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Who Can Contain China When U.S. Policy Fails?

A mutual prosperity doctrine is a better solution for U.S.-China relations in the 21st century.

May 1, 2016

A mutual prosperity doctrine is a better solution for U.S.-China relations in the 21st century.

In the midst of escalating tensions between the United States and China, particularly in the East and South China Seas, serious questions are being raised about the future of peace, security and prosperity in the region.

Reflecting on these tensions, we need to return to the founding principles that originally brought wealth and mutual prosperity to both nations.

Over the past several decades, much has been written about China’s “peaceful rise.” But with this meteoric rise in economic development, there has been a rise in China’s military modernization and its ever-increasing assertiveness in defense posture. This has raised concerns among China’s neighbors regarding its intentions.

The Credibility Issue

Beijing, for its part, has not helped to clarify these intentions. Instead, President Xi Jinping muddled the situation. First, he declared that China would not “pursue militarization” of the South China Sea.

Then, he proceeded not to fulfill that pledge by installing surface-to-air missile batteries on Woody Island in the Paracels and conducting exercises shooting down unmanned aircraft.

This has created not only a credibility issue for him, but also elevated concerns about his ability to control the military.

For its part, the United States has responded to China’s rise by blowing the dust off of the old containment playbook of the former Soviet era and modifying it with an element of economic engagement.

This “congagement” (containment and engagement) would seek to contain China militarily while continuing to engage China economically.

No doubt, China wants peace and prosperity in the region. However, it is doing precisely the opposite of that which would bring about this possibility.

Washington, for its part, claims it welcomes China’s peaceful rise. Yet, it treats China like a parvenu or an upstart, who suddenly got rich but doesn’t fit into the American-led world order. If so, Beijing continually needs to be humbled.

MAD doctrine versus MAP doctrine

If Washington really wants peace and prosperity in the region, words must be matched by deeds.

Cold War mindsets like “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) with that of escalating nuclear armament doesn’t work in the more complex Sino-American relationship.

Indeed, historically, the Chinese experience with the United States from the start has more often been a case of economic engagement that worked toward “mutually assured prosperity” (MAP).

This commercial relationship is far older than Deng Xiaoping’s opening to the West. In 1784, the American ship Empress of China – built for privateering but converted for commerce when the Revolutionary War ended in 1783 – set sail for China.

Turning swords into ploughshares, the Empress of China made its maiden voyage from New York Harbor to Canton (Guangzhou) with a cargo of Spanish dollars, ginseng, furs, lead and wine.

The ship returned home in May 1785, bearing Chinese tea, silk and porcelain. The seaports of the new American nation, from Boston to Charleston, could now trade not just with Europe, but directly with China. That led to a rich, coastal commercial civilization in the emerging republic.

This mutually enriching commercial intercourse continued until Britain’s Opium Wars, the Civil War, and the Taiping Rebellion – all of which shattered China’s status as the premiere economy in the world. Then both nations turned inward between the two World Wars and during the Cold War.

Restarting U.S.-China trade

Throughout these intervening 20th century years, the meager trading relationship went through fits and starts.

Nonetheless, when Deng Xiaoping took China’s helm and embarked on a path toward trade liberalization and modernization, China’s significance to the world economy began to emerge. Eventually this led to its accession to the WTO in 2001.

With U.S. assistance, via trade policy, China has crossed the economic Rubicon where there is no return.

According to a September 2015 Congressional Research Service report, total U.S. trade has risen from $2 million in 1979 to $591 billion in 2014: “China is currently the United States’ second-largest trading partner, its third largest export market, and its biggest source of imports.”

China’s fixation with security in the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and other sea lines of communication (SLOCs) is not without cause. Seven of the world’s top ten container ports are in China. China’s export economy survives by these trade routes.

Any disruption to these routes would be a significant impact not only to its economy but also to the American and global economies. The latter has been demonstrated by the ripple effects of recent stock exchange plunges in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Autonomous but Interdependent

Indeed, China’s rise could easily be viewed as an existential threat. Beijing’s ability to project power today has never been greater, both economically and militarily. And the signs of aspiring hegemony are underscored by that ability.

Yet, China’s rising power could also be welcomed as another global force capable of burden-sharing. One that can contribute to fighting a myriad of threats, such as participating with multinational forces in maintaining the security of SLOCs, counterpiracy, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and a variety of other global missions.

These are the threats that China and the rest of the world really face. In other words, with great power comes great responsibility.

Recognizing that any disruption to China’s economy would mean a disruption to the U.S. economy, the United States should support China in maintaining a healthy trade relationship.

It should also continue to focus on building a much needed trust, promoting fair competition and engaging China to join rule-based institutions and paving the road toward a MAP doctrine.

Cooperation is the only path

To date, Washington and Beijing are pursuing over eighty bilateral dialogues. These initiatives should continue to engage each other in cooperative efforts that serve both nations, rather than viewing the dynamics of this relationship as zero-sum.

It is time to return to the vision of our Founding Fathers that this nation as a commercial republic serves as “the shining city upon a hill.”

The rise of China is a fait accompli and has constituted a significant reordering of the international system.

To suggest that the United States should contain China and, if necessary, go to war is, in the words of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger “as dangerous as it is wrong,” and that “Conflict is a choice, not a necessity.”

It makes even less sense when the United States is borrowing money from China in the form of Treasuries to finance that possible conflict with China.

Only China Can Contain China

In short, containment was a policy with numerous contextual elements that cannot simply be transferred from the Soviet era.

As President John Quincy Adams had wisely warned, the United States should not go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy” because it might well be a self-fulfilling prophesy. China is not the new Soviet Union.

In time, China’s “peaceful rise” will show its true colors. It is not clear whether China’s current behavior is a product of regional hegemonic aspirations, or it is simply manifesting its internal contradictions, factions and rivalry in the one-party-system.

The question of who can contain China is, therefore, one that only the Chinese can answer for themselves. In the meantime, the United States needs to remain vigilant and engaged.

In the end, China has to capitalize on its “soft power” with its Confucian ethics and cultural heritage from which our Founding Fathers once sought inspiration.

To maintain peaceful relations with neighbors and influence potential allies, it would be wise for Beijing to return to its official policy of peaceful rise with clarity in words and consistency in actions. It will surely guide Beijing to regain trust and authenticity.

That’s quintessentially “living in harmony” with the Tao — the Chinese Way.

Editor’s note: The views expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the authors’ affiliated institutions or the U.S. Government.


A mutual prosperity doctrine is a better solution for U.S.-China relations in the 21st century.

China's rising power could be welcomed as another global force capable of burden-sharing.

The US treats China as an upstart who suddenly got rich but doesn’t fit in an American-led world order.