THE LONGER TELEGRAM-Toward a new American China strategy
In the debate among the US strategy and security community, a strategy paper „The Longer Telegram- Towards a New American China strategy“ has been published by the Atlantic Council which sees itself in the tradition of George Kennan´s long telegram and containment strategy. The author of this work has requested to remain anonymous and it remains to be seen if this paper will become so influential as Kennan´s Longer Telegram for the US-China policy. It is also looking for bipartisan support which should become a stable base for the future-however the question is if this is still possible due to the polarized political landscape in the USA and if a new multilateralism is possible or a return to America First policy against potential allies might emerge and come back again..
Interesting is that the paper proposes not to counter China as a whole united, homogenous bloc aand entity, but to differentiate between Xi and his inner circles and other state, government and party´s strata and circles, groups in society, economy, etc. and use these flaw lines to change China´s behaviour, topple Xi, be it by a moderate CP China Gorbatchev or a regime change for a democratic China. Another interesting point is that the paper of the Atlantic Council proposes to „rebalance the relationship with Russia-whether we like it or not“ and to separate it from China. That was also Trump´s idea with his proposal to include Russia with India, South Korea and Australia in an anti-Chinese G 11. Another point is that China should be made responsible to prevent North Korea´s aggressive behavior. The Longer Telegram is a clear containment paper from China hawks, whereby the multilateralism with the allies against China is not the America First Trump position, while conversely the idea of an alliance between the USA and Russia against China is the fairest G11 Trump and is not Pompeo who hates Putin and Russia as he does Xi and China. Maybe this paper is more a „bipartisan“ strategy paper for the Republican party which tries to unite the position of Trump and Pompeo and to unite the establishment Republicans who could favour Pompeo as new US presidential candidate with the Trumpites and their purely America First. A strange synthesis of Trump’s and Pompeo´s China containment and confrontation policy, which is unlikely to become the new line of the Biden administration, which currently discusses their new position between congagement and coopetition. It remains to be seen if and how this paper will influence the strategic debate in the USA and beyond. Engagement is over, now the debate in the USA is about congagement, coopetition or containment.
The Longer Telegram is beyond military, economic, cultural, political and technological power estimations, be it hard or soft power pointing out that the decisive factor is „self-belief“. If the Americans don´t believe in their own exceptionalism anymore, they will have no enduring fighting spirit. 1929 with the black Friday stock market crash, everybody thought that this would be the end of capitalism and the USA. However, the USA due to Roosevelt´s Keynesian New Deal recovered and become the world power after WW 2. In the 70s due to the lost Vietnam war, the expansion of Soviet communism in the 3rd world, the OPEC oil price shocks, the economic crisis, and the Iranian revolution and hostage affairs, everybody spoke of the decline of the USA as a world power, but Reagan revitalized the self-belief, confronted the Soviet Union and with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iraq war 1991 the USA reemerged as the sole superpower. However, this self-belief got out of control and turned into hubris and overestimation and the Iraq war by Bush jr. and the neoliberal financial crisis 2008 as China´s accession to the WTO changed everything and the USA lost their „unipolar momentum“ (Krauthammer) and this was the end of „The end of history“. While it is correct that without self-belief as mobilizing psychological force, no nation can exist, the flaw line to voluntarism and hybris and overestimation of the own potentials and arrogance and ignorance is the other side of the coin. And Bush jr. and Trump and his Republican followers did a lot to destroy the self- belief with his America First and to destroy the belief of former allies in the reliability and stability of the USA while China used it to fill the vacuum–be it by RCEP or the EU-China investment protection agreement.
A first reaction to the Longer Telegram is the comment by Wang Xiangwei in the South China Morning Post, a Hongkong newspaper owned by Jack Ma´s Alibaba. However, Jack Ma has retreated from Alibaba and the CP China has taken more strict regulations and controls of Chinese hi-tech companies and fintech firms as Alibaba and may also have now more control over SCMP (as Chinese exile oligarch Guo Wengui in an interview with Kyle Bass prophecized). And the new security laws also have a direct influence on Hongkong newspapers and it was no accident that the owner of the liberal and independent Hongkong newspaper Apple Jimmy Lai was arrested. Here Wang Xiangwei´s comment in the SCMP which also summarizes the first US reactions to the strategy paper from a Chinese perspective- Wang tries to convince his readers that the USA should not engage in congagement or containment, but in coopetition and try to accept China´s multipolar world and live in somehow peaceful coexistence ad cooptetion with each other.
