Why Kennan’s containment won’t work on China

Por • 11 sep, 2022 • Sección: Política

Sourabh Gupta

August 27, 2022

This is the third and last installment of an essay originally published by ICAS, a Chinese government-backed think tank in Washington. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

In the concluding section of “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” George F Kennan argued that the risks of confronting the Soviet Union and increasing the strains under which it could be forced to operate were manageable from the standpoint of American policy.

This was because the United States’ stake in the country was, as he had observed in his Long Telegram, “remarkably small.” America had “no investments to guard, no actual trade to lose, virtually no citizens to protect, few cultural contacts to preserve.”

From this deduction followed Kennan’s exhortation that Soviet expansionism, advanced under the banner of communism, should be firmly contained at every critical strongpoint at which it encroached upon the interests of a peaceful and stable order. Further, the key global centers of industrial and military power must not be allowed to fall under rival control.

Boxed within a limited geographic sphere of influence, the seeds of internal decay would in time “find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” After all, Tsarist rule had collapsed not due to external pressure or nationalism at the periphery but due to disunity and revolt at the center.

Kennan’s observation of the United States’ “remarkably small” stake in the erstwhile Soviet Union bears remarkably little parallel to China today. US exports to the mainland support over a million jobs, the stock of US foreign direct investment in China exceeds US$100 billion, annual overall bilateral trade exceeds half a trillion dollars and American investors hold more than $1 trillion of Chinese equities.

In the years ahead, these stakes will magnify as China becomes the largest economy in the world (at market prices) by 2030 and hosts the largest domestic consumption market by 2040.

China’s demographic dividend may be approaching the point of exhaustion but there is as yet ample pent-up growth potential awaiting release in its ongoing transitions from state to market and from rural to urban.

And should the productivity level of Chinese workers a couple of decades hence attain that of South Korean workers today, the Chinese economy could well swell to more than two-and-a-half times the size of the US economy.

More to the point, Kennan’s proposed strategy of containment was premised on the United States’ remaining the dominant global economic power – and using this abundance, and leverage, to exert collective discipline among the key Western centers of industrial and military power in their dealings with Moscow.

In China, by contrast, it will face a peer that is without precedent in America’s brief but illustrious history – one whose economic size, and therefore the material capabilities at the government’s disposal, will vastly outstrip those of the United States as far as the eye can see.

This will, in turn, test a core strategic proposition on which US primacy has rested since its international rise as a colossus at the turn of the 20th century: that America could meet the strategic challenge of the day from a position of national strength.

Several inferences follow from the standpoint of the United States’ China policy as well as the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, none of which point to containment as an apt choice.

First, American strategic conceptions to address the China challenge must be based on realism and objectivity. Self-serving narratives, such as the United States and China being supposedly joined in a global contest between democracy and authoritarianism, do worse than just deflecting from the task at hand. They distort the forming of an accurate picture on the basis of which an evenhanded understanding of that country’s present course can be gleaned.

No country is lining up at Beijing’s doorstep to imbibe the secrets of its Leninist political model. If anything, the ideas contest globally is one between a liberal and an illiberal version of capitalism. As Kennan had noted, the subject must be studied with the “same courage, detachment, objectivity – and same determination not to be emotionally provoked or unseated by it – with which [a] doctor studies an unruly and unreasonable individual.”

Next, American strategic conceptions must be endowed with an in-built mechanism of restraint and moderation. By training his focus on the villain of the piece, Soviet expansionism, and identifying communism principally as a justification for expansion, Kennan released future US strategists from having to chase the tail of communism in peripheral locations and guises under which it might appear.

A similar limiting constraint that differentiates between ends sought and means applied by Beijing, and thereby facilitates a more focused application of American pressure against Chinese strategy, must factor into Foggy Bottom’s thinking. This focused application of American diplomatic pressure must be anchored to international rules, too.

It is instructive that the beginning of the end of colonialism can be traced to that moment when the metropolitan power’s actions no longer measured up locally to the high-minded principles that it professed to be championing on behalf of its colony.

