American Dual Containment in Asia


Last month I published an article in Geopolitics entitled “American Dual Containment in Asia.” In brief, I argued that a double containment of both Islamic fundamentalism and of China is the likely US strategy in Asia in the coming decades. The containment of salafism in the Middle East is bound to be hard and violent (as it already is), because Al Qaeda and associated movements are so genuinely revolutionary and dangerous. The containment of China is likely to be soft until the Chinese decide just how much they wish to challenge the reigning liberal democratic order. In the last year, many seem to fear that China is ramping up in this direction. Hence my prediction that India will be a pivot in this containment line. It is a unique ally for the US, because it is worried about both China and Islamic fundamentalism, and because it is democratic. In this way, it is unique among American alliance choices. Here is abstract:

“US grand strategy after 9/11 turned from post-containment drift to preemption. But the costs are high – suspicion of American power, hedging by traditional allies, expensive, go-it-alone ventures like Iraq. Tried-and-true containment better reflects American values. While forward in the world, containment is also defensive. It reassures skittish partners and reflects liberal, anti-imperial US preferences. In Asia, containment would deter the primary contemporary challengers of US power – radical Islam and Chinese nationalism – without encouraging a Bush-style global backlash. In a reductive analysis of US alliance choices, this article predicts a medium-term Indo-American alliance. India uniquely shares both US liberal democratic values and the same two challengers; it is the likely pivot in a US-backed neo-containment architecture in Asia.”

Here are the relevant graphs that, I hope, make the argument clearer:

Graph 1. Contemporary Revisionists to the ‘American System’













Islamist-Jihadist Networks,

Iran ?



China ?

Rogues (Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela)



The good news above is that just about everyone accepts the international status quo – roughly, the liberal international political economy led by the US (what Ikenberry calls “the American system”). While al Qaeda is clearly a scary revisionist – i.e., the they want to dramatically rewrite the international order by refounding the caliphate, e.g. – they are also pretty weak. The only powerful revisionist is China, and no one knows yet just how much she seeks to change things. This is good for the US, insofar as it backstops the international order, and it is also good for the many states in Asia and Europe that function within that order. Although the internal challenges to the liberal order are growing (i.e, the Great Recession), there is currently no powerful and revolutionary external challenger like the Nazis or USSR were.


 Graph 2. Contemporary US Alliance Picks










Great Britain/NATO








Japan/East Asia




Israel/Arab clients









This graph tries to reductively explain the appeal of India as an alliance partner. It uniquely shares the both the geopolitical interests of the US in Asia; that is, it is worried about both Islamism and China. And it shares our liberal democratic values. Russia is an obvious point on shared interests – the ultimate driver of alliances of course – but it is so erratic and semi-dictatorial, that is still distasteful despite the ‘reset.’

The most controversial part of this analysis is certainly my open claim that China will be a target of US soft containment, and maybe hard in the future. I should say here that I do not want this. I am very aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy problem; i.e., if we openly come out and say China is an enemy or threat, then by doing so, we make it into one. And certainly articles like mine are exactly what the Chinese declaim – a not-so-secret effort by US analysts to keep China down and such. And see Barnett on why I am completely wrong, if not dangerous, about China. But as an empirical prediction, I do think it holds. China’s growth and current values (populist nationalism, deep historical grievance, residual communism) are just too rapidly destabilizing, and I think Barnett doesn’t give nearly the necessary attention to the security dilemma problems China creates on its periphery. (IMO, Barnett overfocuses on China and G-2 coziness, while missing the nervousness in places like Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Indonesia.)   For my own writing on why I think the ‘China threat’ school is likely to win this debate, try here.

Finally, I should say in fairness that my own perception of China-as-threat has declined somewhat, in part because I visited the place. This strikes me as natural; closeness and exposure frequently breed understanding, and I like to think that all the nice Chinese scholars and hospitality I experience were in fact real. But the liberal values of academics exposed to new ideas and travel as a professional requirement hardly apply to populations and elites, especially those as nationalist as China and the US. The misperception likelihood is huge here; remember the Bush 2 administration came in ready to take on China until 9/11 happened. This will likely reassert itself as American dependence on Chinese financing grows and as the GWoT (hopefully) winds down. (Another problem here is the peer-review process. Articles take years to between the first inspired write-up and the end-point of publication. Reviewers send you back to the drawing board, and the pipeline effect means that even after final acceptance you may wait a year or more to see it in print.)

15 thoughts on “American Dual Containment in Asia

  1. Bob, I think it is a good look into the crystal ball.
    A few points… On the flip-side, ironically, China is worried about India and Islamic extremists. India: China literally has the strategic highground with its unlawful occupation of a soverign Tibet, and the seizure of Indian territory of Aksai Chin and the Northeast Frontier Agency. Not to mention its close military ties with Pakistan and Myanmar in its efforts to contain India. Islam: China has its own problems with the Muslim Uighars in Xinjiang and is brutal in its efforts to control the local population.

    But why not contain China? It is not a responsible international player. But I agree that Barnett is flat wrong. China cannot be trusted. As an example — Historically, at least since the CCP has been in power and where territorial claims are concerned, the PRC has used diplomacy (bi-lateral and multilateral discussions) as a slight of hand while seizing de facto control of an area (ie. Spratly Islands).

    And regarding Chinese scholars… It was my experience that universities are staffed by CCP officials. For each department head, there is a Party official. A scholar’s status and job security, as opposed to a dissident, is directly related to his/her Party loyalty and policy support. A Dean or University President of course indicates stronger Party loyalties and closer relationships with higher ranking Party officials.


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    • I’m with you Bob. China’s rise rise would not be worrisome if it were a more responsible international player. At least on this issue, Barnett seems to conciliatory. I am reminded of a Red Dwarf episode where Rimmer’s angst and anger is sucked out by a Morph leaving only a pacifist who wants only dialogue while the Morph is stealing the crew’s emotions.

      Barnett, quoting Deng as saying: “I have also considered the possibility of resolving certain territorial disputes by having the countries concerned jointly develop the disputed areas before discussing the question of sovereignty. New approaches should be sought to solve such problems according to realities.”

      Barnett stated: “That, to me, is an offer worth taking up. Beats declarations of interest that only heat the situation up further with no outlet revealed. Get the eggheads on the case, drag it out for months so everyone can have their say, run a few get-acquainted mil ex’s in the meantime. Work the thing for a real solution instead of gamesmanship.”

      The “reality”, according to Deng, is de facto occupation rather than de jure sovereignty.
      China only negotiates when it has the strategic and not moral highground. Barnett doesn’t learn from history, especially China’s actions during the 80’s and 90’s when China made repeated offers to discuss the Spratly Islands while noisily moving into the area militarily. (A tactic that is not disimilar to NK of acting provocatively, then wanting to discuss the issue, only to revive provocations and again seek dialogue.)

      I see China doing it again only this time with the disputed Diaoyu/Senkakus (?) and soon to be more common in Korea’s EEZ. Fleets of Chinese fishing boats linger in disputed areas, prompting an altercation, requiring Chinese naval presence to protect its fishing rights. Same ol’ same ol’; only variations on a theme.


      • Well I wrote this piece before I went to China. The academic review process takes that long. They were pretty nice to me, which made me think that maybe I was too harsh. But who wants to be co-opted by a nice conference dinner or something? I don’t know. I still think a US confrontation with China is likely. I called it soft containment in the article. Maybe it won’t be that dramatic. Maybe it will be a cold stand-off like India and Pakistan.

        But I do think China’s rise is a huge test for the Friedman-Barnett argument that globalization helps rewrite countries preferences away from traditional foci on territory and rank toward getting wealthy. Maybe the Chinese would just rather have DVD players than all those islands. But the globalized US doesn’t act this way, and it’s a democracy! So I find it hard to believe China won’t be yet tougher as it gets bigger…


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