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What China Knows That We Don't: The Case for a New Strategy of Containment

The Chinese leadership views the world today in much the same way Kaiser Wilhelm II did a century ago: The present world order serves the needs of the United States and its allies, which constructed it. And it is poorly suited to the needs of a Chinese dictatorship trying to maintain power at home and increase its clout abroad.

published by
Weekly Standard
 on January 20, 1997

Source: Weekly Standard

When President Clinton abandoned his 1992 campaign pledge to get tough with China, he quickly settled into that comfortable, bipartisan consensus of policymakers, politicians, Sinologists, and journalists who have long supported a policy of "engagement" with China. "Nothing is more important than integrating the rising power of China as a responsible member of the international system," writes Joseph S. Nye, Jr., until recently a top defense official in the Clinton administration. Bush State Department official Robert B. Zoellick agrees with Nye: "The challenge," Zoellick writes in the latest issue of the National Interest, "is to demonstrate to [China] that it will benefit from integration within regional and global systems."

The advocates of engagement -- whom we might call "the new China hands" -- offer a host of sunny assumptions about China's future and the helpful role the United States can play in shaping it. China wants to join our international order, the theory goes, or at least can be persuaded to play a responsible role in the world if only we help China's leaders understand what's good for them. By engaging with China, Nye argues, we can "affect how the Chinese define [their] interest." And as the Chinese come to view the world within the "larger context" we provide for them, "the prospects for conflict [will] diminish." China, Zoellick believes, "should welcome regional stability and the avoidance of contests for dominance."

Underlying these optimistic assertions, however, is a lurking fear: If we don't pursue engagement with sufficient zeal, we risk a catastrophic confrontation with China. To make their point, the new China hands ritualistically cite the cautionary example of turn-of-the-century Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II (the period called "Wilhelmine Germany").

Wilhelmine Germany was a nation on the move, with a dynamic economy, increasing military strength, and a rising ambition both to settle outstanding international grievances and to play a role on the world stage commensurate with its new power. Zoellick argues that the "failure to deal effectively with Germany's rise led to seventy-five years of conflict." The new China hands warn that the failure to deal effectively with China's rise could have the same dire consequences.

And they insist that the lesson of World War I is that it is safer to accommodate than to contain an emerging power. "Germany then and China now," Zoellick writes, "are characterized by a mixture of arrogance and insecurity. Germany expected, and China expects, to be taken seriously." It follows that we must respect the wishes of China's leaders or face a disastrous confrontation.

Containment is unthinkable -- a very dangerous "pipe dream," according to Henry Kissinger. As Admiral Richard Macke, the one-time commander in chief of our Pacific Fleet, once put it, "What we have to do is make China one of our friends. We can't confront them, we can't isolate them." And so, whether the subject is human rights, China's reacquisition of Hong Kong, its efforts to regain Taiwan, the growing power of the Chinese military, nuclear proliferation, or any number of contentious issues on which the United States and China differ, the principal aim of U.S. policy must be accommodation, not confrontation. To succeed in our policy toward the Chinese, we must win their friendship and their trust, as the British presumably failed to do with the Kaiser's Germany.

The comparison of today's China to Wilhelmine Germany is apt -- all too apt, in fact. It ought to be a cause for alarm and result in a wholesale shift of policy. For the story of how Europe dealt with Germany explains exactly why the current policy of engagement is so dangerous.

Great Britain, the preeminent power of its day, conducted the very policy toward Wilhelmine Germany that the new China hands would have the United States pursue toward China today. From the 1890s until the outbreak of war, British statesmen tried incessantly to engage Germany in discussions about cooperation in Europe, Asia, and Africa. They even explored the possibility of a formal alliance between the two nations.

But the German threat could not be lessened by accommodation. The international order led by Great Britain was by its very nature unacceptable to German leaders, who wanted a share of preeminence for themselves. Germany's primary aim, as London's top German expert at the time, Eyre Crowe, put it, was to play "on the world's political stage a much larger and much more dominant part than she finds allotted to herself under the present distribution of material power." The historian Paul Kennedy has argued that an even greater degree of British accession to Germany "might have papered over the cracks in the Anglo-German relationship for a few more years," but it would not "have altered the elemental German push to change the existing distribution of power."

The problem was not that Britain was too rigidly wedded to deterring and containing Germany. The problem was that Britain did not deter and contain Germany enough. In Crowe's view, Britain needed to take a "resolute stand" against Germany's challenge to the international order. Her Majesty's government had to undertake "all risks of a possibly disagreeable situation [rather] than to continue in the path of endless concessions." The British did not take Crowe's advice until it was too late to avoid war. If the analogy with Wilhelmine Germany tells us anything, it is that the best way to deal with a dissatisfied emerging power is not to adjust to it but to make it adjust to you.

