US Secretary of Defense Mattis’ speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this month and the recent US Department of Defense report on Chinese military power elicited familiar complaints from Beijing of a “Cold War mentality” and trying to “contain China.”

Indeed, even American foreign policy types have even been hurling this insult at each other for years.

The United States has never tried to contain the People’s Republic of China, opting instead for an accommodationist approach, bordering on appeasement since the Nixon era.

Of course, there have always been China skeptics on the US side, but they have been overshadowed by those pushing a soft approach, who argue their method will surely lead to China’s liberalization and adjustment to international norms of behavior.

In the American business world, suggesting that China was not the juiciest market imaginable was heresy.

Henry Kissinger set the tone early on and has been reminding Americans (and clients) ever since to give China what it wants.

Harvard professor and one-time defense official Joseph Nye’s warning cum mantra, “Treat China like an enemy and that’s what it will be’’ influenced many US policymakers and senior military officers to go easy on Beijing.

If American policy was containment, China would know it or else it could ask the Russians what real containment is like.

The evidence

There’s plenty of empirical evidence on this matter from the 45 years since Nixon and Kissinger “re-opened” China.

For starters, the Carter and Reagan administrations of the 1970’s and 1980’s sought to provide a range of military hardware to China to discomfort the Soviet Union.

On President Reagan’s watch, the Americans sold the Chinese advanced torpedoes, radar systems, artillery shell manufacturing technology, and even avionics upgrades for Chinese F8 fighter aircraft.

The George H.W. Bush administration released some already paid for hardware even after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Although direct sales of military hardware have stopped — other than from America’s friends such as Israel — plenty of US commercial technology with military applications has always found its way to China. And Chinese engineers and scientists have made good use of it.

Even during low points in US-China relations, the US military has sought engagement for engagement’s sake with the People’s Liberation Army. Recent invitations to China to join the RIMPAC exercise in Hawaii are a case in point.

US military officers suggesting China was not a bosom friend have been looked at askance. The head of intelligence at US Pacific Fleet was effectively fired in 2015 after his repeated prescient warnings of China’s hostile intentions (based on Beijing’s own words) upset officials in Washington.

Meantime, Chinese harassment of US ships and aircraft has been going on for years. The response? Furrow browed concern and occasional apologies from the US. This is a strange form of containment.

Economic accommodation

On the economic front, a similar picture emerges of accommodation, not containment.

The US effectively underwrote China’s transformation into a global economic powerhouse – and its subsequent ability to disburse billions of dollars buying influence worldwide.

The Clinton administration ushered China into the World Trade Organization – with exemptions from many of its rules – with devastating effect on US industry.

The US market remains wide-open to Chinese investors and businesses while American companies in China continue to face a rigged, hostile system.

Astonishingly, the US has never responded to rampant, multi-decade intellectual property theft that cost US businesses hundreds of billions annually, along with competitive advantage.

The Chinese electronics company ZTE received only a slap on the wrist in the form of a fine when it was found to have violated trade sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Rather, it should have been banned from doing business with US companies.

If bent on containing China, the US would have ensured the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal that excluded China.

Political accommodation

Meantime, the US government usually turned the other cheek or rationalized away China’s behavior.

During the Obama administration, creating a national dental plan seemed a higher priority than checking (much less containing) China’s assertiveness in East Asia – or anywhere else.

(For example, Obama supinely accepted China’s theft of 22 million Americans’ personal records at the Office of Personnel Management.)

Elsewhere, Washington was notably bamboozled by Beijing over control of the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

And following the Hague Tribunal’s decisive ruling against China’s occupation of islands in the South China Sea, Americans mostly stayed mute – expecting Beijing would appreciate the forbearance. It didn’t.

The US — hamstrung by a preference for de-escalation and the belief it needs China’s cooperation elsewhere — went three years without conducting a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea.

China, meantime, built up its position in the region — literally and figuratively.

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft. Photo: US Navy handout via Reuters

And Taiwan? US relations with Taiwan since the early 2000’s have followed a simple principle: “What will China say?”

So democratic Taiwan gets just enough oxygen to survive but not enough support to defend itself — or even be sure of American protection.

An America serious about containing the Peoples Republic of China would ensure its Presidents and officials lucidly explain the One-China Policy. Hint: America’s One-China Policy is not the same as Beijing’s One-China Policy.


The arguments for this behavior typically fall under “managing China’s rise” but seem more like a way to feel good about appeasement.

However, let’s not obsess over terminology. The pundit class can endlessly debate containment.

Instead, standing up and forcefully promoting US interests and not giving away the game with preemptive concessions will do nicely. This will give the ruling class of the Chinese Communist Party some hard choices. Let them call it what they will.

But keep a few things in mind:

First, there’s a cynicism to Beijing’s claims. China characterizes anything other than acquiescence as unfair containment. This plays well with much of America’s foreign policy elite that responds to criticism from ill-liberal regimes by wondering what the US is doing wrong.

Once China decided to take territory belonging to others (or to ignore established rules) and the US was the only thing standing in the way, it declared it was being contained.

Perhaps so, but only in the sense the NYPD “contains” the Mafia when it tries to take over New York’s Lower East Side.

Second, admit China’s help with North Korea is chimerical – and its help with anything else isn’t important enough to warrant appeasement. So some suggestions for how the Trump administration could promote US interests versus China.

At long last, appoint a Secretary of the Navy — one that is interested in a powerful Navy that can win wars. The US still needs to get defense spending in order but that doesn’t mean more of it because $600+ billion buys plenty of defense, if well spent.

Military forces should operate regularly wherever the law allows, and be willing to bump back or even shoot back. Immediately conduct joint patrols in the East China Sea with Japanese forces and keep at it.

Pay closer attention to friends in the Asia region. Most of them will welcome some “containment” of the PRC, even though they won’t say so publicly. Beside building up their military capabilities, help them economically.

Provide economic support that includes offering easier and freer access to the massive US market for America’s friends – especially when China applies the kind of economic pressure that South Korea is now experiencing.

Rethink the TPP. It was always more important politically than economically and the US withdrawal left a vacuum that Beijing will fill.

Require reciprocity in all commercial and economic dealings with China. Period.

Punish intellectual property violations — retroactively. Impose a crushing price for theft and cyberattacks, such as in the case of the Office of Personnel Management hack.

Re-read the Taiwan Relations Act and live up to the spirit of it.

Finally, speak up for the United States and its principles of consensual government and individual freedom. America used to know how to do this.

Reestablish the Unites States Information Agency — unwisely folded into the State Department 25 years ago. Also important are Voice of America and Radio Free Asia if properly funded and without a Chinese veto on programming.

Doing even a few of the aforementioned will have a bracing effect on America’s friends, and also a bracing effect — though in a different way — on the People’s Republic of China.

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.

Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years' experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Corps officer.

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