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Review: US Policy of Containment Against China



In the ongoing debate on how the United States should respond to China's increasing assertiveness on the global stage, the idea of containment has resurfaced as a potential solution. This strategy, born during the Cold War, aimed to counter Soviet expansionism. However, it is essential to question whether containment is the right approach for dealing with China.


One of the prevailing myths surrounding containment is that it was the primary driver of the Soviet Union's downfall. This view oversimplifies the complexities of the Cold War era. Instead, the Soviet Union's own internal errors and weaknesses played a more significant role in its demise. It is vital to acknowledge that containment was not the decisive factor in the Cold War's outcome.


Another critical aspect of containment's failure during the Cold War was the illusion that opposing Soviet power everywhere was both feasible and effective. In practice, containment led to failures such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Vietnam War, and its impact on preventing countries from turning communist remains dubious.


The most significant setbacks for communism during the Cold War were often self-inflicted, rather than the result of containment efforts. Examples include Stalin's failed attempt to tighten control over Yugoslavia, Indonesia's crackdown on Chinese-linked communists, and the theological dispute between China and the Soviet Union. In none of these instances did the United States play a decisive role.


As the Cold War approached its end, the Soviet Union's expansionist ambitions mellowed not because containment succeeded but because it failed. The Soviet system's inadequacies and defects, not external containment, ultimately led to its implosion. The Soviet Union's disastrous experiences with its dependent states in Eastern Europe, especially the protracted war in Afghanistan, showed that containment was not necessary for its self-destruction.


The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 cannot be attributed to containment; instead, it resulted from inherent weaknesses and contradictions within the Soviet system. Despite the United States' abandonment of containment, the Soviet Union still crumbled due to its internal issues. This demonstrates that containment was not the primary driver of change in the Soviet Union.


When considering applying containment to China, it is essential to assess whether China poses a similar threat as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. While China seeks a prominent global role and has been assertive in pursuing its interests, it does not present the same ideological challenge. Unlike the Soviet Union, China does not promote an expansive communist ideology.


China's numerous domestic challenges, ranging from corruption and environmental degradation to economic slowdown and demographic concerns, are largely self-inflicted. Xi Jinping's prioritization of party control over economic development has created internal instability. Containment may not be necessary, as China's growing set of problems could lead to its self-moderation over time.


Most of China's expansionist moves involve non-military means, such as economic influence through the Belt and Road Initiative. As Chas Freeman points out, military force is not a suitable response to a grand strategy based on nonviolent economic expansion. Therefore, containment may not be the most effective approach to deal with China's rise.

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