Why the ‘Longer Telegram’ Won’t Solve the China Challenge


Why the ‘Longer Telegram’ Won’t Solve the China Challenge

Last week, “a former senior government official” published his own version of the X article, but this time with a focus on modern-day China. Its recommendations on how to handle Beijing could be a recipe for trouble. 

In February 1946, the State Department requested from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow “an interpretive analysis of what we may expect in the way of future implementation” of Soviet foreign policy. George F. Kennan, the deputy chief of mission who was running the embassy in the interim between two ambassadors, responded with what came to be known as “The Long Telegram”—a 5000-word synthesis of Soviet strategic thinking and proposed U.S. strategy for dealing with it. This telegram, and a version of its ideas that he published anonymously in July 1947 (the “X” article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” in the journal Foreign Affairs), made Kennan famous as the author of the doctrine of “containment” of the Soviet Union.

Last week [28 January], “a former senior government official” with the “aspiration to provide a similarly durable and actionable approach to China”—and reportedly with “deep expertise and experience dealing with China”—attempted to replicate Kennan’s feat by publishing anonymously (via the Atlantic Council) “The Longer Telegram: Toward a New American China Strategy.” Its “executive summary” is almost as long as Kennan’s original “Long Telegram.” This new document successfully echoes Kennan’s work in several respects. It correctly warns that China poses a profound and unprecedented strategic challenge to the United States, and that Washington urgently needs a comprehensive and bipartisan national strategy for responding to that challenge. But its diagnosis of the problem is not as accurate—and its proposed strategy is not as realistic—as Kennan’s.

On the plus side, there are key elements of the “Longer Telegram” that are commendably on target in both diagnosis and prescription. It is certainly true that “the rise of China represents the most significant postwar challenge to U.S. leadership of the global political, economic, and security order.” The document provides a very comprehensive outline of Beijing’s strategic priorities. Those priorities start with keeping the Chinese Communist Party in control but encompass all the requirements of sustaining internal stability and prosperity, while maximizing China’s external security and wealth and power and influence. Beijing ultimately seeks a global order that is “more compatible with Chinese interests and values” and “more multipolar and less US-centric.” The report offers a similarly comprehensive balance sheet of the strategic strengths and vulnerabilities that China brings to this pursuit.

The author presents a broad summary of Beijing’s strategy, noting the Chinese emphasis on relative power calculations; emphasizing Deng Xiaoping’s guidance at the end of the Cold War for China to “hide its capabilities and bide its time” until strategic conditions were in its favor; and highlighting how Beijing over the past decade has seized the opportunity to move beyond that stage, based on its assessment of the narrowing gap between Chinese and U.S. power. The report features an inclusive list of policies that Beijing is pursuing regionally and globally to capitalize on its wealth and power and extend its influence.

The report is equally comprehensive in its discussion of the requirements for, and components of, a U.S. strategy for dealing with China. It must be “integrated, bipartisan . . . executed consistently, comprehensively, and at multiple levels . . . [and] implemented nationally, bilaterally, regionally, multilaterally, and globally.” It will require Washington to “establish the machinery of state to develop, agree on, and implement such a strategy across all U.S. agencies with the full support of senior congressional leadership.”

The author states that the goal of U.S. strategy will be to “generate maximum leverage to bring about substantive changes in Chinese strategic decision-making and behavior” and “measurable policy changes in Beijing that force the regime to conform to the principles of the current liberal international order.” Such a strategy will require mobilizing the “four fundamental pillars of American power”: the U.S. military, the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency, U.S. global technological leadership, and the values of democracy and rule of law. The report highlights that executing this strategy will also require full coordination with U.S. allies and partners, but the author admits that this will be particularly challenging because of diverging international views on how best to deal with Beijing and “the economic pull of China’s market.” Indeed, “the sheer scale of China’s economic weight in the world is of itself the greatest structural challenge to future alliance solidarity in dealing with the China challenge.”

The Longer Telegram outlines the key elements of a recommended U.S. strategy going forward. This includes a list of “major national security concerns”—such as arms control, cyber security, “military or economic belligerence,” and “crimes against humanity”—on which Washington will maintain constant pressure on Beijing. The article also details the many “areas of declared strategic competition” in which the United States must be prepared to compete with China globally for diplomatic influence, economic opportunities, and in military capabilities. In addition, the author recommends a “short, focused, and enforceable” list of “red lines” that Washington must “not allow China to cross under any circumstances” and which must be “unambiguously communicated to Beijing through high-level diplomatic channels.” This list predictably includes any Chinese WMD attack against the United States or its allies, and any Chinese attack on Taiwan or “against Japanese forces in their defense of Japanese sovereignty”; but it also includes “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.” Amidst this survey of the spheres of U.S.-China competition, the report acknowledges the utility of and opportunities for U.S.-China cooperation in such areas as climate change, the global economy, pandemics, nuclear arms control, and North Korea.

Perhaps most importantly, the report fully acknowledges that the primary prerequisite for U.S. competition with China will be rebuilding America’s economic and military strength. The author highlights the need for Washington to reinvest in national infrastructure, STEM education, technological innovation; and to confront the “long-term budgetary trajectory of the United States” and “the severe divisions now endemic in the political system, institutions, and culture.” If the United States and its allies “get their own liberal-democratic-capitalist houses in order,” they can meet the ideological challenge from the Chinese model—and, as the author observes, “may the best side win.”

Notwithstanding the reasonable and laudable elements of the “Longer Telegram,” however, the document contains several problematic analytical judgments and policy recommendations that undermine its aspirations to comparison with Kennan’s 1946 precursor.

There are two fundamental flaws with the document’s analysis of the China side of the equation. The first is that even though Beijing’s strategic intentions and ambitions are extensive and global in scope, the author nonetheless overstates them. China is seeking to maximize its global wealth and power and influence—and the appeal of its governance and development model—relative to those of the United States, and will be ruthless and relentless in this pursuit. But it is not seeking to “destroy liberal values,” “replace democratic capitalism with authoritarian capitalism as the accepted norm in the developing world,” and “become the center of a new global order.” Beijing would settle for peaceful coexistence with democratic capitalism, and for a—as opposed to “the”—leadership role in the world order. This is because Chinese leaders almost certainly calculate that a Sino-centric authoritarian world order is not achievable and that pursuing it would be unsustainable and counterproductive.

The second fundamental error in the report’s analysis of China is its singular focus on Xi Jinping. According to the author, the challenge the United States faces today from China is almost entirely attributable to the personal leadership and ideological mindset of Xi. “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… In short, China under Xi, unlike under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, is no longer a status quo power.” Moreover, Xi has “returned China to an older form of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy that is different from not only Deng, but also Mao.” Under Xi, the CCP “is an avowedly Leninist party with a profoundly Marxist worldview. This has often been forgotten over the last forty years as the world became accustomed to Deng, Jiang, and Hu offering a form of ‘Leninism lite.’” Finally, “Xi has sought to build a new pillar of legitimacy for the party beyond ideology, through more assertive forms of Chinese nationalism, projecting the party as the true defender of traditional Chinese civilization against the United States, the West, and the rest.”

Every one of these assertions is inaccurate. Virtually all of the current strategic drivers of U.S.-China tensions already existed under Xi’s predecessors and imposed limits on Beijing’s readiness “to work with the United States.” Xi is not seeking any more than his predecessors did to remake the international order in China’s image. Under his predecessors, China was already an avowedly Leninist party with a profoundly Marxist worldview, and this was never forgotten. And all of Xi’s predecessors used nationalism as a key pillar of party legitimacy.