Balancing Without Containment: An American Strategy for Managing China

Ashley J. Tellis Report January 22, 2014
China is poised to become a major strategic rival to the United States.

China is poised to become a major strategic rival to the United States. Whether or not Beijing intends to challenge Washington’s primacy, its economic boom and growing national ambitions make competition inevitable. And as China rises, American power will diminish in relative terms, threatening the foundations of the U.S.-backed global order that has engendered unprecedented prosperity worldwide. To avoid this costly outcome, Washington needs a novel strategy to balance China without containing it.

Key Themes

  • The loss of American primacy to China would pose unacceptable risks to the security and interests of the United States and its allies.
  • China’s power—unlike that of previous U.S. competitors—stems from Beijing’s deep integration in the U.S.-led global economy.  
  • The containment strategy that the United States used to great effect during the Cold War cannot succeed today. Cutting off ties with Beijing and urging China’s neighbors to do the same is politically, economically, and practically unthinkable.
  • Washington should balance Beijing’s growing capabilities by pursuing policies that simultaneously increase China’s stake in the existing global system and raise the costs of abusing its power.

Recommendations for U.S. Policymakers

Bolster Regional Actors. By increasing the national power of China’s neighbors, the United States can constrain Beijing’s behavior and limit its capacity for aggressiveness. This investment is in Washington’s best interest irrespective of whether it is repaid in kind because it will diminish China’s ability to misuse its growing strength and increase American geopolitical maneuverability in the Indo-Pacific. But the United States must be wary of Chinese tactics to subvert these efforts.

Selectively Deepen Globalization. The United States should make trade liberalization a top priority. Since comprehensive global liberalization remains a distant goal, Washington should work to quickly conclude key regional trade pacts, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which promise increased relative gains to the United States and its allies vis-à-vis China.

Bolster U.S. Military Capabilities. To preserve its military superiority in the face of growing Chinese power, Washington should invest in improving U.S. power projection capabilities that will allow it to defeat challenges posed by China’s new strategic denial systems and regain U.S. freedom of action in the Indo-Pacific.

Reinvigorate the U.S. Economy. Revitalizing the domestic economy is imperative to sustaining American hegemony. To maintain its global economic dominance, the United States must emphasize labor force renewal, promote disruptive technological innovations, increase efficiency in production, and resolve the political squabbles that prevent Washington from fixing the country’s public finances.

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Comments (2)

  • Nikos
    "the foundations of the U.S.-backed global order that has engendered unprecedented prosperity worldwide"

    Here we can laugh...Most of the regions in the world were growing fast until, more or less 1990 (or 1980 more precisely), due to the presence of the USSR. The rivalry between the USA and the USSR in the bipolar world had made the world much more stable than in the next period of American hegemony (in line with Mearsheimer's claim). The (slower) growth and in many cases (in developing countries) the reversal of convergence has often been the result of the USA's actions. What about Libya, Iraq and so on? How much prosperity have the USA delivered to these countries? So please, stop the self-congratulations because this is not what you have offered the world and the world knows it. But that's how you have become "autistic" in global politics...

    And don't prescript free trade as the panacea for US growth and to handle China. It is not self-evident that trade leads to specific results, despite what economists (are paid to) say...
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  • Michael Howard, Dayton Alumni, daytonohiovolunteer
    Corporate greed and stupidity riding Republican political coat-tails has brought America to it's knees through outsourcing, union busting, Reaganomics, multiple Bush Wars, and breaking the laws of The United States Constitution as often as it suited the powers in charge. This picture is a product of Republican puzzle pieces.
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of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

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of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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