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.
Building outward from the U.S. alliances with Japan, Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and security partners like Singapore and increasingly Vietnam and India, a latent security network in the Indo-Pacific is gradually taking shape. China, which has few allies to start with (how about North Korea and Pakistan!) has alienated and alarmed much of the region, which is now bandwagoning with the United States and with each other: we see India-Vietnam; Japan-Philippines, U.S.-Japan-Australia and other permutations of intra-Asian security cooperation evolving in unprecedented ways. Clearly, the region is searching for a balance of power.
Political Transformation in Asia
The consistent pattern in Asia over the past thirty-five years has been that as economic miracles unfolded, organic political change followed. Following Japan’s take off in the 1970s and the prosperity that it spread across Asia, middle classes grew in the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan in the 1980s, Thailand and then Indonesia in the 1990s. In each case, political transformation followed, and democracy took root (despite a setback in Thailand). The Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy is largely based on performance, and as China’s middle class, already 250-300 million, grows, and likely to reach 500 million by 2030, in a China 60 percent urban, pressures mount.
Of course, China is several orders of magnitude bigger than other Asian societies, and has a 3,000 year-old culture. It is further complicated by a deep-seated Chinese fear of luan, chaos, as has occurred episodically in Chinese history, most recently in the form of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. It is worth recalling that Xi and his comrades lived through the insanity of China’s Cultural Revolution. So it should not be surprising that political change is more complicated and will play out in its own way and on its own timeline.
In his classic critique of U.S. foreign policy, The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr warned that the complexities of human behavior, the unpredictable fears and hopes, and ambitions and hubris, renders the idea of tailoring outcomes a near impossibility:
The illusions about the possibility of managing historical destiny from any particular standpoint in history, always involve … miscalculation about both the power and wisdom of the managers and of the weakness and manageability of the historical ‘stuff’ to be managed.
This applies both to the efforts of Xi Jinping and the CCP Politburo to micro-manage change in China and no less to U.S. policy efforts to steer China in desired directions. For the United States it means sustaining a faith in the “soft power” appeal of universal values—freedom and democracy—not how the dynamic of change in China is playing out at any given point. It is the perceived constancy of the U.S. commitment that is important.
The challenge to the United States is: can we have the patience and foresight to sustain the security counter-balancing pressure while facilitating the U.S. economic relationship with China, now nearly $600 billion in annual two-way trade. China’s pursuit of radical market reforms while tightening all social and informational controls is unsustainable. Over time, China’s internal contradictions will play out. Either the Communist Party rule will unravel, as some pessimistic analysts argue, or—more likely—Xi or some future Chinese leadership will pragmatically adapt and gradually move towards genuine rule of law and some variation of political reform and pluralism, perhaps as offered by the Singapore model.
Americans tend to seek instant gratification. But China strategy calls for playing the long game. Double down on economic engagement with China. Recall the more than a century-long timeline—punctuated by devastating military conflicts—before Europeans moved from Monarchy to parliamentary democracies. If we believe in our values, the United States should be able to see gradual change in China. Indeed, the China of 2010 was immensely different that the China of 1970. And the China of 2035 will not be that of 2015.
This is not to argue that China will “be like us” or not act like a Great Power, which is how it already sees itself. Nor does it mean that we can expect the uncontested U.S. pre-eminence of the post-Cold War world to endure in its current form. But it could mean that China will evolve into a partner we can work with in a world of diffused power.
The policy challenge for the United States will be to adjust and adapt to the structural change in the global system represented most vividly by the rise of China, while at the same time, protecting and advancing our economic, political and security interests in the Asia-Pacific region. In this context, Kennan’s prescription that policy toward the Soviet Union -- read China-- must be “long-term, patient, but firm and vigilant” offers the best hope of China’s evolving into a benign, if competing, partner.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative (tweet: @RManning4); James Przystup is a Senior Fellow at the National Defense University Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). His views are his alone and do not represent the views or policies of the national Defense University, the Department of Defense or the US government.