“The Longer Telegram is short-sighted. The US must accept it has a Chinese peer
- US strategy paper exaggerates China’s ambitions – whether on exporting its development model or usurping the international order – to push an agenda of regime change and containment
- While it regurgitates the views of Trump-era China hawks, wiser counsel says China cannot be contained and the US should learn to live with a competitor
To contain China or not, that is the question for American officials and analysts as President Joe Biden’s new administration ponders how to respond to what it sees as the most significant challenge facing the United States
Of the flurry of proposals churned out by US think tanks, the strategy paper titled “The Longer Telegram: Toward A New American China Strategy” published by the Atlantic Council late last month has raised some eyebrows among China watchers both in China and the US.
That is partly because the author, self-described as a former senior US official with deep China expertise and experience, has modelled the lengthy paper on the American diplomat George Kennan’s better known “The Long Telegram” in 1946. In more than 5,000 words, Kennan outlined the strategy of “containment” of the Soviet Union the US government was to adopt as the corner stone of its Cold War policies, which contributed to the eventual collapse of communist rule four decades later.
Using 26,000 words, The Longer Telegram urges the US to do the same to China in a time frame of 30 years: by 2050, it envisages, the US and its allies will “continue to dominate the regional and global balance of power”; President Xi Jinping will have been “replaced by a more moderate party leadership”; and the Chinese people will come to “question and challenge the Communist Party’s century-long proposition that China’s ancient civilisation is forever destined to an authoritarian future”.Biden calls China the ‘most serious competitor’ to the US, in his first foreign policy address
It is no coincidence that 2050 is also the target year Xi has set for China to become a great modern socialist country, to realise the “Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and to restore China as a global power.
Curiously, the author of The Longer Telegram even followed Kennan by requesting anonymity. In July 1947, Kennan published the abridged version of his ideas in Foreign Affairs magazine under the pseudonym “X”.
But questions have been raised as to why the author wanted to remain anonymous, given he is no longer in the government and the enormity of the strategy he is advocating. Kennan, in comparison, was a serving government official when his paper was published.
The Atlantic Council think tank called The Longer Telegram “an extraordinary new strategy paper that offers 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”.
So it is heartening to see that several American analysts have disagreed with it. Daniel Larison wrote in The American Conservative magazine that much of The Longer Telegram was a regurgitation of ideological claims about the Chinese government and its ambitions under Xi’s leadership, calling it “a recipe for costly failure”. Paul Heer wrote in The National Interest magazine that the so-called grand strategy would not solve the China challenge and its recommendations on how to handle Beijing could be “a recipe for trouble”.
In many ways, The Longer Telegram is a better informed and better written update of the untethered assertions of the China hawks in the Donald Trump administration, including former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. As it basically pushes for an American approach to effect regime change in China, the document, if adopted, would surely lead the two countries down the road of full-throttled confrontation.
As those analysts have pointed out, the biggest problem with The Longer Telegram is that it overstates China’s ambitions, reflecting the prevalent view of the China hawks.
It observes that Xi “intends to project China’s authoritarian system, coercive foreign policy, and military presence well beyond his country’s own borders to the world at large”.
It may be true that China under Xi’s leadership has abandoned the late leader Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy of “hiding one’s capabilities and biding one’s time” and is trying to maximise its economic power and influence to advance its goals on the global stage.
But the Chinese leadership well understands that it is almost impossible for Beijing to export its own governance model to other countries, not least because it considers its political model of combining the Communist Party’s authoritarian controls with free-market principles as a unique feature of Chinese exceptionalism.
The last time the party tried to export revolution, there were disastrous consequences. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, supported and financed communist insurgencies in some Southeast Asian countries, which has left suspicions of China’s intentions and ambitions lingering to this day.
It is true that China has become more assertive and aggressive over Hongkong, Taiwan, the South China Sea, East China Sea, and its borders with India-
But whether one agrees with China’s actions or not, all of those issues concern China’s territorial claims and sovereignty. Hong Kong is already part of the country.
The Longer Telegram also contends that China harbours ambitions to upend the US-led international order and build a China-centric rival order, without presenting any evidence.
The contrary is true. In fact, over the past four decades, China has gained so much from the current order that it wants to improve the order to benefit more from it, as any country would do. During the past four years, it was the Trump administration which undermined international organisations – including the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization– that Americans used to lead.
While most of the paper’s recommendations for countering China have been said before by other China hawks, the document does contain one unique element which calls on the US to remain laser-focused on Xi, who “has centralised nearly all decision-making power in his own hands”.
The author proposes that the US take advantage of the internal fault lines of Chinese politics, as “senior party members are greatly troubled by Xi’s policy direction and angered by his endless demands for absolute loyalty.”
But it remains unclear how this can be done and pursuing this policy could produce the opposite effect, prompting Xi to further tighten his grip and other party leaders to become more compliant for fear of being accused of colluding with foreign forces.
Those are just a few examples of how the document exaggerated China’s ambitions to justify the containment policy the author advocates.
On Wednesday, Martin Wolf, a well-known commentator, ran a forceful piece in The Financial Times, arguing that containing China was not a feasible option given Chinas vibrant economy, its high integration with the world economy and the US’s damaged reputation, particularly under Trump.
