Ending the Strategic Holiday: U.S. Grand Strategy and a “Rising” China

Ending the Strategic Holiday
U.S. Grand Strategy and a "Rising" China

by Christopher A. Ford
July 21, 2014

Christopher A. Ford reviews Ashley J. Tellis’s Balancing Without Containment: An American Strategy for Managing China.

Note: The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government.

Ashley Tellis’s valuable new work, Balancing Without Containment: An American Strategy for Managing China, helps fill a lamentably empty niche in Western strategic writing about the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is perhaps a shame that there are still such gaps remaining to be filled, but also a pleasure to see an able scholar make thoughtful suggestions.

The United States’ Strategic Holiday

Americans were not always bad at strategic thinking, but our strategic holiday as the post–Cold War “hyperpower” seems to have made us intellectually lazy. While Americans once sought to encourage the growth of the PRC’s power for strategic reasons, hoping to build up Beijing as a counterweight to the Soviet Union, we continued—in President Obama’s words—to “welcome China’s rise” long after the end of the Cold War. [1] Many seem to have assumed that economic development would inevitably lead to China’s democratization, and indeed its Americanization. As President Bill Clinton put it, “our engagement with China is…the best way to advance our ideals. The more we bring China into the world, the more the world will bring freedom to China.” [2]

With the tides of history apparently on our side, there seemed to be little need for anything like strategy, nor even much need to have a China policy at all, except simply to embrace the PRC and “engage” with it at every level. Deep thinking was implicitly unnecessary, and indeed for some China experts even discussing the idea of a U.S. competitive strategy was a bad idea. The only way that things could really go wrong would be if the United States “made” China into an adversary by acting as if it might be one. For such thinkers, the answer to any Sino-American problem was thus always simply to double down on the cure-all of soft-edged engagement.

To be sure, a subset of American thinking about China cast the PRC’s rise more darkly, warning about the implications if the Communist authoritarian oligarchy in Beijing were to continue to amass power. For years, however, many of these warnings seemed to echo too strongly of Cold War concepts and military prescriptions to be taken very seriously by mainstream leaders, who were well aware that whatever the rising PRC was, it was not the same thing as the old Soviet Union. All in all, neither the engagers nor the hawks offered much strategic thinking. This is clearly a problem, however, since it is increasingly recognized that the United States’ relationship with China partakes of elements of both cooperation and competition. How are we to cooperate and compete with the PRC at the same time?

Engage and Compete

Ashley Tellis’s new book does much to meet this need for prescriptive strategic analysis. Indeed, its ambition is nothing less than to provide a full blown competitive strategy with which the United States can hope to answer the challenges of China’s rise, yet without forgoing the great benefits that economic interdependence and globalization can still provide.

As the title of the book suggests, Tellis promotes a notion of “balancing” that is neither uncritical engagement nor Cold War–style oppositionalism. Equating “containment” with “cutting off ties with Beijing and urging China’s neighbors to do the same,” Tellis sensibly argues that taking this approach vis a-vis China today is “politically, economically, and practically unthinkable” (p. ix). At the same time, he is also adamant that simply continuing along the well-trodden path of relatively uncritical engagement is unwise. The United States badly needs a real strategy vis-a-vis China in order to preserve both its own interests and those of the prosperity-engendering global order that U.S. hegemony has underwritten for so long. Tellis calls for a strategy tailored to the circumstances of modern globalization, one that shuns easy analogies to the Cold War but is unabashedly competitive nonetheless.

In an implicit rebuke of those who believe that prosperity and international engagement will inevitably “domesticate” China as a good international citizen, Tellis draws attention to idiosyncrasies that make the PRC a worrying giant. Not an analyst transfixed (as some still are) by the rhetoric of “peaceful rise” with which Beijing tries to persuade the West not to worry about growing PRC strength, Tellis warns that China’s ambitions are clear…


[1] Stephanie Condon, “Obama: ‘We Welcome China’s Rise,’ ” CBS News, January 20, 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/obama-we-welcome-chinas-rise.

[2] Bill Clinton, “Why I’m Going to China,” Newsweek, June 1998, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/newsweek/why.htm.

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