A strategy for dealing with China

On Feb. 22, 1946, George Kennan, U.S. Chief of Mission in Moscow, sent the State Department a long telegram explaining the behavior of the Soviet Union and how best to deal with it. The gist of the telegram was that the Soviets, pressed by economic failure and bound by Marxist-Leninist ideology, found a perfect enemy in the United States and were uninterested in compromise.

This being the case, the best way for the U.S. to deal with the Soviet Union was to build up the still-free countries of Western Europe and do all it could to contain Soviet expansion. This policy became known as “containment” and its immediate result was the massive aid program to post-war Western Europe known as the Marshall Plan.

A year later in, writing under the byline “X” in Foreign Affairs, Kennan expanded upon these views. He was a realist who believed international relations ought to be “guided strictly by consideration of national interest,” not treaties and alliances. While often revised, Kennan’s containment strategy would largely define U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union until the end of the Cold War.

Now, more than 70 years later, the U.S. and its allies again face a communist rival that views the United States as an adversary, seeks global influence, and wants to supplant America as the world’s dominant power. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) challenge is generational and cuts across economic, military, political, and social spheres.

The United States is at war. Don’t be deceived because soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, a branch of the CCP, aren’t running down the street.

While America and the world are in the grip of the made in China COVID-19 pandemic, the CCP has launched a global disinformation campaign reminiscent of the Cold War, blaming others for the spread of the virus. Equally important, it is moving at warp speed as the first major world economy to end lockdowns and start up its economy. The CCP is acting to shape the pandemic narrative and geopolitical shifts in the post-COVID 19 world.

Ever since President Nixon’s opening to China in 1972, the U.S. has largely sought constructive engagement, which would supposedly help democratize China and integrate it into the American-led international economic order. As a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system, China would be highly motivated to maintain peaceful relations with other countries.

The integration strategy has not worked. Nor has the bipartisan support for China’s admission into the World Trade Organization. Recent events confirm that China is challenging the existing international order with impunity.

Look no further than its land reclamation efforts, claiming some 80 percent of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, challenging Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku islands, the “One Road, One Belt” new Silk Road Eurasian integration plan, and more.

While the United States has wasted decades in its dealings with the CCP, it is still not too late and George Kennan’s notion of containment remains relevant. The United States strategy should be to preserve and deepen relationships with Asian countries fearful of China’s power and aggressiveness.

China has few allies in the region. The United States should be working closely with India, Vietnam, Japan, Philippines, Australia, Taiwan, and others to contain China, and in the process advance America’s economic, political, and security interests in the Asia Pacific region. Closely related, the U.S. should be forging relationships with developing nations across the globe to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Today, George Kennan’s prescription that “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” offers the best hope of containing China’s ambitions. The challenge is that Americans seek instant gratification, while China plays the long game. One thing is certain: Everyone will be feeling their age before this contest is played out.

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