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Rethinking Containment: China Against The World

As global tensions rise between the People’s Republic of China and its US-led adversaries, the moment seems appropriate for reminiscing America’s Cold War strategy of “containment” against the Soviet Union.

In 1947, an anonymous article was published in Foreign Policy, a pre-eminent American journal. The “X Article“, as it came to be known, was later discovered to have been authored by George Kennan, one of the U.S.A.’s foremost diplomats, and the then-US Ambassador to the U.S.S.R.

Article X, or the “Long Telegram”, was a revolutionary piece, in that it completely changed U.S. foreign policy towards the U.S.S.R. for the coming 2 decades of the Cold War, only to be replaced in the late 1960s by the Nixon-Kissinger model of détente (relaxation of strained relations).

Article X described Soviet society as being paralysed, with no social institutions allowed to exist, except for that of the Communist Party. It elaborated on how a neurotic expansionist ideology drove the Communist Party:

“…we are going to for a long time find the Russians difficult to deal with. It does not mean that they should be considered as embarked upon a do-or-die program to overthrow our society by a given date. The theory of the inevitability of the eventual fall of capitalism has the fortunate connotation that there is no hurry about it. The forces of progress can take their time in preparing the final coup de grace. Meanwhile what is vital is that the “Socialist fatherland” — that oasis of power which has been already won for Socialism in the person of the Soviet Union — should be cherished and defended by all good Communists at home and abroad…”

George Kennan
Kennan observed there was no flexibility in the U.S.S.R.’s domestic policies, which left the Russians and all others in the Union trapped in a restrictive, totalitarian society.

Kennan uses this understanding of Soviet ideology and his experience with Soviet diplomacy to highlight how the Soviets could still be induced to compromise — the “inevitability” of the capitalist collapse meant that the Communists could afford to be flexible in their foreign policies.

However, as Kennan observes, there was no flexibility in the U.S.S.R.’s domestic policies, which left the Russians and all others in the Union trapped in a restrictive, totalitarian society. While the Communist Party allowed for no dynamism in Soviet society itself, nobody could control the volatility in the Party during transitions of power — i.e., the internal tussles for power after a leader dies or steps down. According to Kennan, it was this volatility which had the power to bring about a radical change in Soviet society.

Therefore, Kennan argues, the West could play the waiting game as well for regime change to take place within the framework of the Soviet Union while doing its utmost to affect the same using its limited influence in the country. This analysis turned out to be prophetic — as seen in the 1991 collapse of the U.S.S.R. But until then, the U.S. and the West had a duty to contain Soviet power and prevent the spread of Soviet-communism to other countries as well.

And, thus, with this ground-breaking piece, U.S. foreign policy was transformed. Containment had its share of successes and failures — notable failures being Vietnam and Korea. But containment served its purpose to a great extent, until being replaced by the Nixon-Kissinger style détente, where the goal of effecting regime change in the U.S.S.R. was abandoned.

Which brings me to the question — how relevant is this analogy in the context of modern-day China? A good place to start would be examining similarities between the U.S.S.R. and the P.R.C.

Fundamentally, both regimes can be classified as totalitarian and communist. While the latter may appear dubious in the case of liberalised China, one must keep in mind that the state and state-owned enterprises still exercise significant influence in the market, especially with the tightening of state control over all spheres of life in China under Xi Jinping.

Further, both regimes — nuclear-armed and with some of the most powerful conventional armed forces of their times — are inherently expansionist in their agenda and ideology. China is far more nefarious in this regard, considering it is far more powerful than the U.S.S.R. was in terms of economic influence and unconventional capabilities, such as in the case of cyber warfare.

While the U.S.S.R. was expansionist in envisioning a Soviet-led Communist world order, China is (relatively) more subtle and more pragmatic in its approach — rather than trying to bring about a global revolution, it seeks to establish inroads into weaker nations through intricate combinations of political and economic coercion.

And perhaps most importantly — both regimes have historically proven an apathy towards international law and human rights norms, flouting both however they have seen fit, and that too in an explicitly overt manner.

Thus, both regimes have been serious threats to the peace and aspiring totalitarian hegemons. And, therefore, just like the U.S.S.R., the influence of contemporary P.R.C. too must be contained. But will Cold War thinking suffice, or do new times call for new measures?

Measures like direct military intervention must be substituted by more subtle economic and political tools.

A holistic approach to dealing with the China problem would be most prudent today. While China and the U.S.S.R. are both expansionist regimes, China has different practical approaches towards achieving this aim. Therefore, in keeping with this understanding of Chinese objectives, the fundamental logic of containment must apply, but should be backed up with modern means. Therefore, measures like direct military intervention must be substituted by more subtle economic and political tools.

Containment of China would therefore mean:

  • Containing its naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • Containing its land expansion into Central and West Asia through the BRI.
  • Containing its acquisition of naval bases and ports in African and Indian Ocean States.
  • Containing its belligerent expansion of maritime borders in the South China Sea.
  • Containing its belligerent expansion of land borders in the Himalayas.
  • Containing its expansion into international institutions and bureaucracies.

The military aspect of this strategy must be carried out by like-minded nations threatened by the rise of Chinese power. NATO countries led by the U.S., along with the South East Asian democracies, India and Australia must coordinate common strategies to contain the Chinese and nip in the bud any military aggression on the part of the PLA or the PLA-N (People’s Liberation Army Navy). This is exemplified in dialogues like the QUAD, which includes India, Japan, Australia and the U.S., whose joint naval cooperation may serve as a deterrent against Chinese expansion.

The economic dimension must be handled through soft and hard gestures. While soft gestures include liberal investment into target nations to induce them away from China, while bailing them out of Chinese debt traps, hard gestures would take the form of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

While weakening the Chinese grip over the global economy may prove to be a difficult, protracted and costly process, the difficulties borne by nations will be relatively short-term — and certainly worth it, given the far harder alternative of spending the long-term under Chinese hegemonic control over the global economy.

Thus, the case for countries like Japan and Australia, who are greatly dependent on Chinese trade, to move away would be to gain self-reliance and maintain economic independence in the long-run by bearing some costs in the short-term.

Finally, the political aspect. While the U.S.-led world order is not without its flaws, the status quo is no doubt preferable to a unipolar order led by the totalitarian Chinese Communist Party. The U.S., under Donald Trump, for all its bellicose rhetoric against China, is a classic example of a failure of global leadership.

The U.S. cannot withdraw itself behind an “America First” policy, alienate itself from NATO, WHO and the H.R.C., and then claim to be a global leader against the P.R.C.’s excesses. A change in U.S. leadership is wanting, and a consequent return to the status quo ante, with a more responsible U.S., one more committed to internationalism and institutionalism is needed in order to protect these institutions from falling prey to the Chinese “Wolf Warrior” diplomats and to restore some legitimacy of a liberal, democratic world order.

A failure of U.S. leadership and a consequent failure of mobilisation of the free nations of the world will lead to the Chinese succeeding in their aims of global domination; with all free nations and their people playing second-fiddle to the Han people and their Communist Party, under the thumb of Big Brother in Beijing.

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  1. Arindam Chaudhuri

    The vital threads of the Chinese strategy that the Chinese political hierarchy are employing to dethrone the US from the status of a super power and perch onto it have been brought out with clarity in this post.
    Leaves nothing to imagination and brings out the areas of focus for all affected by this Chinese belligerence. In the short term there will be pain, but a blind eye to these evident indicators will lead to deep regret in the near future for all those who feel threatened by the rise.

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