Containment by Stealth: Chinese Views of and Policies toward America's Alliances with Japan and Korea after the Cold War

At the height of the Cold War, the dominant Western theories of alliance building in interstate relations argued that alliances tend to be motivated more by an external need to confront a clearly defined common adversary than by the domestic attributes of alliance partners. The newly reinvigorated U.S.-Japan alliance, however, together with the newly expanded NATO, seems to depart from the conventional pattern by emphasizing shared democratic values and by maintaining a high degree of ambiguity regarding the goals and targets of the alliance. Although these new features of American-led military alliances provide an anchor in an other- wise highly fluid situation in the post–Cold War world, many Chinese foreign- and defense- policy analysts believe that U.S. alliances with Asian countries, particularly with Japan, pose a serious, long-term challenge, if not a threat, to China’s national security, national unification, and modernization. The ambiguity of the revised U.S.-Japan security alliance means that it is at best searching for targets and at worst aiming at China.

China’s concerns about the intention, scope, and capability of the alliances are set against a backdrop of several major changes in the region: the end of the Cold War, the simultaneous rise of China and Japan, the post-revolution reforms of Asian communist regimes, and the United States as the sole superpower. China’s uneasiness about the U.S.-led alliances goes far beyond the systemic change in the post–Cold War world, however. Its roots lie in China’s inherent weakness in the games of major powers in East Asia and in relations with other major powers in the first half of the twentieth century.

This paper begins with an overview of the interactions between China and the U.S.-led alliances in East Asia during the Cold War. This is followed by an examination of the post– Cold War period and China’s policies toward the alliances. Finally, policy options are discussed.

The study will review select policy-relevant scholarly publications of the 1990s, when the U.S.-led alliances were perceived to have made significant adaptations to the post–Cold War environment and when China’s perceptions of and policies toward these alliances also changed significantly. The survey also includes some interviews with Chinese analysts.

Published as part of the "America's Alliances with Japan and Korea in a Changing Northeast Asia" Research Project.