2023-01-18 by Oktay Kucukdegirmenci
The unstoppable rise of China in the international system, especially in the economic, military, political, and technological fields in the last 30 or 40 years, has made it the most important global rival for the United States of America (U.S.), which was the sole superpower of the post-Cold War era. When we look at the rise of China from eyes of the USA, which is the founder and leading actor of the current international system, there are two political approaches that can be followed: engagement and containment.
In fact, these two political approaches somewhat balance each other. In this sense, while engagement is a sort of soft balancing, containment represents the hard balancing act. Accordingly, while an actor adopting soft balancing emphasizes benefitting from its economic development and rise by keeping the level of economic and commercial relations intensified against a rising power, an actor adopting hard balancing limits the intensity of its economic and commercial relations with rising power as much as possible, and at the same time, it tries to narrow its range of action through balancing, leading to a containment strategy.
Rise of the Indo-Pacific
In this respect, especially during the nine-day visit of American President Bill Clinton to Beijing in 1998, China-U.S. relations were moved to the strategic partnership dimension, which was the most concrete expression of the engagement policy in the relations of the two countries. However, this process started to change after the Obama administration came to power in 2009 and with the U.S.’s pivot to Asia policy from the 2010s. In the periods of Presidents Donald J. Trump and Joe Biden, the U.S. has started to give more and more weight to containment in its strategy towards China within the Indo-Pacific strategy that it has declared and implemented. The U.S. has developed and strengthened its relations with its regional allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific, encouraged the development of relations among its regional allies and partners, and is increasingly taking part in multilateral regional structures, especially in the revitalization of the Quad and the establishment of AUKUS. However, has this achieved the desired level of success?
When seeking an answer to this, first of all, it is necessary to draw attention to the fact that the U.S. containment strategy against China is not a complete containment. At best, it is a kind of strategic containment, because given China’s geographic location and the situation of its neighbors, it is not possible for the U.S. to fully contain China. China borders with Russia and Mongolia to the north, and Central Asian countries to the west and its ally Pakistan to the southwest. These countries act together with China under the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (Mongolia is not a member). This wide environment is outside the containment strategy of the U.S.
The geography where the actors of the strategic containment are spread consists of countries located on a sea strip extending from Northeast Asia to South Asia, and mainly covers the U.S.’s regional allies and partners such as Republic of Korea, Japan, Australia, and India. However, the probability of being successful in a containment strategy against China with these countries seems low because the biggest economic and commercial partner of each of these countries is China. It will, therefore, not be possible for these countries to fully adapt themselves to an American containment strategy without reducing their engagement level with China.
There is relatively similar situation for countries of ASEAN, making it difficult for them to be wholly immersed in an American containment strategy. First of all, China is the largest economic and commercial partner of ASEAN. ASEAN’s level of engagement with China is in the highest, and benefits greatly from it. It is out of the question for them to be included in an American containment strategy and deny themselves the economic benefits they derive from China. Moreover, ASEAN countries do not want to be a party to the competition between great powers.
The ASEAN countries, moreover, either do not have the capacity to make an internal balancing act against the increasing Chinese power, or they are very limited. However, they do not want to go the way of external balancing and reduce the level of engagement with China because they do not perceive a threat from China as much as the U.S. perceives. China does not have any goals such as invading ASEAN countries, changing governments, exporting its own regime, establishing puppet regimes, etc. because China has not had a conquering history. This is well known by the regional countries. Although some regional countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which have maritime and territorial disputes with China, perceive a threat from China towards their interests in areas such as the South China Sea, they do not perceive an existential threat. For this reason, these countries should not be expected to abandon soft balancing by reducing the level of engagement with China, and join in the containment strategy of the U.S. by adopting a hard balancing act.
Above all, in an era of economic globalization, it would be wrong to hope to get extraordinary results from a Cold War-era strategy. The most important reason for the success of the U.S.’s containment policy against the Soviet Union during the Cold War era was the low level of economic engagement between the eastern and western bloc states. Today, there is no such a situation or division regarding China. As such, it can be said that U.S. strategic containment of China is destined to fail.