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Why we don't need another George Kennan

China is at the center of both U.S. and, as seen in a recent defense white paper, Japanese national strategy. Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, U.S. foreign policy thinkers of all stripes have been frantically trying to figure out: What is the grand strategy that will succeed containment? Where is the next George Kennan, author of "Mr. X," the 1947 Foreign Affairs essay that led to the containment policy toward the USSR?

     That nobody has won the Kennan sweepstakes reflects the extraordinary complexity of a world of increasing disorder and uncertainty, one where threats are many but none rise to the level of the existential threat posed by the USSR.

Impatient observers

At the turn of the century, Joseph Nye argued that preventing the rise of hostile hegemons in Asia and Europe ranked among America's top strategic objectives. While the debate continues about whether China is an aspiring hegemon or not, there are increasing concerns that the country has, in fact, emerged as a peer competitor that may be challenging the current U.S.-led order.

     This, in turn, has generated a new wave of entrants into the Kennan-successor sweepstakes with China at the center of their thinking. What began as President Richard Nixon's strategic counterweight to Moscow in 1971 evolved as China began economic reforms in 1979 that catapulted its gross domestic product from $200 billion in 1980 to $10.3 trillion in 2014. From Nixon to Barack Obama, eight U.S. presidents have pursued a basic policy of cooperating where possible with Beijing, supporting China's integration into the global system, managing differences and hedging against downside risks. Japan has pursued a similar approach toward China.

     But today there is a sense that the so-called "integration" strategy may be wrong. There is impatience that China's economic opening and reform has not yielded the political liberalization that liberals and conservatives alike shared in supporting China's admission into the World Trade Organization, as well as concern that China is actively challenging the existing international order.

     China appears to have an elastic sense of what its "core interests" are. Look no further than its land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea to see that Beijing has not evolved into a "responsible stakeholder" of the status quo. Instead, while participating in the current global system -- the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the WTO -- China has been simultaneously advancing parallel institutions: from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the "One Road, One Belt" Eurasian trade integration initiative to a "new security concept" of "Asia for Asians" at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia.

     How successful all these largely aspirational ventures will prove to be is open to question. In the think-tank world, however, the chattering class is already churning out reports and articles on a regular basis urging various proposals for the next "Mr. X."

Already answered

But we don't need another Kennan. Why? Because the elements of an effective China strategy can be discerned from the logic and analysis of Kennan's 1947 essay.

     Of course, China is vastly different than the Soviet Union. It is not a competing economic system: There is no Comecon, the socialist economic bloc. Nor is there a competing messianic ideology. Instead, China has long bet its future on a globalized economy and views radical market-centered reforms as essential to creating a consumer-led domestic economy.

     But the key similarity is an all-powerful political monopoly of the Communist Party. As Kennan wrote of the Soviet Communist Party, "No other force in Russian society was to be permitted to achieve vitality or integrity. Only the party was to have structure." And, for the party, the key concept was "the principle of infallibility," which rests on "the iron discipline of the Communist Party."

     This is the case in China -- more so now, under President Xi Jinping, than at any time since Mao Zedong. The Politburo-led anti-corruption campaign, which has already targeted nearly 100,000 party members, is designed to purify the party, to strengthen its "Mandate of Heaven." Never mind that the campaign is also one means by which Xi is ousting real and potential rivals and consolidating power. And never mind that corruption is rooted in the very single-party system not held to account by an independent judiciary or subject to any external checks and balances.

     Since taking over in 2012, Xi has sought to tighten controls more than any other Chinese leader since Mao. He has clamped down on the press, the arts, social media and the Internet, as well as on religious groups, non-Han minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet and NGOs. China's harsh reaction to the popular "Umbrella Revolution" in Hong Kong is emblematic of this mindset, as is the fact that the budget for China's internal security forces now exceeds that of the People's Liberation Army.

Untenable contradictions

Efforts to exert political control have gone as far as censoring textbooks with "Western values." The party's Central Committee circulated a directive called Document No. 9 that warned that the party must rid of anything that promoted Western "universal values" like democracy, constitutionalism, civil society and a free press. Even economic and legal texts have been rejected and professors punished.

     It's hard to escape the element of absurdity here: Root out Western values, yet send 230,000 students -- including Xi's daughter -- to school in the U.S.? Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the larger purpose of these moves is to create a climate of intimidation, which they do.

     But this increasing authoritarian control is incompatible with the radical economic reforms that Beijing sees as essential to updating its outmoded investment-fed, export-led growth model. How do you create an innovation-led knowledge economy for the 21st century when researchers can't even read Western textbooks or access research papers on the Internet?

     The fact that China, unlike the USSR, is not an autarchic, separate economy creates circumstances of additional vulnerability. The more it needs to reform, the more it is in tension with its internal political control dynamics.

Kennan, revisited

So how do we apply Kennan's strategy?