Another article which made more sense was co-authored by Kurt Campbell, Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, back in 2019 before they were appointed to their current positions. Published in Foreign Affairs, the article titled “Competition Without Catastrophe” argued that despite many divides between the two countries, each needed to be prepared to live with the other as a major power and such coexistence would require elements of cooperation and competition.
In other words, Americans must learn to accept a peer competitor.”
German professor Hans van Ess, president of the Max Weber Foundation and sinologist comments the Longer Telegram with the following analysis:
„Three points seem important to me: First, that the author believes America must remain number one in the world, but has no real ideas on how to do it in today’s world. We are no longer in the post-war era, and the interdependencies have become too strong because the populations of the USA and Europe have changed massively. Second, that he thinks that a key role will be to draw the allies to the US side. That is correct, and he also says that it will not be so easy because the allies want not to choose between the US and China. But he does not say what he would like to offer the allies to side with the US. Thirdly, this leads to the lack of a retrospective look back at the things that the USA – despite all the sympathy I have for the country for its vitality – has brought the world over the past twenty years, from the dot-com bubble to Iraq -War to the financial crisis from 2008 to the Libya war. What is missing here is that these were all events in which Europe had to pay for what the Americans did wrong. If you want to win them, you will need some self-knowledge. I dare to doubt whether the author correctly assessed all of China’s weaknesses. Rather, they are notches that you might try to hit. But whether that will lead to anything is another matter. That means: He demands a strategy, but actually doesn’t have one himself. If the author should have any influence, then the paper gives indications of what we can expect in the next few years. In my opinion, the Trumpists are more of a media problem. Trump has left many agreements, but unlike under the two presidents before him, there was no real catastrophe that would have seriously affected the world, at least not in a directly visible form (maybe Hong Kong and Covid are of course somehow attached also with him, and then he would have his catastrophe too). In fact, the Longer Telegram pretends to be against Trump, but the language is the same: Make America great again. There is actually nothing wrong with this wish, but you just have to know how you want to achieve it. It takes more than discovering weaknesses in others and trying to exploit them. You have to actually work on yourself and then deal with the difficulties of reality. Sanctions against countries that do something that you do not want yourself to do without it really being your business do not build trust. That doesn’t seem to go into people’s heads. That too is understandable: the USA is a large and powerful country, and so far everything has always worked. But the dollar’s power has eroded precisely because it has been continually weakened. Real politics would be required, not pure emotions.“
A good point that under Trump actually no real catastrophe happened. Although in the case of Iran and North Korea one sometimes thought that it would crash soon. But the little fat man on the suicide mission gave in. Nevertheless, the retreat from the Paris Climate Accord, the declaration of obsolete NATO and questioning of Article 5 as well as the exit from TPP and the storm obn Capitol Hill were serious decisions.
Here the foreword and the executive summary of The Longer Telegram;
THE LONGER TELEGRAM
Toward a new American China strategy
Foreword by Frederick Kempe
Today the Atlantic Council publishes an extraordinary new strategy paper that offers 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.
Written by a former senior government official with deep expertise and experience dealing with China, the strategy sets out a comprehensive approach, and details the ways to execute it, in terms that will invite comparison with George Kennan’s historic 1946 “long telegram” on Soviet grand strategy. We have maintained the author’s preferred title for the work, “The Longer Telegram,” given the author’s aspiration to provide a similarly durable and actionable approach to China.
The focus of the paper is China’s leader and his behavior. “The single most important challenge facing the United States in the twenty-first century is the rise of an increasingly authoritarian China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping,” it says. “US strategy must remain laser focused on Xi, his inner circle, and the Chinese political context in which they rule. Changing their decision-making will require understanding, operating within, and changing their political and strategic paradigm. All US policy aimed at altering China’s behavior should revolve around this fact, or it is likely to prove ineffectual.”
The author of this work has requested to remain anonymous, and the Atlantic Council has honored this for reasons we consider legitimate but that will remain confidential. The Council has not taken such a measure before, but it made the decision to do so given the extraordinary significance of the author’s insights and recommendations as the United States confronts the signature geopolitical challenge of the era. The Council will not be confirming the author’s identity unless and until the author decides to take that step.
The Atlantic Council as an organization does not adopt or advocate positions on particular matters. The Council’s publications always represent the views of the author(s) rather than those of the institution, and this paper is no different from any other in that sense.
Nonetheless, we stand by the importance and gravity of the issues that this paper raises and view it as one of the most important the Council has ever published. The Council is proud to serve as a platform for bold ideas, insights, and strategies as we advance our mission of shaping the global future together for a more free, prosperous, and secure world. As China rapidly increases its political and economic clout during this period of historic geopolitical crisis, this moment calls for a thorough understanding of its strategy and power structure. The perspectives set forth in this paper deserve the full attention of elected leaders in the United States and the leaders of its democratic partners and allies.
