November 28, 2012
On Feb. 22, 1946, the American chargé in Moscow, George F. Kennan, replied to a State Department inquiry on Soviet foreign policy in the aftermath of the Second World War.
His 8,000 word response, historically referred to as the Long Telegram, within a few months became the basis of American and Western policy towards the Soviet Union for most of the next 40 years.
It also led to the creation of NATO, the generosity of the Marshall Plan, and the emergence of a united Western Europe based on collaboration and co-operation.
Mr Kennan’s analysis and policy suggestions gave rise to the concept of containment as the most appropriate and effective means of countering Soviet efforts to spread its brand beyond its borders. Except for a few years of détente in the 1970s prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, containment remained at the core of American and Western policy towards the Soviet Union until its demise in 1991.
Today the Soviet Union is in the dustbin of history, to paraphrase of one of its early theorists, Leon Trotsky, and there are few signs now that the ideas of containment are high on the list of policies of Western countries.
Rather as countries face a fractious and increasingly fragmented global environment there is a willingness to see the emergence of human rights, “responsibility to protect,” and their military co-rider “regime change” as being the predominant policy options.
There is one situation, however, in which there are signs that the concept of containment is obtaining new legitimacy. This is China and its surrounding waters. Not surprisingly, China with its rich history of cultural and scientific brilliance along with episodic military might is now displaying signs that its modern incarnation carry urges for military predominance as well.
While there are many wearing rose-coloured glasses who expect China to emerge as the Switzerland of Asia, there is little in Chinese history, thought, or politics to support such a constrained image. Rather, China from its ancient and dynastic beginnings gave birth to the idea of its own exceptionalism that more than rivals that of the United States today.
Its Middle Kingdom, or in another transliteration, Central States concept was and is an ever-present certainty around which territorial expansion and vassal states were the norms for inter-state relations.
In its modern post-1949 phase, Chinese political rhetoric directed at the world far outdistanced its actions. However, there was always a backdrop certainty that there would be a status quo ante of historical proportions once its disastrous preoccupations of leadership and economic policy were fixed.
Its unwavering approach on Aksai Chin, Taiwan sovereignty, and Tibet and Sinkiang autonomy provides ample illustration of Chinese firmness on territorial integrity and matters associated with boundaries.
Today, the outrider of China’s toughness on territorial integrity is found in the many issues associated with its marine boundaries in the East and South China Seas. These boundaries and the associated islets have sharpened China’s relations with most of the countries of the region which heretofore, have sailed almost exclusively on a sea of economic tranquility.
Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Malaysia all have claims to some of the same islets and waters and have given few signs that they are prepared to acquiesce to Chinese claims.
The United States was jolted out of its focus on central Asia and the Middle East with the realization that there were serious issues needing attention in East Asia. Up until 2010, American preoccupations with China centered on economic matters and North Korean nuclear ambitions.
Earlier this year United States President Barack Obama in his “Priorities for 21st Century Defense” issued by the US defence department completely changed the dynamic with the idea that the US would pivot towards Asia as a matter of urgency and priority.
In doing so the Americans have backed their words with a series of actions indicating that American neutrality in the region on issues involving China cannot be taken for granted.
New military arrangements have been announced, old ones refurbished, and American carriers will be ever present. The speed with which relations were re-established with Myanmar illustrates the seriousness of American intentions.
While the Americans and others are reluctant to use the word containment as descriptive of its policy, any reasonable application of the “duck” test suggests that Kennan would not disagree.
China has yet to react to the changing strategic balance in its front yard, and it may be some time before its new leadership does. It has few close allies in the region (Cambodia, Laos, and North Korea hardly count) and its economic ties with the other countries are mutually beneficial.
However, it will respond at some point, and that will be the indication of whether traditional Chinese patience on such matters will be at the fore. If it is not, then American priorities for the rest of the century will be tested.
Canadian policy towards China is still preoccupied with recovering from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s idea that Canadian views on human rights in China were of some value.
Today’s preoccupation with Chinese state enterprises wanting to purchase Canadian resource companies will soon pass, and as with all American allies, we will have to adjust and adapt to the new American strategy in East Asia. Staying out of Iraq was easy compared to what we may have to face next.
Gar Pardy retired from the foreign service and comments on public and foreign policy issues from Ottawa.