Flags of U.S. and China are displayed at American International Chamber of Commerce (AICC)’s booth during China International Fair for Trade in Services in Beijing, China, May 28, 2019.
Jason Lee | Reuters
BEIJING — A recent U.S. strategy paper on China that’s widely read in Washington, D.C., has drawn only a passing response in Beijing where limited public discussion has focused on one point: The author got China wrong.
“The Longer Telegram” released in late January proposed how the new U.S. administration should deal with a rising China by laying out a detailed critique of the Communist Party government under President Xi Jinping.
An effective U.S. approach on China requires the “same disciplined approach it applied to the defeat of the Soviet Union,” the paper said. “US strategy must remain laser focused on Xi, his inner circle, and the Chinese political context in which they rule.”
The anonymous author is a “former senior U.S. government official,” according to the D.C.-based think tank Atlantic Council that published the lengthy paper.
The piece attempts to echo a historic document that shaped Washington’s policy on the Soviet Union — named the “The Long Telegram,” it was sent from Moscow in February 1946 at the dawn of the Cold War.
So far in Beijing, major state media have not discussed the paper much, except for the vociferous state-backed tabloid Global Times, and even then, almost entirely in English. “‘Longer Telegram’ a late-stage hegemonic farce,” read the title of one op-ed.
On the official news website of China’s People’s Liberation Army, an article in Chinese portrayed the strategy piece as holding an outdated mentality, and contrasted its view of the country with a recent state media report about a Chinese woman’s ability to rise from poverty.
China’s foreign ministry — in response to a question from a Global Times reporter — criticized “The Longer Telegram” for its call to contain China.
The ministry said, according to an official translation, that such comments against the ruling Communist Party were “a collection of rumors and conspiracy theories” and attempts to drive U.S.-China relations toward conflict would result in “total failure.”
The sparse state-level comments come as tensions brew between the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies and run by vastly different government systems.
“The Longer Telegram” generated much controversy in the U.S. foreign policy world, with critics saying the paper mischaracterizes China and puts too much emphasis on the role of Xi. But many agree with the paper’s call for a more thought-out U.S. policy on China.
That growing cohesion around a tougher U.S. stance on China is a source of concern in Beijing.
“The Longer Telegram” doesn’t represent China’s reality and isn’t a good starting point for dialogue, said Shen Yamei, deputy director and associate research fellow at state-backed think tank China Institute of International Studies’ U.S. department.
According to Shen, the mistake the paper makes is that it isn’t applicable in this situation, since China didn’t say it wanted to replace the U.S. She added that it’s the U.S. that cares about whether it will lose its central position in the world.
Critics say China’s state-dominated system benefited from being allowed to join the World Trade Organization in 2001 without rapidly incorporating the sort of free-market and rules-based system that countries like the U.S. have advocated.
A history of the long telegram
To counter these developments, “The Longer Telegram” says the U.S. should set clear red lines and points of national security for Beijing that, if crossed, would induce a firm U.S. response.
Some of these red lines include a Chinese military attack or economic blockade on Taiwan, according to the report, which also said the U.S. should push back more firmly on any Chinese threats to U.S. global communications systems.
The author of the original “Long Telegram” in 1946 was American diplomat George Kennan, who responded from Moscow to a U.S. State Department query on Soviet foreign policy. Kennan published a related article the next year in the Foreign Affairs magazine under the pseudonym “X” and in 1952 began a brief term as U.S. ambassador to Moscow.
In his paper, Kennan held that the Russians were set on expanding the Soviet system worldwide and against coexistence with the West. He believed that rather than appeasement, the U.S. should use pressure to achieve cooperation with the Soviet government, or potentially even its internal collapse.
For more than 70 years — including the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991 — the U.S. led a so-called liberal world order in which international institutions set rules for a global system.
That’s begun to shift in the last decade or so, with China’s growing economic and technological clout, alongside former U.S. President Donald Trump’s single-handed approach to foreign policy.
The online response
It’s not yet clear what action President Joe Biden will take, but he is sticking to a tough stance on China, albeit with a calmer tone than the previous administration.
“The challenges with Russia may be different than ones with China, but they’re just as real,” Biden told European allies in a speech last week.
Biden held his first phone call as president with Xi earlier this month. The U.S. president and first lady also issued a video greeting for the Lunar New Year, which was shared widely on Chinese social media.
Scattered online commentary about “The Longer Telegram” have remained dismissive.
In a roughly 30-minute video from Feb. 5 that has more than 900,000 views, Fudan University professor Shen Yi dismissed as a joke the paper’s attempt to replicate Kennan’s efforts.
An online article from Feb. 7 by Zhongnan University of Economics and Law professor Qiao Xinsheng said in an online article the strategy paper fails to accurately analyze the Soviet Union’s own difficulties and that the U.S. should not expect China to “disintegrate.”