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

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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. 

The author asserts that Xi has fundamentally changed China’s U.S. strategy since he became CCP leader in 2012. He “formally abandoned the deliberate gradualism of Deng’s ‘hide and bide’” strategy; “accelerated the timetable for a number of major preexisting national policy missions”; “sought to reduce China’s international economic vulnerabilities”; and demonstrated “a new willingness to take much greater political risks in order to force certain strategic outcomes.” It is certainly true that Chinese foreign policy has evolved and become more assertive during Xi’s tenure. But this overlooks or understates the forces that were previously driving it in that direction, and thus risks exaggerating the difference—however significant—that Xi personally has made. Beijing under Hu Jintao was already retreating from Deng’s “hide and bide” strategy in response to changes in the international environment, including the perception of greater external challenges to China’s territorial sovereignty claims, and the geostrategic impact of the 2008-9 global financial crisis. This generated the initial foreign perceptions of greater Chinese assertiveness, and the acceleration of many Chinese foreign policy initiatives that came to fruition or were expanded after Xi took charge.

The report summarizes the differences between Xi’s approach and that of his predecessors as twofold: “First, the gap between Chinese and U.S. power, both in reality and perception, is now much smaller; and second, Xi’s political nature is to force the pace wherever possible in areas where more traditional Chinese strategists would have preferred to see evolution over time. In short, Xi is a man in a hurry; his predecessors were not.” But the first variable here is not attributable to Xi; it has been developing for the past two decades—and is probably the more decisive driver of the recent shifts in Chinese foreign policy. The second variable, however, may persuasively capture the key difference that Xi has made: he has certainly been a more decisive and ambitious leader that Hu Jintao. In any case, the author of the report concludes—somewhat surprisingly—that “Xi’s calculus is likely to remain broadly consistent with the long-term, underlying strategic logic of the Chinese system in the past: China should continue to accumulate military, economic, and technological power as rapidly as possible, but do so without risking outright economic or military conflict with the United States until such time as the balance of power has swung more decisively toward Beijing.” This bottom line reinforces the notion that there has been at least as much continuity in Chinese foreign policy under Xi as there has been change; and that even many of his changes flowed from earlier trends.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the report’s emphasis on Xi—“All U.S. political and policy responses to China therefore should be focused through the principal lens of Xi himself”—is the author’s conclusion that Washington should be seeking to escape from, and even try to effect the removal of, Xi’s leadership because that could restore U.S.-China relations to a potentially constructive path: “its pre-2013 path—i.e., the pre-Xi strategic status quo.” Washington should do this by directing its strategy “at the internal fault lines of domestic Chinese politics” because “the party is extremely divided on Xi’s leadership,” and particularly on his foreign policy assertiveness: “Xi’s critics contend that [his] ‘forcing of the pace’ has resulted in Beijing taking unnecessary risks by bringing about a fundamental change in U.S. strategy toward China much earlier than was either necessary or desirable.” One of the author’s central premises is that “if leadership change were to occur, it would be more likely to move in the direction of a more moderate collective leadership” that would be easier for Washington to work with, and presumably less assertive and confrontational toward the United States. “If leadership change does not occur, then the objective is to maximize internal political pressures on Xi to moderate Chinese policy of his own volition or to roll back various of his international initiatives.”

This is a profoundly misguided if not dangerous approach. First, it almost certainly miscalculates (by exaggerating) the potential differences between Xi and any alternative leadership on the core issues in U.S.-China relations, or on the overall direction of Chinese foreign policy. As noted above, Beijing’s growing assertiveness and confidence and nationalism in its posture toward the United States and the rest of the world have more to do with strategic trends and power calculations that were discernible prior to Xi’s leadership than to the impact of his personality and mindset. Although Beijing could conceivably be somewhat easier to deal with under a leader other than Xi, it is highly unlikely that China’s strategic ambitions and objectives, its bottom line on core bilateral and multilateral issues, or its perception of U.S. policy toward China will substantially change. This document attributes to Xi the view that “the U.S. and Chinese political systems are fundamentally ideologically irreconcilable” and that the United States and China are “on a collision course” with “one form of conflict or another as unavoidable.” This may or may not be true about Xi; but either way it is not a view that is unique to him in Beijing.

