Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 07:51 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 07:51 | SYDNEY

What’s in a word? Why ‘a bit of containment’ fits

23 July 2012 16:16

Robert Ayson is Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, Wellington.



The first rule of the social sciences and humanities is to avoid contests over the definition and application of terms. But that rule only applies on the Planet Zog. Here on earth these discussions account for a great proportion of the academic effort, which is why I feel compelled to respond to Abraham Denmark about the inapplicability of containment and to Hugh White about the primacy of primacy.

Let me address the second of these observations first. Hugh suggests that 'primacy' is a better way of talking about American objectives in Asia. But I'm not sure primacy can really tell us how the US will get there. 'Containment' is more interesting to me because it is a strategy as well as an objective. In fact, if America wants primacy, containment would be one potential way of organising its resources and its interactions with others to stay number one.

There are other options for primacy as well, some much nastier than containment. One of these is rollback (after John Foster Dulles, who found it much easier to advocate than practice). Another is overthrow (after Clausewitz, for whom it was more a philosophical than a real world necessity). Fortunately, there is very little evidence of either rollback or overthrow being practiced today. And it would take an exceptionally bitter and desperate stand-off in Asia, and a conducive correlation of forces, for them to be attempted tomorrow.

That gets me to Abe's argument which, as Hugh suggests, tends to portray containment in such a specific historical manner that it is almost unrepeatable anywhere.

My main concern here is Abe's suggestion that containment is an extreme strategy. Compared to rollback and overthrow I don't really think it comes close. In its Cold War vintage, containment was in many ways a conservative strategy involving a drawing of lines beyond which the challenger was not supposed to go (it did of course hope for an eventual Soviet collapse, but due to internal contradictions).

Abe observes that the US readily sees the difference between today's China and yesterday's Soviet Union. Moscow already had an Eastern bloc when America sought to contain its spread. And because China appears to have so much of its rise ahead of it, the mere utterance of the word containment can be interpreted as an attempt to deny China its place in the sun as a great Asian power (almost rollback by default).

That's why being a little bit pregnant by having a wee bit of containment will win out over a pure form of the strategy, which is as unwise and unnecessary as it is impractical. But I still think we can already notice a touch of containment in the air – and, of course, on the sea.