The single most important challenge facing the United States in the twenty-first century is the rise of an increasingly authoritarian China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping. China’s rise, because of the scale of its economy and its military, the speed of its technological advancement, and its radically different worldview than that of the United States, now profoundly impacts every major US national interest. This is a structural challenge that, to some extent, has been gradually emerging over the last two decades. The rise to power of Xi has greatly accentuated this challenge, and accelerated its timetable.
At home, Xi has returned China to classical Marxism-Leninism and fostered a quasi-Maoist personality cult, pursuing the systematic elimination of his political opponents. China’s market reforms have stalled and its private sector is now under direct forms of party control. Unapologetically nationalist, Xi has used ethnonationalism to unite his country against any challenges to his authority, internal or external. His treatment of recalcitrant ethnic minorities within China borders on genocide. Xi’s China increasingly resembles a new form of totalitarian police state. In what is a fundamental departure from his risk-averse post-Mao predecessors, Xi has demonstrated that he intends to project China’s authoritarian system, coercive foreign policy, and military presence well beyond his country’s own borders to the world at large. China under Xi, unlike under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, is no longer a status quo power. It has become a revisionist power. For the United States, its allies, and the US-led liberal international order, this represents a fundamental shift in the strategic environment. Ignoring this profound change courts peril. Xi is no longer just a problem for US primacy. He now presents a serious problem for the whole of the democratic world.
The single most important challenge facing the United States in the twenty-first century is the rise of an increasingly authoritarian China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping.
The fundamental strategic question for the United States, under a Republican or Democratic administration, is what to do about this challenge. It is now a matter of urgency that this country develop an integrated, operational, and bipartisan national strategy to guide the content and implementation of US policy toward Xi’s China for the next three decades. Some will argue that the United States already has a China strategy, pointing to the Trump administration’s declaration of “strategic competition” as the “central challenge” of US foreign and national-security policy, as enshrined in the 2017 US National Security Strategy. However, while the Trump administration did well to sound the alarm on China and its annunciation of strategic competition with Beijing was important, its episodic efforts at implementation were chaotic and at times contradictory. At root, the issue is that “strategic competition” is a declaration of doctrinal attitude, not a comprehensive strategy to be operationalized.
The uncomfortable truth is that China has long had an integrated internal strategy for handling the United States, and so far this strategy has been implemented with reasonable, although not unqualified, success. By contrast, the United States, which once operationalized a unified strategy to deal with the challenge of the Soviet Union, in the form of George Kennan’s containment, so far has none in relation to China. This has been a dereliction of national responsibility.
Washington’s difficulty in developing an effective China strategy has been accentuated by the absence of a clearly understood strategic objective. At present, articulated objectives range from inducing Chinese economic reform through a limited trade war to full-blown regime change. Kennan’s famous 1946 “long telegram” from Moscow was primarily an analysis of the inherent structural weaknesses within the Soviet model itself, anchored by its analytical conclusion that the USSR would ultimately collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. The entire doctrine of containment was based on this critical underlying assumption. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), however, has been much more dexterous in survival than its Soviet counterpart, aided by the fact that China has studied carefully, over more than a decade, “what went wrong” in the Soviet Union. It would therefore be extremely hazardous for US strategists to accept that an effective future US China strategy should rest on an assumption that the Chinese system is destined to inevitably collapse from within—much less to make the “overthrow of the Communist Party” the nation’s declared objective. In fact, indulgence in politically appealing calls for the overthrow of the ninety-one-million-member CCP as a whole is strategically self-defeating. Such an approach only strengthens Xi’s hand as it enables him to circle elite political and popular nationalist wagons in defense of both party and country. The present challenge will require a qualitatively different and more granular policy response to China than the blunt instrument of “containment with Chinese characteristics” and a dream of CCP collapse.
The wisdom in Kennan’s analysis was his profound appraisal of how the Soviet Union functioned internally and the development of a US strategy that worked along the grain of that complex reality. The same needs to be done with China. The political reality is that the CCP is significantly divided on Xi’s leadership and his vast ambitions. Senior party members have been greatly troubled by Xi’s policy direction and angered by his endless demands for absolute loyalty. They fear for their own lives and the future livelihoods of their families. Of particular political toxicity in this mix are the reports unearthed by international media of the wealth amassed by Xi’s family and members of his political inner circle, despite the vigor with which Xi has conducted the anti-corruption campaign. It is simply unsophisticated strategy to treat the entire Communist Party as a single target when such internal fault lines should be clear to the analyst’s eye—and in the intelligent policy maker’s penning. A campaign to overthrow the party also ignores the fact that China, under all five of its post-Mao leaders prior to Xi, was able to work with the United States. Under them, China aimed to join the existing international order, not to remake it in China’s own image. Now, however, the mission for US China strategy should be to see China return to its pre-2013 path—i.e., the pre-Xi strategic status quo. There were, of course, many challenges to US interests during Hu’s second term, but they were manageable and did not represent a serious violation of the US-led international order. All US political and policy responses to China therefore should be focused through the principal lens of Xi himself.
