A Stalin-Mao poster. China represents an altogether different challenge to the US than did the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Photo: Alpha History

This is the second of a three-part essay originally published by ICAS, a Chinese government-backed think tank in Washington. Read part 1 here.

Setting aside the argument that a policy of containing China might not be purpose-fit and implementable in the 21st century age of complex power distribution across interrelated policy domains, the China shallenge today is vastly different from the Soviet challenge scrutinized by George F Kennan – and it is instructive to compare the premises on which Kennan’s proposed policy of containment was grounded.  

In his reading of the basic features of the Soviet Union’s postwar outlook, George Kennan in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” made three observations:

  • First, the leadership in Moscow viewed the capitalist system of production to be a nefarious and exploitative one. No “sincere assumption of community of aims” could be had with such a system; capitalism and socialism were innately antagonistic. And given capitalism’s hostile and incorrigible character, it was necessary to the contrary to engage in a patient but deadly struggle for its destruction as a rival center of ideological authority.
  • Second, the call for capitalism’s elimination notwithstanding, the Soviet Union was being threatened geopolitically by “antagonistic capitalist encirclement.” Caution, circumspection, flexibility and deception were hence the order of the day. As with the church, there was no ideological compulsion for socialism to accomplish its purposes in a hurry. Rather, in the leadership’s view, “fluid and constant pressure to extend [the] limits of Russian [military and] police power [at home and abroad] … solemnly clothed in trappings of Marxism” needed to be exerted unceasingly to tip the balance of power in favor of socialist forces.
  • Finally, it was not a given that capitalism would perish of its internal convulsions, the rot within the system notwithstanding. It was necessary for the revolutionary proletarian movement to provide the final push that would tip the tottering structure over. For this to be the case, all good communists at home and abroad needed to fall in line and unswervingly follow the infallible leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Stalinist Russia would command; the satellites would conform and implement the party line.

How does the Communist Party of China (CPC) measure up today on these three points vis-a-vis its Soviet counterpart of yesteryears? 

Kennan had ascribed the wellsprings of the Soviet Union’s zero-sum view to two interrelated factors:

  • the fundamental irreconcilability between socialism and capitalism, and
  • the traditional and instinctive sense of insecurity of the Russian people.
A 1946 illustrative map of the ‘Communist Contagion’. Source: TIME Maps by R.M. Chapin, Jr. / Public Domain

Fierce nomads on the periphery

In his Long Telegram, Kennan had attributed this Russian insecurity to that of a “peaceful agricultural people trying to live on [a] vast exposed plain in [a] neighborhood of fierce nomadic people” – to which was added the fear of “more competent, more powerful, more highly organized” societies.

“Unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries” and fearing the ramifications of Russians’ exposure to their value systems, the Kremlin’s rulers had “learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.”

Setting aside the veracity of Kennan’s characterization, Chinese authorities also have faced their own millennia-long encounter with fierce steppe tribes on their periphery. The lessons they drew on and their response were altogether different – and revealing.

Patient but total destruction of a fundamentally insatiable rival power was futile; it was cheaper and less destructive to turn their rivals’ avarice toward profit rather than war.

The famous tribute system served, as one distinguished historian has described it, as an “institutionalized protection racket” by way of which the Chinese traded “rich silks, porcelain, jewelry and money for bad horses, at a loss” – a loss that they more than made up fo with peaceful relations.

Titles, subsidies and border markets were provided as per the dictates of power politics but always under the guise of a peerless emperor in exchange for secure frontiers. And it did not hurt, either, that the titles, subsidies and border markets munificently handed down embellished the local authority of individual tribal chiefs and preserved the fragmented political structure of the steppe.

A modern version of this playbook is already evident in the Party’s economic dealings with various branches of the West.

As to the Soviets’ belief in the fundamental irreconcilability between socialism and capitalism, the Communist Party of China’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is aimed at taking advantage of capitalism’s strength as a means of resource allocation and efficient market exchange. It is not aimed at capitalizing on capitalism’s supposedly intrinsic class conflict or violent spillovers, as was the case in the mental world of the Soviet leadership.

Performers dance during a show as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing on June 28, 2021. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

The Chinese economic model is itself called a “socialist market economy” and features a hybrid public ownership economy and a non-public economy that are both important components of China’s “common prosperity” agenda. 

For Kennan, from the logic of the Soviets’ neurotic view of world affairs and the imperative for a “patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power” stemmed the Kremlin’s need to continuously exert “fluid and constant pressure” to extend the limits of Russian military and police power at home and abroad.

For this to be the case, though, Moscow had to first break out of the “antagonistic capitalist encirclement” that it was confronted with. The modus operandi was to be a persistent pattern of advance followed by semi-retreat, bred by a combination of appetite and risk aversion.

The Kremlin’s political-military actions would be a “fluid stream” that would, if permitted, fill “every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power” – an unceasing constant pressure towards its desired ideological and geostrategic goal.

Granted, the history of Chinese dynasties is littered, too, with constant skirmishing at shifting frontiers, which continues even today in a different form in the Himalayan borderlands and the South and East China Seas. But to what extent, if at all, is Kennan’s description of the Kremlin’s methods an apt representation of China’s tactics?

Communist China has always been “Clausewitzian” on territoriality-related considerations – treating physical pressure brought to bear, within limits, at the point of dispute as a continuation of politics and diplomacy by other means. Formal protest notes and demarches have been secondary to marking out its diplomatic position militarily on the ground.

This coercive but limited use of force at expedient pressure points has oftentimes undermined its own interests. That said, these “gray zone” episodes are driven by local factors and always linked to a larger calculus of territoriality and sovereignty. Pertinently, too, these episodes are not attached to an overarching or subversive ideology or strategic doctrine of conquest and domination.

More to the point, Beijing remains acutely aware of the limits of its power, not the power of its strength. Military means to exert pressure at distant locales with little relevance to territorial or core interests have never been, and will not be, a part of Beijing’s playbook.

Limits of power: China’s then-vice president Deng Xiaoping visits Tokyo in 1979. It was Deng who said, “Our generation is not wise enough to find common language” on the territorial dispute over islands China calls the Diaoyutai and Japan calls the Senkaku. Photo: Wilson Center

And indeed, during the 40 years of reform and opening-up dating back to 1980, no major or even limited war has been fought and a mere hundred-or-so lives in total have been lost in anger on China’s vast land and maritime frontiers.

For what it is worth, the farthest extension of the Middle Kingdom’s territorial boundaries was effectuated by non-Han “conquest dynasties,” the Tang, Yuan and the Manchu, who in turn laid the foundations of a more variegated imperial strategic culture.

Their Han Chinese successors, the Ming and the Chinese Communist Party today, typically set their eyes on consolidating, not extending, the inherited realm – a yearning that is most prominently in evidence today in the Taiwan Strait.

Finally, Kennan drew attention in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” to Moscow’s implacable need for doctrinal fealty as it went about administering the final coup de grace to global capitalism. As that oasis of power that had been won for socialism, the Soviet Union’s infallibility as sole repository of the truth and guide of political action was to be unreservedly upheld within the global socialist movement.

It was Kennan’s view that the Kremlin would “work toward destruction of all forms of personal independence, economic, political or moral” in Central and Eastern Europe in order to bring the region into “complete dependence on higher power.”

The modus operandi of the reform-era Communist Party of China bears little resemblance in this regard. The CPC does not export its ideology or subvert sitting governments.

President Xi Jinping’s tendency to anoint the Party as the sole repository of the truth and thereby squelch justification for organized activity beyond its structures notwithstanding, Chinese socialism is not an instrument of geopolitical aggrandizement. The Party’s ideological evangelism stops at the water’s edge.

A mountain pass along the Belt and Road Initiative’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Image: Facebook

The vaunted Belt and Road Initiative is not a mammoth influence operation that is intended to foster strategic dependencies – although it is understandable why it is viewed in that light.

Like the United States’ own prodigious capital exports, a century earlier, it is geared rather towards recycling domestic surpluses into actionable projects that could enhance the productive capacity of recipient states on mutually advantageous terms.

More to the point, China owes its rise to the open, capitalist-led, rules-based order. It sees no interest in cutting off its nose to spite an order that has stood it, and could continue to stand it, in good stead over the next three decades of its unfinished national development.

Indeed, Xi’s doctrinal framing of US-China relations as “major power” relations, not “great power” relations, was intended to transcend age-old Great Power rivalry and hopefully presage a more peacefully coexistent dispensation. Rather than administer a final coup de grace to global capitalism, Beijing would prefer if anything to obtain the keys to the kingdom.

Sourabh Gupta is a resident senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS). The essay is republished by Asia Times with permission.