With U.S.-Chinese relations worse than they have been in over 50 years, an old fairy tale has resurfaced: if only the United States would talk more to China and accommodate its rise, the two countries could live in peace. The story goes that with ample summitry, Washington could recognize Beijing’s redlines and restore crisis hotlines and cultural exchanges. Over time and through myriad points of face-to-face contact—in other words, reengagement—the two countries could settle into peaceful, if still competitive, coexistence. It is an enticing vision. The world would certainly be better off if great powers could settle scores through diplomacy rather than by squaring off in a security competition. Yet the history of great-power rivalry, and of U.S.-Chinese relations in particular, suggests that greater engagement is unlikely to mend ties between the countries and, if performed hastily, could actually catalyze violent conflict.
By Michael Beckley for FOREIGN AFFAIRS
From this perspective, the dismal state of U.S.-Chinese relations is not an inevitable result of two ideologically opposed great powers clashing over vital interests. Rather, it is a mix-up between partners, blown out of proportion by the United States’ overreaction to counter China’s overreach, as Susan Shirk, a Sinologist and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, has put it. For the past two decades, the thinking goes, China has simply been doing what rising powers usually do: flexing its muscles and demanding a greater say in global affairs. Although many of China’s actions, such as its menacing of Taiwan, worry advocates of reengagement, the main target of their critique is the United States—specifically, its relentless pursuit of primacy and the self-serving actors behind it.
In this dark imagining, grandstanding politicians, greedy defense contractors, sensationalizing pundits, overzealous human rights activists, and belligerent bureaucrats fan the flames of rivalry for profit, creating an echo chamber that crowds out different perspectives. Some individuals are supposedly repeating hawkish narratives to protect their careers. The result, the journalist and author Fareed Zakaria has argued, is that “Washington has succumbed to dangerous groupthink on China.” The fact that most Americans also hold hawkish views on China just provides more evidence of how irrationally aggressive U.S. policy has become. “The problem today isn’t that Americans are insufficiently concerned about the rise of China,” the historian Max Boot has insisted. “The problem is that they are prey to hysteria and alarmism that could lead the United States into a needless nuclear war.”
For those advocating reengagement, the solution to this cycle of hostility is straightforward. First, defuse tensions through vigorous diplomacy, commerce, and people-to-people exchanges. Next, create a new forum where officials from each country can meet regularly to hash out agreements. According to the historian Adam Tooze, regardless of the exact structure of negotiations, the basic objective is the same: “accommodation of China’s historic rise.” For some advocates of reengagement, accommodation would merely entail reducing trade barriers to China, a move U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen proposed earlier this year. Other observers, however, favor more drastic concessions. The political scientist Graham Allison, for example, has urged in these pages that the United States accept China’s traditional sphere of influence in Asia. Presumably, that would mean giving Beijing greater freedom in the South China Sea, letting go of Taiwan, and relinquishing American power in the region.
It is an enticing vision. The world would certainly be better off if great powers could settle scores through diplomacy rather than by squaring off in a security competition. Yet the history of great-power rivalry, and of U.S.-Chinese relations in particular, suggests that greater engagement is unlikely to mend ties between the countries and, if performed hastily, could actually catalyze violent conflict. Of the more than two dozen great-power rivalries over the past 200 years, none ended with the sides talking their way out of trouble. Instead, rivalries have persisted until one side could no longer carry on the fight or until both sides united against a common enemy. For example, the United States and China paused their rivalry to ally against the Soviet Union during the latter half of the Cold War, a contest that ended only when the Soviet Union sputtered into terminal decline. In every case, shifts in the balance of power were preconditions for sustainable settlements. Before those shifts, periods of détente were usually just chances to regroup and reload for the next round of competition. In some cases, such as when the United Kingdom sought to improve relations with Germany from 1911 to 1914 and again in 1938, pursuing détente paved the road to war.
