Kissinger: Containment Won’t Work for China
Former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who coauthored the opening of relations with China in 1972, argues that Soviet-style containment policy will not deter China. Further, he argues that it is not necessary.
China: Containment Won’t Work (WaPo, Jun 13, A19)
[…] The rise of China — and of Asia — will, over the next decades, bring about a substantial reordering of the international system. The center of gravity of world affairs is shifting from the Atlantic, where it was lodged for the past three centuries, to the Pacific. The most rapidly developing countries are in Asia, with a growing means to vindicate their perception of the national interest.
China’s emerging role is often compared to that of imperial Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, the implication being that a strategic confrontation is inevitable and that the United States had best prepare for it. That assumption is as dangerous as it is wrong. The European system of the 19th century assumed that its major powers would, in the end, vindicate their interests by force. Each nation thought that a war would be short and that, at its end, its strategic position would have improved. Only the reckless could make such calculations in a globalized world of nuclear weapons. War between major powers would be a catastrophe for all participants; there would be no winners; the task of reconstruction would dwarf the causes of the conflict. Which leader who entered World War I so insouciantly in 1914 would not have recoiled had he been able to imagine the world at its end in 1918?
Military imperialism is not the Chinese style. Clausewitz, the leading Western strategic theoretician, addresses the preparation and conduct of a central battle. Sun Tzu, his Chinese counterpart, focuses on the psychological weakening of the adversary. China seeks its objectives by careful study, patience and the accumulation of nuances — only rarely does China risk a winner-take-all showdown.
The strategic equation in Asia is altogether different. U.S. policy in Asia must not mesmerize itself with the Chinese military buildup. There is no doubt that China is increasing its military forces, which were neglected during the first phase of its economic reform. But even at its highest estimate, the Chinese military budget is less than 20 percent of America’s; it is barely, if at all, ahead of that of Japan and, of course, much less than the combined military budgets of Japan, India and Russia, all bordering China — not to speak of Taiwan’s military modernization supported by American decisions made in 2001. Russia and India possess nuclear weapons. In a crisis threatening its survival, Japan could quickly acquire them and might do so formally if the North Korean nuclear problem is not solved. When China affirms its cooperative intentions and denies a military challenge, it expresses less a preference than the strategic realities. The challenge China poses for the medium-term future will, in all likelihood, be political and economic, not military.
While I’m less convinced of China’s victimhood and more worried about its military buildup than Kissinger, he’s ultimately right. While the Chinese leadership is maddening to deal with, they are rational actors. They’re decades away from being a peer competitor with the United States and are painfully aware of that fact. Further, their ambitions are regional rather than global.
Update: David Adesnik finds Kissinger’s essay “rambling” and demonstrating “all of the flaws of realism as an ideology.”
Someone (maybe someone from Tibet) should’ve told that guy standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square that China is governed by “substantial force” only “in the background”. Apparently, Mr. Kissinger seems to have forgotten that China is still a dictatorship. In fact the word ‘dictatorship’ doesn’t appear in his op-ed. Nor does ‘democracy’. Nor does ‘human rights’.
Of course, Kissinger would be proud of that, arguing that a country’s internal politics has little to do with the external interests that govern its foreign policy.
Jim Henley takes a different tack on the piece, arguing that the United States could learn from China’s foreign policy.