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Politics & Law

How did U.S. go from “constructive engagement” to containing China?

The smooth political succession from Deng to Jiang, Hu and lately Xi Jinping (pictured), has assured the world that Beijing’s leaders are able to execute foreign policy consistently over a long timeframe. (Photo: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr Commons)

The smooth political succession from Deng to Jiang, Hu and lately Xi Jinping (pictured), has assured the world that Beijing’s leaders are able to execute foreign policy consistently over a long timeframe. (Photo: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr Commons)

Admit it: the American question on “Contain China” has been changed from “Should?” to “How?” in view of the brewing consensus that the ‘constructive engagement’ policy since President Nixon was a mistake [Note 1].

In an originally titled “Wake up America, China must be contained” article and their March 2015 report issued by Council on Foreign Relations, Robert D. Blackwill and Ashley J. Tellis argue for a new Grand Strategy towards China because “the American effort to ‘integrate’ China into the liberal international order has now generated new threats to U.S. primacy in Asia — and could eventually result in a consequential challenge to American power globally …” [Note 2].

This is not the first wake-up call for a fundamental change. In Dec 2013, for example, at a congressional Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee (Committee on Armed Services) hearing, Seth Cropsey of Hudson Institute and three other analysts jointly averred the threat from China that Asia could be lost quickly should Washington not formulate a new strategy to counteract Beijing’s expansion as the Obama Administration’s ‘Pivot’ and ‘rebalance’ are “not based on a strategy” [Note 3].

Some moderate pundits have tried to divert the policy orientation away from “Contain China” to boost the hope for peace. The latest effort is the Harvard Belfer Centre report (April 2015) by Kevin Rudd (Prime Minister of Australia 2007-10, Jun-Sep 2013) who recognises that U.S. “sees China as seeking to push the U.S. out of Asia” but suggests “Constructive Realism for a common strategic narrative for U.S.-China relations” [Note 4].

Nevertheless, given the imminent danger of losing the world leadership, the next President would probably ignore Rudd’s voice in favor of the new blueprint to accomplish the five Grand Strategy objectives, namely, to sustain asymmetric economic advantages, to exclude China from new trading arrangements among the U.S. camp, to prevent China from acquiring advanced technologies, to strengthen the allies surrounding China, and to strengthen the U.S. military might in Asia-Pacific [Note 5].

To the U.S. allies, the real actions to be urged by Washington D.C. to take may be something like these: Israel to cease arms trade with China; England to cancel setting up a Renminbi offshore clearing house in London so as to delay the internationalisation of China’s currency; developing countries such as Mexico, South Africa and Egypt to cut back their China trade for gaining new preferential trading treatments from the U.S.; Japan to deploy more naval vessels to block China from exploring crude oil and natural gas under the East China Sea; France to stop Electricite de France from upgrading China’s nuclear plants; Australia to reduce export of strategic minerals such as uranium and nickel by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton to China; the Philippines to obstruct Beijing’s reclamation in the South China Sea; Germany to prevent China from acquiring Siemens’ advanced mechanical and electrical know-how; Saudi Arabia to supply less crude oil to China; Canada to prevent another Chinese acquisition similar to Nexen’s case; India to escalate the Himalayan border dispute with China; European Union to impose tariffs on made-in-China products ranging from solar panels to shoes……

Nonetheless, before assessing how successful the new Grand Strategy may be, it is more sensible to ask how likely these countries are willing to join the White House Orchestra for playing the Contain China Symphony.

Among tons of factors for consideration by all the nations involved, a point to be highlighted here is the practical comparison on the policy continuity or persistence between Beijing’s attempt to reset the rules of game through “One Belt One Road” and Washington’s endeavour to implement the Grand Strategy. In short, who is more reliable?

Unfortunately, the United States’ track record for its policy persistence was a bit disappointing. In the Cato Institute report 2003, Washington was criticised for failing to provide follow-through leadership after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, and failing to realize the idea of creating the hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas. “The Latin American countries, as a result, became disillusioned … and many have now turned decidedly against the idea of free trade…” [Note 6]. The China policy during President Obama’s tenure has also been confusing. Not only is Susan Rice’s new model of major power relations Asia contradictory to Hillary Clinton’s ‘Pivot’, but also the concept of ‘rebalancing’ sounds like a lurch.

