Author’s Note: This is Part 2 of a multipart series on what can be best described as The Second Cold War. You can read Part 1 here.
“The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
– from George Kennan’s “Long Memo,” written while serving as U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow, 1946
Formulated almost immediately after the Second World War by American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, a policy of containment towards the Soviet Union was quickly embraced and enacted by then-President Harry S Truman.
Containment then consisted of supporting anti-Communist forces fighting Soviet-sponsored rebels in Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe’s postwar economies, entering into multilateral defense pacts like NATO and (eventually) SEATO, increased defense budgets, and the rapid development and deployment of the hydrogen bomb.
ASIDE: Smartly, Marshall Plan aid was offered to countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Stalin was forced to make the awkward announcement that the Soviet-occupied nations of Eastern Europe wouldn’t be getting American aid at the same time his Red Army was oppressing their peoples and removing from their countries of anything of industrial value.
Containment usually served, to varying degrees, as Washington’s blueprint for American-Soviet relations until Ronald Reagan enacted his “We win, they lose” policy. Despite the U.S. being a nuclear-armed foe of immense material wealth, the Soviets pushed back against containment all around the globe, using propaganda efforts, clandestine measures, cultural usurpations like “the long march” through Western institutions, rigged elections, putsches, military aid to rebel groups, and outright military invasions. Unlike the sometimes fractious Western alliance, the Soviets brooked no dissent, viciously using the Red Army to suppress peaceful liberalization movements in East Berlin, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.
Containment’s only real lapse as American policy was Richard Nixon’s replacement of it with one of detente, later also embraced by Jimmy Carter. During those years, the Soviets took full advantage, making moves throughout post-Vietnam War Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America (particularly Central America). By the mid-70s the Soviet Union had grown so cynical that they’d rented out the Cuban Army to serve in southern Africa, to defending oil interests in postcolonial Angola.
Despite their seeming strength, the Soviet Union’s brittle condition was proven decisively by Reagan, who in 1981 ditched detente and containment for a policy of rolling the Soviets back. Eight years later, the Warsaw Pact was finished. Two years later, the Soviet Union dissolved itself atop the ash heap of history.
If the Cold War’s roots can be traced to Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe and their attempts to spread that oppression into Greece and Turkey, the Second Cold War can trace its roots to mainland China’s economic rise, which has, in turn, allowed the Communist government to engage in an expansionist foreign policy ambitious enough to turn Stalin from Red to green with envy.
All of this matters because Communist China has made itself, with Western acquiescence, an essential part of the global supply chain. An American policy of economic decoupling must go hand-in-hand with an international policy of containment, lest the People’s Republic use its current manufacturing heft to herd its weaker neighbors inside Beijing’s pen.
China doesn’t just bully its neighbors, which is something we’ll look at in closer detail shortly. Beijing is also engaged in a propaganda and cultural war against the West.
Communist China has boldly corrupted and coopted Western universities, but the West has been all but shut out of China’s university system. Hollywood caters to Chinese tastes — and to Beijing’s demands that Hollywood kowtow — but the West makes no similar demands on Chinese entertainment. China steals Western intellectual property, sometimes openly as a condition for doing business on the mainland, sometimes through subterfuge, but rarely faces any kind of retribution. In recent months we’ve learned that Beijing even has the World Health Organization — once the only arm of the U.N.’s enjoying wide respect — under its thumb.
At least during the First Cold War, America and the West realized the threat quickly and reacted with resolve. That’s not the case with China, even though Beijing acts with bold decision even more often than the Soviets did.
One could make the argument that the Soviets had at least some justification for their foreign adventurism. Invaded three times by Western European nations between 1812 and 1941, Russian paranoia about Western intentions had more than a little basis in fact. Never mind that NATO was a defensive alliance whose political dissension made waging offensive war against the USSR all but impossible, and that places like Nicaragua had nothing to do with defending the Motherland. The Soviets were in possession of Russian paranoia and a trendy ideology that, combined, made Soviet expansionism — and Western pushback — almost inevitable.
That trendy ideology — Communism — was a Soviet advantage no longer enjoyed by the mainland Chinese government. For various reasons, Soviet Communism had enough support to prove troublesome in places like Latin America, newly-decolonized African nations, American academia, and other shithole countries. The People’s Republic China, on the other hand, shed its revolutionary zeal decades ago. Today it offers little aside from cash bribes to Western “thought leaders” and the like, industrial and intellectual theft, pandemics, oftentimes shoddy consumer goods, and a thuggish insistence on Han Chinese political, cultural, and racial superiority. That’s a lot to fear and little to love.
Furthermore, mainland China faces no external threats to its territorial integrity. India lacks the means, in terms of industrial might and logistical ability, to threaten the PRC across the high Himalayas. The PRC, however, has a much easier time threatening India from the other side of the mountain on the Tibetan Plateau — and is in fact doing so right now.
Vietnam has no claims on China, but China historically has demanded — and gotten — tribute from Vietnam.
China’s western provinces are bordered by the post-Soviet Central Asian republics, which are about as sparsely inhabited as they are desperately poor. The PRC, however, has worked for years via the Road and Belt Initiative to make economic an economic colony out of Central Asia.
Mongolia on China’s northern border is also sparsely inhabited and a threat to no one. China, however, has ruled over Mongolia before, and could easily choose to do so again someday.
China has recent historical grievances concerning Japan, whose government killed millions of Chinese, including vast numbers of civilians, during the 1937-1945 invasion and occupation by the Empire of Japan. Today’s Japan, aged and largely pacifistic, poses no threat to today’s China, which is immeasurably richer and more powerful than they were in the past.
North Korea on China’s northeastern border is Beijing’s satrap, brutally oppressed.
Lastly, while Russia and China have competing claims over Russia’s Far Eastern Maritime area, and other snippets of Siberia. But thanks to Vladimir Putin’s short-sighted anti-Americanism, Moscow works with Beijing far more often than not.
Then of course there is China’s military buildup, seen most nakedly in the South China Sea. Despite the name, the SCS is largely international waters. Despite treaties regarding those international waters, Beijing has laid virtual claim to the whole area, dredging up islands and putting missile bases and airfields on them. That’s a direct threat to all of the PRC’s neighbors in the region.
What all that means is, forging a sort-of Trans-Pacific version of NATO, even if it’s only an informal one, ought not to prove difficult to any American President with the wisdom to do so. President Trump has already taken a few steps along this road, and one suspects there are more to come.
Containing China will, like containing the Soviets, take many forms.
• Shut China out of international organizations like WHO.
• Where that isn’t practical, build parallel organizations without China’s involvement.
• Whenever possible, engage or involve the Republic of China on Taiwan rather than the mainland People’s Republic. There are two Chinas, and one of them is pretty great. It’s time to stop treating the great one as a semi-pariah.
• Continue building strong ties with China’s other neighbors, including Vietnam.
• India could be a strong counterweight to Communist China but is stuck in an anti-American, Third World mindset. We need to work constantly and consistantly to change that.
• Expanding on the previous two items, American business interests that can’t be moved back here should be encouraged to move to places like Vietnam and India. This is already happening on a small scale, but ought to be made larger.
• Doubling down investments in missile defense, hardened AI networks, and hypersonic missiles.
• An Apollo-type program, directed through the new Space Force, to protect our military and commercial satellite systems.
• Massive deregulation of the U.S. economy, which was a necessity even before the Wuhan Virus shutdown.
• Either U.S. news and media companies must either be made to divest from Communist China, or must fully disclose their financial interests during every broadcast. Furthermore, mainland Chinese organizations and their American-based influence peddlers must be banned from American academia. That’s the very least we can do to defend against Beijing’s cultural onslaught.
• Reestablish HUAC for the express purpose of exposing PRC influence in this country. Not only is this a necessary part of any containment policy, it would also cause all the right heads to explode.
That we’ll almost certainly have to wait for the next Republican Congress to complete that last item reveals much about the current state of the Democratic Party. Mister, they could use a man like Harry Truman again.
Notice that I didn’t include any offensive intelligence operations against the PRC. That omission was on purpose. Beijing ruthlessly rolled up our in-country intelligence assets after a massive intelligence failure by the Obama Administration — a scandal little remarked-upon by our Democrat-dominated, Chinese-influenced media. We need to get serious again about protecting our own secrets while rebuilding our intelligence network on the Chinese mainland. Once that’s done, we can look into serious pushback with the help of Chinese dissents, particularly in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers could prove to be a huge cultural asset in the struggle against Beijing’s oppression.
Lastly, somebody, please, has got to whip our Navy’s procurement and training systems into shape before we wind up with a 30-ship fleet no one remembers how to sail.
Communist China possesses strengths the Soviet Union never did, mostly due to its central position along the global supply chain. But that same interconnectedness creates for China vulnerabilities that the autarky-minded Soviets barely had to deal with.
It’s time for once that we used those vulnerabilities to improve our position vis-a-vis China, and to improve her neighbors’ position, too.
Coming up next: “We win, they lose, round two?”