Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 12:18 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 12:18 | SYDNEY

Containment? No. Primacy? Yes.


Hugh White

20 July 2012 08:25

Abraham Denmark is right that US policy towards China is not containment, if we use 'containment' the way he does. He defines the word rather narrowly, to refer only to the specific set of polices adopted by America towards the Soviet Union. So for him to say that the US is not containing China is simply to say that US policy towards China is different from US policy towards the Soviet Union.

That is certainly true, but it doesn't get us very far, does it? After all, this is not a debate about words, but about policy. So let's put the word 'containment' to one side for a moment, and focus on what is happening in Asia today. Here is my three-line version:

  1. America's primary long-term strategic objective in Asia is to preserve US primacy as the foundation of the Asian order.
  2. China's principle strategic objective is to expand its power and influence in Asia, by replacing US primacy as the foundation of the Asian order and acquiring a bigger role for itself.
  3. In recent years America has woken up to this challenge, and in response has reaffirmed its determination not to step back from primacy, but instead to resist any substantive change to the Asian order and America's role in it, with every element of American power.

The real question for Americans, and for American allies in Asia, is not whether this response should be called 'containment' or not. The question is whether it is the right American response to China's challenge – by which I mean, in the best long-term interests of Americans and their allies.

That depends on whether US response will work. It could work in either of two ways. First, China might abandon its ambitions and instead decide to accept American primacy as the foundation of the Asian order. Second, China might press on with its challenge and push back harder against America's resistance, leading to escalating strategic rivalry, in which case the policy only works if America clearly defeats China in a long-haul strategic competition for primacy in Asia.

So the wisdom of America's present course depends on how likely it is that China will cave in, or if it doesn't, how likely it is that the US will emerge a clear winner from the resulting rivalry. In judging this, we should remember that China is not the Soviet Union. It is much more formidable. To me, the chances of Chinese capitulation or American victory look very low. The probability of an escalating strategic rivalry in which no one wins looks very high. That would be a disaster for America and for its allies in Asia.

So whatever we call it, current American policy towards China looks flawed. The question, then, is what are the alternatives? That is a whole different matter, but here's a hint: there are more than two options...

Photo by Flickr user chrishimself.