Third, the currency of competition in the age of the China Challenge will primarily be economic and technological, and less military or ideological. Military contestation is typically zero-sum; economic exchange is inherently positive-sum.

As China’s economic size outstrips that of its peers, the gravitational pull of its domestic market will heap a collective action problem of the first order on the United States and the West.

Much like the way the Communist Party of China’s dynastic predecessors had sought to turn their steppe rivals’ avarice towards profit than war, and thereby also preserve their rivals’ fragmented political structure, the West’s collective action problem will paradoxically be exacerbated – not ameliorated – if Beijing embraces deeper reform of its industrial, investment and capital market regimes while appreciably reopening its civic society valve. 

Students wave flags of China and the Communist Party of China before celebrations in Beijing on July 1, 2021, to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the party. However, few celebrate graft among party ranks. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhao

Fourth, the sheer size of the Chinese market will dictate that Washington embrace a light-touch approach when crafting selectively decoupled supply chain strategies. An expansively drawn economic security perimeter that thwarts allies and partners’ advanced technology exchanges with Beijing could well turn out to be the 21st century’s geo-economic equivalent of the Maginot Line, leading potentially to the designing out of US parts and components from ensuing value chains.

The essence of wisdom lies in organizing bespoke coalitions on building-block technologies and thereafter ceding – not hoarding – economic decision-making power to allies and partners while maintaining overall convening authority. Allies must be treated more or less as co-equals, not as appendages leashed to the immediate American economic self-interest.

Fifth, interminable maritime and military competition within the first and second island chains of the western Pacific will remain an inescapable feature of US-China relations. In these waters, an immovable object – a core Chinese sovereignty interest – runs up against an unstoppable force – Washington’s abiding interest in navigational freedoms and its explicit and implicit forward-deployed alliance obligations.

Taiwan stands at the geostrategic intersection of both and will remain a powder keg for the foreseeable future. By the same token, there is no reasonable basis for an armed US-China conflict to spill over into geographies that Beijing deems as lying beyond the anti-access, area-denial range essential for its prosecution of a first island chain-specific contingency. The Indian Ocean and the South Pacific will remain as sideshows for the most part. 

Finally, Beijing is no stranger to the notion of a bipolar order. Visions of a bifurcated world divided between two cultural spheres have been central to its conceptualization of self and the other. That said, from a geostrategic perspective Washington will find it arduous to assemble and deepen a bipolar coalition of allies and partners against China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Militarily preponderant power in Moscow historically furnished the operation of the balance of power in Europe and invited periodic countervailing – including bipolar countervailing – alliances against its expansionist ambition.

The establishment and consolidation of powerful centralized authority in China, on the other hand, has been the surest guarantor of peace, prosperity and stability in East Asia for millennia, with regional states bandwagoning on this outward radiation of Chinese influence.

Besides, there is too much self-interested economic fraternizing with the supposed adversary for regional states to participate in a neat exclusionary allied coalition. Strategic competition against China in the Indo-Pacific region will have to be fought primarily with, and for, the loyalties of non-allied regional partners – a relatively unfamiliar terrain for American strategists.


George Kennan had counseled his countrymen in the penultimate paragraph of his celebrated essay to treat the issue of Soviet-American competition as “in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations.” America needed only to measure up to its own best traditions to prevail and thereby prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.

It remains wise counsel even today. America was once a beacon of liberty and prosperity, its economic and political system the envy of the world. American postwar statesmen built a global architecture premised on openness and universalism. Its economic might and its equally mighty dollar underwrote a system of free trade and open markets that engendered prosperity for all and was denied to none.

Today, America’s political discourse has coarsened, its judicial opinion has regressed, its civic associations have fractured and the drift towards economic nationalism is palpable. The dominance of the plumbing of the international economic architecture, and the public goods that it furnished, is being semi-privatized and weaponized against adversaries and rejectionists.

If cold wars are ultimately won with the soft power of attraction and persuasion, America must equally renew itself at home as it grapples with the China challenge abroad.

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


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