George F. Kennan did not consider his original concept of containment to be applicable to China. But if the legendary-Soviet expert were alive today, he might well endorse a strategy aimed at limiting Chinese influence in East Asia relative to that of the United States--which is what Chinese leaders today call "containment."
In Kennan's formulation of his doctrine, containment was aimed exclusively at preventing the expansion of Soviet communist influence or control over areas that were strategically vital to the United States. During the period that he had official responsibility for implementing that strategy--as director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff from 1947 until 1950--he explicitly excluded China from it because he doubted that the Chinese communists would fall under Soviet control and, even if they did, China in his view was neither strategically important nor a potential threat to the United States. Indeed, Kennan excluded the entire mainland of East Asia--including the Korean Peninsula and Indochina (later Vietnam)--on the same grounds. In the early years of the Cold War he was prepared to accept Soviet domination of continental East Asia--if it came--as something that would be unfortunate but tolerable. Accordingly, he played a key role in justifying U.S. disengagement from the Chinese civil war, favored withdrawal of U.S. occupation forces from South Korea, and warned against supporting or inheriting the French role in Indochina.
The only place in the Far East where Kennan deemed containment applicable was Japan, which he considered both vital to U.S. interests and vulnerable to Soviet influence--in effect, the East Asian counterpart to Germany in Europe. He consequently played a pivotal role in redirecting U.S. occupation policy in Japan away from a punitive approach and toward reconstruction, akin to the Marshall Plan in Europe and for the same purpose: to insulate it against any Soviet designs. As Kennan wrote in 1948, Washington needed to
devise policies with respect to Japan which assure the security of those islands from Communist penetration and domination as well as from Soviet military attack, and which will permit the economic potential of that country to become again an important force in the Far East, responsive to the interests of peace and stability in the Pacific area. Kennan, in fact, was arguably the first proponent of the "defensive perimeter" concept, which became the de facto basis for U.S. strategy in the western Pacific before the Korean War.
The outbreak of the Korean War, however, subsequently undermined Kennan's strategic vision for a peripheral application of containment in East Asia. It led to a long-term U.S. military commitment on the Korean Peninsula, provided the rationale for...