Published: 00:28, June 11, 2024
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The US cannot effectively contain China
By Lau Siu-kai

To contain and isolate China and deter Beijing from taking the Taiwan island by force, the United States has worked tirelessly to win over China’s neighboring countries to join it in encircling China militarily. Military alliances such as the US-Japan, US-South Korea and US-Philippines partnerships, the trilateral security pack between the United Kingdom, the US and Australia (AUKUS), the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) between the US, Japan, India, and Australia, and the embryonic “Asianized” NATO are all crucial means forged by the US to contain China.

At the same time, the US persistently peddles the “China threat” theory to alienate countries from China. However, the military and political “encirclement network” built by the US against China is unreliable. On the one hand, the US’ political and moral influence is declining. On the other hand, the various military alliances the US has built are not indestructible. These two phenomena are closely interrelated. In recent years, many Western strategic scholars have made similar observations.

The US’ power peaked in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union during its so-called “unipolar moment”. However, instead of making good use of the opportunity brought by this moment to promote a fair, equal and reasonable new international order, the US blatantly abused its power, especially its military power, to make an international order that was in line with American interests and values, institutions, and development models, i.e., to expand the Western international order into a global one, thereby strengthening and consolidating the US’ global hegemony.

The US’ grand strategy, which grossly overestimates its own capabilities and is essentially foolhardy, has brought wars, devastation and suffering to many countries, attracting much criticism and pushback from more and more countries. At the same time, the rise of China and the emergence of some regional powers have put considerable constraints on US hegemony and have given those countries unwilling to submit to the US new development opportunities and effective means to resist US bullying.

Today, the US’ global political and moral prestige and clout have reached a low ebb, and it is challenging for Washington to bring countries worldwide on board to contain and isolate China. At the same time, increasingly obvious and irreparable cracks have emerged in the relationship between the US and its close allies, and its military “encirclement network” against China increasingly appears to be unreliable.

The most important events that caused the decline of the US’ political and moral prestige include the Iraq War, also known as the Second Persian Gulf War, launched by the US in 2003, the use of force against Libya in 2011, the US policy in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the US’ rejection of a proposed plan for establishing a Palestinian state, and the connivance of the US in Israel’s genocide in Gaza. All these actions of the US are unpopular worldwide and have eroded its political and moral authority tremendously. The US’ contempt for the United Nations and some other international organizations has made it difficult for them to function effectively and has caused severe damage to global governance. When the COVID-19 pandemic raged worldwide, the US hoarded vaccines and once blocked the approval of patent exemptions for vaccine production. The 2008 global financial tsunami, which originated in the US and brought severe financial and economic disasters worldwide, has rendered the “Washington Consensus” a laughingstock. The US has recently implemented economic, trade and technological protectionism, weaponized the dollar, and paralyzed the appeal mechanism of the World Trade Organization. The US’ behavior on climate change and commitments to developing countries has been disappointing. Its continued use of military means to handle international affairs has exposed its belief in brute force. All these, among others, have made the US-led “liberal international order” unviable and unsustainable politically, economically, morally and ideologically.

To contain and isolate China, the US has treated Asia as a strategic priority, and recruited Japan, South Korea and the Philippines into its camp of military allies. The US has also turned Taiwan into a pawn. However, to avoid a catastrophe, Taiwan should never go to war with the Chinese mainland. Although India is a member of QUAD and has border disputes with China, its political tradition of “nonalignment” is deeply rooted, and it is unwilling to give up its strategic autonomy. India, therefore, is highly unlikely to side with the US in the Sino-US rivalry. Instead, it will seek only the best interests of itself.

In recent years, Southeast Asian countries have become the target of active wooing by the US. However, except for the Philippines, other Southeast Asian countries, including those with territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, are reluctant to take sides. Instead, they are committed to strengthening the economic and trade ties with China. Neither India nor Southeast Asia countries believe that China would undermine their territorial integrity or threaten their existence. On the contrary, their economic and trade exchanges with China have become increasingly frequent, and the national interests of the two sides are inseparable.

The US has recently attempted to expand its influence in Central Asia to disrupt China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, the US’ presence in the region is limited, and it is challenging for the US to match Russia and China geopolitically. The BRI and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have greatly strengthened ties between China and Central Asian countries. China has played an essential role in the stability and development of Central Asia.