In addition, it would be a hazardous venture for Washington to attempt to exploit the internal fault lines of Chinese politics and play one faction or leader off against another. This is precisely the kind of “intervention in China’s internal affairs” that fuels the visceral nationalism of Chinese leaders—and generates huge risks and liabilities for any Chinese politician or group that is perceived as an advocate or an agent for Washington’s interests and preferences. (When the Chinese engage in comparable activities in the United States, it becomes a matter for the FBI.) Such a venture almost certainly is more likely to be counterproductive than to yield the desired result of accommodation to U.S. goals.

The discussion in the “Longer Telegram” of the U.S. side of the equation also contains two fundamental flaws. The first emerges from its characterization of the strategy’s “overriding political objective”: “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.” This theme is echoed in the report’s discussion of the areas where Washington would be receptive to strategic cooperation with Beijing, where it is linked to the preference for a post-Xi leadership: “the United States would provide a clear signal . . . to more moderate elements in China that if Beijing ceases its operational efforts to overturn U.S. leadership of the current rules-based order, then Washington would welcome China’s full participation in the institutions of global governance, as in the past. In other words, if China under a post-Xi leadership decided to return to a more moderate course at home, and worked within the existing international system abroad, then the scope for strategic cooperation with the United States and its allies would increase rapidly.”

This is highly problematic, partly because it is based on invalid premises identified earlier, including the assumption that China is seeking to “build a rival order” or that the “type of global great power envisaged by Xi” is his vision alone. Nor is it likely that Washington will score points in trying to tell CCP leaders what is “in their best interests” if they “wish to remain in power at home.” In addition, this approach implies that Washington would only consider substantive strategic cooperation with Beijing if Xi was gone. The key problem with this “overriding political objective” is that it almost certainly overestimates both China’s strategic intentions and the United States’ leverage over Chinese behavior and decisions. Such potential miscalculation also raises questions about the credibility and enforceability of the U.S. “red lines” that the author proposes communicating to Beijing.

The second fundamental flaw in the report’s proposed U.S. strategy is in its definition of underlying American vital interests. The document explicitly affirms that “the United States’ core objective must be the retention of U.S. global and regional strategic primacy for the century ahead” because “U.S. leadership remains the only credible foundation for sustaining, enhancing, and, where necessary, creatively reinventing the liberal international order.” The author also specifies that this must include “maintaining U.S. global conventional military dominance over any other adversary… conventional U.S. military predominance in the Indo-Pacific region… the United States’ status as the largest national economy globally… U.S. global leadership in all major categories of critical emerging technology… [and] the current rules-based liberal international order and associated multilateral system built by the United States since 1945.”

The problem here is that much of this is objectively unsustainable if not already obsolete. The United States, unfortunately, no longer enjoys “global and regional strategic primacy” because of historical shifts in the global balance of power that predated the Trump Administration, but which Trump greatly accelerated. And the “liberal international order built by the United States” is not currently functioning, at least not under U.S. leadership. It is certainly possible for Washington to reclaim and reinvigorate its role in international leadership, and this should definitely be pursued by the Biden Administration. But global and regional primacy is probably no longer achievable, and thus probably should not be defined as a core interest. Instead, a central challenge for the United States going forward will be that of finding and adjusting to its place in the post-post-Cold War world. This will require the United States to think hard about whether it is possible to maintain global military, economic, and technological dominance “for the century ahead”—or whether it will be necessary to recalibrate both U.S. ambitions and the definition of what U.S. interests are truly vital. The author asserts that Washington must retain “confidence that the United States can and will prevail, with U.S. underlying strengths and values still providing the stronger hand to play in what remains an open, competitive, international environment.” Confidence in U.S. strengths and values will be crucial. But for the first time in fifty years, Americans need to examine the implications of the possibility that the United States may not always and everywhere have “the stronger hand to play.”