Of all the elements commonly missing from discussions of US strategy toward China so far, this is the most critical. While US leaders often differentiate between China’s Communist Party government and the Chinese people, Washington must achieve the sophistication necessary to go even further. US leaders also must differentiate between the government and the party elite, as well as between the party elite and Xi. Given the reality that today’s China is a state in which Xi has centralized nearly all decision-making power in his own hands, and used that power to substantially alter China’s political, economic, and foreign-policy trajectory, US strategy must remain laser focused on Xi, his inner circle, and the Chinese political context in which they rule. Changing their decision-making will require understanding, operating within, and changing their political and strategic paradigm. All US policy aimed at altering China’s behavior should revolve around this fact, or it is likely to prove ineffectual. This strategy must also be long term—able to function at the timescale that a Chinese leader like Xi sees himself ruling and influencing—as well as fully operationalized, transcending the rhetorical buzzwords that have too often substituted for genuine US strategy toward Beijing. Defending our democracies from the challenge posed by China will require no less.
Implementing such a strategy would require a firm understanding of Xi’s strategic objectives, which include the following:
- leapfrog the United States as a technological power and thereby displace it as the world’s dominant economic power
- undermine US dominance of the global financial system and the status of the US dollar as the global reserve currency
- achieve military preponderance sufficient to deter the United States and its allies from intervention in any conflict over Taiwan, the South China Sea, or the East China Sea
- diminish the credibility of US power and influence sufficiently to cause those states currently inclined to “balance” against China to instead join the bandwagon with China
- deepen and sustain China’s relationship with its neighbor and most valuable strategic partner, Russia, in order to head off Western pressure
- consolidate the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into a geopolitical and geoeconomic bloc in support of China’s policy ambitions, forming the foundation for a future Sinocentric global order
- use China’s growing influence within international institutions to delegitimize and overturn initiatives, standards, and norms perceived as hostile to China’s interests—particularly on human rights and international maritime law—while advancing a new, hierarchical, authoritarian conception of international order under Xi’s deliberately amorphous concept of a “community of common destiny for all mankind”
The Chinese Communist Party keenly understands Sun Tzu’s maxim that “what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy,” and the US should as well. Any US approach must seek to frustrate Xi’s ambitions. That means first clarifying which US national interests are to be protected, together with those of principal partners and allies. This includes the following:
- retain collective economic and technological superiority
- protect the global status of the US dollar
- maintain overwhelming conventional military deterrence and prevent any unacceptable shift in the strategic nuclear balance
- prevent any Chinese territorial expansion, especially the forcible reunification with Taiwan
- consolidate and expand alliances and partnerships
- defend (and as necessary reform) the current rules-based liberal international order and, critically, its ideological underpinnings, including core democratic values
- address persistent shared global threats, including preventing catastrophic climate change
Given China’s significant and growing “comprehensive national power,” some may question how this can realistically be achieved. 1 The overriding political objective should be to cause China’s elite leadership to collectively conclude that it is in the country’s best interests to continue to operate within the existing US-led liberal international order rather than build a rival order, and that it is in the party’s best interests, if it wishes to remain in power at home, not to attempt to expand China’s borders or export its political model beyond China’s shores. In other words, China can become a different type of global great power than that envisaged by Xi. The primary way in which the United States can seek to achieve these ends (while also protecting its own core advantages) is to change China’s objectives and behavior. A detailed, operationalized strategy should comprise seven integrated components:
- rebuild the economic, military, technological, and human-capital underpinnings of US long-term national power
- agree on a limited set of enforceable policy “red lines” that China should be deterred from crossing under any circumstances
- agree on a larger number of “major national security interests” which are neither vital nor existential in nature but which require a range of retaliatory actions to inform future Chinese strategic behavior
- identify important but less critical areas where neither red lines nor the delineation of major national interests may be necessary, but where the full force of strategic competition should be deployed by the United States against China
- define those areas where continued strategic cooperation with China remains in US interests—where such “megathreats” include climate disruption, global pandemics, and nuclear security
- prosecute a full-fledged, global ideological battle in defense of political, economic, and societal freedoms against China’s authoritarian state-capitalist model
- agree on the above strategy in sufficiently granular form with the United States’ major Asian and European treaty allies so that their combined critical mass (economic, military, and technological) is deployed in common defense of the US-led liberal international order
These seven components should be implemented through a fully coordinated interagency and interallied effort, under the central direction of the national security advisor, underpinned by a presidential directive with the bipartisan political support to endure across multiple administrations.
This US strategy should be developed on the basis of ten core organizing principles:
First, US strategy must be based on the four fundamental pillars of American power: the power of the nation’s military; the status of the US dollar as the global reserve currency and mainstay of the international financial system; global technological leadership, given that technology has become the major determinant of future national power; and the values of individual freedom, fairness, and the rule of law for which the nation continues to stand, despite its recent political divisions and difficulties.
Second, US strategy must begin by attending to domestic economic and institutional weaknesses. The success of China’s rise has been predicated on a meticulous strategy, executed over thirty-five years, of identifying and addressing China’s structural economic weaknesses in manufacturing, trade, finance, human capital, and now technology. The United States must now do the same.
Third, the United States’ China strategy must be anchored in both national values and national interests. This is what has long distinguished the nation from China in the eyes of the world. The defense of universal liberal values and the liberal international order, as well as the maintenance of US global power, must be the twin pillars of America’s global call to arms.
Fourth, US strategy must be fully coordinated with major allies so that action is taken in unity in response to China. This has nothing to do with making allies feel good or better than they have. It’s because the United States now needs them to win. As noted previously, China ultimately places great weight on its calculation of the evolving balance of comprehensive power between the United States and itself. The reality is that, as the gap between Chinese and US power closes during the 2020s, the most credible factor that can alter that trajectory is if US power is augmented by that of its principal allies.
Fifth, the United States’ China strategy also must address the wider political and economic needs of its principal allies and partners rather than assuming that they will choose to adopt a common, coordinated strategic position on China out of the goodness of their hearts. Unless the United States also deals with the fact that China has become the principal trading partner for most, if not all, of its major allies, this underlying economic reality alone will have growing influence over the willingness of traditional allies to challenge China’s increasingly assertive international behavior.
Sixth, the United States must rebalance its relationship with Russia whether it likes it or not. Effectively reinforcing US alliances is critical. Dividing Russia from China in the future is equally so. Allowing Russia to drift fully into China’s strategic embrace over the last decade will go down as the single greatest geostrategic error of successive US administrations.
Seventh, the central focus of an effective US and allied China strategy must be directed at the internal fault lines of domestic Chinese politics in general and concerning Xi’s leadership in particular. A fundamental error of US strategy has been to attack China as a whole, thereby enabling Xi’s leadership to circle the wagons within Chinese politics around the emotional pull of Chinese nationalism and civilizational pride. Just as significant an error has been to crudely attack the Chinese Communist Party itself. However, the political reality is that the party is divided on Xi’s leadership where he threatens the lives, careers, and deeply held policy positions of many within its senior political echelons.
Eighth, US strategy must never forget the innately realist nature of the Chinese strategy that it is seeking to defeat. Chinese leaders respect strength and are contemptuous of weakness. They respect consistency and are contemptuous of vacillation. China does not believe in strategic vacuums.
Ninth, US strategy must understand that China remains for the time being highly anxious about military conflict with the United States, but that this attitude will change as the military balance shifts over the next decade. If military conflict were to erupt between China and the United States, and China failed to win decisively, then—given the party’s domestic propaganda offensive over many years proclaiming China’s inevitable rise—Xi would probably fall and the regime’s overall political legitimacy would collapse.
Tenth, for Xi, too, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Short of defeat in any future military action, the single greatest factor that could contribute to Xi’s fall is economic failure. That would mean large-scale unemployment and falling living standards for China’s population. Full employment and rising living standards are the essential components of the unspoken social contract between the Chinese people and the CCP since the tumult of the Cultural Revolution.