On the contrary, despite all sorts of hearsays about the inter-factional power struggles, the smooth political succession from Deng to Jiang, Hu and lately Xi has to a great extent assured the world that Beijing’s batches of leaders, generation after generation, are able to execute the national foreign policy consistently for a very long time horizon. Substantiated by China’s gigantic monetary reserves and pragmatic motives, it is not difficult for other countries to ascertain the risks and benefits of teaming with Beijing, thus inducing close partnership based on common interests, though not on common values.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s honest confession has provided the most precise and concise description of the Chinese magnetic power. “Fear and greed” were said to be the forces driving Australia’ China policy, assuming the leak of the private conversation between Abbott and Merkel in Nov 2014 is correct [Note 7]. Another salient example is Japan. Abe, after his 2014 re-election victory, has taken concrete steps to prepare Japan for benefiting from the thriving Asia by befriending China (as what I expected in Dec 2013) and India in that peace rather than war is the better element for sustaining the momentum of Abenomics [Note 8]. Therefore, it may not be that difficult to reckon the success rate of the “Contain China” Grand Strategy.

In the due course of antagonising the Pragmatism-based perseverant helmsmen in Beijing, the Realist and Universalist analysts would eventually admit that military offensive is the only effective strategy to suppress China’ rise and liberalise the communist regime respectively. However, if the policy makers are unwilling to risk their soldiers’ lives for these sakes and somehow realise that China’s biggest ambition is not to conquer the world but to rewrite the rules for a new global order to yield compliance by all states for getting rich altogether, then they should consider accepting the possibility of a Grotian International Society as suggested by Hedley Bull [Note 9]. This adjustment is disturbing but inevitable: “The Western countries are asked not merely the ending of their privileges, but also a reduction of their power …… As Third World countries develop their economies, their societies, their politics and their military strength and reduce or eliminate their vulnerability to Western intervention, they will create an international system, the political structure of which will be vastly different from that to which the Western peoples have long been accustomed” [Note 10].

The opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of China Daily Mail.

This article was first published by Foreign Policy In Focus on 29 Apr 2015 titled as “How did U.S. go from ‘Constructive Engagement” to Containing China?”

[Note 1]
WSJ, “Who Lost Asia? Some Americans Blame Engagement With China”, Apr 14, 2015.

Huffington Post, “America’s China Consensus Slowly Unravels”, Apr 20, 2015.

Reuters, “U.S. Republican warns of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ from China, Jul 10, 2014.

[Note 2]
National Interest, “A New US Grand Strategy towards China” (first titled as
“Wake up, America, China must be contained”), Apr 13, 2015.

See p.4 in Council on Foreign Relations, Report No. 72 “Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China”, March 2015.


[Note 3]
U.S. Congress House Doc, “Hearing: U.S. Asia-Pacific Strategic Considerations Related to P.L.A. Naval Forces Modernization”, Dec 11, 2013.

Statement of Seth Cropsey, “U.S. Asia-Pacific Strategic Considerations Related to P.L.A. Naval Forces Modernization”, Dec 11, 2013.


Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, “U.S. in need of a cohesive China strategy, Experts Agree”, Dec 31, 2013.

[Note 4]
Belfer Center, Summary Report: U.S.-China 21— The Future of U.S.-China Relations Under Xi Jinping: Towards a New Framework of Constructive Realism for a Common Purpose”, Apr 2015.

[Note 5]
See p.5 in Council on Foreign Relations, Report No. 72 “Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China”, March 2015.


[Note 6]
See p.653 in Cato Handbook for Congress, Policy Recommendations for the 108th Congress 2003.


[Note 7]
The Sydney Morning Herald, “‘Fear and greed’ drive Australia’s China policy, Tony Abbot tells Angela Merkel”, Apr 16, 2015.

[Note 8]
Eurasia Review, “Future Growth of India and China to be tuned by Japan”, Apr 23, 2015.

[Note 9]
Hedley Bull (1966), “Society and Anarchy in International Relations” and “The Grotian Conception of International Society”, in Herbert Butterfield and Martin Wight (eds), Diplomatic Investigations, 1966, London: George Allen & Unwin, pp.35-51 and 51-73.

[Note 10]
Hedley Bull, “Justice in International Relations: The 1983 Hagey Lectures”, reprinted in Kai Alderson and Andrew Hurrell (eds) (2000), Hedley Bull on International Society, London and New York: MacMillan Press, 2000, p.243.

About keith K C Hui

Keith K C Hui is a Chinese University of Hong Kong graduate major in Government and Public Administration and the author of "Helmsman Ruler: China's Pragmatic Version of Plato's Ideal Political Succession System In The Republic" (2013).

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