US has no intention of trying to contain China

Martin Murphy says the US has no intention of trying to contain China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 2:35am

"There you go again" has become one of the most memorable lines in US presidential debate history. It was 1980, and Ronald Reagan used it famously to dismiss president Jimmy Carter's repeated misrepresentations of his plans for social security reform.

I am reminded of this line every time I hear someone, usually a Chinese official, think tank, or academic refer to US policy in Asia, the so-called "pivot" or rebalancing, as a grand plot to contain China. But even the Western media are prone to such loose characterisations.

One of the latest iterations came from China's former ambassador to Japan who, speaking in Hong Kong earlier this month, cautioned the US against "restraining China's influence in the region". Another was Commerce Minister Chen Deming's statement last week that the US was employing a "cold war mentality" in its review of two Chinese telecom companies' proposed investments in the US.

President Barack Obama's upcoming trip back to the region, including a historic visit to Myanmar, will no doubt spark new protests from some quarters that the US president, emboldened by his re-election victory, is taking the "pivot" to the next level.

It's unclear whether such assertions are mere talking points or reflect a genuine perception, but to view US policy in Asia as containment is to misread history and ignore deeper trends under way in the global economy.

Then, unlike now, US containment against the former USSR was a foreign-policy and military strategy designed to respond to real and existential threats to the Western democratic way of life. Moscow's belief that there could be no peaceful co-existence between communism and capitalism cried out for a response.

It came in a famous article written in 1947 by diplomat George Kennan, who later became the US ambassador in Moscow. He argued: "It is clear that the main element of the United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies."

No US official today speaks in such apocalyptic terms about China. On the contrary, top US officials have gone out of their way to reassure Chinese counterparts of the "pivot's" good intentions, the latest occurring during US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta's September visit to China.

In many ways, no country has done more to embrace China's rise and help it integrate into the global economy than the US. Much has already been written about the US role in bringing about China's accession to the World Trade Organisation, but that was only part of a broader policy aimed at helping to usher in China's emergence onto the world stage as a "responsible partner".

Not only has the US welcomed China's role in the G20 and other multilateral institutions, but it has also explicitly encouraged China to take on greater responsibility in some of the world's hot spots. US support for a larger role for China's navy against Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden is not that of a country pursuing a containment policy.

The US invitation to China to participate in the 2014 Rim of the Pacific, the largest international maritime exercise, speaks volumes to the US commitment to engage rather than contain. And while Beijing reacted negatively to the US decision to deploy 2,500 marines part-time in Australia by 2016, the increase is a mere blip in the already sizeable 320,000-strong US troop presence in the region.

One US academic on a recent visit to Hong Kong said that if such a containment policy existed, it was largely invisible. And there's the rub. While China may prefer to see shadows of a non-existent containment policy, its own new assertiveness in the region is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy as its Asian neighbours seek their own regional rebalancing in the very alliances and new ties with the US that China so opposes.

Martin Murphy is a former US diplomat currently studying at HKU's Journalism and Media Studies Centre