The rise of China has revived the rhetoric of Cold War-era containment to depict competition between dominant powers, although the state of international relations is fundamentally different. Containment strategy toward China featured prominently in former US President Donald Trump’s policy, and many believe that strategic competition will continue to define the relationship under the Biden administration but in a different form. However, the necessity to contain China is a contested idea both on economic and ethical levels.
In the first place, it should be understood that the world “includes many different groups with varying degrees of dependence from China,” says Domingo Sugranyes, director of a seminar on ethics and technology at Pablo VI Foundation. Therefore, he adds, “the need for containment will be seen differently if you are looking at textile supply chains, workers’ rights in [Xinjiang], data privacy rules, markets for European cars.”
The Matter of Xi’s Succession
Oscar Ugarteche, a Peruvian professor of economics, believes the emergence of a new superpower competing with other Western countries may be “positive, particularly for the Global South.” That said, we are undeniably witnessing “the emergence of a new distribution of power in which relative weights are shifting away from the United States and its allies, although the absolute political and economic power of these nations is and will remain considerable,” he mentions.
Some, such as researcher Valerio Bruno, see the rise of China not only in the economic and military domains, but also as an ideological confrontation — “between two Weltanschauungen” — that determines whether the future world order will be defined by liberal or authoritarian ideas. Proponents of a containment policy believe that China does not offer a realistic alternative to the liberal order and that it should be obliged to comply with those rules. How? According to economist Etienne Perrot, it could be through “multilateral agreements and targeted alliances” designed to bring European powers more firmly into the containment effort in the economic and technological domains.
In contrast, some observers question the necessity of containment. Kara Tan Bhala, president and founder of Seven Pillars Institute for Global Finance and Ethics, argues that “a deliberate policy of containing another country, and thereby not allowing many to achieve their human potential” may not be morally justified. States should “respect the diversity of systems … while encouraging each other to become ‘better socialists’ and ‘better capitalists’ serving humanity,” says Christoph Stuckelberger, a professor of ethics. On the economic front, Ugarteche says, “the technological competition between the USA and China is positive for all of us as it speeds up innovation and reduces costs and consumer prices.”
At first glance, the Cold War rhetoric of containment refers to a bipolar world, which is not (yet) the case. Multipolarity seems to be the best guarantee to avoid the world sliding into bipolarity, with a risk of falling once again into a Thucydides’ Trap. In this perspective, the swift assertion of the European Union as a global, active player is urgently needed to leverage a new negotiated equilibrium anchored in a minimal level of mutual commitment on most urgent global challenges. In that sense, the notion of containment may be reformulated in terms of the world’s self-containment, especially, as Edward Dommen says, when we look “at the way the world economy abuses the planet.”
By Virgile Perret and Paul Dembinski
Author’s note: From Virus to Vitamin invites experts to comment on issues relevant to finance and the economy in relation to society, ethics and the environment. Below, you will find views from a variety of perspectives, practical experiences and academic disciplines. The topic of this discussion is: Does the world need to contain China and, if so, how?
“… multilateral agreements and targeted alliances…”
“Yes. China, by virtue of its human capacities, its natural resources and its organization, is today the dominant power (in terms of purchasing power parity). Opposite, the United States retains a monetary and military advantage, which China seeks to steal from them. Knowing that “power corrupts” (Lord Acton) and that “only power stops power” (Montesquieu), how to contain China without submitting to the USA? Through multilateral agreements and targeted alliances against MNCs [multinational companies] who, in the global market, behave like privateers in the service of their country of origin, sometimes even like pirates without faith or law.”
Etienne Perrot — Jesuit, economist and editorial board member of the Choisir magazine (Geneva) and adviser to the journal Etudes (Paris)
“… China does not export its politics.”
“Is it the world or is it the West? Did the world need to contain Great Britain or Spain or the US in its time? What we are facing is a new superpower emerging that will compete with other Western countries and the result should be positive, particularly for the Global South. “The more, the merrier.” The technological competition between the USA and China is positive for all of us as it speeds up innovation and reduces costs and consumer prices. All else is irrelevant. China does not export its politics.”
Oscar Ugarteche — visiting professor of economics at various universities
“…negotiate with a clear understanding of issues at stake…”
“The ‘world’ is no geopolitical actor; it includes many different groups with varying degrees of dependence from China. The need for containment will be seen differently if you are looking at textile supply chains, workers’ rights in [Xinjiang], data privacy rules, markets for European cars and machinery, monetary balances, Taiwan security and microprocessor supplies, loans to Africa and Latin America, or rare earth resources. … If the question refers to containment from the ‘West’ or, more precisely, the European Union, then the answer is no. We should negotiate with a clear understanding of issues at stake, as in the case of the proposed comprehensive agreement on investment. Above all, we should learn more facts about the incoming largest economic power.”