So we must ask: Can Chinese leaders be coaxed into responsible membership in the international order? Or, like the Germans a century ago, do Chinese leaders see the international order as something that must be changed if they are to realize their ambitions, and changed in a way that diminishes America's own influence and security?

The Chinese leadership views the world today in much the same way Kaiser Wilhelm II did a century ago: The present world order serves the needs of the United States and its allies, which constructed it. And it is poorly suited to the needs of a Chinese dictatorship trying to maintain power at home and increase its clout abroad. Chinese leaders chafe at the constraints on them and worry that they must change the rules of the international system before the international system changes them.

In truth, the debate over whether we should or should not contain China is a bit silly. We are already containing China -- not always consciously and not entirely successfully, but enough to annoy Chinese leaders and be an obstacle to their ambitions. When the Chinese used military maneuvers and ballistic-missile tests last March to intimidate Taiwanese voters, the United States responded by sending the Seventh Fleet. By this show of force, the U.S. demonstrated to Taiwan, Japan, and the rest of our Asian allies that our role as their defender in the region had not diminished as much as they might have feared. Thus, in response to a single Chinese exercise of muscle, the links of containment became visible and were tightened.

The new China hands insist that the United States needs to explain to the Chinese that its goal is merely, as Zoellick writes, to avoid "the domination of East Asia by any power or group of powers hostile to the United States." Our treaties with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia, and our naval and military forces in the region, aim only at regional stability, not aggressive encirclement.

But the Chinese understand U.S. interests perfectly well, perhaps better than we do. While they welcome the U.S. presence as a check on Japan, the nation they fear most, they can see clearly that America's military and diplomatic efforts in the region severely limit their own ability to become the region's hegemon. According to Thomas J. Christensen, who spent several months interviewing Chinese military and civilian government analysts, Chinese leaders worry that they will "play Gulliver to Southeast Asia's Lilliputians, with the United States supplying the rope and stakes."

Indeed, the United States blocks Chinese ambitions merely by supporting what we like to call "international norms" of behavior. Christensen points out that Chinese strategic thinkers consider "complaints about China's violations of international norms" to be part of "an integrated Western strategy, led by Washington, to prevent China from becoming a great power.

It is difficult to see how China can be integrated into the international system through a policy of engagement when the system itself is viewed by the Chinese as a U.S.-designed scheme of hostile containment. "We want China to accept the rules," Zoellick writes. "We want China to perceive that adherence to norms of behavior will benefit it as well as others." But the Chinese have no intention of accepting integration on American terms. The Sinologist Kenneth Lieberthal admits that Chinese leaders want the world to accept " 'Chinese characteristics' as part of the price of having the country join international councils. Though a new player, China wants to be a rule setter and not just a rule accepter." Unless the United States is prepared to change the international system it so laboriously constructed over the past half- century, China's current leaders are bound to be perpetually unhappy with American policies, even during periods when U.S. policymakers are trying to be accommodating.

For China's rulers, demanding that international "norms" be changed is a simple matter of survival -- their own, not their ancient nation's. The system we uphold, and into which we would like to bring the Chinese, is deadly for them. They saw what happened to Mikhail Gorbachev and a 70-year- old Communist party dynasty when he tried to "integrate" the Soviet Union peacefully into the Western system. The Chinese regime depends on the suppression of liberty, and since the outbreak of the democracy movement in 1989 and its subsequent brutal suppression in Tiananmen Square, Chinese leaders have been determined not to repeat Gorbachev's mistake. Maintaining the unchallenged supremacy of the Communist party hierarchy has been their consistent policy. After Tiananmen, Deng Xiaoping declared that any effort to challenge the Communist party leadership and the primacy of "Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong Thought" had to be crushed, along with any effort to introduce "the American system of the separation of the three powers."

Deng's reforms, which took full force in the 1980s, aimed at achieving the maximum economic growth with the minimum of political liberalization. That is a dangerous game, and Chinese leaders know it. Deng himself had to sack the two party leaders he chose to succeed him, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, because they apparently strayed too far toward political liberalism. Perhaps he correctly saw them as potential Gorbachevs, who would wittingly or unwittingly allow the whole ruling apparatus to collapse in their search for " integration" into the West.

