An Evitable War: Engaged Containment and the US-China Balance

By Howle, Jr., Roy C. | Parameters, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

An Evitable War: Engaged Containment and the US-China Balance


Howle, Jr., Roy C., Parameters


"War is of vital importance to the state; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin."

Sun Tzu

America's success as a world power since 1898 has hinged on balancing its interests in Asia and Europe, often in the face of significant distractions and conflicting interests. Though our policy of engagement with China barely harks back to the reestablishment of diplomatic ties in 1972, it has proven adequate to managing that balance. Though far from perfect, engagement provides a workable foundation for our continued relationship with that country, provided that all three of the following conditions are met:

* China's internal political configuration remains stable.

* China's economic ambitions continue to take precedence over military ambitions.

* The cost of using force to redress the balance of power in Asia remains prohibitive to all parties.

America can do little about the first condition. The second condition is the major premise driving our relationship with China, and our engagement concept currently focuses on our economic relationship. The third and final condition is almost entirely up to the United States, and there are serious reasons to doubt that our current policies are adequate to its continuance. The problem lies not with US capabilities, but with US interpreted intentions; not with our resolve, but with our ability to redefine and communicate our vital interests in a rapidly changing strategic environment; not with our ability to use force, but with the credibility of its possible use to deter potential antagonists.

In a 1998 speech on America's Asia-Pacific security strategy delivered in Singapore, amid souring US-China relations, then-Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen drew on the paintings of Toko Shinoda to craft a metaphor of the Asian security landscape, warning that we must beware of monochromatic interpretations, and have:

a complete palette, and an ability to capture on our conceptual canvas both light and shadow--one that reflects Asia's complex, but enduring features, while also conveying the dynamism of the region ... because in the security realm it is critical to understand the interplay between what is fixed and what is in flux if we are to successfully anticipate and manage change. [1]

Secretary Cohen went on to recite a list of US efforts to make its military apparatus more open to China, and to express official optimism at the forthcoming summit between Presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton. Quoting a 1997 speech at the National Defense University in Washington, in which Minister of Defense General Chi Haotian had expressed a hope to prevent the "zigzags" in our bilateral relationship, Secretary Cohen expressed a hope that the ties between the United States and China would in the future be marked by a "steady and sustained engagement."

Unfortunately, "zigzags" are exactly what has occurred. Two years later, and after relations with China had significantly cooled following the United States' accidental bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade, Secretary Cohen cheerfully announced:

I just returned from China .... [A]fter a year's hiatus in our relationship for--as what they said, obvious reasons--China wants to get back on a solid track with the United States. I had a very good meeting with the Chinese leadership, and they want to establish good military-to-military relations. And it's important for us that we do this. [2]

This sort of merry-go-round is typical of the type of volatile US-China relationship that is a product of the current engagement strategy. The Defense Minister of the Philippines, a country at the top of anyone's list of candidates to feel the sharp edge of Chinese force in the near future, calls it "talk and take." [3]

The truth is that zigzags appear not to be a by-product of our bilateral relationship with China, but rather the very essence of it.

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