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Should China be “Contained”?

CAMBRIDGE – This month marks the 40th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing, which launched the process of mending a 20-year breach in diplomatic relations between the United States and China. That trip, and President Richard Nixon’s subsequent visit, represented a major Cold War realignment. The US and China put aside their intense hostility in a joint and successful effort to contain an expansionist Soviet Union.

Today, the Soviet Union has vanished, and Chinese power is growing. Some Americans argue that China’s rise cannot be peaceful, and that the US, therefore, should now adopt a policy of containing the People’s Republic. Indeed, many Chinese officials perceive that to be the current American strategy. They are wrong.

After all, Cold War containment of the USSR meant virtually no trade and little social contact. Today, by contrast, the US not only has massive trade with China, but also extensive social contact, including 125,000 Chinese students attending American universities.

With the end of the Cold War, the containment of the Soviet Union ushered in by Kissinger’s visit could no longer serve as the basis for US-China relations. Moreover, relations with China cooled after the Tiananmen Square shootings in 1989, and the Clinton administration had to devise a new approach.