By Marc Palen
IN an era where phantom menaces abound, China's concrete antagonism doubtless is a welcome sight for hawkish sore eyes. China's communist regime flouts international humanitarian law. Its currency manipulation undermines global markets. Although an integral American trading partner and bond holder, it refuses to play by free market rules. Its growing military budget sparks anxiety among American allies. Its aggressive expansionism threatens US interests in the Pacific. The Chinese media are now suggesting war with the Philippines, and threatening that trade relations will suffer if the United States continues to embrace "the cold-war mentality" by adopting "policies to contain China."
China's problematic rise to new heights coincides with the publication of John Lewis Gaddis's new biography of George Kennan, the American "father of containment". Cold War era strategies are back in the mainstream, and receiving rare bipartisan support.
Obama's Asia-Pacific "pivot" also bears a striking resemblance to Kennan's "containment" pirouette.
George Kennan first laid out his strategy to keep communism at bay while working for the US State Department in the late 1940s. He proposed that the United States implement a flexible combination of political, military, and economic tools to counter Soviet expansion.
A new US strategy of Chinese containment is crystallising, and it borrows heavily from Kennan's Cold War playbook.
Just a couple weeks ago, the Obama Administration announced its support for the sale of fighter jets to Taiwan. The move is viewed as a much needed boost to Taiwanese defences to counteract Chinese military growth, and as a reminder that the US will continue to support Taiwanese opposition to China.
In a rare showing of bipartisan agreement, even Republicans are pledging their support for the Taiwanese transaction. Republican Senator John Cornyn commended the Obama administration "for recognising that our friend and ally Taiwan's air force is woefully undersized and outgunned by Communist China, and their inability to adequately defend themselves poses a threat not just to their own security, but to that of the United States".
Such political and military manoeuvres found their complement in the Obama Administration's decision late last year to take part in the East Asia Summit, which has shifted its focus primarily to maintaining maritime security in the Pacific. The US administration also agreed to increase its military presence in Australia last winter in response to the increasing military reach of China.
Another reason for the move certainly stems from China's long-range missile capabilities, which put American bases in Guam, Korea, and Japan at risk. The Darwin facility, on the other hand, lies safely out of range. The enlarged US military presence also sends a symbolic message to China that the US-Australian alliance is as strong as ever.
The US has simultaneously been actively establishing its economic leadership in the Asia-Pacific, a fiscal move commonly viewed as a further curb to check China's growing regional influence. The South Korea-US trade agreement (KORUS) received bipartisan support last fall, for example, which further strengthened the American economic presence on the Korean peninsula.
KORUS's passage also coincided closely with a proposed US Senate tariff bill authorising Washington to implement sweeping import duties on Chinese goods in retaliation for Beijing's protectionist manipulation of its currency. While the retaliatory tariff didn't pass the House, it received remarkable bipartisan senatorial backing.
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney himself has recently pledged that he would impose punitive tariffs on China on day one of his presidency, even though the Chinese have warned that a trade war would ensue. Romney's response? "If you are not willing to stand up to China, you will get run over".
Both the Obama Administration and the Romney campaign have also wholeheartedly given their endorsement to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with the 12th round of talks currently underway in Dallas. Right now the regional free trade agreement includes the US, Australia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Chile, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, and Singapore, with Japan, Canada, and Mexico vying for a spot. With the United States leading the push, the TPP would provide sizeable American inroads into the Asia-Pacific economic sphere.
Proponents of the TPP tend to view it as one of potential Chinese engagement, steering the Asia-Pacific region toward further trade liberalisation, with the United States standing at the economic helm and perhaps with China asking to come onboard. Obama, the self-styled "first Pacific president", has already offered China an invitation. But it has not accepted, as TPP membership requires multiple free market strings that Beijing doesn't want attached.
Such strings have led Cold War veteran Henry Kissinger to conclude that the TPP is an unconscious policy of containment, not engagement. Beijing therefore will likely view the TPP "as part of a strategy to isolate China".
Kissinger notes that, coupled with China's own recent trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (which excludes the US), China and the United States could "come to regard each other's trade-pact efforts as elements in a strategy of isolation". This scenario looks to become more complicated as a long-discussed trilateral trade agreement between China, South Korea, and Japan continues to develop.
A Kennanesque flexing of political, military, and economic deterrents defines US policy towards Chinese expansionism. For good or ill, Obama's Asia-Pacific pivot has garnered Republican support. But such bipartisanship brings with it a new set of geopolitical problems. Fortunately, US containment does not entirely preclude Sino-American cooperation.
Marc-William Palen is a historian of US foreign relations and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. His publications include articles in The Australian, ABC's The Drum, and Foreign Policy in Focus, among others.