Containment of China hits roadblocks again

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Letter from Asia
By Howard W. French
February 28, 2008
HANOI: A seductive idea has taken hold in certain foreign policy circles in recent years that suggests the best way to deal with a fast-rising China is to build ad hoc coalitions of the country’s neighbors to constrain or somehow encircle it.
While never openly espoused by any government, the idea has tempted foreign policy thinkers not just in the United States, but in Japan and to a lesser degree perhaps Australia, too.
It is not hard to understand why, either, for the thought is beautiful in its simplicity. And while no one in a position of responsibility in any of these countries has started calling China an enemy, it is based on an ancient principle: that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
That this schema has never gotten very far off the ground has more than one cause.
First is China’s own diplomatic skill in foreseeing the risk of encirclement and working assiduously to disarm it.
Globalization is important, too. Whether by dint of strategy or happenstance, the rise of China as an exporting powerhouse, combined with the relative openness of the Chinese economy, has created ever stronger linkages with the international economy, giving other countries, not least China’s neighbors, a vital stake in its prospects.
The contrast with the rise of another East Asian manufacturing behemoth, Japan in the 1980s, couldn’t be more striking. Japan’s growth then was overwhelmingly seen as coming at the expense of competitors in the United States and in Europe. And because Japan never truly embraced foreign investment, few outsiders shared in the dividends from its rise.
The idea of encircling China has run into other problems, too. Quite early on, important neighbors like South Korea made it clear that they would have no part of a tacit coalition against – or perhaps in reaction to – the rise of their giant and traditionally influential neighbor.
Well before the Americans came around to the view, the South Koreans understood they needed China to help manage North Korea’s vexed transition toward a more peaceful, prosperous and open future.
China’s willingness to play a leading role in the diplomacy around the question of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been the political equivalent of Beijing’s enthusiasm for globalization, improving China’s standing in the world and returning it to its historical status as this region’s indispensable power, to paraphrase Madeleine Albright’s description of the United States’ place in the world.
One turns next to India, whose enthusiasm for things American is as high as it comes but stops well short of anything that even hints at a compact to contain China. Where South Koreans have historically been cautious balancers, weighing more powerful neighbors off against each other, never wanting to get too close to any one of them, India sees itself a great civilization and global power in waiting.
India has disappointingly given little indication of the uses to which it will apply this new power, should it materialize, but when one combines its belief in its own destiny with its deep seated ideology of nonalignment, it becomes hard to imagine India casting its lot with anybody – least of all against China, with whom its relations are already complicated enough.
Mention of these complications is actually where the containment theory meets its biggest obstacle: the common-sense observation that China’s relations with its most important neighbors are already seriously fraught, to the point where there is no benefit to be gained from working or even appearing to work to complicate things further.
Look around China’s periphery and quickly understand why. China fought a brief but fierce border war with India in 1960s, and the two countries – putative future rivals – have never come to terms about the disputed territory.
In the northeast, China faces claims from the two Koreas that it has absorbed traditionally Korean lands and distorted the history of an ancient Korean kingdom in order to cover its tracks.
To the east, China faces a dispute with Japan over maritime boundaries in an area thought to be rich in oil and gas. Ironically, given the longtime animosity between Beijing and Tokyo, of all of China’s disputes with its neighbors, today this one looks like the most manageable.
Washington may make all the noise about Islamic fundamentalism, but its problems pale in comparison with China’s, whose Muslim far west abuts restive Pakistan and Afghanistan and seethes with resentment toward Beijing.
Longer-term problems loom all along China’s other frontiers, too, starting with the vast northern border with Russia. Moscow and Beijing would seem to be getting along fine these days, notably working well together to hinder the United States, whether over its perceived unilateralism or its encouragement of democracy. The population of Russia, however, is in steep decline, and Russians are deeply wary of what some fear could be a creeping Chinese annexation of scantly populated regions in the Russian east.
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