Washington has pursued a policy cooperating with Beijing where interests overlapped—but the dynamics in the Asia-Pacific are changing.
A little bit of honesty in U.S. policy toward Asia could go a long way in piercing the Chinese “victim narrative”, which entails China’s view that everything it dislikes in Asia is an outgrowth of a U.S. “containment” strategy.” Yet loopy as the Chinese narrative is, U.S. public diplomacy inadvertently reinforces it.
How many times have we heard the mantra, “Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China,” stated by President Obama during his April Asia trip, repeated and reiterated by various U.S. officials? Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel summed it up succinctly at the Shangri-la dialogue: “The rebalance to Asia-Pacific was not to contain China. President Obama has made that point very clear. Secretary Kerry has. I have.”
Time out. Do they not know the Emperor has no clothes? Who does the administration think it’s fooling with the diplomatic sleight of hand that the “rebalance” has nothing to do with China? Well, technically they are correct, it was not just about China, nor is it about “containing” China. The United States has been a Pacific power for many years with vital interests in maritime and commercial access, and intends to remain one. So it is certainly about more than just China.
The reality is that the United States, its allies and partners in the region—and China itself—are all hedging against uncertainty. U.S. policy is one of seeking to counterbalance China’s growing strategic and geopolitical weight. That is rather different in both logic and content from containment, as laid out by George Kennan in the original “Mr. X” Foreign Affairs essay in 1947. The logic of containment was based on the notion of the USSR as an ideological adversary and opposing political and economic system. The underlying notion of containment was to stymie Soviet imperial expansion with the idea that over time, its system would collapse from its own internal contradictions and weaknesses.
In addition to seeking to economically outflank the USSR with a dynamic, integrated global capitalist system, the United States created NATO in Europe and parallel alliance structures in Asia designed to deter Soviet ambitions. More recently, the United States in the 1980s and 1990s pursued a similar effort to ostracize Iraq under Saddam Hussein and after the 1979 revolution in Iran, it became what was dubbed “dual containment” both economically and militarily of both Middle East nations.
In sharp contrast, as it did in regard to Germany and Japan after World War II, the United States has, since Richard Nixon’s opening to China in 1972, pursued policies designed to facilitate China’s economic integration into the global economy and global institutions such as the WTO. Particularly since Deng Xiaoping launched market-oriented economic reforms in 1979, the hope was that over time, China would view itself as a stakeholder in the system from which it benefited hugely. China’s economy grew from $202 billion in 1980 to roughly $8 trillion by 2014, with the United States becoming its major trading partner. China also holds $1.3 trillion in U.S. treasury bonds. Cultural ties have also grown: some 220,000 students—including the daughter of President Xi Jinping—attend U.S. universities. Even military-to-military ties have gradually evolved, with China participating in RIMPAC—a major U.S.-led maritime exercise in Asia—for the first time this July.
Far from containment, U.S. policy has sought, on the one hand, to see China evolve into an economic partner with whom the United States could cooperate to address many global challenges, such as climate change, while on the other hand, managing their differences. This sort of logic suggests why presidents Obama and Xi agreed on the need to try to create a new type of major-power relationship at last year’s U.S.-China Summit in California.
Nonetheless, a widely held belief, one that is repeated ad nauseam by Chinese officials and think tankers is that every U.S. policy move affecting China is part of a concerted strategy of containment aimed at preventing China’s reemergence. Thus, Japan’s reinterpretation of its constitution to allow collective self-defense as part of a new security policy and every move by Vietnam or the Philippines in regard to disputed island territories in the South China Sea are not legitimate attempts to defend their national interests, but are engineered by the United States as part of a grand conspiracy against China.
Apart from being completely backwards factually, this Chinese “victim narrative”, a pervasive mindset resulting from two centuries of Western imperial domination, conveniently relieves Beijing from understanding cause and effect. It is Beijing’s assertive behavior that disturbed its Asian neighbors from India to Vietnam to Japan, and it is those countries’ concerns to which the United States has tried to respond. Worst of all, it is dangerous when a bully thinks he is a victim.
If there were any doubt that Beijing actually believed its own rhetoric, a much-overlooked speech that Chinese president Xi Jinping delivered in May at an obscure grouping, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), suggests otherwise. At the meeting of mainly Central and Southwestern Asian nations, Xi called for “a new regional security cooperation architecture,” one seeking to somehow replace U.S. alliances and exclude the United States. Essentially an “Asia for Asians” speech, Xi called for cooperative security arrangements as “we all live in the same Asian family.”
That Xi’s speech was met with dead silences throughout the region underscores the degree to which China’s narrative seriously misreads U.S. policy toward Asia—and also misreads, if not disregards, Asians’ perceptions of their own interests. Few in Asia are sanguine about the idea of becoming neotributaries to a modern Middle Kingdom.
Yet the United States has pursued a consistent policy cooperating with China where interests overlapped and seeking to manage differences. No doubt, the latter is getting more difficult and may be approaching the tipping point. Growing concerns about China’s intentions as its military power has grown after two decades of double-digit growth in military spending, have led U.S. allies and partners in the region, such as ASEAN, to press the United States to reinforce its presence in the region to foster a balance of power in East Asia. The so-called U.S. “rebalance” was more an effort to sustain and update the American security guarantor role in Asia by demonstrably responding to the concerns of U.S. allies and security partners in the region about China than an initiative conceived out of whole cloth.
This duality in U.S. policy toward China reflects efforts to counterbalance China’s growing strategic weight, as well as the hope that the United States’ more cooperative economic relationship with China will somehow steer China away from becoming a classic rising power challenging the prevalent international system. While China’s irredentist behavior in regard to disputed islands in the South China Sea in and of itself does not necessarily make it a classic revisionist power, Beijing’s overall pattern of behavior appears far from that of the “responsible stakeholder”—a role the United States has hoped China would play. The jury is still out on whether the current part-cooperative, part-competitive U.S.-Chinese relationship is sustainable. But the signs are becoming increasingly troubling.
Beijing seems to have pocketed all the benefits garnered since Nixon’s opening to China in 1972 and airbrushed them out of its narrative. This makes serious dialogue to arrive at a balance of interests more problematic and tension more likely. This is also why it would make sense for the United States to be more transparent about counterbalancing, which is obvious to all. A bit of candor might help clear the air and get both sides to put all their cards on the table.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council He served as a senior counselor from 2001 to 2004, was a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and served on the National intelligence Council (NIC 2008-12). Follow him on Twitter: @Rmanning4.