The United States and China are unlikely to buck this pattern. Their vital interests conflict and are rooted firmly in their respective political systems, geographies, and national experiences. Many of the connections binding the countries together, such as their extensive trade, are also driving them apart by giving policymakers additional reasons to fight and pressure points to exploit. Neither side can make major concessions without exposing itself. And after decades of dealing with each other, both governments have accumulated long lists of grievances and view the other with deep mistrust. The United States tried to work with China repeatedly from the 1970s to the 2010s, yet top Chinese leaders consistently viewed U.S. outreach, especially the American attempt to integrate China into the U.S.-led liberal order, as an insidious form of containment—a plot designed to weaken the grip of the Chinese Communist Party and lock China into economic dependence and political subservience to the West. American outreach to China during this period was more extensive than the proposals being seriously considered by U.S. policymakers today. Nevertheless, these overtures failed to fundamentally change Chinese assessments of American intentions or dissuade efforts by the CCP to dominate East Asia and beyond.
The fact is that the U.S.-Chinese rivalry is unlikely to wind down without a significant shift in the balance of power. The United States needs to make policy choices based on this reality and not get caught up in a fantasy. This does not mean cutting off diplomacy or shutting down talks completely, but being clear eyed about what that type of engagement can realistically achieve. There are reasons to hope for a medium-term mellowing of Chinese power that might open space for a real diplomatic breakthrough. To get there, however, the United States and its allies must deter Chinese aggression in the near term and avoid concessions that disrupt favorable long-term trends.
The United States and China have become what political scientists call “enduring rivals,” meaning countries that have singled each other out for intense security competition. Over the past few centuries, such pairs have accounted for only one percent of the world’s international relationships but more than 80 percent of its wars. Think of the repeated clashes between India and Pakistan, Greece and Turkey, China and Japan, and France and the United Kingdom.
Rivals feud not because they misunderstand each other but because they know each other all too well. They have genuine conflicts of vital and indivisible interests, usually including territorial disputes, the main cause of war. Their redlines and spheres of influence overlap. One side’s attempts to protect itself, such as by modernizing its military, inherently threaten the other. If their economies are intertwined, as is often the case, rivals wield trade as a weapon, seeking to monopolize the production of strategic goods and lord it over the other side. The United Kingdom and Germany, for example, waged a fierce commercial competition before coming to blows in World War I.
Rivals also usually espouse divergent ideologies and view the success or spread of the other side’s system of beliefs as a subversive threat to their own way of life. For instance, revolutionary France not only tried to conquer its European rivals; it also threatened to topple their monarchical regimes through the power of its example. In the lead-up to World War II, fascist powers faced off against democracies, and during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union divided much of the world into capitalist and communist blocs. What is more, rivals share a history of bad blood. Their mutual hostility is fueled by past acts of aggression and the fear of more to come. Just ask the Chinese today how they feel about Japan.
Once underway, rivalries are extremely difficult to end. According to data collected by the political scientists Michael Colaresi, Karen Rasler, and William Thompson, there have been 27 great-power rivalries since 1816. These struggles lasted for more than 50 years on average and ended in one of three ways. By my count, 19 of them—the vast majority—culminated in war, with one side beating the other into submission. Another six rivalries ended with the two sides allying against a common foe. In the early 1900s, for example, the United Kingdom set aside its differences with France, Russia, and the United States to gang up on Germany; the result was World War I. Finally, there was the Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed, its rivalries with the United States and China ended peacefully, although in prior decades Moscow had waged a small border war against China and multiple proxy wars with Washington in different parts of the globe. Today, many people fear a new cold war between the United States and China, but historically, that type of tense standoff has been the best possible outcome because it avoids full-scale fighting.
Confronted by this record, those advocating for greater U.S. engagement with China might respond that they do not seek the immediate end of the U.S.-Chinese rivalry but merely détente, a cooling-off period that allows the sides to put guardrails on their relationship. Yet the history of great-power détente provides little comfort. Such periods have rarely lasted long, even under favorable circumstances. The most successful case, the Concert of Europe—an alliance of monarchies founded in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars to crush liberal revolutions—had all the ingredients for a durable détente: a common ideology, a common foe, and partnerships forged in war. But its top leaders stopped meeting after 1822, sending lower-level emissaries instead. By the 1830s, the concert was riven by a cold war between its liberal and conservative members. The concert worked well when members’ core interests aligned, but when the conservative consensus cracked, so did the concert, which erupted in a hot war over Crimea in 1853. That failure illustrates a more general point: guardrails are more often the result of peace, not effective methods to maintain it. They typically are erected in good times or immediately after crises—when they are least needed—only to be destroyed in bad times. The most elaborate guardrails in history were installed after World War I, including the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war and the League of Nations, a formal collective security organization; they failed to prevent World War II.
