China and America on the edge of the abyss

Will Peking take on Moscow's old role of rival superpower to the United States? In Washington, Rupert Cornwell detects signs of a return to Cold War simplifications, while in China, Teresa Poole finds resentment growing against Uncle Sam

Any rumours that the legendary diplomat and foreign affairs theorist George Kennan is, at the tender age of 91, emerging from his Princeton retreat to take charge of Washington's China policy in person may be utterly dismissed. But the same cannot be said with such certainty of the doctrine that Kennan made famous, and upon which America built its Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union. Now the US ponders how to deal with the ambitions of the stirring Pacific rim giant that seems preordained to take on Moscow's old role of rival superpower. And once again thoughts are turning to "containment".

In public, today's generation of policymakers here will have none of it. The US, they insist, is committed to "constructive engagement" with China, to drawing the country irrevocably into the global mainstream, rather than boxing it off from the rest of the world. Such is the message of Peter Tarnoff, the third ranking official at the State Department, as he attempts to reverse the perilous downward spiral in Sino-American relations during his visit to Peking this week. Nor are the immediate omens unfavourable.

The Chinese American human rights activist Harry Wu, the most recent bone of contention between the two countries, has been expelled from China. Hillary Clinton is now likely to feel she can decently travel after all to Peking as honorary head of the US delegation to the United Nations conference on women at the beginning of September. That gesture in turn may make it easier to take the edge off other disputes, ranging from Taiwan and trade to nuclear testing and weapons proliferation. But they will not disappear. And as China continues to grow into an economic colossus to match the US itself, and its diplomatic and military clout grow in similar measure, calls for neo-containment are bound to multiply.

The doctrine possesses after all a beguiling simplicity in these confused and fragmented post-Cold War times. America has always tended to a Manichean view of the world, populated by good guys and bad guys. How easy, it seems in retrospect, it was to manage world affairs when the Soviet Union was the fount of all wrong, and every decision could be subordinated to, and justified by, that logic. What is more, in some respects, the reputation of the old Soviet Union fits modern China like a glove; only that as Asia has replaced Europe as the driving force of the planet, so the villain has appropriately shifted from the North Atlantic to the Pacific.

Just as the Soviet gulags in their day, so do China's human rights abuses today - from intolerance of political dissent to the use of forced prison labour and worse - arouse the idealistic and moralising instincts of American foreign policy-making: for Andrei Sakharov, read Harry Wu. Theoretically at least, China remains Communist. Just like the old Soviet Union, it is prickly, secretive and largely unfathomable for foreigners. It is also seeking to expand its territory. Only too clearly, it is up to no good. For the vocal and ideology-driven Republican right, the "evil empire" has not vanished; its capital has merely been shifted a few thousand miles east.

And, for this school and others, the parallels do not end there. Once it was Western Europe, now it is Tibet yesterday, Hong Kong today, then Taiwan and perhaps the Spratly Islands and the South China sea shortly thereafter. Why not for that matter, turn Asean into an oriental Nato? In some senses, "containment" already exists. China is ringed by important US allies, from Japan and Korea in the North to the Philippines in the South. "Containment" was defined by Mr Kennan in his memorandum of 1946 as "the adroit and viligant application of counter-force at geographical and political points corresponding to the shifts and manoeuvres of Soviet policy". In that sense, the recent re-establishment of ties between the US and Vietnam, an historic foe of China, is containment, pure and simple.

And almost inevitably, whatever the protestations of Mr Tarnoff and others, "containment" is bound to be a strand in American policy towards China. But it cannot be the only strand. The challenge for Washington lies in grasping the differences between the Soviet Union then and China now. Fifty years ago, Moscow over-ran half of Europe. In seeking Hong Kong and Taiwan, China only wants to reclaim Chinese-inhabited territories that historically have been part of China. Notwithstanding the intemperate urgings of Speaker Newt Gingrich that the US accord full diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, the existing "One China" policy implicitly recognises that the island's long-term future belongs with the mainland.

Washington must accept the fact that China always was and always will be a regional colossus, by dint of size and population alone. Its policies, though, must also reflect the bigger difference between the emerging Asian superpower and the old Soviet Union. Never was Moscow seriously considered a global economic heavyweight. It possessed instead what China lacks - and will continue to lack for the foreseeable future - the ability to project military power into every corner of the planet. China's strength is increasingly economic. Arguably the biggest lurking danger to Sino- American relations lies not in China's territorial or military ambitions, but a huge and still growing trade surplus with Washington, which in a few years may well outstrip that of Japan.

Perhaps the last word belongs to Kennan, who in hindsight believes that Washington took "containment" Mark I to self-defeating lengths. "The general effect of our Cold War extremism," he wrote recently, "was to delay rather than hasten the great change which overtook the Soviet Union." The great change currently overtaking China is of a different kind - economic, not (or at least not yet) political, liberalisation. But the result may yet be the same. A revamped "containment" therefore, by feeding China's historic grievances and insecurity, could prove no less counter-productive than the doctrine practised against Moscow for most of the second half of the 20th century.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Sport
Luke Shaw’s performance in the derby will be key to how his Manchester United side get on
footballIt's not a game to lose, writes Paul Scholes
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS2 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Key Stage 2 Supply Teacher required until...

Primary Float Teacher (across Key Stages)

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Long term teacher job in a...

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is currently recruitin...

Year 4 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is urgently recruiting...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes