Since the end of the Cold War, the main challenge to those who favor a "constructive engagement" with China has come from human rights advocates and labor leaders. But in the last year, a new opposition voice has been heard, arguing for a return to the containment strategy used against the Soviet Union. This new strategy has very little support at the Brookings Institution or the Council on Foreign Relations, but it is well represented in the Weekly Standard, Commentary, and the New Republic, and in the columns of George Will, William Safire, and A.M. Rosenthal. Some of the loudest voices are former Cold War conservatives who were exiled from inner policy circles in the last revisionist years of the Reagan administration. These include Michael Ledeen (who helped broker the first arms-for-hostages deal with Iran), Frank Gaffney (who was deputy to Defense Department official Richard Perle), and Robert Kagan (former aide to State Department official Elliot Abrams).
These advocates of containment have drowned out other critics of constructive engagement. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met last May to consider granting most-favored-nation status to China, the committee invited Kagan rather than a representative from the AFL-CIO or Human Rights Watch/Asia to present the dissenting view. That's unfortunate—not because Kagan is inarticulate, but because the alternative he espouses is not preferable to constructive engagement. If actually adopted, it could spell disaster for the United States and China.
The advocates of containment see China as the latest in a series of twentieth-century "revisionist" powers—from Germany to Japan to the Soviet Union—threatening to impose its will upon the world. Conflict between the United States and China, containment advocates argue, is inevitable. "The Chinese leadership views the world today in much the same way Kaiser Wilhelm II did a century ago," Kagan told the Foreign Relations Committee. "So long as China remains a ruthless Communist dictatorship . . . the inevitability of conflict must inform all our thinking and planning," wrote Ledeen in the Standard.
Thus advocates of containment want to deny China most-favored-nation status not in order to win specific concessions, but rather as part of a long-term strategy for, as George Will puts it, "the subversion of the Chinese regime." Withholding economic and military ties from China and creating NATO-like alliances to block China's expansion, this logic goes, will eventually force the country to abandon communism for democracy. "As was the case earlier in this century for Germany, for Japan, and for Russia, the only enduring solution to the threat posed by China is a change in the regime, in the direction of political democracy," writes Harvard professor Arthur Waldron in Commentary.
This position is based upon a failure to understand how China is different from previous "revisionist" powers and how the world itself has changed since 1945. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Czarist Russia, Britain, and Japan were each imperial powers seeking through war to alter the distribution of colonized nations. China was a victim of this imperialism. Hong Kong, for instance, was seized by the British during the Opium War, and Taiwan was taken by the Japanese in 1895. China's desire to reclaim Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the Ryukyu Islands cannot be identified with Germany's seizure of Poland or, later, the Soviet Union's domination of Eastern Europe.
Of course, China also has an imperial past, but its ambitions were confined to adjoining lands. The Chinese, like nineteenth-century Americans, regarded themselves as the citizens of a superior civilization that other countries should emulate. Except during Lin Biao's ascendancy during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese, unlike the Soviets, did not adopt a messianic, millenarian view of themselves as leaders of world communism. And China's current communism is free of any universal pretensions. If China has an ambition, it is to restore its pre-imperial status as the great power of Asia. While this ambition may lead to conflicts with other Asian nations and with the United States, it should not be equated with the Soviet Union's or Nazi Germany's drive for world domination.
Indeed, even if China had such ambitions, the country is incapable of exerting protracted military force power beyond the Asian continent. Its military consists primarily of poorly equipped land forces. It does not really have a navy. It does have nuclear weapons, but a recent Pentagon study describes China's air force as "obsolescent" and "incapable of mounting any effective largescale and sustained air operations." China's economic power is also wildly overrated. While its coastal towns and cities have enjoyed a boom, much of the country in the west and north lacks the infrastructure and level of education even for industrialization. Much of China is very backward and poor. Its national government runs at a huge deficit, and many of its state-owned enterprises would not survive the rigors of market competition.
China can still cause enormous military problems in Asia—for instance, in disputes with Southeast Asian countries over the potentially oil-rich Spratly Islands—but that doesn't call for the kind of containment strategy the United States adopted toward the Soviet Union. Instead, it requires a regional strategy aimed at discouraging China from military adventures—the kind of limited strategy that Walter Lippmann proposed for the Soviet Union in 1947, but that George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and the advocates of containment adamantly opposed.
A limited strategy would include a U.S. naval presence and might involve Japan in a more active military role; most important, however, it would encompass the kind of positive incentives favored by proponents of constructive engagement. These include the acknowledgment of China's legitimate territorial aims in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Ryukyu Islands and the invitation to China to play a significant role in regional and international organizations. This kind of nuanced approach is completely inconsistent with a strategy aimed at isolating, encircling, and subverting China.
The current containment strategy is also based on an outmoded model of world affairs. What would it mean, after all, for China today to follow the example of Wilhelmine Germany? For several thousand years, nations identified wealth and power with the acquisition of resource-rich colonies. Both world wars were precipitated by struggles to redivide the world's colonies. The Cold War itself was fought over control of Eastern Europe, Asia, the Near East, and Latin America. But the Cold War's end has concluded a process of change toward what political scientist Richard Sklar calls a new "postimperial" world. Countries can still go to war over access to raw materials—witness the Gulf War—but in this new world order, great economic powers no longer identify wealth and power with colonial possessions, but with the command of technology and finance; and former colonies no longer see foreign investment as an instrument of imperialism, but as the means of improving their own standard of living. A nation seeking power would not envisage occupying its neighbors but would strive to make them dependent upon its own banks and factories.
Because of its own experience of colonialism and communism, China's entrance into this new postimperial world has been delayed. China's attention is still directed at regaining its possessions—its principal arms race is not with the United States but with Taiwan. And some of China's aging leaders still speak the language of either Marxism-Leninism or older imperialism. But their words should be compared against what China has done since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping, borrowing a term from American Secretary of State John Hay, inaugurated an "open door" for foreign investment.
The United States should make sure that China continues its transition into this new postimperial order. There are two principal obstacles. One is China's political and military relations with its neighbors. The other, which neither the proponents of constructive engagement or of containment sufficiently acknowledge, is China's economic relationship with the rest of world capitalism, including the United States. While China is by no means an economic superpower, it is the world's largest repository of low-wage manufacturing labor. China's workers' wages are one-tenth those of Hong Kong, and with a huge reserve of unemployed workers, and the army and party preventing the formation of unions, wages will remain among the world's lowest for decades to come. Combine that with a mercantile strategy designed to block imports and force foreign investors to produce only for export, and you have a recipe for global economic disruption.
If China were allowed into the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a developing nation, it could fend off complaints against its trade barriers and absence of labor rights. In that position, it would threaten the standard of living of workers around the globe, and could eventually wreck the organization itself, as countries found themselves unable to use its tribunal to remove trade barriers. The United States, which has become China's market of last resort, needs to use the WTO negotiations to force dramatic changes in China's trade practices. The United States also needs to persuade other countries—Japan in particular—to help absorb China's exports. Without an outlet for their exports, China and other less advanced Asian countries might one day find themselves at sword's point. But, to date, the Clinton administration's economic policy toward China has been driven by multinational corporations and banks that see China as an outlet for investment and by proponents of constructive engagement who want to barter economic concessions for geopolitical ones.
The advocates of containment don't present an alternative to this glaring weakness of constructive engagement. Instead, they denigrate what the New Republic has called "economic considerations" in favor of "strategic considerations and moral considerations," as if economics were simply a matter of cost and profit and not the welfare of human beings, and as if economic security were not central to the stability of the region. The current prominence of the containment strategy skews the debate over China; it diverts policymakers from considering real dangers in order to refute imagined ones; it puts American foreign policy back onto the frozen terrain of the Cold War, where questions about trade were subordinated to the threat of war. If we want to figure out what to do about China, it will not be through conjuring up ghosts of Wilhelmine Germany or Stalin's Russia, but through filling in the dim outlines of an unfamiliar post-Cold War, postimperial future.