Those calling for Washington to engage more deeply with Beijing characterize the pursuit of détente as risk free: it might fail, but it can’t hurt and is worth a try. But when conflicts of interest between rivals are severe, overeager efforts to induce détente can be destabilizing. The Anglo-German détente of 1911 to 1914 contributed to the outbreak of World War I by feeding Germany false hopes that the United Kingdom would remain neutral in a continental war. Between 1921 and 1922, the world’s largest naval powers gathered in the U.S. capital to discuss disarmament at the Washington Naval Conference. The effort eventually backfired, however, inching Asia closer to World War II as the United States signaled it would oppose Japanese expansion but would not build the naval power necessary to enforce that prohibition. The Munich Agreement of 1938, which gave Germany permission to annex part of Czechoslovakia, enabled the Nazis to invade Poland the next year. In 1972, the United States and the Soviet Union declared their commitment to “peaceful coexistence” and signed arms control and trade agreements. Détente began to unravel the next year, however, as the superpowers squared off on opposite sides of the Yom Kippur War, followed by a proxy conflict in Angola in 197 5, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and several terrifying nuclear crises in the early 1980s. As so often occurs, détente had meant different things to each side. The Americans thought they had frozen the status quo; the Soviets believed they had been recognized as a superpower with all the attendant privileges, including the right to spread revolution. Once events exposed those conflicting interpretations, the U.S.-Soviet rivalry came roaring back.
The bottom line is that great-power rivalries cannot be papered over with memorandums of understanding. Diplomacy is necessary but insufficient to resolve disputes nonviolently. Sustainable settlements also require stable balances of power, which usually emerge not through happy talk but after one side realizes it can no longer compete.
HATERS GONNA HATE
Today, the U.S.-Chinese relationship has all the trappings of an enduring rivalry. For starters, the main issues under dispute are essentially win-lose affairs. Taiwan can be governed from Taipei or Beijing but not both. The East China and South China Seas can be international waters or a Chinese-controlled lake. Russia can be shunned or supported. Democracy can be promoted or squelched. The Internet can be open or state censored. For the United States, its chain of alliances in East Asia represents vital insurance and a force for stability; for China, it looks like hostile encirclement. How should climate change be handled? Where did COVID-19 come from? Ask around Beijing and Washington, and one is likely to hear irreconcilable answers.
More fundamentally, the two rivals hold divergent visions of international order. The CCP wants a world in which what it sees as ancient autocratic civilizations are free to rule their traditional spheres of influence. The United States, by contrast, wants to consign those spheres to the dustbin of history by protecting the sovereignty of weaker countries and integrating them into an open trade order. The U.S.-Chinese rivalry is more than a set of diplomatic disputes—it is also a struggle to promote different ways of life.
To make matters worse, neither side can credibly reassure the other without losing some ability to hold it accountable. Advocates of reengagement call for the United States and China to respect each other’s redlines. But achieving a sustained thaw in relations would require at least one side to abandon many of its redlines altogether. China wants the United States to end arms sales to Taiwan, slash the overall U.S. military presence in East Asia, share U.S. technology with Chinese companies, reopen the U.S. market to a flood of Chinese exports, stop promoting democracy in China’s neighborhood, and let Russia win its war in Ukraine. The United States, for its part, wants China to dial back its defense spending, refrain from aggression in the Taiwan Strait, cease its militarization of the South China Sea, rein in industrial subsidies and espionage, and withdraw its support for Russia and other autocracies.
Yet neither side could grant such concessions without empowering the other to push for more. If China backed off Taiwan militarily, for example, the island could drift toward independence; but if the United States stopped arming Taiwan, the military balance would shift radically in Beijing’s favor. If China allowed Russia to lose in Ukraine, the CCP would face a reeling nuclear power on its doorstep and a triumphant United States freed to focus on Asia; but if the United States let Russia win, a Chinese-Russian axis could be emboldened to take even more territory, such as Taiwan or the Baltic states, from a demoralized West. If China abandoned its industrial policies, it would further cede technological primacy to the United States; but Washington would not abide Chinese mercantilism without hollowing out both the U.S. economy and what was left of the open global trading order. If the CCP stopped propping up autocracies, it would risk waves of popular revolutions, such as occurred in 1989 and the early years of the twenty-first century, that could energize liberal activists at home and bring to power regimes abroad that would be more inclined to sanction China for its human rights record. If the United States stopped aiding and protecting fledgling democracies, however, some could disappear behind Beijing’s digital iron curtain.