It's not so easy to enjoy the advantages of one aspect of the Western-dominated international system -- trade and economic benefits -- without becoming vulnerable to the potent ideological forces of the West. Ask Daniel Ortega or Slobodan Milosevic. Even when the United States and its Western allies have no conscious designs to undermine dictators, we exert pressure merely by our existence -- both as a beacon of hope to those living under tyranny and as a vast machine for the global dissemination of information. The replica of the Statue of Liberty erected by the students in Tiananmen Square was tangible evidence of these abstract notions about the global consequences of an information age dominated by the democracies. Deng himself said the democratic uprising had been "determined by the international and domestic climate."

The Chinese leaders' profound fear of losing control can be seen in actions which make little sense to Western observers. They arrest and imprison student dissidents who, the Sinologists claim, have no mass following. They are willing to silence political opposition in Hong Kong even if it threatens the economic bonanza they hope to reap there upon taking over in July. Their enraged reaction to elections in Taiwan brought about a military confrontation they were bound to lose. These are the actions not of a confident ruling elite, secure in its mastery of a people who embrace authoritarianism, but of a nervous gang that knows better than we do how close it came in 1989 to losing everything.

Some new China hands agree that the Chinese regime is vulnerable and believe that increased ties will hasten the day when political liberalization finally catches up with economic liberalization. By embracing the Chinese, by exporting our Western ways through our Western goods, we will bring them down. By helping them expand their economy, we will exacerbate the contradictions of "authoritarian capitalism" and force their resolution in favor of more democratic forms.

There's a contradiction in this argument, one that suggests the new China hands are either naive or disingenuous. How can a policy of engagement that has as its explicit goal the eventual collapse of the regime appeal to China's leaders? Can the United States win their friendship by saying, " Engage with us so we can bring you down"? Chinese leaders are more aware than anyone that there are contradictions in their system, and they will not be comforted to know that America's policy of "engagement" contains the hope that they will be swept away by an uncontrollable tide of liberalization.

There is a Marxian foolishness to the argument that the transformation of China into a liberal democracy is historically inevitable. Political reform need not follow inexorably from economic reform if China's leaders recognize the danger and are determined to avoid it. The iron laws of modernization can be broken by a ruling elite that is ultimately more interested in power than modernization. American policy should rest neither on historical determinism nor on the misguided hope that China's leaders, having witnessed Gorbachev's fiasco, will walk blindly into the same trap.

In fact, they believe they have found a way to resolve the contradictions in their system, or at least delay indefinitely the collapse of their rule, by an aggressive appeal to Chinese "nationalism." On issues like the face-off over Taiwan, ordinary citizens seem to have been genuinely stirred up by anti-American campaigns in the Chinese media. And the "nationalist" card plays well abroad as another tactic for fending off foreign pressures to conform to international rules of conduct. Thus the new China hands warn that American failure to accommodate the Chinese on Taiwan and a raft of other issues will spark an incendiary nationalist backlash. Joseph Nye flatly blames U.S. policy for having "stimulated anti-American reactions in broad segments of the Chinese population."

But even those Sinologists who favor accommodation admit that the sources of Chinese nationalism are internal, driven by the need on the part of the leadership to replace communism with some other unifying ideology. Without the Communist faith, Kenneth Lieberthal says, Beijing's dictators have had to turn to "nationalism to tighten discipline and maintain support." For Chinese leaders interested in keeping power, nationalism is the necessary antidote to the political poisons unleashed by economic reform. Lieberthal warns that " should the People's Republic hold together and continue its economic development, yet still perceive major threats to its security and internal stability, it will more likely become a nationalistic bully on the regional level and an obstructionist on global issues."

But isn't that the likeliest scenario regardless of what the United States does or doesn't do? The United States cannot undo the perceptions of the Chinese rulers that China's security is threatened when the chief threat they fear is the international order the United States upholds.

Thus, the United States cannot ease the problems China's leaders face without fundamentally altering the present international order. The recommendations of the accommodationists would have just that result. They would welcome China into the G-7 group of leading industrial powers and into the World Trade Organization, regardless of how fully China meets the existing standards of behavior. They would use U.S. pressure to dampen democratically expressed desires for independence in Taiwan. They would "de- link" the issue of human rights from other aspects of the U.S.-China relationship once and for all. They would expand the ties between the U.S. military and the Chinese military and would avoid using sanctions in response to Chinese violations of agreements on proliferation and trade. Allowing China to join the community of nations without regard to its behavior as a member of that community would indeed change the principles of the international order to suit the needs of China's leadership.

But would even these concessions be enough? The answer is almost certainly no. To make the kind of accommodations necessary to rid Chinese leaders of their suspicions would, at last, require changing the essential character of the United States. The Clinton administration's top policymaker for Asia, Winston Lord, has complained that the United States appears to the Chinese and other Asians as "an international nanny, if not bully." But concern for the rights of peoples around the world is the product of America's universalist creed. The astonishing spread of democracy in the last 20 years owes a great deal to the way we threw our weight behind our beliefs. Even if we wanted to change this fundamental aspect of our national character, could we?

