TOM PLATE WRITES — American foreign policy rarely rises to the level of coherence recommended by its policy intellectuals and thoughtful diplomats; but without their persistence, it would be bereft of any coherence at all. When World War Two ended, for example, the American establishment came to rally around the containment concept as the Rx to the communist Russian virus. This emerged particularly from the insight of diplomat George Kennan, later to establish himself at the Institute for Advanced Study and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. But in the late eighties, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and so any need for more Cold War, Washington was left with scarcely anything ominous to contain, except perhaps its own bumptious ego. That, for sure, was one containment campaign that was destined to flop.
When the great Kennan left us, from his home in Princeton at the age of 101, he died a prophet summa cum laude; but rather than leaving honorably along with him, his ‘containment’ notion stayed behind on this earth to fill in the blank about China. It would have been so much better had it not: Kennan himself refused to recommend a simplistic policy of containment for China in a 21st century world that he knew would not respond to simplistic formula.
In fact, by the mid-nineties, a different perspective was surfacing. Prof Joseph Nye — long of Harvard but lured into State Department service during the Clinton Presidency — painted a public policy canvas in broad strokes that gave to the American commitment of about 100,000 military forces each to Asia and to Europe a sense of intelligent balance. Nye wrote: “There are a number of reasons for East Asian prosperity [but] among the important and often neglected reasons for East Asia’s success are American alliances in the region and the continued presence of substantial U.S. forces.”
Rather than advocating some recycled containment policy for China (which in any case could not possibly work) or some cranky isolationist retreat from Asia (which would work just fine for China), Nye proposed the middle ground of “deep engagement”: “… Most Americans still hope for a peaceful and beneficial future with China….We have more to fear from a poor and weak China than from a rich and democratic China.” Alas, decades later, the U.S. wound up with but 50 percent of the China of its dreams: rich, yes, but, in western eyes, unforgivably non-democratic.
Was Nye’s pragmatism misconceived? No; the Clinton administration got its China policies more right than wrong. Faced with deep-rooted domestic and economic challenges, Beijing was more likely to wind up frustrating itself with home-front errors than anything the U.S. might hope to impose. Besides, trying to Kennanise U.S. PRC policy would only further fuel anti-Americanism on the mainland. The only question is whether there were policies that might help incentivize the Chinese to think positively about relations with the west – or whether our crudest ones would steel further its inclination to fight the west’s impulse to want to choke it.
China’s future course will be determined mainly by what the Chinese will do among themselves, for themselves and – last but not least – to themselves. Understandably enough, Beijing diplomacy, spooked by remembrances of pains inflicted or perceived, will always seeks to deter coalitions of nations from ganging up against it. Even so, I have chatted with more than one PRC diplomat about their historic encirclement paranoia but they insist China’s fear is totally singular: “The only one we fear is the U.S.,” a veteran diplomat told me. That fear will surely remain a singular stent in the heart of the Xi Jinping mental apparatus.
Paradoxically, though, that very fear may offer America a historic opportunity to reset the bilateral relationship to both a lower temperature and a higher standard. That is evident from the unintended consequence of President Donald Trump’s ill-conceived and obnoxious tariff attack on PRC trade practice. Its ominous duration has served to give everyone adequate time to reflect on the global economic instability inherent in Sino-U.S. political disequilibrium. It’s more than a matter of bad vibes or the inevitable occasional disagreement; when the negativity is structural, the impact on geopolitical order will be global. The stakes here are epic. As Professor Nye once put it: “Analysts who ignore the importance of … political order are like people who forget the importance of the oxygen they breathe. Security is like oxygen — you tend not to notice it until you begin to lose it ….”
A re-oxygenated U.S.-China relationship is needed. Beijing can stall and await a new president; or deal as business-like as possible with the present one through a possible second term. Washington can bounce and yo-yo along, even praying for collapse; or intelligently accept China as an equal. Either way, neither is going to go away.
Illusions are not decisions: It was hard for Americans to quarrel with the sentiment of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, hurled by Congress at the President for signature, which it got. But what does this accomplish – except to recharge Beijing’s reserves of resentment and offer Hong Kong’s dauntless demonstrators with the poetic illusion of U.S. intervention. Won’t happen, of course: but to keep the world from further rubber necking and hand wringing over this otherwise marvelous SAR that’s now so in crisis – perhaps even to make the edgiest and more fearsome demonstrators more sensible – Beijing needs to settle matters sensibly with Hong Kong. To this end, Beijing would do better for itself if it had at hand a kind of mental containment policy to keep its own hard and too often stubborn ideology from crossing the borders of common sense. Is there a Kennan in this Party to make a strong case for self-containment?
Professor Tom Plate is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs, the Pacific Century Institute’s VP and founder of Asia Media International and author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ book series. The original version of this column appeared last week in the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong