Abraham Denmark, Senior Project Director at National Bureau of Asian Research, served as Country Director for China Affairs in the Office of the US Secretary of Defense. These views are his own.

The pages of The Interpreter have of late featured an interesting discussion on how Australia would, or should, react to an American strategy of containment against China.

Andrew O'Neil fired the first shot by examining a fear of entrapment in Australia-US dynamics, which closed with a provocative discussion on how Australia should react if a presumed Romney Administration were to enlist Canberra in a neo-containment strategy against China. O'Neil concludes that 'enlistment in a containment strategy would probably never be as crude or explicit as this', and wonders if Australia would be able to convince Beijing otherwise if it found itself in such an arrangement.

Robert Ayson added fuel to the fire by declaring that 'we are containing China, just a bit', and cited Washington's re-balancing effort and its renewed engagement with allies and partners around the Asia-Pacific as evincing 'a smidgen of containment thinking.' He concludes by declaring that 'in some small way, at least, containment is already in play.'

The issues raised by Professors O'Neil and Ayson about fears of entanglement are very real, and their navigation will require deft management from Washington and Canberra. O'Neil's hypothetical situation, in which Australia is forced to choose between its American ally and Chinese economic partner, is clearly a situation that all sides want to avoid.

Yet the focus that O'Neil and Ayson (both of whom I greatly respect) give to containment as a particularly worrisome American strategy is misplaced. America's strategy demonstrates no adherence to containment, not even a smidgen.

First, let's define containment. Writing from the American embassy in Moscow, George Kennan identified the Soviet Union as the source of a threat to the American way of life that was global in its scope and existential in its severity, and argued that Moscow believes there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence between communism and capitalism. In his subsequent 'X' article Kennan recommended that 'it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.'

Of course, Kennan and the other architect of containment, Paul Nitze, disagreed vociferously on how containment should be implemented, a disagreement that defined American strategy for most of the Cold War. Yet both schools of thought agreed that communism represented a global, existential threat to the US, and that the fundamental objectives of the US and its allies should be to restrain the spread of communism and force the USSR to change its way of seeing the world until there was nothing left to contain.

It is important to emphasise here that containment is an extreme strategy. American strategists saw the need to confront what they saw as a global existential threat and adopted a strategy to match the threat's scope and severity. In sum, no one practices 'a little' containment. It's like pregnancy: you're either containing, or you're not.

The extremity of Cold War containment bears a striking comparison to America's robust engagement and entanglement with China. Whereas Washington once saw itself in a life-or-death struggle with the Soviet Union, the US recognises that America's long-term strength and prosperity would be bolstered by Chinese stability and prosperity. The US supported China's entry into the UN and the World Trade Organization, both of which served to dramatically bolster China's international standing and prosperity. The Joint Statement from the 2012 Strategic and Economic Dialogue reads as a list of 50 areas of mutual interest ripe for cooperation between the two nations.

Claims that the US is trying to contain China are laughable; since it began to open to the world, no country has done more to help and support China's rise than the US.

The cooperation and competition that define US-China relations are the strategic opposite of containment. The US knows that the PRC is not the Soviet Union, and does not represent an existential threat to our way of life. The US and its neighbours do, however, have concerns about Chinese intentions and long-term objectives, and we are adjusting our military posture in the region accordingly to maintain our ability to defend our interests and our allies.

Military competition does not necessarily mean containment. Yes, the US is adjusting its military posture and approach to the region's changing strategic environment, which includes China's rapidly modernising military, but that does not imply an intention to contain. Rather, the US seeks to sustain its own presence in the region, to defend its interests, and to defend its allies.

The key question is not whether China develops its own military power, but how that power is utilised. Professor Ayson asks, a bit rhetorically, 'Does (the US) really want China's navy to escape the island chains?' The answer, naturally, depends on the purposes of China's naval expansion.

China's navy has already 'escaped' the island chains to conduct counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, an initiative the US supported. These kinds of missions, which contribute to international stability and demonstrate an acceptance of responsibility to the global order, are certainly positive and are the kind of uses of military power the US would not likely object to. Yet other uses of naval power, such as missions to assert a claim of sovereignty or to challenge another nation's rights to freedom of navigation on the high seas, would be highly objectionable and destabilising.

Australian strategists and policymakers should not be concerned about entanglement in a US strategy to contain China. Washington seeks robust engagement with China but refuses to sacrifice its own security, the security of its allies, and the power of international laws and norms in pursuit of that engagement. I would suggest that Australia's long-term interests would be promoted by the same attitude.

I expect that, in coming years, Australia's approach to China will look very much like that of America's approach: a mix of engagement and hedging. Malcolm Cook's excellent Interpreter post nicely summarises Australia's 'win-win' arrangement, which allows for a robust alliance and significant engagement with Asia.

Photo by Flickr user Matt Ryall.