Atlantic Council, Biden, China, China Strateg Group, decoupling, Donald Trump, Foreign Affairs, George F. Kennan, globalism, Iran, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, The Long Telegram, The Longer Telegram, X Article, Xi JInPing
How lucky for President Biden that, just as he’s announced a wide-ranging review of U.S. China policy (after he and his supposedly fellow foreign policy mavens spent the entire presidential campaign lambasting Donald Trump’s initiatives and clearly conveying that they knew exactly how to fix these alleged blunders), a wavelet of advice has appeared offering answers, at least at the broad brush level.
How unfortunate for the United States, though, that so little of this advice has any prospect of advancing and defending American interests vis-a-vis China, much less improving on the Trump efforts to neutralize the China threat. In fact, if Mr. Biden follows his longstanding Beijing-coddling instincts and generally heeds the authors, the United States is bound to become more vulnerable and more beholden to the People’s Republic than ever.
Two blueprints for the President to follow have emerged in recent weeks: a memo from an anonymous author who clearly views him or herself as a latter day George F. Kennan; and a collective effort from a “China Strategy Group” dominated by Silicon Valley figures (and co-chaired by Google co-founder Eric Schmidt). The first is the most easily disposed of, and will be the subject of today’s post. Tomorrow I’ll discuss the Group’s China grope.
Kennan, in case you’ve forgotten, was the mid-twentieth century American diplomat whose analyses of Soviet power and behavior (including an early 1946 memo written during his stint in Moscow that became known as “The Long Telegram”) powerfully shaped the Cold War strategy of containment adopted by Washington. He was by no means perfect, but in my view amply deserves his reputation as one of the most incisive foreign policy analysts in American history – which is why if he read the new and arrogantly titled “The Longer Telegram,” he’d probably be hard-pressed to decide whether to laugh or cry.
The most eye-catching proposal made by the author (whose desire for anonymity apes that displayed Kennan in a 1947 article that grew out of “The Long Telegram” that he published in the journal Foreign Affairs as “X”): urging that rather than focus on broadly changing China’s totalitarian system of government and control over the economy, or targeting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in particular as Public Enemy Number One, U.S. policy recognize Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his inner circle as the dominant game changer that has turned the People’s Republic and its practices from a “manageable” challenge into today’s mortal danger not only to the United States but to the entire world.
I actually agree with the author that prompting Chinese reform of any kind is a fool’s quest – a prime reason that I regard substantially decoupling America’s economy from China’s as the best way to ensure that the nation can handle whatever problems Beijing creates. It was also heartening to see “Anonymous” recognize that dealing with China successfully will be that much harder for Washington if it keeps going out of its way to demonize Russia – which has clearly become a Democratic Party staple.
But concentrating U.S. China policy “through the principal lens of Xi himself” and seeking to capitalize on “significant” opposition within the CCP to “Xi’s leadership and its vast ambitions” in order to “return [China] to its pre-2013 path—i.e., the pre-Xi strategic status quo” suffers from at least two glaringly obvious flaws.
The first is Anonymous’ belief that however numerous China’s challenges to U.S. interests before Xi gained control, “they were manageable and did not represent a serious violation of the US-led international order.” In fact, even the author him/herself doesn’t seem to believe this.
If he or she did, why admit that the current Chinese challenge, “to some extent, has been gradually emerging over the last two decades”? And that that “China has long had an integrated internal strategy for handling the United States….” And that pursuing its goals “nationally, bilaterally, regionally, multilaterally, and globally….has been China’s approach for decades.” And that “What links” today’s China threat and that posed by the Soviet Union in particular during the early Cold War is that “the CCP, like the former CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union], is an avowedly Leninist party with a profoundly Marxist worldview”?
Have Xi’s ambitions magnified the threat? Of course. But – as Anonymous also admits – not because Chinese leaders’ goals have fundamentally changed, but because growing economic and therefore military strength have brought them within reach.
In the author’s own words,
“China has undergone a dramatic economic rise in recent decades, and it is using its economic power to engage in coercive practices and to become the center of global innovation….China is transforming its economic heft into military strength, modernizing its military and developing capabilities to counter the United States’ ability to project power in the western Pacific.”
And although China has generated much of this impressive progress through its own devices, it’s also indisputable that its closely related economic, technological, and military advances stem from the U.S. and other free world resources and knowhow that flooded into China precisely when the bipartisan Washington consensus viewed any possible dangers emanating from Beijing as “manageable.” In other words, whether knowingly or not, Anonymous in effect is arguing for a return to the policies that helped create the problem he’s (correctly) identified. And P.S. Since he or she is described as “a former senior government official with deep expertise and experience dealing with China,” chances are the author had more than a minor hand in crafting this failed approach.
The second fatal flaw in “The Longer Telegram” is its assumption that American foreign policymakers understand enough “about the fault lines of internal Chinese politics” to manipulate them into bringing back those allegedly manageable pre-Xi leaders. To which anyone with even the skimpiest knowledge of American diplomacy should be responding, “Remember Iran.”
For since that country’s 1979 revolution replaced a generally pro-American monarch with a zealously anti-American Shiite Islamic theocracy, U.S. leaders have tried repeatedly to find influential moderates that would help reshape the new regime’s behavior. Because the United States knew so little about the internal politics and fault lines of this leadership, all these efforts have failed. Does Anonymous really believe that Washington’s knowledge of China’s even more secretive leadership is any better?
The Atlantic Council, the globalist Washington, D.C. think tank that published “The Longer Telegram,” calls it “one of the most insightful and rigorous examinations to date of Chinese geopolitical strategy and how an informed American strategy would address the challenges of China’s own strategic ambitions.”
Actually, its signature recommendation is so internally contradictory and naive that I don’t blame the author for wanting to stay Anonymous.