The heated global debate sparked this week by a thought-provoking paper – “The Longer Telegram: Towards a New American China Strategy” – has underscored the urgency and difficulty of finding a durable and actionable US approach to China To develop China when the country becomes more authoritarian, more self-confident and more globally assertive.
The 26,000-word paper, published simultaneously by the Atlantic Council and, in a shorter form, by Politico Magazine, served the expert community for China as a kind of Rorschach test. Responses ranged from critics who found the paper’s rules too provocative to supporters who praised its groundbreaking contributions.
Beijing was noted not least because of the author’s obvious familiarity with communist party politics and the focus on President Xi Jinping. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman accused the anonymous author of “dark motives and cowardice” for starting “a new Cold War”.
Former CIA China analyst Paul Heer, who wrote in the realistic, conservative National Interest, seemed to agree, exposing the singular Xi emphasis as “a deeply misguided, if not dangerous, approach.”
Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf agreed with Anonymous that China “is increasingly behaving like an emerging great power ruled by a ruthless and effective despot,” but criticized the author’s myriad goals because of economic performance and underutilization China’s potential are not achievable.
After digesting the liveliest debate sparked by one of the growing industrial strategy papers in China, I stand with Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, who praised the paper during an extraordinary speech in the Senate.
Sullivan’s credibility grows from his history as a marine veteran, former Alaska attorney general, former National Security Council officer, and senior State Department official involved in business and economics.
“’The longer telegram’ is not perfect,” he argued, standing alongside an enlarged reproduction of the easel-balanced cover of the paper as the United States must tackle this significant challenge that we will face for decades. “
“I hope my fellow Democrats and Republicans all have the opportunity to read and analyze this. Like Kennan’s strategy of containment, to be successful our China policy must be very bipartisan and ready to be operationalized for decades will. “”
The three elements of The Longer Telegram’s approach that should stand the test of time are:
- The urgent need to better understand China’s domestic politics and political dynamics in order to succeed.
- The reality that a declining US state cannot handle an emerging China regardless of its strategy.
- The focus on reviving and reinventing alliances, not out of nostalgia, but because no policy will be successful that does not motivate the partners in creative new ways.
Let’s take each of these priorities in turn.
First, The Longer Telegram’s most innovative and controversial idea is to focus on China’s leaders and behavior.
“US strategy must continue to focus on Xi, his inner circle and the Chinese political context in which they govern,” argued the paper. “In order to change their decision-making, you have to understand their political and strategic paradigm, act in it and change it.”
Most of the newspapers’ most virulent critics picked up on this Xi focus. Some argued that the author overestimated Xi’s role; others argued over the idea that if Xi were replaced over time, under more moderate leadership, China would become a more cooperative partner.
Others warned that China would view any US policy directed at Xi as a dangerously escalating effort in regime change.
These points, however, miss the author’s more significant and irrefutable point: No American strategy towards Beijing can succeed without a better understanding of how China’s decision-making is developing.
“The core wisdom of Kennan’s analysis of 1946 was his assessment of the internal functioning of the Soviet Union and the realization that a US strategy was to be developed that corresponds to the core of this complex political reality,” writes Anonymous. “The same must be done to address China.”
The author’s informed view is that Xi’s concentration of power, his campaign to eradicate political opponents, and his emerging cult of personality “have sparked simmering resentments among large sections of the Chinese Communist Party elite.”
Whether or not you agree with the author’s view that China failed to recognize political rifts and fragility, the real point is that the US needs to invest more in understanding these dynamics. One of Beijing’s competitive advantages is its insight into America’s painfully transparent political divisions and vulnerabilities.
On the second point, President Biden’s first foreign policy speech underlined his agreement with the author’s second important point. “The US strategy must begin by taking into account the country’s economic and institutional weaknesses,” writes the author.
“We will compete from a position of strength by doing better at home,” said President Biden.
Nothing will be more important.
Finally, and this was the gist of the Biden speech, the author argues that the US must bring allies together behind a more coherent and coherent approach. That will be difficult to achieve because so many US partners have China as their leading trading partner.
Forging a common cause among traditional US partners and allies will require an unprecedented level of global commitment and give and take – and an acceptance of the reality of China’s economic influence.
Critics selected other elements of the paper. For example, some identified the author’s appeal for “red lines” in relation to affairs from Taiwan to the South China Sea as particularly dangerous.
Others viewed the author’s call for greater efforts to pull Russia away from its deeper ties with China as folly.
However, both would only be a return to a solid strategic practice à la Henry Kissinger. Sharing red lines privately can lead to miscalculations. Its enforcement can be measured and proportionate.
You don’t have to love Vladimir Putin either to realize that Russia’s tightening strategic alignment, military cooperation, and sharing of information with Beijing have been a profound US foreign policy failure.
We published the Longer Telegram at the Atlantic Council, where I am President and CEO, and I admit that the value of the paper is biased in some ways. I’m glad it sparked a global discussion with criticism and positive suggestions.
How we approach China is a complex and critical challenge. There would be no better time for this debate.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist, and President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the most influential US think tanks on global affairs. He worked for the Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and senior editor for the European edition of the newspaper. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place in the World” – was a New York Times bestseller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his view every Saturday of the top stories and trends of the past week.
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