America's new China hands may be foolish enough to believe that the ideological chasm separating the present Chinese regime and the American people can be bridged or ignored, but China's leaders are more realistic. A 1993 document produced by the Chinese military summed up the situation bluntly: "Because China and the United States have longstanding conflicts over their different ideologies, social systems, and foreign policies, it will prove impossible to fundamentally improve Sino-U.S. relations."

It is worth recalling the historical analogy with which we began. As Paul Kennedy explains, Wilhelmine Germany could not have been appeased "unless the British were willing to accept a substantial diminution in national influence and safety." The new China hands wouldn't dare make such a grim recommendation to the United States. But the strategy of engagement -- an effort to steer a middle course between appeasement and containment -- may be the most perilous of all. It neither satisfies the demands of the emerging power nor deters that power effectively enough to prevent a serious confrontation. That is a fair description of the course Great Britain tried to follow before World War I, and Britain's experience illustrated a bitter truth of international affairs:

Sometimes the policy that seems safest is the most dangerous, and the policy that appears most fraught with near-term risk offers the best chance of peace over the long run.

In the long Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the years from 1981 through 1984 were a time of intense confrontation. Opponents of the Reagan administration's hard line clamored for accommodation, for ending the arms buildup, for a "nuclear freeze," for more summits, for " engagement." But the four years of tensions and confrontation were immediately followed by the most fruitful period of relations in Cold War history. The changes in the external and internal behavior of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s resulted at least in part from an American strategy that might be called "integration through containment and pressure for change."

Such a strategy needs to be applied to China today. As long as China maintains its present form of government, it cannot be peacefully integrated into the international order. For China's current leaders, it is too risky to play by our rules -- yet our unwillingness to force them to play by our rules is too risky for the health of the international order. The United States cannot and should not be willing to upset the international order in the mistaken belief that accommodation is the best way to avoid a confrontation with China.

We should hold the line instead and work for political change in Beijing. That means strengthening our military capabilities in the region, improving our security ties with friends and allies, and making clear that we will respond, with force if necessary, when China uses military intimidation or aggression to achieve its regional ambitions. It also means not trading with the Chinese military or doing business with firms the military owns or operates. And it means imposing stiff sanctions when we catch China engaging in nuclear proliferation.

A successful containment strategy will require increasing, not decreasing, our overall defense capabilities. Eyre Crowe warned in 1907 that "the more we talk of the necessity of economising on our armaments, the more firmly will the Germans believe that we are tiring of the struggle, and that they will win by going on." Today, the perception of our military decline is already shaping Chinese calculations. In 1992, an internal Chinese government document said that America's "strength is in relative decline and that there are limits to what it can do." This perception needs to be dispelled as quickly as possible.

Containment would seek to compel Beijing to choose political liberalization as the best way to safeguard their economic gains and win acceptance in the international community. That is why trading freely with China is not the answer. Delightful as the idea of getting rich while doing good may seem to American businessmen, the truth is that unrestricted trade with China will only help the Chinese dictatorship buy time and put off the hardest decisions. Remember, Soviet communism was not brought down by trade. Nor was Chilean dictatorship, nor South African apartheid. In all these cases, only substantial restrictions on regular commerce helped convince leaders to risk democratic reform.

We need to force the Chinese leaders to make similar calculations of risk and benefit. That means we should deny most-favored-nation status as a way of putting pressure on Chinese leaders to open their system. We should block their membership in the World Trade Organization and the G-7 as long as they fail to live up to those organizations' high standards of economic and political behavior. And we should pay careful attention to the way the Chinese handle the coming transition in Hong Kong. When they crack down on pro-democracy forces, as they almost certainly will, we should be willing to use sanctions to punish them.

The new China hands often declare that the alternative to engagement with China is its isolation. It isn't. During the Cold War, the United States somehow managed to contain the Soviets and hold summits with them at the same time. But we will need to go through periods of bad relations with China. We cannot define a "good" relationship by whether the Chinese are happy but by whether we are effectively defending our interests and principles.

This new China strategy may seem counterproductive at first, because Chinese leaders would surely respond to it in a fury and with threatening gestures. But over time it is the only strategy with a chance of success, and it is less likely to result in serious confrontation than the current confused combination of containment and appeasement.

The choice we face is not between containment and engagement, but between an ineffective, unconscious, and therefore dangerous containment -- which is what we have now -- and a conscious and consistent containment that effectively deters and ultimately does change China. To echo the advice of Eyre Crowe in 1907, what we need most is a "resolute stand."

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.