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
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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.