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China: Containment Won't Work

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With respect to the overall balance, China's large and educated population, its vast markets, its growing role in the world economy and global financial system foreshadow an increasing capacity to pose an array of incentives and risks, the currency of international influence. Short of seeking to destroy China as a functioning entity, however, this capacity is inherent in the global economic and financial processes that the United States has been preeminent in fostering.

The test of China's intentions will be whether its growing capacity will be used to seek to exclude America from Asia or whether it will be part of a cooperative effort. Paradoxically, the best strategy for achieving anti-hegemonic objectives is to maintain close relations with all the major countries of Asia, including China. In that sense, Asia's rise will be a test of U.S. competitiveness in the world now emerging, especially in the countries of Asia. The historical American aim of opposing hegemony in Asia -- incorporated as a joint aim with China in the Shanghai Communique of 1972 -- remains valid. It will have to be pursued, however, primarily by political and economic measures -- albeit backed by U.S. power.

In a U.S. confrontation with China, the vast majority of nations will seek to avoid choosing sides. At the same time, they will generally have greater incentives to participate in a multilateral system with America than to adopt an exclusionary Asian nationalism. They will not want to be seen as pieces of an American design. India, for example, perceives ever closer common interests with the United States regarding opposition to radical Islam, some aspects of nuclear proliferation and the integrity of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It sees no need to give these common purposes an ideological or anti-Chinese character. It finds no inconsistency between its dramatically improving relations with the United States and proclaiming a strategic partnership with China. American insistence on an ideological crusade and on a Cold War-type of containment might accelerate such gestures. And it would risk inflaming India's Muslim population.

China, in its own interest, is seeking cooperation with the United States for many reasons, including the need to close the gap between its own developed and developing regions; the imperative of adjusting its political institutions to the accelerating economic and technological revolutions; and the potentially catastrophic impact of a Cold War with the United States on the continued raising of the standard of living, on which the legitimacy of the government depends. But it does not follow from this that any damage to China caused by a Cold War would benefit America. We would have few followers anywhere in Asia. Asian countries would continue trading with China. Whatever happens, China will not disappear. The American interest in cooperative relations with China is for the pursuit of a stable international system.

Preemption is not a feasible policy toward a country of China's magnitude. It cannot be in our interest to have new generations in China grow up with a perception of a permanently and inherently hostile United States. It cannot be in China's interest to be perceived in America as being exclusively focused on its own narrow domestic or Asian interests.

The issue of nuclear weapons in North Korea is an important test case. It is often presented as an example of China's failure to fulfill all its possibilities. But anyone familiar with Chinese conduct over the past decade knows that China has come a long way in defining a parallel interest with respect to doing away with the nuclear arsenal in North Korea. Its patience in dealing with the problem is grating on some U.S. policymakers, but it partly reflects the reality that the North Korean problem is more complex for China than for the United States. America concentrates on nuclear weapons in North Korea; China is worried about the potential for chaos along its borders. These concerns are not incompatible; they may require enlarging the framework of discussions from North Korea to Northeast Asia.

Attitudes are psychologically important. China needs to be careful about policies seeming to exclude America from Asia and our sensitivities regarding human rights, which will influence the flexibility and scope of the U.S. stance toward China. America needs to understand that a hectoring tone evokes in China memories of imperialist condescension and that it is not appropriate in dealing with a country that has managed 4,000 years of uninterrupted self-government.

As a new century begins, the relations between China and the United States may well determine whether our children will live in turmoil even worse than the 20th century's or will witness a new world order compatible with universal aspirations for peace and progress.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is chairman of Kissinger Associates.


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