US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping have different ideas about the direction the world order. Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

After an era of internal reforms and cultivation of friendly ties with significant state actors led by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the economic strength with concomitant military prowess led China to flex muscles in its neighborhood during the succeeding regimes. These activities provided grist to an argument that China was adopting a “play now, fight later” tactic, which was explicit in its aggressive moves in the South China Sea after a period of peaceful cooperation when China’s economic penetration enmeshed these countries in a web that neutralized their ability to resist.

Over the years, China directed its engagement more toward building heavy infrastructure across the continents under the Belt and Road Initiative and emphasis on building human-resource capacity has received scant attention, and this has engendered perceptions that roads, bridges, ports and airports once put in place might be used for strategic purposes.

The alarming speed of Beijing’s rise on both the economic and military fronts and its desire for a larger footprint in global affairs without accepting US leadership witnessed a sharp swelling of rhetoric from American leaders as well as theorization by scholars about Chinese intentions.

Whereas the arguments for containing China have changed, the imperative to contain remains intact. For instance, an article in Foreign Affairs, “The United States should fear a faltering China: Beijing’s assertiveness betrays its desperation,” in October presented a changing context of a slowly declining China that could be more militaristic and jingoistic and threaten US interests. The central argument of the article that the relative economic decline of China enhances the likelihood of it being more militaristic implies containing China effectively has become more crucial for US than any time before:

“China’s economic conditions have steadily worsened since the 2008 financial crisis. The country’s growth rate has fallen by half and is likely to plunge further in the years ahead, as debt; foreign protectionism, resource depletion, and rapid aging take their toll.… China’s economic woes will make it a less competitive rival in the long term but a greater threat to the United States today. When rising powers have suffered such slowdowns in the past, they became more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad. China seems to be headed down just such a path.”

After the turn of the 21st century, it was evident that American political and scholarly debate had begun to tacitly express the imperative of containing China. For instance, American scholar John Mearsheimer, by making a historical analysis of the United States’ own behavior as a rising power in the past and then comparing it to Chinese behavior during the time he made his analysis, argued that China’s rise was bound to be hegemonic. He postulated in 2005 that if China maintained the pace of economic growth and military buildup that it was making at the time, it was likely to be locked into intense security competition with the US, with the possibility of military conflict.

The US containment strategy toward China was clearly discernible in the policies adopted by the administration led by president George W Bush, which was further strengthened by subsequent administrations led by Barack Obama and Donald Trump through their Asia pivot and Indo-Pacific strategies respectively. The Bush administration in an attempt to contain Chinese ambitions not only expressed its commitment to protect Taiwan from Beijing’s territorial claims, it expanded arms sales to the island. The administration reportedly shifted the focus of US missile defense plans from Europe to the Pacific and called for long-range weapons targeting China’s growing military power.

The Obama administration, in the beginning, considered recalibrating the Asian balancing strategy by adopting a policy of engaging China through Sino-American “G2” condominium and issuing a joint statement with Chinese president Hu Jintao that persuaded China to lend its good offices to resolve conflicts in South Asia, at the November 2009 Beijing summit. However, perhaps realizing the futility of the policy of engagement, the administration harked back to the earlier US strategy of containing China, and its announcement of an “Asia Pivot” in late 2011 was geared toward this objective.

The imperative of containing China, however, became more pronounced and assumed an irreversible course during the Trump administration. Many US policymakers perceived a lingering threat to American supremacy from the Chinese strides in the area of technology spanning from fifth-generation telecom (5G) and artificial intelligence to biotechnology and quantum computing. Some scholars pointed to the phenomenon of rising prominence of China in the UN not only to muster support from the member states to bolster its Belt and Road Initiative but to avert international criticism of its repression of democracy at home.

Mobilizing the member states of the world body is considered an effective way for China to gain legitimacy for its actions. Juxtaposing the US and China, an expert pointed to how within the span of a few years Chinese officials had begun to lead four of the UN’s 15 specialized agencies by September 2019, compared with only one by the US. Some scholars argue that the current leadership in China remained engaged in deliberate construction of internal and external threats to centralize power by arousing nationalist sentiments. Recent scholarship is engaged in theorizing China more as an ideological threat to American liberal values, which tends to underplay the US containment strategy as a manifestation of the US desire to sustain its hard power globally. It is no surprise that strategic competition with China characterizes the US approach toward the Asian power so far as the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy of 2018 is concerned.

American leaders and scholars alike have continued to express concerns over Beijing’s ever-growing expenditure on military modernization in the absence of palpable threats, lack of transparency in its military strategy, hegemonic policies in the South China Sea and maintenance of special relationships with “rogue” regimes in Sudan, Iran and North Korea. Some scholars saw impending danger in China’s increasing demand for energy resources (oil and natural gas) and export of Chinese goods with import regulation.

Nikki Haley, US representative to the United Nations from 2017 through 2018, captures the US concerns and imperative to contain China in an article in Foreign Affairs, “How to confront an advancing threat from China: Getting tough on trade is just the first step,” in July 2019: “China grew economically without democratizing. Instead its government became more ideological and repressive, with military ambitions that are not just regional and defensive but global and designed to intimidate. And as the distinction between civilian and military technology gradually eroded across the globe, Chinese President Xi Jinping made it official policy for Chinese companies to put all technology at the disposal of China’s military.” Haley placed the Chinese threat in both the realms of values and hard power.

The US for long was concerned with the Chinese failure to maintain international standards on intellectual-property rights within its territory, leading to a surge in cases of duplication, piracy and counterfeiting and losses for American companies. Beijing was allegedly involved in a process of industrial espionage to secure updated technology, which indicated that multinational companies had to reveal many operational and technological secrets as a precondition to gain access and operate in the biggest market of the world. Although China reportedly showed seriousness in implementing its commitment under the Protocol of Accession to the World Trade Organization, it adopted policies contradictory to free trade and principles of the organization after joining.

Many American experts argued that Beijing accepted few obligations requiring it to give up or substantially reduce its stronghold on the key sectors of the economy. While Beijing made concerted measures to insulate its energy sector from global markets, the steel sector emerged as an international leader because of supportive measures adopted by the Chinese state. It was only under pressure from its major trading partners such as the US and the European Union that Beijing modified or removed some of the policies that were contradictory to its WTO obligations. China adopted a discriminatory value-added tax (VAT) to discourage foreign competitors and encourage key indigenous industries.

This apart, adoption of special policies to discourage the use of imported components for making telecommunication equipment and rejection of suggestions for unilateral liberalization since 2006 indicated Beijing’s ambitions to take quick economic strides without taking international norms seriously. While the mammoth size of the Chinese market and its low-cost products attracted many major economies to engage in trade with and invest in the country helped its economy to grow rapidly, the US remained concerned as to the Chinese engagement with the world on its own terms.

From a military and strategic perspective, the US not only viewed Chinese assertion of indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea at the expense of the territorial claims of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and others as violation of international laws, but it suspected Beijing’s geopolitical moves as strategic maneuvers to gain control over strategic sea routes. A historical factor that has informed US scholarship contributing to deep-rooted mistrust and irreconcilability between American and Chinese geopolitical interests is Beijing’s isolation from world politics during much of the Cold War era and its denial of membership in the United Nations until 1971. It is argued that as a former superpower (Middle Kingdom), this development might not have been glossed over by China, such that it was likely to adopt retributive policies once it rose to prominence again.

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