New Delhi: Part of the problem for any containment policy for China is an absent politico-economic roadmap such as George F. Kennan formulated for the Soviet Union and became famous for life. Kennan decried the excessive militarization of the containment strategy he had devised for the US department of state in later years, but he couldn’t have been so naive as to not know that governments are often driven to pursue ends to the neglect of means and that the cynicism of bureaucracies is boundless. In the closing stages of World War II when the Pacific theatre gained extra salience and later, Kennan, as a policy planner, also turned his attention to China and the civil war being fought between Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s peasant communist armies. With typical insight, Kennan observed that China was nobody’s stooge, and he further insinuated that it would become an independent force in geopolitics. Somebody in the US department of state should dust up his papers for further gems on China if any.

In the absence, meanwhile, of a structured containment policy for China, less-than-correct comparisons are being made with past phenomena, and the analysis and conclusions that follow are, not unnaturally, wide off the mark. For example, the Cold War was an apt description of the ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union which commenced with the October Revolution and ended with the collapse of the Soviet state. But a “New Cold War” is not necessarily apt to describe trade tensions between China and the United States. While China does not lead a bloc of nations like the former Soviet Union did, it is also ideologically formless unlike the fallen Bolshevik empire. It is a cat of many colours as Deng Xiaoping might have said adept at its role of catching mice. It makes China pragmatic to an extent that the old Soviet Union never was.

Comparisons of the US and Soviet and US and Chinese economies also do not relay the entire tale. To the extent Marxism was a material ideology, economic rivalry was fundamental to the US-Soviet clash made infamous by Nikita Khrushchev’s statement, “We will bury you.” But the US-Soviet clash was more than economic. It was a clash of the first organizing principles, of worldviews, and of the sought world order. For a period of a decade between the mid-sixties and mid-seventies, Soviet economic growth outstripped that of the United States. Its GNP grew from 49 to 59 percent of US GNP but fell after 1975 and logged 52 percent of the US GNP in 1984 amidst faster US growth. Economists detect features of war economy in the years of high Soviet growth joined with ideological mobilization but at the same time disparage its low productivity. War economy features were borrowed from Imperial Germany and this enabled the Soviet Union in World War II to match levels of armament production of Nazi Germany. But this accent on conflict disfigured the Soviet economy with its inability to meet consumer demand.

The divergence of the Chinese economy from the Soviet one is readily available in one’s emphasis on war production and the other’s on cleverly satisfying consumerism: because consumerism is never satisfied. Moreover, Deng, China’s pioneering economic reformer, advocated economic growth with stealth. When he started the reforms’ programme, irreversible stagnation had set in the Soviet economy. US assistance to China’s economic rise also makes their present contestation markedly different from US-Soviet clashes of the Cold War. While it is true that the Marshal Plan was also open to the participation of the Soviet bloc, Kennan, its architect, was aware of Soviet psychology that would make Kremlin reject the invitation. On the other hand, US assistance to China’s rise was open-ended in all respects except the forced annexation of Taiwan. There can be no comparison, in other words, between US-Soviet economic rivalry during the Cold War and the current trade war between Washington and Beijing. Since Beijing is not at the head of a bloc of like-minded countries, its conflict with Washington, therefore, is strictly -- and stridently -- bilateral, and President Donald Trump has gone to the source of Chinese power, namely the Chinese economy, to contain it. This is not an economy constructed on the basis of an innate conflict between capitalism and socialism, which Kennan identified as one of the sources of Soviet power and conduct, to which he added the historical insecurity of the Soviet people.

China requires an altogether different understanding to control its behaviour, which is not going to be easy, and the Cold War and its containment strategies do not apply in whole or even substantially to it. Mao Zedong’s great failure was in attempting to replicate Joseph Stalin’s crash industrialization programme (which produced its own collectivization disaster) through the Great Leap Forward which resulted in forty-five million deaths. Although he made virtue out of the tragedy by extolling peasant communism, it was left to Deng to finally figure China’s genius. Like Otto von Bismarck built Germany so well that it withstood two world wars, Deng reconstructed China to last. It will take genius and audacity to make China yield. History offers few precedents for the onerous task.

Editor’s Note: The only person who has redeemed himself in this election is one who was not even contesting: Ashok Lavasa. He has stood up for truth, justice and democracy and against authoritarianism. His tribe is endangered.