A US strategy paper on China attracts a lukewarm reaction in Beijing

Flags of the United States and China are displayed on the booth of the American International Chamber of Commerce (AICC) during the International Trade Fair for Services in Beijing, China on May 28, 2019.

Jason Lee | Reuters

BEIJING – A US strategy paper on China widely read recently in Washington, DC received only a passing response in Beijing, in which the limited public discussion focused on one point: the author misunderstood China.

The Longer Telegram, published in late January, suggested how the new US administration should deal with an emerging China by launching detailed criticism of the Communist Party government under President Xi Jinping.

An effective US approach to China requires “the same disciplined approach as the defeat of the Soviet Union,” the paper says. “US strategy must continue to focus on Xi, his inner circle and the Chinese political context in which they govern.”

The anonymous author is a “former senior US government official,” according to the DC-based think tank Atlantic Council, which published the lengthy paper.

The play attempts to reproduce a historical document that shaped Washington’s policy towards the Soviet Union – the “Long Telegram” – sent from Moscow in February 1946 at the beginning of the Cold War.

So far, major state media outlets in Beijing have not discussed the paper much except for the vocal state-backed tabloid Global Times, and even then almost entirely in English. “‘Longer Telegram’ is a late-stage hegemonic farce,” read the title of an article.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army official news website featured an article in Chinese that portrayed the strategy piece as out of date and compared its view of the country to a recent state media report on a Chinese woman’s ability to emerge from poverty.

US strategy must continue to focus on Xi, his inner circle and the China political context in which they govern

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The longer telegram

China’s Foreign Ministry, in response to a question from a Global Times reporter, criticized The Longer Telegram for calling for China to be curbed.

According to an official translation, the ministry said that such comments against the ruling Communist Party were “a collection of rumors and conspiracy theories” and attempts to drive US-China relations towards conflict would result in a “total failure”.

The sparse state-level comments come from tensions between the US and China, the world’s two largest economies operated by very different systems of government.

“The Longer Telegram” caused great controversy in the US foreign policy world. Critics said the paper misrepresents China and places too much emphasis on the role of Xi. But many agree with the paper’s call for well-thought-out US policy towards China.

This growing cohesion over a tougher US stance on China is a cause for concern in Beijing.

“The Longer Telegram” does not represent China’s reality and is not a good starting point for dialogue, said Shen Yamei, deputy director and associate research fellow of the US division of the state-sponsored think tank China Institute of International Studies.

According to Shen, the mistake the paper makes is that it is not applicable in this situation as China did not say it wanted to replace the US. She added that it is the US that cares 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 swiftly incorporating the free-market and rule-based system advocated by countries like the US.

A story of the long telegram

In order to counteract these developments, according to “The Longer Telegram”, the US should define clear red lines and national security points for Beijing, which, if exceeded, would provoke a firm reaction from the US.

Some of those red lines include a Chinese military attack or an economic blockade on Taiwan, according to the report, according to which the US should do more to reduce Chinese threats to US global communications systems.

The original “Long Telegram” was written in 1946 by the American diplomat George Kennan, who responded from Moscow to an inquiry from the US State Department on Soviet foreign policy. Kennan published a similar article in Foreign Affairs magazine under the pseudonym “X” the next year and began a brief tenure as US ambassador to Moscow in 1952.

In his work, Kennan took the view that the Russians wanted to expand the Soviet system worldwide and against coexistence with the West. He believed that instead of appeasement, the US should pressurize to work with the Soviet government or possibly even its internal collapse.

For more than 70 years – including the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – the United States led a so-called liberal world order, in which international institutions laid down rules for a global system.

With China’s growing economic and technological influence and former US President Donald Trump’s one-handed foreign policy approach, this has gradually changed over the past decade.

The online answer

It is not yet clear what action President Joe Biden will take, but he maintains a tough stance on China, albeit in a calmer tone than the previous administration.

“The challenges with Russia may be different from China, but they are just as real,” Biden said in a speech to European allies last week.

Biden had his first call as president of Xi earlier this month. The US President and First Lady also released a New Year holiday video greeting that was widely featured on Chinese social media.

Scattered online comments on “The Longer Telegram” have remained dismissive.

In a roughly 30-minute video dated February 5 and received more than 900,000 views, Fudan University professor Shen Yi dismissed the newspaper’s attempt to repeat Kennan’s efforts as a joke.

An online article dated February 7 by Qiao Xinsheng, professor of economics and law at Zhongnan University, stated in an online article that the strategy paper does not precisely analyze the Soviet Union’s own difficulties and that the US should not expect that China is “falling apart”.

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