The list of core domestic tasks which the United States must address as part of any effective strategy for dealing with Xi’s China is familiar. They are all structural, long term, and with dividends that will only be yielded over a decade or more. They include, but are not be limited to, the following:
- reversing declining investments in critical national economic infrastructure including next-generation 5G mobile systems
- reversing declining public investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, universities, and basic scientific research
- ensuring the United States remains the global leader in the major categories of technological innovation including artificial intelligence (AI)
- developing a new political consensus on the future nature and scale of immigration to the United States in order to ensure that the US population continues to grow, remains young, and avoids the demographic implosions threatening many other developed and emerging economies including China itself, while retaining the best and brightest from around the world who come to the United States to study
- rectifying the long-term budgetary trajectory of the United States so that the national debt is ultimately kept within acceptable parameters, accommodating the new expansionary monetary policy without creating an inflation crisis and weakening the role of the US dollar
- resolving, or at least reducing, the severe divisions now endemic in the political system, institutions, and culture, which undermine the capacity to agree on, make, and stick to long-term national decisions fundamental to the consolidation of historical strengths and the exploitation of new opportunities
- addressing the critical question of future national political resolve to safeguard, build, and even expand the liberal international order, rather than accept or embrace a new wave of isolationism that will inevitably drag the United States inward rather than outward and proving China wrong in its calculation that this US resolve is waning
Deterring and preventing China from crossing US red lines
The United States’ list of red lines should be short, focused, and enforceable. China’s tactic for many years has been to blur the red lines that might otherwise lead to open confrontation with the United States too early for Beijing’s liking. The United States must be very clear about which Chinese actions it will seek to deter and, should deterrence fail, will prompt direct US intervention. These should be unambiguously communicated to Beijing through high-level diplomatic channels so that China is placed on notice. This list of red lines should include these elements:
- any nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons action by China against the United States or its allies, or by North Korea where China has failed to take decisive action to prevent any such North Korean action 2
- any Chinese military attack against Taiwan or its offshore islands, including an economic blockade or major cyberattack against Taiwanese public infrastructure and institutions 3
- any Chinese attack against Japanese forces in their defense of Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands and their surrounding exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the East China Sea
- any major Chinese hostile action in the South China Sea to further reclaim and militarize islands, to deploy force against other claimant states, or to prevent full freedom of navigation operations by the United States and allied maritime forces 4
- any Chinese attack against the sovereign territory or military assets of US treaty allies
Areas of major national concern
There is a further category of major national security concerns for the United States which also will warrant a US response, but not necessarily of a military nature. These are national security interests of a nonvital, but nonetheless highly significant nature. There are multiple tools in the US tool kit that can be deployed for these purposes that will not only send a message to the senior echelons of the Chinese leadership that a line has been crossed, but also administer real and measurable pain. Once again, these concerns should be communicated in advance through high-level private diplomacy. This list should include:
- continued refusal by China, within a defined time frame, to participate in substantive bilateral or multilateral strategic nuclear arms reduction talks, with the object of securing a cap on China’s program of nuclear modernization and expansion
- any action by China that threatens the security of US space assets or global communications systems
- any major Chinese cyberattack against any US or allied governments’ critical economic, social, or political infrastructure
- any act of large-scale military or economic belligerence against US treaty allies or other critical strategic partners, including India
- any act of genocide or crimes against humanity against any group within China
Areas of declared strategic competition
Deterring certain Chinese strategic behaviors, particularly in the security domain, is one thing. Punishing other behaviors where other major US national security interests are at stake is another. Allowing for a wider form of strategic competition, particularly in the diplomatic and economic domains, however, also is an important part of a fully calibrated strategy. Having all three categories within a single strategic framework is possible. The rationale for including “strategic competition” is to address those areas where the two countries have clearly conflicting policy agendas but where it is judged that these conflicts can be resolved by means other than the threat or use of force, or by other coercive or significantly punitive measures. It infers that while the interests at stake are important, they are neither existential nor critical in nature. These interests may still involve areas of policy activity that are preparatory to the eventual use of force, such as areas related to long-term military and economic preparedness. Or they may include areas which, by their nature, will never involve the use of lethal means. Nonetheless, the common characteristic for all of these areas of strategic competition must be confidence that the United States can and will prevail, with US underlying strengths and values still providing the stronger hand to play in what remains an open, competitive, international environment. These areas of strategic competition against China should include the following:
- sustaining current US force levels in the Indo-Pacific region (because to do otherwise would cause China to conclude that the United States has begun to retreat from its alliance commitments), while also modernizing military doctrine, platforms, and capabilities to ensure robust regionwide deterrence
- stabilizing relations with Russia and encouraging the same between Russia and Japan
- concluding a fully operationalized Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with India, Japan, and Australia by inducing India to abandon its final political and strategic reservations against such an arrangement
- facilitating the normalization of Japan-South Korea relations to prevent Korea from continuing to drift strategically in China’s direction
- prioritizing trade, investment, development, diplomatic, and security relations between the United States and each of the Southeast Asian states, particularly with US allies Thailand and the Philippines, to prevent further strategic drift by Southeast Asia toward China
- protecting the global reserve currency status of the US dollar
- protecting critical new technologies, both US and allied, from Chinese acquisition
