Illustration: Craig Stephens
Sourabh Gupta
Sourabh Gupta

Why the US using a Cold War ‘containment’ strategy against China would be a colossal error

  • The containment strategy was unveiled 75 years ago, during the ideological conflict between Western capitalism and Soviet socialism
  • This strategy simply wouldn’t be effective against ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and a Chinese economy that will outstrip that of the US

Seventy-five years ago this month, American diplomat George Kennan published an influential essay in Foreign Affairs in which he unveiled the idea of “containment” for the first time. In “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, he advocated applying this strategy to Soviet expansionism at a time when Moscow was encroaching on the interests of a stable world order.

The essay struck a chord with the Euro-Atlantic world, which was grappling with the Kremlin’s intransigent ways in the aftermath of World War II. Containment became the West’s geopolitical doctrine in the Cold War era.

As the United States girds its loins for a new cold war with China, the Kennan-era template is being pressed into service again. A recent US State Department paper even borrows from the famous title, with a section under the subheading, “The Intellectual Sources of China’s Conduct”. However, although diplomats, like generals, may be wedded to their last war strategy, the challenge posed by China today is vastly different from that once posed by the Soviet Union.

In Kennan’s telling, the dictatorship in Moscow viewed the capitalist system of production as nefarious and exploitative. No “community of aims” could be had between socialism and capitalism. The overthrow of capitalism, no less, by a rival centre of ideological authority and geopolitical power was the goal.

Moscow grasped that patience would be required for it to prevail globally, given that it could not match up against the capitalist powers yet. Like the church, the Kremlin was “under no ideological compulsion to accomplish its purposes in a hurry”, as Kennan put it. The compulsion, rather, was for revolutionary socialist forces worldwide to be unswervingly loyal to the Kremlin’s infallible doctrinal and strategic leadership in the fight against capitalism and the West.

Yet, the modus operandi of the reform-era Communist Party of China bears little resemblance to that of its Soviet predecessor. With “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, the Chinese aim to take advantage of capitalism’s strengths as a means of resource allocation and efficient market exchange – instead of exploiting the class conflict that is supposedly intrinsic to capitalism in order to overthrow it.

The purpose of the party’s self-anointment as infallible guardian and leader is not to employ Chinese socialism as an instrument of geopolitical aggrandisement abroad. It is to squelch organised political activity at home. The party’s ideological evangelism stops at the water’s edge.

Kennan’s zero-sum reading of Soviet intentions in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” was derived from his celebrated “long telegram”, which he had dispatched to his State Department superiors a year earlier.

In the 8,000-word telegram, he ascribed the Kremlin’s winner-take-all mentality to the instinctive Russian insecurity of a “peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighbourhood of fierce nomadic peoples” who had “learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it”.

The Chinese authorities, too, have had their own millennia-long encounter with fierce steppe tribes on their periphery. The lessons they drew, and their response, were altogether different. To the Chinese, the patient and total destruction of a fundamentally insatiable rival power was futile.

It was cheaper and less destructive to turn their rival’s avarice towards profit rather than war, if it meant thereby preserving their rival’s fragmented political structure too. The tribute system of dynastic China an “institutionalised protection racket”, as historian Peter C. Purdue put it – was the answer. A modern version of this playbook is evident in the party’s economic dealings with various parties in the West.

As US, China and Russia jostle for influence, global risks grow

More to the point, Kennan’s strategy of containment was premised on Washington remaining the dominant global economic power and using this leverage to exert collective discipline among Western nations in their dealings with Moscow.

In China, by contrast, the US faces a peer whose economy and material capabilities at its government’s disposal will outstrip the US. This would heap a collective problem of the first order on the United States and the West.

It will also test a core proposition on which US primacy has rested since the early-20th century: that America could meet the strategic challenge of the day from a position of national strength.


‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ explained

‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ explained

A number of practical deductions ought to follow from the geopolitical standpoint of the Indo-Pacific.

First, a 21st century strategy to cope with the China challenge must be built on realism and objectivity, not ideology and values.

Second, the currency of competition will primarily be economic and technological. The size of China’s market will dictate that Washington embrace a light-touch approach when crafting selective supply-chain decoupling strategies.

Third, assembling and deepening a bipolar coalition of allies and partners will be an arduous task. In strategic competition against China, battles will have to be fought primarily for the loyalties of non-allied regional partners.

Finally, military competition within the island chains of the Western Pacific will remain an inescapable feature of US-China relations. Regions such as the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, which Beijing deems to be lying beyond the essential anti-access/area-denial range in the event of a conflict involving Taiwan in the first island chain, will remain sideshows.

Containment was a strategy built to box a subversive Moscow into a limited geographic sphere of influence, during which time the seeds of domestic decay would hopefully “find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power”.

China is not the old Soviet Union. A new cold war – and the (mis)application of the containment strategy towards Beijing – would be an error of historic proportions.

Sourabh Gupta is senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington