Brandon Patterson is a graduate student of International Affairs at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: The Merits and Perils of Containment: Assessing the American View of the Chinese Challenge
Date Originally Written: December 28, 2020.
Date Originally Published: February 15, 2021.
Author and / or Article Point of View: Brandon Patterson is a graduate student of International Affairs at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego. Brandon believes the Cold War concept of containment, at this point in history, is not fully applicable to the Chinese challenge to international order.
Summary: Containment retains a strong hold on American historical memory for both its hard-headed realism and its utopian vision which came to fruition. Attempting to graft Containment onto Sino-American relations absent historical context risks running heedlessly into the abyss, turning a peacetime competitor into a clear enemy.
Text: By 1946, the United States finally realized the threat posed by Soviet armies bestriding central Europe. America had cast itself into upholding the global balance of power — rebuilding Europe, establishing America’s first military alliance, and parrying early Soviet expansion toward Greece. Containing the Soviet threat was the order of the day. The Containment policy which saw America through the Cold War, was tailored to the unique challenge represented by the Soviet Union. It has become conventional wisdom to treat the challenge posed by China in a Containment-like fashion, as Cold War terminology returns to the American vernacular. Trying to repeat Containment’s Cold War performance today may create new dangers rather than alleviate them.
Containment was the prescription for the challenge posed by the amalgam of communist ideology and tsarist expansionism. As George Kennan warned, the objective of Soviet foreign policy was to avail itself “every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power…. But if it finds unassailable barriers in its path, it philosophically accepts and accommodates itself to them,” for Marxist theory did not submit a deadline for the end of history. The remedy, according to Kennan, was “a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.”
Kennan concluded that if the U.S. could only man the ramparts, one day the Soviet Union would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Containment was thus created precisely to meet the challenge of a Marxist-Leninist superpower. For if the correlation of forces was favorable, the Soviets had an historical duty to advance; if they were unfavorable, remaining within their borders was merely a tactical decision, and the struggle would continue by other means. It was a mechanical approach to foreign policy with no category of thought for restraint. Containment was the only means of constraining so ideological a menace.
Today, Containment is not directly applicable to the challenge posed by a rising — that is to say, re-emerging — China. Contemporary China, in spite of its proclaimed communist rulers and heritage, is not a revolutionary power like the Soviet Union, but an ancient civilization which conceives of world order as a hierarchical structure based on approximation to Chinese cultural characteristics. China more often expanded by osmosis rather than conquest.
The challenge of the present is how to construct a world order based on principles agreed upon by the major components operating the international system; how to translate transformation into acceptance; to create a pattern of obligations which becomes spontaneous in its operation. When a power sees the world order or its legitimizing principle as fundamentally oppressive or in conflict with its self-image, a revolutionary situation will ensue.
When Containment was theorized, a revolutionary situation was already in existence. The destruction of one revolutionary power, Germany, merely clarified the danger posed by another, the Soviet Union. The new international order being built could only be upheld by force, necessitating containment. Even “Detente”, a late-1960s beginning complement to Containment, was a means of moderating Soviet conduct by forcing a choice between national interests and ideological fervor, backed by the threat of American military power.
Given the manner in which the burgeoning Sino-American rivalry is cast in ideological terms, it is easy to forget that China does not yet represent an ideological threat in the manner of the Soviets. This nuance is critical. A consensus has emerged among American intellectuals that an alliance of democracies is needed to “confront” China. Such an approach poses grave dangers. Though it is appropriate for democracies to cooperate to combat common dangers, an alliance directed at a particular country — namely China — creates the conditions for a rupture. Stability does not require an absence of unsatisfied claims, but the absence of a perceived injustice so great that the aggrieved power will seek to overturn the existing order. Talk of punishing China for subverting international norms ignores the nature of legitimacy, for China played no role in writing the rules of the current system and so does not feel justly bound by them. The question that those who seek to uphold the “rules-based” order face is whether a symmetry can be found between China’s self-image and the most cherished principles of the system, or whether China’s objectives are so incompatible with the prevailing order that the only recourse is a form of containment. Attempting to berate Beijing from one side of the dividing line into accepting the West’s worldview is a prescription for turning China into a revolutionary power while such an outcome may still be avoidable.
This is not to say China’s present aggression is the fault of the United States, and China may yet evolve into a revolutionary challenge requiring firm containment. But it would be a tragedy to turn fears of Chinese aggression into a self-fulfilling Containment prophecy. America and its allies are correct to defend the basic principles of international order; but it is important to determine what principles are inviolable and where adjustment to contemporary realities is necessary before engaging in confrontation on every front. If there is one point of Containment that is easily transferable to today, it is that the world will be selective about where it chooses to challenge China, just like it was when containing the Soviet Union.
Containment, moreover, though indeed tailored to the Soviet challenge, in another sense represented nothing new in diplomacy. Sophisticated students of history like George Kennan and Dean Acheson, saw in containment a means of conveying to the American public and Congress the principles of the balance of power in terms which they would both comprehend and accept. World order requires equilibrium, and so a “containment” of a potential aggressor will always be necessary, though it may manifest in more subtle forms than in previous periods.
The South China Sea is illustrative. In geopolitical terms, China’s objective is domination of its “marginal seas” so as to gain access to the wider Indo-Pacific, and forestall its historic fear of encirclement. The United States and its allies will not permit hegemony or disruption of international waterways, as America has gone to war on several occasions to vindicate these principles. This is the space the two countries are obliged to navigate. For in a legitimate order two types of equilibrium exist: the physical, which makes domination by a single power or grouping impossible; and the moral, which defines the relations of powers to each other in terms of their particular histories. This is the essence of diplomacy.
The great Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich was correct when he asserted that those with no past can have no future, but Austria doomed its future in seeking to petrify its past. America can avoid this trap; the means of doing so is historical context.
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