- integrating, to the greatest extent possible, the US, Canadian, and Mexican economies into a seamless market of five-hundred million in order to underpin long-term economic strength relative to China
- renegotiating the transpacific partnership agreement and then acceding to it
- negotiating a transatlantic trade and investment partnership with the European Union and acceding to it, along with other potential agreements on technology or other issues
- enforcing China’s pledges on trade and investment liberalization, state subsidies, dumping, and intellectual-property protection, in partnership with friends and allies, through a reformed multilateral trade dispute-resolution mechanism
- reforming and reviving the World Trade Organization (WTO), its dispute-resolution machinery, and the integrity of international trade law rather than allowing further incremental drift toward global protectionism
- investing at scale, alongside US allies, in the World Bank and the regional development banks, in order to provide emerging economies with an effective means of funding the development of their national infrastructure, thus encouraging use of the World Bank (including its transparent governance standards) as a credible alternative to the BRI
- revitalizing the UN and other multilateral and international institutions as the cornerstones of global political governance
- rebuilding the State Department including its operational budgets and staffing levels to be able to diplomatically compete with China globally
- increasing US overseas development aid through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and established United Nations (UN) humanitarian agencies in order to, together with US allies, sustain donor dominance over China through coordinated global aid delivery
- strengthening, consistent with existing international treaties, multilateral human rights institutional arrangements to maintain multilateral pressure on both China’s domestic human rights practices as well as the Communist Party’s international political legitimacy
Areas of continued strategic cooperation
There is a further set of policy challenges where it is in US interests, together with those of allies, to continue to engage in bilateral or multilateral strategic cooperation with China. This is not to make Americans feel better or to be nice to the Chinese. It is because in these areas US interests are best advanced by working with Beijing rather than against it. Under current circumstances, areas for strategic cooperation with China would include the following:
- negotiating a nuclear arms control agreement with China to bring China within the global arms control regime for the first time and to prevent a new nuclear arms race
- collaborating on the actual denuclearization of North Korea
- negotiating bilateral agreements on cyber warfare and cyber espionage
- negotiating bilateral agreements on the peaceful use of space
- negotiating protocols on future limitations on AI-controlled autonomous weapons systems
- cooperating in the Group of Twenty (G20) on global macroeconomic and financial stability to prevent future global crises and recessions
- cooperating multilaterally though the G20 and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, bilaterally on global greenhouse gas reductions, and trilaterally with India, the world’s third-largest emitter
- collaborating on a global research project on breakthrough climate technologies including long-term solar-energy storage, as part of a global research consortium
- cooperating on future AI-based medical and pharmaceutical research to develop new responses to major disease categories affecting both countries including cancer
- cooperating on the development of effective future global pandemic notification and management, as well as vaccine development
And may the best side win in the global battle for ideas
Ideas still matter in politics and international relations. It is not just a question of the balance of power, critical though that is. How a people think about themselves, the types of societies being built, the economies under development, and the polities that evolve to resolve differences all profoundly shape world views. This contest of ideas will continue. Xi has already thrown down the ideological challenge to the United States and the West with his concept of an authoritarian-capitalist model and his so-called community with a shared future for mankind. For North Americans, Europeans, and others who believe in open economies, just societies, and competitive political systems, the challenge is to have continuing confidence in the inherent efficacy of the ideas upon which they rest.
Implementation: The critical role of allies
This seven-part strategy must be implemented nationally, bilaterally, regionally, multilaterally, and globally. This has been China’s approach for decades. Again, this is where allies are no longer optional but crucial, given that they can often achieve what the United States cannot, whether in particular countries, regions, or institutions. The United States should always bear in mind that China has no allies other than North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia, placing Beijing at a considerable strategic disadvantage globally relative to the United States. Allies are a great advantage. Such an approach will require an unprecedented level of US national and international policy coordination. It will require the rebuilding of the US Foreign Service and USAID. It will require the complete integration of the efforts of the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, and Commerce, the Office of the US Trade Representative, USAID, and the intelligence community. This will mean that future national security advisors (augmented with the best and brightest high-level support staff) will need to be individually responsible for full coordination and final execution of the United States’ long-term China strategy.
There is no reason to believe it impossible, if such a strategy is successfully followed, that Xi will in time be replaced by the more traditional form of Communist Party leadership. Xi, as noted previously, is already provoking significant reactions against himself and his current strategic course. Over the longer term the Chinese people themselves may well come to question and challenge the party’s century-long proposition that China’s ancient civilization is forever destined to an authoritarian future. The latter, however, is ultimately a matter for the Chinese people themselves, rather than US strategy. Instead, the ambition of US strategy for the decades ahead should be to cause China’s Communist Party leadership to change strategic course—with or without Xi at the helm.
In the final analysis, the major problem facing the United States in confronting Xi’s China is not one of military, economic, or technological capabilities. It is one of self-belief. There is a subtle yet corrosive force that has been at work in the United States’ national psychology for some time now, raising doubt about the nation’s future and encouraging a sense that, as a country, America’s best days may now be in the past. Adversaries and allies sense this as well. Objectively, there is no basis for any such despair. The United States, as a country, is young, and the capacity for innovation is unsurpassed. The values for which it stands have stood the test of time. This is where the nation’s leadership must once again step up to the challenge—not just to provide the nation with vision, mission, and purpose; not just to frame the strategy and give it effect; but to cause the American people to once again believe in the nation and its capacity to provide effective global leadership for the century ahead. In doing so, the nation must also lead its friends and allies to once again believe in the United States as well.