Author: Sourabh Gupta, Institute of Sino-American Studies
Seventy-five years ago last July, the American diplomat George Kennan published his seminal essay in Foreign Affairs the introduction of the idea of ”confinement”. In The sources of Soviet conduct, Kennan argued for a policy of containment against Soviet expansionism. As some in Washington brace for a new Cold War with China, the Kennan-era model is once again being fielded.
A key chapter on The Intellectual Sources of China’s Conduct published in a 2020 US State Department paper even borrows from Kennan’s famous title. Others seek a softer variant of the policy that would encircle or contain China’s influence by excluding it from bespoke security-focused and non-security-focused minilateral groupings. Diplomats, like generals, may be wedded to their latest war strategy, but the challenge posed by China today is very different from that posed by the Soviet Union.
Kennan reported that Moscow viewed the capitalist production system as harmful and exploitative. Coexistence with such a system was impossible because Moscow’s goal was to overthrow capitalism as a rival center of ideological authority and geopolitical power. Moscow understood that patience would be needed to prevail against the overwhelming forces of capitalism, so the goal was to secure the faithful and unconditional acquiescence of revolutionary socialist forces around the world to the Kremlin’s cause.
The modus operandi of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of the reform era bears little resemblance to its Soviet predecessor. The CCP’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” aims to harness the strength of capitalism as a means of efficient resource allocation and exchange in the market, not to exploit its so-called intrinsic class conflict to overthrow it. The Party, a self-proclaimed guardian and infallible leader, aims not to use Chinese socialism as an instrument of geopolitical subversion – although its “influence operations” abroad deserve close scrutiny – but to stifle organized political activity at home. him.
Kennan’s zero-sum reading of Soviet intentions in The sources of Soviet conductt is derived from its famous Long telegramwhich he had sent to his superiors in the State Department in 1946. In it he attributed the victor’s mentality of the Kremlin to the instinctive insecurity of the Russian population who – by living “in vast plains exposed in [the] neighborhood of fierce nomads” – had “learned to seek safety only in patient but deadly struggle[s] for the total destruction of rival power.
Chinese authorities have also had to deal with their own millennial encounter with fierce steppe tribes on their outskirts. The lessons they learned and their response were quite different. Total destruction of their basically insatiable rival power was futile. It was cheaper and less destructive to turn the greed of their rivals into profit rather than war, which also preserved their fragmented political structure. The tributary system of China embodied this thought.
A modern version of this system is evident in the Party’s economic relations with various branches of the West. The problem will be exacerbated if Beijing adopts deeper reform of its industrial, investment and capital market regimes while substantially reopening civil society.
Importantly, Kennan’s containment strategy relied on Washington remaining the dominant global economic power and using this as leverage to exert collective discipline among Western countries in its dealings with Moscow. But China is a protagonist whose economic size and material capabilities at the government’s disposal will surpass those of the United States. It will test a fundamental proposition on which the primacy of the United States has rested since the turn of the 20th century – that Washington could meet any strategic challenge from a position of superior national strength.
Several practical deductions follow. A strategy for dealing with the challenge posed by China must be based on realism and objectivity, not on ideology and values. 21st century China is more like Bismarck’s Germany than Stalin’s USSR.
The currency of competition will be above all economic and technological. The size of the Chinese market will dictate that Washington take a lean approach when developing selectively decoupled supply chain strategies.
Deepening a bipolar coalition of allies and partners will be a daunting task. Washington will have to remain more – not less – engaged on the international stage than in the Cold War era. Strategic competition against China in the Indo-Pacific will have to be conducted primarily for the loyalty of non-allied regional partners.
Military competition within the Western Pacific island chains will remain an inescapable feature of US-China relations and Taiwan will remain a powder keg for the foreseeable future. Regions that Beijing sees as lying beyond the anti-access and area-denial range essential for its pursuit of an island chain-specific first conflict, such as the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, will remain secondary.
The lockdown was constructed to lock in Moscow’s subversive tendencies with a limited geographic sphere of influence during which, hopefully, the seeds of inner decadence “would find their outlet either in the bursting or the gradual softening of the soviet power”. China is neither about to subvert foreign governments, nor to fall apart or soften. The strategy must adapt accordingly to this new reality.
Sourabh Gupta is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for China-American Studies in Washington, DC. This is a summary of a longer writing.