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Quasi-Containment: The US-Led Response To Growing Chinese Aggression in East Asia

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

By Wolff Weisbach

Guest Feature

Chinese Leader Xi Jinping with Philippine President Bongbong Marcos, 2023 | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a 2022 speech, Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to China as the “most serious long-term challenger to the international order”. Considering China’s trajectory over the last few decades, some strategists consider it to be only a matter of time before China surpasses the United States as the predominant global economic and military power. Although, this is a fiercely debated subject. With Washington increasingly acknowledging China’s status as its primary geopolitical rival, it is important to understand the perceived threat.


China’s unprecedented rise to becoming the world’s second-largest economy can be attributed to the speed with which the country industrialised since the 1980s. As China’s economy has grown, so has its ambition to exert greater influence at home and abroad. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre provided the world with a glimpse of what the Chinese government was capable of when threatened. Despite international condemnation and some economic sanctions, the Western response was ultimately limited by the economic incentives of trading with China. Consequently, for the most part, business as usual resumed, paving the way for China’s continued development. With such foreshadowing, the way in which the Chinese government continues to conduct itself should not come as a surprise. In the last few years, the world has watched with unease as Beijing suppressed pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, persecuted Uyghur Muslims, oppressively enforced strict COVID-19 restrictions, covered up recurring youth disillusionment and escalated tensions with Taiwan and in the South China Sea. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a fractious relationship with regional counterparts and the West (most notably the US).


China’s hostile actions often spark condemnation from the international community. However, managing China has become an increasingly delicate balancing act considering its economic influence and status as a nuclear power. Nevertheless, in a similar vein to the robust response following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, evidence indicates that a united front exists in opposition to China. Despite President Biden denying wanting to contain China in a recent news conference, the US’ proactive leadership of a multifaceted response intends to do just that. This strategy can be understood as one of quasi-containment. This is because, despite some similarities with the Cold War containment strategy employed against the Soviet Union, quasi-containment is less severe, has a less polarising ideological division and is more regional in scale. It is true that China’s military presence has increased beyond East Asia into some parts of Africa and the Indian Ocean. Notwithstanding this, China would have to undergo an extreme escalation in foreign policy ambition and military projection capability to match the Soviet Union’s key role in the proliferation of proxy wars worldwide. The fact that the current response to China has not been formalised as the containment of the Soviet Union was with the 1947 Truman Doctrine further illustrates the difference.


In his book Restless Empire China and the World Since 1750, Odd Arne Westad points out that China’s relations with its neighbours and the US will be central to determining its future. In this regard, China’s use of soft and hard power methods is increasingly important. Soft power refers to the use of persuasive techniques such as economic diplomacy to establish closer ties with other countries. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) offers infrastructural development projects to developing nations with this objective in mind. Conversely, hard power tactics involve using economic force and the military to achieve strategic objectives. It is worth noting here that there is a hard power aspect to the BRI too. When extending loans to countries participating in the projects that they ultimately default on, China has been known to use this to gain leverage in what is referred to as “debt-trap diplomacy”.


For example, as a result of Sri Lanka struggling to repay Chinese loans, the strategically located Hambantota Port was leased to a Chinese state-owned company for 99 years. Operating in such a manner has led to mixed views from within Sri Lanka regarding their involvement in the BRI. This discontent represents an opportunity for the US to establish links with countries taken advantage of by China. China’s projection of its military presence through the construction of artificial islands within the controversial nine-dash line demarcation in the South China Sea also constitutes hard power. These waters are subject to territorial disputes from multiple countries including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in 2016 that there was no legal basis for China's territorial claims within the nine-dash line.


Although the BRI has had some success in drawing countries into China’s sphere of influence, hard power tactics have pushed several East Asian countries to turn to Washington for protection. Consequently, opportunism has become a pillar of the US’ quasi-containment strategy. By improving economic and military ties with those China has antagonised, the US has made progress in its efforts to contain Chinese influence. For example, a recent deal struck with the Philippines (one of the nations challenging China’s actions in the South China Sea) has secured US access to four additional military bases in the country. This has added to the 313 US military bases already spread across East Asia. This policy of military encirclement first arose during the George W. Bush administration, before Obama’s “pivot to Asia” accelerated the process in a manner that has continued under Presidents Trump and Biden. In addition, numerous defence treaties including AUKUS (with Australia and the United Kingdom) and the Quad Security dialogue (with Australia, India and Japan) have been brokered to strengthen US ties with key players in response to China. There are no silver bullets when it comes to great power competition. However, the noose around China is tight.


Another focal point of quasi-containment is the maintenance of economic superiority and control. China flourished as a result of US-sponsored globalisation, capitalising on international markets through mass-producing items for low labour costs. As a consequence, China is heavily integrated into the global economy and relies on imported commodities to fuel industrial production and export-driven growth. This economic interconnection represents an Achilles heel for China’s geopolitical ambitions by increasing the potential consequences should China use excessive hard power. For example, in the unfortunate situation that China invades Taiwan, a multilateral economic response could involve leveraging a range of strict trade sanctions similar to those imposed on Russia. As Tim Marshall states in Prisoners of Geography, “if we don’t buy, they don’t make. And if they don’t make there will be mass unemployment”. While mass unemployment is bad for any country, the implications for China are particularly striking due to the country’s internal political structure.


