China: Containment Won't Work

By Henry A. Kissinger
Monday, June 13, 2005

The relationship between the United States and China is beset by ambiguity. On the one hand, it represents perhaps the most consistent expression of a bipartisan, long-range American foreign policy. Starting with Richard Nixon, seven presidents have affirmed the importance of cooperative relations with China and the U.S. commitment to a one-China policy -- albeit with temporary detours at the beginning of the Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. President Bush and Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell have described relations with China as the best since the opening to Beijing in 1971. The two presidents, Bush and Hu Jintao, plan to make reciprocal visits and to meet several times at multilateral forums.

Nevertheless, ambivalence has suddenly reemerged. Various officials, members of Congress and the media are attacking China's policies, from the exchange rate to military buildup, much of it in a tone implying China is on some sort of probation. To many, China's rise has become the most significant challenge to U.S. security.

Before dealing with the need of keeping the relationship from becoming hostage to reciprocal pinpricks, I must point out that the consulting company I chair advises clients with business interests around the world, including China. Also, in early May I spent a week in China, much of it as a guest of the government.

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?

Another special factor that a century ago drove the international system to confrontation was the provocative style of German diplomacy. In 1900 a combination of Russia, France and Britain would have seemed inconceivable given the conflicts among them. Fourteen years later, a bullying German diplomacy had brought it about, challenging Britain with a naval buildup and seeking to humiliate Russia over Bosnia in 1908 and France in two crises over Morocco in 1905 and 1911.

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.

It is unwise to substitute China for the Soviet Union in our thinking and to apply to it the policy of military containment of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was heir to an imperialist tradition, which, between Peter the Great and the end of World War II, projected Russia from the region around Moscow to the center of Europe. The Chinese state in its present dimensions has existed substantially for 2,000 years. The Russian empire was governed by force; the Chinese empire by cultural conformity with substantial force in the background. At the end of World War II, Russia found itself face to face with weak countries along all its borders and unwisely relied on a policy of occupation and intimidation beyond the long-term capacity of the Russian state.

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.

The problem of Taiwan is an exception and is often invoked as a potential trigger. This could happen if either side abandons the restraint that has characterized U.S.-Chinese relations on the subject for over a generation. But it is far from inevitable. Almost all countries -- and all major ones -- have recognized China's claim that Taiwan is part of China. So have seven American presidents of both parties -- none more emphatically than George W. Bush. Both sides have managed the occasional incongruities of this state of affairs with some skill. In 1972 Beijing accepted a visit by President Nixon, even while the United States recognized Taipei as the capital of all of China, and by another president -- Gerald Ford -- under the same ground rules in 1975. Diplomatic relations were not established until 1979. Despite substantial U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Sino-American relations have steadily improved based on three principles: American recognition of the one-China principle and opposition to an independent Taiwan; China's understanding that the United States requires the solution to be peaceful and is prepared to vindicate that principle; restraint by all parties in not exacerbating tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

The task now is to keep the Taiwan issue in a negotiating framework. The recent visits to Beijing by the heads of two of Taiwan's three major parties may be a forerunner. Talks on reducing the buildup in the Taiwan Strait seem feasible.

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