US-China: The Problem with Congagement

03 Jun, 2014    ·   4492

Amit Saksena analyses the US' strategies towards dealing with China's continuing rise

Amit Saksena
Amit Saksena
Research Intern
Over the past two decades, China has grown exponentially, both in military prowess and economic might. The US, one of the major contributing factors to China’s rise, now realises the importance of countering this advancement. But is its policy of ‘congagement’, apt for the issue at hand? 

Inconsistent Engagement
Over the past decade, the US maintained a policy of ‘engagement’ towards China. This has in fact been a tactic to hedge its own bets, without getting into the primary context. Militarily, Washington has been facilitating Beijing’s participation in multilateral defense exercises such as the Cobra Gold and RIMPAC, thus coming clean and allowing China to gauge US intentions in the region. Economically, the US has granted China the Most Favoured Nation status, thereby reducing export control policies and allowing Beijing to operate relatively freely in the US markets.

Washington has tried to maximise bilateral ties while keeping existing disputes in control. Simultaneously, the US continuously tries to bring China into various arms control regimes dealing with WMDs, proliferation, arms trade, etc., and also into international regimes such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Bilaterally, Washington has tried to involve Beijing in the regional issues regarding North Korea, and may also invite it to assist with Iran.

While there can be several intended results from this relationship, the most practical and favorable outcome is that of Beijing’s integration into the international system. If China gets as engaged in international relations as most other Western nations, the probability of a military intervention by Beijing decreases. This is because the leadership in Beijing understands the benefits the current ‘rules of the game’ have to offer, and also to avoid doing anything that would scuttle its own off-shore interests.   
However, engagement is a relatively flawed policy, as it does not offer advice on what needs to be done, in the event of Beijing not adhering to current international norms. The primary assumption – engaging China on the international stage as a primary actor, to change its outlook towards a positive direction – is an a priori concept. Should this prove to be incorrect, engagement would have only assisted China in becoming a more threatening adversary in the future.  

Containment: Boon or a Bane?
Containment is seen as a more realistic approach of dealing with a powerful China in the future. Under this policy, all elements of the US-China relationship would be subservient to the primary objective: preventing China’s growth. This would entail drastically reducing US-China trade agreements, particularly insuring non-proliferation of technology and military development. Furthermore, Washington will have to enhance its regional presence in the Asia-Pacific, engaging with other nation states in the region, into forming an ‘anti-China’ alliance. The US would also have to convince other potential political and security partners into limiting their diplomatic and trade relations with China.

As realist international theory dictates, rising powers generally tend to assert themselves on the global scene and challenge the predominant power. This challenge often translates in a systematic war with the predominant power. Washington needs to take these containment steps to ensure this ‘systematic war’ is not realised. Also, given its political tradition of imperial rule, China is unlikely to democratise, and this would only lead to an increase in its bellicosity.

In the present geopolitical scenario, containment will be a difficult policy to implement. Obtaining domestic consensus for subordinating other policy goals (such as trade and commerce) to dealing with a Chinese threat that is yet to manifest itself will not be easy. This may even lead to Beijing becoming increasingly hostile towards the US’ interests. Furthermore, policy will require the total cooperation of all leading industrial and military nations of the world to succeed – that which doesn’t seem to be the case. In the last decade, along with the US, other major regional players too have been pivoting to China, and not all of them may want to sever their economic and diplomatic relationship with the latter.

Feasibility of a Middle Path
Not only the Obama administration, but much of the US policy establishment is ambiguous in their reactions towards the growing Chinese economic and military power. Recently, the curious term called ‘congagement’ (a mix of containment and engagement) is making rounds in the US policy circles. It describes the current policy confusion and contortions of Washington towards Beijing Well. Many call this a hedging strategy. 

‘Congagement’, however, is built on contradictory policies. The aspects of engagement and containment are incoherent – they do not complement each other. This hedging strategy is unsubstantiated. Hedging is defined as ‘making an investment to reduce the risk of adverse decision movements in an asset’. In the China policy analogy, the US position is that of engaging China in bilateral agreements, facilitating the bridging of the gaps between both countries, while at the same time enhancing its own position to ensure proper counter-measures for any future Chinese threats.

This confusing stance is the primary reason why Washington cannot directly or indirectly retaliate to Beijing’s influence or activities detrimental to its own security. US President Barack Obama’s ambiguous silence on the issue of the South China Sea dispute stands evidence for this. Furthermore, Washington’s inability to react more than just making international statements in the recent case of cyber espionage by China validates this.