Two China Policy Roads to Nowhere
If Joe Biden follows his longstanding Beijing-coddling instincts, then the United States is bound to become more vulnerable and more beholden to the People’s Republic than ever.
How lucky for President Joe 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 Biden follows his longstanding Beijing-coddling instincts and generally heeds the authors, then 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 Kennan; and a collective effort from a “China Strategy Group” dominated by Silicon Valley figures (and co-chaired by Google co-founder Eric Schmidt).
As a Kennan admirer (but not worshipper), I was especially intrigued by the first China strategy paper, despite its pretentiously Kennan-evoking title, The Longer Telegram. Unfortunately, if Kennan himself read it, he'd probably be hard-pressed to decide whether to laugh or cry.
The most eye-catching proposal made by the author (who also apes the desire for anonymity Kennan displayed in the famous 1947 Sources of Soviet Conduct article, which was published in 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 agree 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 the anonymous author 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 the anonymous author’s 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, then 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 the anonymous author 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 United States and other free world resources. This knowhow 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, the anonymous author is effectively arguing for a return to the policies that helped create the problem he’s (correctly) identified. Also, 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 the anonymous author really believe that Washington’s knowledge of China’s even more secretive leadership is any better?
The Atlantic Council, the globalist Washington, DC 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.
The second recent China blueprint, from the Silicon Valley-dominated “China Strategy Group" can be read more profitably by the president, because popping up here and there are some insights that are genuinely valuable especially since they come from analysts once strongly supportive of what they themselves call the pre-Trump strategy of “near-unbounded integration.”
Principally, the group, which notably is co-chaired by Google co-founder Eric Schmidt, calls for recognizing that “some degree of [U.S.-China] disentangling is both inevitable and preferable. In fact, trends in both countries—and many of the tools at our disposal—inherently and necessarily push toward some degree of bifurcation.” In other words, it’s endorsed a limited version of what’s now commonly called economic and technological decoupling.
In addition, it argues that both this decoupling, along with tariffs that it acknowledges may be needed to push back against certain Chinese offenses and provocations, should be pursued even though they will entail costs—a refreshing and crucially important departure from the long-time pre- and post-Trump consensus in the mainstream American political, business and policy communities that any increased consumer or producer price, or loss of even a smidgeon of market share in China resulting from retaliation from Beijing, proves conclusively the folly of placing any significant curbs on doing business with the People’s Republic.
Finally, the group points out that efforts to rebuild domestic supply chains to reduce reliance on China for critical goods must involve “more than a focus on the end products. Safeguarding key technologies requires the United States to define and secure the entire ecosystem of production, from fabrication to supply to talent to cutting-edge innovation.” In other words, Washington can’t simply seek to become self-sufficient, or largely so, in face masks or ventilators or semiconductors. It needs to become self-sufficient or largely so in all the materials, parts, and components required to make these products.
Yet many of these important insights (and useful recommendations for restructuring the U.S. government to foster the competition with China more effectively) are kneecapped by equivocation and a resulting failure to understand that sometimes policy scalpels cut too finely, and some policy needles are too small to be threaded—especially considering the “all of society” drive China’s totalitarian system is making to gain global technology leadership, and the dangers to America’s “security, prosperity, and way of life” Chinese success would create.
For example, the group emphasizes that decoupling policy mustn’t invite “escalatory cycles of confrontation, retaliation, or unintended conflict” or overlook those areas “where cooperation, collaboration, and exchange with China is in our interest, as severing ties and closing off the United States to the ideas, people, technologies, and supply chains necessary to compete effectively will undermine U.S. innovation.” At the same time, the authors acknowledge that China will respond to any further U.S. decoupling moves “more aggressively” precisely because “China’s leaders understand U.S. dependency as an important source of leverage.”