Today, the US’ global political and moral prestige and clout have reached a low ebb, and it is challenging for Washington to bring countries worldwide on board to contain and isolate China. At the same time, increasingly obvious and irreparable cracks have emerged in the relationship between the US and its close allies, and its military “encirclement network” against China increasingly appears to be unreliable

US influence in the Middle East is declining rapidly. The US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, overthrew their governments, and tried to embed “democracy” in these two countries. However, it has failed abjectly, leaving behind large-scale humanitarian disasters, seriously damaging the US’ international reputation. With the successful development of shale gas in the US, the strategic value of the Middle East to the US has fallen. The US is trying to withdraw from the Middle East and concentrate its military and diplomatic resources on containing China. To this end, the US has engineered the reconciliation between Israel and some Middle Eastern countries, in the hope of building a political and military bloc to counter Iran. However, the Israeli-Hamas conflict and the Gaza genocide have shattered the US’ Middle East strategy. The US’ one-sided support for Israel and the reemergence of the Palestinian problem as an international issue have not only disrupted the US’ plan to exit from the Middle East but also made the US a “public enemy” of the Arab people. In addition, with the rise of regional powers such as Türkiye, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the expanding role of China and Russia in Middle East affairs, and the move toward strategic rapprochement and economic cooperation among regional powers, the US’ influence in the Middle East is dwindling irreversibly.

The relationship between the US and Latin American countries has always been subtle and complex, but it is in no way harmonious. The Monroe Doctrine has always been the guiding ideology for the US in handling Latin American affairs, and today is no exception. For a long time, the US regarded Latin America as its backyard or sphere of influence. It did not allow other countries, especially European powers, to interfere in the region’s affairs. Its arrogant and domineering stance toward Latin America has caused irreparable damage to their mutual relations, especially in countries led by left-wing governments. US investments in Latin America are minimal compared with its investments in Europe and East Asia. Many Latin American countries do not subscribe to the “Washington Consensus” and instead appreciate China’s development philosophy. China’s investments and involvement in Latin America are rising rapidly, resulting in ever-closer economic and trade ties.

During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union competed fiercely for power worldwide and repeatedly waged proxy wars against each other. Back then, Africa was a critical region to both the US and the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, Africa’s strategic value to the US has declined rapidly. Until recently, Africa was neglected by the US, which has invested little in Africa. In contrast, as the vanguard of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism, China has long-established solid political relations with most African countries. China has invested heavily in Africa, and economic and trade ties have become increasingly close.

The US has roped in Australia to contain China in recent years. The trade friction between China and Australia has given the US an opportunity. Australia even joined the military alliance the US, Britain and Australia formed to contain China, namely, AUKUS. The US also made an “exceptional” transfer of nuclear submarine technology to Australia in violation of the nuclear nonproliferation protocol. However, Australia has closer economic and trade ties with China than with the US, and China does not pose a security threat to Australia. As for Australia’s alliance with the US to contain China, many thoughtful people in Australia oppose it and believe it is not in the country’s fundamental interests. Australia will not become an enemy of China for the sake of its own interests.

Generally speaking, judging from the US’ words and deeds in recent years, it is clear that the US, steeped in the doctrines of “America First”, protectionism and unilateralism, is unable and unwilling to offer allies and partners much, including security guarantees. On the contrary, more and more countries have forged closer ties with China for ideological reasons and practical interests.

China-related projects such as the BRI, BRICS, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative, and Global Civilization Initiative have been endorsed by most countries in the Global South. China’s economic development and peace promotion have benefited many countries worldwide. Although China still lags behind the US in terms of soft power, as the US’ moral authority rapidly declines and the cultural impact of China increases, the soft-power gap will continue to shrink. Simultaneously, the US’ “democratic crisis” has also significantly depleted its political and moral influence worldwide.

The international community does not support the intentions and actions of the US and the West to contain and isolate China. Most countries surrounding China are even more worried about possible wars between China and the US and have used different methods to prod the US to abandon the Cold War mentality and avoid bringing the whole world into devastation. Suppose the US continues to insist on being an enemy of China. On that matter, gaining support from most countries worldwide will be difficult.

Suppose the US insists on permanently dividing China or even declares war on China. In that case, the reliability of its military allies will also be in doubt. With the rapid buildup of China’s defense capabilities, the gap in military strength between China and the US will continue to narrow. Today, the US has no military advantage in the Western Pacific. None of the US’ allies seek global hegemony. China has no territorial ambitions toward the US’ allies, and does not threaten their security. In the eyes of most countries, China only intends to maintain its sovereignty and territorial integrity. I don’t see why they would risk the lives of their people by participating in a US war against China.

From another perspective, the US has made security commitments to many countries, but it cannot fulfill these commitments because of strategic overreach. The US will likely continue to engage in strategic retreat in the years ahead. Polls in places like Japan, South Korea, Europe, and Taiwan find diminishing confidence in the US honoring its security commitments. US allies, especially France, are actively strengthening their own military forces to protect themselves or gain more strategic autonomy.

If Donald Trump, whose mantra is to “Make America Great Again”— and who lacks commitment to NATO and Atlanticism, pursues unilateralism, and is unwilling to be bound by the rules of international organizations and international rules — becomes president again, the relationship between the US and its allies will be further strained, and the US’ global political and moral prestige and influence will tumble. The credibility and ability of the US’ strategic containment and encirclement of China will also fall precipitously.

The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a consultant for the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.