Domingo Sugranyes — director of a seminar on ethics and technology at Pablo VI Foundation, past executive vice-chairman of MAPFRE international insurance group
“One world — diverse systems”
“How should the role of China be in the world? Three options: 1) China is disconnected from the world, sealed off, as it was to some extent 1949-1979, based on self-reliance and autonomous development; 2) China is fully integrated in the globalized world and follows the Western model of so-called capitalism and democracy as many powers in the West hoped that China, with its Open Door Policy since 1979, would develop; and 3) China is integrated in the world, but with its ‘Chinese characteristics’ of ‘third way’ combining planned and market economy, socialist one-party system with elements of consultative participatory processes and controlled civil society. The ethics of international relations needs to respect the diversity of systems as in option 3, while encouraging each other to become ‘better socialists’ and ‘better capitalists’ serving humanity.
Christoph Stuckelberger — professor of ethics, founder and president of Globethics.net foundation in Geneva, visiting professor in Nigeria, China, Russia and the UK
“…we are witnessing the emergence of a new distribution of power…”
“The danger of conflict arises when there is no longer a consensus regarding the real power situation of the major parties — in this case, Russia as well as China and the United States. Conflict can become real when the parties, acting on significantly different subjective visions of the objective situation, come into collision. The purpose of conflict will be to demonstrate what the real power relationships have become and to establish some new consensus. Avoidance of conflict requires peaceful development of such a consensus, for which prerequisites will be acceptance by previously dominant countries that we are witnessing the emergence of a new distribution of power in which relative weights are shifting away from the United States and its allies, although the absolute political and economic power of these nations is and will remain considerable.”
Andrew Cornford — counselor at Observatoire de la Finance, past staff member of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), with special responsibility for financial regulation and international trade in financial services
“…foster friendly and mutually fruitful relations…”
“Does the world need to contain China? The USA? Itself? To contain oneself is always good advice, and if we look at the way the world economy abuses the planet, the world ought indeed to contain itself. However, to struggle to contain another party normally provokes a hostile reaction, and things go from bad to worse. Better to converse with it and thus to foster friendly and mutually fruitful relations. Trade is a form of that kind of conversation. As Adam Smith said, “It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society … universal opulence.”
Edward Dommen — specialist in economic ethics, former university professor and researcher at UNCTAD and president of Geneva’s Ecumenical Workshop in Theology.
“…climate change will do more to change China…”
“Containing China may be too big a task, and not all the world necessarily agrees on this goal. Indeed, it’s questionable if a deliberate policy of containing another country, and thereby not allowing many to achieve their human potential, is morally justified. Certainly, we should robustly oppose her monstrous conduct in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong and counter the Chinese Communist Party’s unacceptable behavior, for example, in trade and IP [intellectual property] in a targeted manner. But the demographics of an aging and gender skewed population, and the devastating effects of climate change will do more to change China than any containment strategy. One final thought: Should the world have contained the US when it destroyed indigenous peoples or practiced slavery?
Kara Tan Bhala — president and founder of Seven Pillars Institute for Global Finance and Ethics
“…two comprehensively different conceptions of the world…”
“As Xi Jinping continues to steer the Middle Kingdom out of its historical isolation, avoiding challenging the United States for the position of world leader will be difficult, given China’s demographics and economic status. These two Weltanschauungen, two comprehensively different conceptions of the world, sooner or later will present the international community with a choice. Xi is well aware that the Biden administration can finally change course for the US and its allies, forging a united and progressive front after years of populist, nativist and authoritarian politics. Perhaps this element can help understand Xi’s assertiveness at the last World Economic Forum better than the recent economic successes. After all, political and civil rights are China’s Achilles’ heel.”
Valerio Bruno — researcher in politics and senior research fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR).
“…obliging China to follow the rules…”
“Present international relations cannot be correctly interpreted in the Cold War terms. The current confrontation between the United States and China is not Cold War 2.0 — it has a different nature. A historicist attempts to adapt the strategy of containment to post-Cold War realities are doomed to failure. The heterogeneous world is not able to be either an opponent or a proponent of the People’s Republic of China; only the consolidated West can be such an actor. China is a revisionist power. [It] criticizes the liberal world order but does not offer a realistic alternative. The most effective way to minimize Beijing’s destructive influence is to improve a rule-based order, and therefore a liberal order, by obliging China to follow those rules.
Yuriy Temirov — associate professor, dean of the Faculty of History and International Relations at Vasyl Stus Donetsk National University in Ukraine
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.