objective of policy should be clearly defined and articulated, not containment, but counter-balancing. Kennan argued that “the main element of any US policy [toward the Soviet Union] must be that of a long-term, patient, but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” Substitute counter-balance for containment, but the same principle applies to China. Kennan calls for “the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.”
We are witnessing this application of counterforce in the East China Sea today. In the face of China’s challenge to Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku Islands, President Obama has made clear that Article V of the Security treaty extends of the islands. And, the new U.S.-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation have served to strengthen defense cooperation and reinforce deterrence.
At the same time, China’s military build-up, its assertiveness in the South China Sea, bluster in claiming some 80 percent of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, and pursuit of a strategy of access denial has been a godsend for U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Here again, the application of counterforce in the U.S.-exercise of Freedom of Navigation through seas around China’s island building should serve as a clear signal of America’s intention to preserve historic national interests.