     First, on the security side, the policy objective should be clearly defined and articulated: not containment, but counterbalancing. Kennan argued that "the main element of any U.S. policy [toward the Soviet Union] must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." Substitute "counterbalance" for "containment" and the same principle applies to China. Kennan called for "the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points."

     We are witnessing this application of counterforce in the East China Sea today. In the face of China's challenge to Japan's administrative control of the Senkaku Islands, President Obama has made clear that Article V of the U.S.-Japan security treaty extends to the islands. The new U.S.-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation have served to strengthen defense cooperation and provide greater deterrence. Moves by the U.S. and Japan to exercise freedom of navigation through seas around China's island-building should also serve as a clear signal of the intention of the U.S.-Japan alliance to preserve historic national interests.

     At the same time, China's military build-up, its bluster in claiming some 80% of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory and its pursuit of a strategy of access denial has created a backlash across the Indo-Pacific region that is encouraging countries to band together with the U.S. and each other. 

     Building outward from the U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and security partners like Singapore and, increasingly, Vietnam and India, a loose security network in the Indo-Pacific is gradually taking shape. China, which had few allies to begin with, has alienated and alarmed much of the region. As a result, we see intra-Asian security cooperation evolving in unprecedented ways: India-Vietnam, Japan-Philippines, U.S.-Japan-Australia and other permutations. This is the region's search for a balance of power.

Political transformation

The consistent pattern in Asia over the past 35 years has been that as its economic miracle unfolded, it generated organic political change.

     Following Japan's takeoff in the 1960s and '70s and the prosperity that it spread across Asia, middle classes grew in the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s, then in Thailand and Indonesia in the 1990s. Political transformation followed, and democracy took root, despite a setback in Thailand.

     The Communist Party's legitimacy is largely based on performance. China's middle class is already between 250 million and 300 million strong, and as it grows -- likely reaching 500 million by 2030 -- pressures on the party will mount.

     Of course, China is several orders of magnitude bigger than other Asian societies and has a 5,000 year old history. Matters are further complicated by a deep-seated fear of luan, or chaos, which has occurred throughout Chinese history, most recently in the form of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. It is worth recalling that Xi and his comrades lived through that period, so it should not be surprising that political change is more complicated and will play out in its own way and on its own timeline.

     In his classic critique of U.S. foreign policy, "The Irony of History," Reinhold Niebuhr warned that the complexities of human behavior render the idea of tailoring outcomes a near impossibility: "The illusions about the possibility of managing historical destiny from any particular standpoint in history, always involve ... miscalculation about both the power and wisdom of the managers and of the weakness and manageability of the historical 'stuff' to be managed."

     This observation applies both to the efforts of Xi Jinping and the Politburo to micromanage change in China and, no less, to U.S. policy efforts to steer China in a desired direction. What this means is that the U.S. must maintain its faith in the "soft power" appeal of universal values -- freedom and democracy -- and not agonize over how the dynamics of change in China are playing out at any given point. It is the perceived constancy of the U.S. commitment that is important.

Patience needed

The challenge to the U.S. and Japan is this: Can we have the patience and foresight to sustain the security counterbalancing pressure while facilitating our economic relationships with China? Two-way U.S.-China trade is now worth nearly $600 billion annually, while Japan-China trade totals $344 billion.

     China's current policy of pursuing radical market reforms while tightening all social and informational controls is unsustainable. Over time, China's internal contradictions will play out. Either the Communist Party's rule will unravel, as some pessimistic analysts argue, or -- as is more likely -- Xi or some future Chinese leader will pragmatically adapt and gradually move toward genuine rule of law and some variation of political reform and pluralism, perhaps as offered by the Singapore model.

     Americans tend to seek instant gratification. But China strategy calls for playing the long game. Recall the more than centurylong timeline -- punctuated by devastating military conflicts -- before Europeans moved from monarchies to parliamentary democracies. If we believe in our values, the U.S. should be able to see gradual change in China. Indeed, the China of 2010 was immensely different that the China of 1970. And the China of 2035 will not be that of 2015.

     This is not to argue that China will "be like us" or will refrain from acting like a great power, which is how it already views itself. Nor does it mean that we can expect the uncontested U.S. pre-eminence of the post-Cold War world to endure in its current form. But it could mean that China will evolve into a partner the U.S. and Japan can work with in a world of diffused power.

     The policy challenge for the U.S. will be to adjust and adapt to the structural change in the global system represented most vividly by the rise of China, while at the same time protecting and advancing our economic, political and security interests in the Asia-Pacific region. In this context, Kennan's prescription for a policy that  is "long-term, patient, but firm and vigilant" offers the best hope of China's evolving into a partner.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. James Przystup is a senior fellow at the National Defense University's Institute for National Security Studies. His views are his own and do not represent those of the university, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

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