An unspoken arrangement exists between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the population. The CCP will exercise authoritarianism and repression to maintain its grip on power and in return, the population tolerates this as the economy grows and living standards improve. However, as Peter Zeihan points out in The End of the World is Just the Beginning, there is a real risk in China of “spawning internal unrest that will consume the Communist Party”. Mass unemployment could be the catalyst required to seriously undermine the authority of the Chinese government. This is a story that has been repeated throughout Chinese history when the government could no longer hold up their end of the bargain. While China’s use of surveillance certainly makes mobilising difficult, exercising such overbearing control also contributes to further discontent. Combining economic issues with a lack of personal freedom could push many to seek change. The swift censorship of the “lie flat” and “let it rot” movements circulated online by disillusioned young people in China demonstrates how seriously the government treats this threat. In the event that sanctions are placed on China, the CCP will naturally look to alternative markets as Russia has done by selling its oil to India and China instead of the European Union. However, the fact that Russian oil is being sold at a discount demonstrates one difficulty associated with using alternative markets under such circumstances.


Despite the extreme consequences associated with trade sanctions, the US and its allies retain the ability to take an even stronger course of action to crush China’s economy. For instance, collaboration between the US and the countries constituting the first and second island chains has ensured that a naval blockade cutting off China’s maritime trade access remains a possibility. Under such conditions, starvation becomes a genuine threat as China is heavily dependent upon importing food to meet the dietary requirements of its large population. It would become increasingly difficult for the CCP to maintain its hold on power under such circumstances. As long as this threat exists, it will continue to be a major deterring factor against extreme Chinese aggression. Hypothetical situations such as this play an important role in influencing real-world decisions.


It is worth noting that China’s internal vulnerabilities could become highly problematic without the need for outside interference. Peter Zeihan projects that China’s ageing population, gender imbalance and declining birth rate will lead to demographic and economic collapse. These demographic issues are the unintended consequences of China’s One Child Policy which began in 1979. It is difficult to predict whether China can find a solution to such systemic issues. One option would be to consider encouraging immigration into China. This would represent a significant policy shift from a country that has had a historically restrictive approach to immigration. Either way, the future is likely to bring more instability for China, which could play into the hands of the US’ quasi-containment strategy.


China’s frequent utilisation of cybertheft combined with the importance of technology pertaining to military capabilities and economic prospects has prompted the US to take measures to contain China’s technological progress. This is particularly apparent with regard to semiconductors because should China develop more advanced microchips than the US, their weapons and defence systems could become the most sophisticated in the world. At present, China’s semiconductors are lagging behind those produced by the US, who have led the way since the inception of semiconductor technology. Capitalising on China’s dependence on imported parts, the US has restricted exports of advanced microchip technology to China. To restrict the transfer of knowledge, it was also made illegal for US citizens to work for Chinese technological companies. Time will tell how effective these measures are in limiting China’s prospects of achieving dominance and self-sufficiency in the manufacturing of semiconductors.


A more subtle and often overlooked development potentially favourable to quasi-containment regards how the freer movement associated with globalisation influences the socio-political values of Chinese citizens. The internationalisation of education has provided a unique avenue for changing the outlook of Chinese students studying in the West. There are many reasons for taking on international students, not least of which is the economic incentive of charging higher tuition fees. As it is difficult to reach the hearts and minds of those in China under state-controlled media, proliferating Western values through an open-door policy could be an effective way around this. In a 2017 article in the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, Ane Bislev points out that international students are perceived as a soft-power asset to the receiving nation. Changes to the opinions of international students are dependent on the nature of the interactions they have. Surveys have shown that there is an overall increase in positive attitudes to the host country. It is difficult to predict the long-term effects a change in worldview has on behaviour once a student has returned to China. Nevertheless, any improvement in attitudes towards the West in China’s next generation is sure to be a good thing. However, this opportunity may be beginning to close as geopolitical tensions and unfavourable economic conditions at home deter prospective students. The number of Chinese students starting their studies in the US plateaued during the pandemic and has fallen since.


Conclusion


The current strategic competition between this US-led coalition and China revolves around an imaginary red line over which China cannot cross for its own sake. China will seek to push the line as far as possible without invoking an irrevocably detrimental backlash. Conversely, the US’ increasingly extensive quasi-containment strategy will continue its endeavour to keep the line as fixed as possible. In the near future, similar levels of aggression from China are highly likely as it attempts to further shift the global balance of power. Beijing will undoubtedly have been closely monitoring events as they unfold in Ukraine to gauge how united NATO and its allies are. Consequently, the fate of Taiwan could well be tied to that of Ukraine. Whether this US-led coalition or China emerges on top remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the future of East Asia hangs in the balance.



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