These conflicting interests cannot be traded away by diplomats sitting around a table because they are rooted not just in each country’s political system but also in their historical memories and geographies. Contemporary Chinese political culture is ingrained by two cataclysms: the “century of humiliation” (which took place from 1839 to 1949), when the country was ripped apart by imperialist powers, and the revolutions of 1989 that toppled the Soviet Union and other communist regimes and nearly undid China’s. The CCP’s prime directive is to never let China be bullied or divided again—a goal, China’s leaders believe, that requires relentlessly amassing wealth and power, expanding territorial control, and ruling with an iron fist. As an economic late bloomer, China must use mercantilist methods to climb up global value chains long monopolized by the West. With China surrounded by 19 countries, many of them hostile or unstable, the country’s leaders believe they must carve out a broad security perimeter that includes Taiwan, chunks of India, and most of the East China and South China Seas, where 90 percent of China’s trade and most of its oil flow. Expansion is also a political imperative. The CCP justifies its autocratic rule in part by promising to recover territories lost during the century of humiliation. Demilitarizing those areas now would mean surrendering the CCP’s solemn mission to make China whole again and, consequently, diminishing its ability to use anti-foreign nationalism as a source of legitimacy.
American interests are perhaps less entrenched but remain too fixed to give up without a struggle. As a rich democracy surrounded by allies and oceans, the United States likes things the way they are. Its main foreign policy goal is to prevent overseas threats from spoiling the wealth and freedom its citizens enjoy at home. Many Americans would love to avoid foreign entanglements, but the world wars and the Cold War showed that powerful tyrannies can and should be contained—and that it is better to do so early, before an aggressive country has overrun its region, by maintaining strong alliances in peacetime. Americans may eventually forget that lesson as the generations that won World War II and the Cold War pass on. But for now, it continues to shape U.S. foreign policy, especially toward China. When American policymakers observe China trying to redraw the map of East Asia, supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or locking ethnic minorities in concentration camps, they see not just a series of policy disagreements but a multifaceted assault on the order that has undergirded U.S. security and prosperity for generations. With the stakes seemingly so high, compromise, even on a single issue, is hard for leaders on both sides to stomach.
Champions of reengagement correctly point out that China and the United States are bound together by various forms of mutual vulnerability. Neither country wants war, runaway climate change, pandemics, or a global depression. The U.S. and Chinese economies are intertwined. Both governments possess nuclear arsenals and want to prevent other countries from acquiring them. With the costs of conflict so potentially devastating and the benefits of cooperation so manifest, peace should be relatively easy to maintain, at least in theory.
In practice, however, mutual vulnerability may be exacerbating the rivalry. For example, both countries are engaging in conventional military provocations, perhaps under the assumption that the other side would never risk a nuclear exchange by opening fire. Scholars call this the “stability-instability paradox,” whereby excessive faith in nuclear deterrence makes conventional war more likely. Some Chinese analysts argue that the People’s Liberation Army could destroy U.S. bases in East Asia while China’s nuclear forces deter U.S. retaliation against Chinese mainland targets. Meanwhile, some American defense planners advocate decimating China’s navy and air bases early in a conflict, believing that U.S. nuclear superiority would compel China to stand down rather than escalate. Instead of dampening tensions, nuclear weapons may be inflaming them.
The same goes for economic interdependence. As the international relations scholar Dale Copeland has pointed out in Foreign Affairs, when trade partners become geopolitical rivals, they start to fear being cut off from vital goods, markets, and trade routes. To plug their vulnerabilities, they embark on quests for self-reliance, using various instruments of state power, such as aid, loans, bribes, arms sales, technology transfers, and military force, to secure their economic lifelines. The result is a “trade-security spiral” that Copeland has shown helped fuel several of history’s greatest wars. By contrast, the independence of the U.S. and Soviet economies was a stabilizing force in the original Cold War, as the historian John Lewis Gaddis has observed.
China’s economic situation today bears more resemblance to the economies of Germany, Italy, and Japan in the first half of the twentieth century: China imports most of its raw materials through chokepoints it cannot fully control, relies heavily on exports to the United States and its allies for revenue, and has good reason to worry that those countries would cut off its access to resources and markets in a crisis. Having watched the West cripple Russia’s economy with sanctions, China is reportedly redoubling its efforts to decouple from the United States. Through its so-called dual circulation policy, China is using subsidies and trade barriers to reorient its economy around its domestic market and is carving out privileged zones abroad to secure raw materials and markets lacking at home. Those moves, in turn, have alarmed the United States, which is responding with its own campaign for economic primacy. Rather than bringing the two countries together, commerce is driving them farther apart.
ENGAGEMENT OR CONTAINMENT?
Those pushing for more engagement with China argue that the United States should “test the proposition” that diplomatic overtures could kick-start a cycle of cooperation with China, as the scholar Jessica Chen Weiss proposed in Foreign Affairs last year. But that proposition has been tested many times in recent decades, and the results have been far from reassuring. The United States made concessions during that era of engagement that would be unthinkable today, including fast-tracking China’s integration into Western supply chains, transferring weapons to China’s military and advanced technology to CCP-owned firms, welcoming China’s entry into major international organizations, quietly encouraging Taiwan to consider peaceful unification, and downplaying CCP human rights abuses. Yet internal documents reveal that top Chinese leaders repeatedly interpreted such U.S. overtures as insincere or even threatening.
The examples are plentiful. Following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, U.S. President George H. W. Bush sent an apologetic letter to the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping expressing his determination to “get the relationship back on track” after the United States had imposed sanctions in response to the CCP’s brutal crackdown. Bush presumably meant resuming work as tacit allies, with the United States dropping sanctions and furnishing technology, intelligence, and economic access to China. But Deng wasn’t buying it. Instead, as the scholar (and current National Security Council official) Rush Doshi reported, Deng thought the United States had been “deeply involved” in the “counterrevolutionary rebellion” and was “waging a world war without gunsmoke” to overthrow the CCP.
Nine years later, U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Beijing to cement his engagement policy, which included granting China “most favored nation” trading status without the human rights standards normally required of a “nonmarket economy,” the designation the United States assigns to former and current communist countries. In a gesture of goodwill, Clinton became the first U.S. president to publicly articulate the “three no’s” regarding Taiwan: no independence, no two Chinas, and no membership for Taipei in intergovernmental organizations. A few months later, however, the Chinese leader Jiang Zemin warned the CCP foreign policy bureaucracy that Washington’s “so-called engagement policy” had the same aim as a “containment policy”: “to try with ulterior motives to change our country’s socialist system.” Jiang further asserted that “some in the United States and other Western countries will not give up their political plot to westernize and divide our country” and would “put pressure on us in an attempt to overwhelm us and put us down.” The bottom line was that “from now on and for a relatively long period of time, the United States will be our main diplomatic adversary.”
Cold wars are awful but better than hot ones.
During the following decade, the George W. Bush administration encouraged China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international order and launched a series of U.S.-Chinese “strategic economic dialogues.” The Obama administration expanded those dialogues to cover all major issues in the relationship and put out a joint statement respecting China’s “core interests”—all in pursuit of “strategic reassurance.” But Chinese leaders were not reassured. As the scholars Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell wrote in 2012, after reviewing Chinese sources: “The Chinese believe the United States is a revisionist power that seeks to curtail China’s political influence and harm China’s interests.” Although Chinese leaders welcomed U.S. technology and market access, they were more struck by the threats the United States posed to their regime, including its massive military presence in their region, its efforts to negotiate a trans-Pacific trade bloc that would have excluded Beijing, the army of U.S. nongovernmental organizations meddling in China’s internal affairs, and the numerous times that senior U.S. officials declared that the purpose of engagement was to liberalize China. Bad memories, such as the 1999 U.S. bombing of China’s embassy in Yugoslavia, were much more present in the minds of CCP leaders than good ones—a common psychological phenomenon in a rivalry.
Supporters of reengagement would like to see Washington explain that it wants to include China in a positive-sum international order. But Chinese leaders understand U.S. offers of inclusion perfectly well, perhaps better than many Americans do. They saw what happened when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev tried to integrate the Soviet Union into the Western order. As Deng predicted, opening the window to the “fresh air” of U.S. engagement also allowed in “flies” in the form of subversive political forces. To prevent something similar from happening in China, the CCP developed an authoritarian capitalist system designed to extract the benefits of an open global order while keeping liberal political pressures at bay. For Americans, this turned out to be as good as it got: a partial Chinese integration that helped the CCP strengthen itself for a future contest over international borders and rules.
That epic struggle now seems at hand. Determined not to suffer Gorbachev’s fate, or worse, Chinese President Xi Jinping has spent his time in power building a fortress around China and himself. His national security strategy calls for the opposite of the reforms and concessions that destroyed the Soviet Communist Party but also brought the Cold War to a peaceful end. A massive military buildup, the reassertion of party control over every institution, an epic campaign to sanctions-proof the CCP: these are not the hallmarks of a regime interested in reengaging with a liberal superpower. Rather, they are the telltale signs of an aggrieved dictatorship gearing up for “worst-case and extreme scenarios and . . . major tests of high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms,” as Xi now repeatedly warns his comrades.
BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES
The most likely scenario in the years to come is a cold war in which the United States and China continue to decouple their strategic economic sectors, maintain a military standoff in East Asia, promote their rival visions of world order, and compete to produce solutions to transnational problems. Cold wars are awful but better than hot ones. Many ties that bind the United States and China—especially their dense economic links—are exacerbating their insecurities and becoming new arenas of conflict. For U.S. policymakers, it may be better to find avenues to create buffers between the two sides than to try to make them more interdependent.
A cold war does not rule out all forms of cooperation. After all, the United States and the Soviet Union worked together to eradicate smallpox even as they competed for dominance. Historically, great-power rivals, even those at war, have often maintained at least some trade in nonstrategic sectors and societal links with each other. Diplomatic talks can continue, provided they are not preceded by destabilizing concessions, as they signal to allies and adversaries alike that the United States is not hell-bent on a superpower throwdown. A cold war does, however, entail U.S. containment of China, a strategy that differs in three fundamental ways from reengagement.
First, containment prioritizes deterrence and denial over reassurance. The United States should mollify China when it can, but not at the expense of weakening U.S. capabilities or sending mixed signals about U.S. resolve on vital issues. For example, the United States can deny support for Taiwanese independence, but it must also accelerate arms sales to Taipei, diversify and harden the U.S. base structure in East Asia, and convey through a robust military presence nearby that a Chinese assault on Taiwan would be met with a severe U.S. response. Similarly, the United States can limit its economic restrictions on China to a “small yard” of sectors, as the Biden administration currently aims to do, but it must also stock up on ammunition, especially antiship missiles, to avoid pairing economic pressure with military negligence—a deadly combination that blazed imperial Japan’s path to Pearl Harbor.
Second, containment reverses the order of carrots and sticks in diplomatic negotiations. Whereas engagement involves enticing one’s opponent to the negotiating table, containment starts by building up capabilities and then pursuing diplomacy from a position of strength. For example, some members of the Trump and Biden administrations reportedly considered unilaterally reducing U.S. tariffs or delaying sanctions on Beijing as a sign of good faith. A better approach would be to hold talks with allies, as occurred at the G-7 meeting in May, to consolidate a free-world economic and security bloc to check Chinese coercion and then collectively seek to settle the trade and technology wars with Beijing.
Third, containment measures success by whether the United States effectively defends its interests and values, not by whether U.S.-Chinese relations are friendly. Those promoting reengagement claim that competition with China has consumed U.S. foreign policy and that the United States lacks a vision for the world beyond bludgeoning Beijing. But the United States has espoused the same vision for decades. It is called the liberal order, an open commercial system in which participants can trade and prosper in peace without fear of being gobbled up by revanchist empires. It is the system that made China’s escape from poverty possible by pacifying Japan and giving the Chinese people unprecedented access to foreign capital, technology, and markets. It is the system that American policymakers have repeatedly asked China to help uphold. But the CCP has instead become a serious threat to that system with its aggressive territorial claims, rampant mercantilism, and support for Russia’s brutalization of Ukraine. Some advocates of reengagement call for sacrificing aspects of the order—rules of international trade, and human rights laws—to improve ties with China. Some even suggest offering concessions on international borders and access to waterways in East Asia. A policy of containment would do the opposite by insisting that China compromise its revisionist aims and, if the CCP refuses, accepting that the liberal order will not revolve around a tight U.S.-Chinese partnership any time soon.
Then, of course, there is capitulation. The United States could avoid conflict with China, at least in the short term, by recognizing China’s territorial claims and withdrawing U.S. forces from East Asia. Few advocate such extreme concessions. But part of what makes the case for engagement compelling is the implicit assumption that if outreach fails, the United States can always hit the reset button, grant China a sphere of influence, and emerge relatively unscathed. The thinking goes that it is better to accommodate China and risk appeasement than to contain China and risk war.
The problem with capitulation, however, is that Chinese demands cannot be satisfied by the United States alone. To make the CCP happy, Taiwan would have to accept absorption by a brutal dictatorship, and neighboring countries would have to beg Beijing for permission to venture beyond their coastlines. None of that is likely, which is why the most probable result of U.S. retrenchment would be not an immaculate transition to peaceful Chinese hegemony but violent chaos. A fully militarized Japan; a nuclear breakout by Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo; and an emboldened North Korea are only the most obvious risks. Less obvious are potential knock-on effects, such as the collapse of Asian supply chains and U.S. alliances in Europe, which might not survive the shock of seeing the United States create a security vacuum for China to fill.
Containment does not have to lead to violent conflict.
Perhaps Americans could ride out the resulting storm from the safety of the Western Hemisphere, but the history of both world wars suggests they would eventually be sucked into the Eurasian vortex. At a minimum, the United States would need to arm itself to the teeth to hedge against that possibility—as well as against the possibility of a Chinese colossus that sets its sights on U.S. territories in the western Pacific after overrunning East Asia. Either way, the United States would be back where it started—containing China—but without allies, secure supply chains, forward-deployed forces, or much credibility. To compensate, the United States might have to become a garrison state, with its wealth and civil liberties eroded by breakneck militarization.
Capitulation might be worth a try if the only alternatives were a catastrophic hot war or an endless and financially crippling cold war. But there are reasons to hope that U.S. containment of China can be a temporary way station to a brighter future. During the original Cold War, containment was designed to block Soviet advances until the weaknesses of the communist system sapped Moscow’s power and forced the Soviets to radically scale back their ambitions. That should be the same goal with China today, and it may not take four decades to get there. The drivers of China’s rise are already stalling. Slowing growth, soaring debt, autocratic incompetence, capital flight, youth unemployment, and a shrinking population are taking a toll on Chinese comprehensive national power. The CCP has also made enemies near and far. Many of China’s neighbors are beefing up their militaries, and major economies, led by the G-7, which controls more than half the world’s stocks of wealth, are imposing hundreds of new trade and investment barriers on Beijing every year. China garnered goodwill across the global South by doling out more than $1 trillion in loans to over 100 countries. But most of those loans will mature around 2030, and many will not be paid back. It is hard to see how a country saddled with so many liabilities and facing so many rivals can continue to compete with a superpower and its wealthy allies. The United States does not need to contain China forever, just long enough to allow current trends to play out. Should that occur, Xi’s dream of Chinese dominance will start to look unattainable, and his successors may feel compelled to address, through diplomatic moderation and internal reform, the country’s economic stagnation and geopolitical encirclement.
In the meantime, containment does not have to lead to violent conflict. Competition could see the United States and China engage in a technology race that pushes the frontiers of human knowledge to new heights and creates innovative solutions to transnational problems. It could also mean the two rivals cultivate internally peaceful blocs of like-minded states, and in which they use nonviolent means, including the provision of aid, to try to win hearts and minds and expand their influence at the margins. This type of rivalry might not be so bad for the world and certainly would be better than the great-power wars that have characterized most of modern history. The “one world” dream of a single, harmonious international system may be impossible for now, but that does not rule out peaceful, if tense, relations between two rival orders. Containing China in that competition will entail severe risks and costs, but it is the best way to avoid an even more destructive conflict.