WASHINGTON — In February 1946, George Kennan, then a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, sent an 8,000-word telegram to the State Department, warning about Soviet behavior. A little over a year later, a version of that telegram appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine, written by “Mr. X.”
That article became one of the pillars of the U.S. policy of containment of the Soviet Union. Later, Kennan would regret that his message was misread and commandeered by hardliners: He bemoaned the reliance on the military dimension of the conflict with the Soviet Union, arguing that the real challenge was political.
I fear we are approaching a Mr. X moment with China. In the last year, the tone of U.S. relations with China has changed dramatically. A year ago, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell could call the U.S.-China relationship “the best ever.” No official in Washington or Beijing would say that today with a straight face.
In the United States, China is blamed for currency manipulation, American job losses, an excessive military buildup, failure to push North Korea to make a deal in the six-party talks, attempts to isolate Japan diplomatically, relations with “rogue” states, and encouragement of nationalism at home to shore up domestic political legitimacy, consequences be damned.
On matters of substance, the two governments continue to cooperate when their interests overlap — and there are many issues where this occurs. Yet the new tone could lead to a quick deterioration in the relationship. There is growing talk of “a China threat,” and the chorus will grow louder now that the long-delayed U.S. Department of Defense report on the Chinese military has been published. That assessment will be followed by the Quadrennial Defense Review, another defense planning document, which is also likely to focus on Chinese intentions.
Those documents will give plenty of ammunition to hawks who demand that China be acknowledged as a threat to U.S. interests and be contained. Those calls will be echoed by China’s own hawks; the recent comments of PLA Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu are a sample of what to expect. He said China is prepared for a nuclear exchange with the U.S. If those arguments are not countered, the downward spiral in relations will accelerate into a plunge.
The China threat is a constant refrain when traveling in China or when discussing U.S. engagement with Asia. While we shouldn’t ignore the modernization of China’s military, that shouldn’t be a primary concern. Rather, the real challenge is Beijing’s ambitions in East Asia: The real “China threat” is political.
While declarations of national strategy should always be viewed with suspicion — matching ends and means is difficult and events usually intervene to interrupt grand designs — there is no disguising China’s determination to establish itself as the dominant power in Asia and to supplant the U.S. role in the region.
Beijing has done an excellent job of defining the terms of engagement with other countries in East Asia. During the 1990s, it pursued “smile diplomacy,” forging a new relationship with Southeast Asia by signing a declaration of a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, acceding to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and moving forward with an ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement. In Northeast Asia, China has put itself at the heart of the diplomatic process to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. In doing so, it has focused on South Korean reaction and now appears to take many of its cues from Seoul. Increasingly, South Koreans see themselves more closely aligned with China than the U.S.
Beijing has worked hard to assuage Asian concerns about its long-term intentions. It has settled border disputes, engaged in aggressive diplomatic outreach, put itself at the heart of the regional economy and made substantial efforts to demonstrate that it is a reliable partner. Implicit in Chinese policy is the message that it understands Asian concerns better than Washington, and that it manages Asian issues better than does the U.S.
The challenge for Washington is responding to this situation correctly: U.S. policy must not strengthen China’s hand and a hard line will do just that. Asian nations have no desire to be forced to choose between Washington and Beijing. Many regional governments are skeptical about Chinese intentions, but they also know that China is a geographical fact of life. The U.S. cannot increase tensions without reinforcing the Chinese message that Beijing understands Asia better than the U.S. and that it can manage the region better than Washington.
The U.S. cannot block or stop China’s emergence. Containment isn’t a realistic option. The challenge for the U.S. is to match China and engage Asia as a responsible partner. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick acknowledged as much in his recent tour of Southeast Asia. The challenge is to engage China as it rises, to help it deal with the many difficulties it will encounter, to encourage Beijing to be a responsible and productive member of international society, and to invigorate relations with Asia so that there are no doubts about the U.S. commitment to the region. Doing so will neutralize “the China threat,” and build a constructive bilateral relationship that benefits both countries and Asia as a whole.