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CvT: What Is ‘The Longer Telegram’ and Why Should We Care?

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The world of US-China relations is abuzz with the Atlantic Council’s release of an article entitled, The Longer Telegram: Toward a New American China Strategy. The article is written by an anonymous author, identified only as a “former senior government official with deep expertise and experience dealing with China.” The Atlantic Council’s forward to the article, written by Frederick Kempe, claims that the anonymous release is historic for the think tank, but ultimately deemed agreeable given the “extraordinary significance” of the author’s insights and recommendations.

Taking its name from the Long Telegram, George Kennan’s 1946 telegram from Moscow that analyzed the structural weaknesses of the Soviet Union and led to the American strategy of containment, The Longer Telegram argues that the US is in dire need of a national strategy to guide its policy towards China. The author believes such a strategy is necessary because China’s rise, particularly under the leadership of Xi Jinping, is the most significant modern challenge to US global leadership, US strategic dominance in the Asia-Pacific region, and the US-backed ideologies of liberal democracy, free markets, and open societies. Despite the challenge, the author maintains that the US has failed to define a clear goal or strategy to respond to an increasingly authoritarian China.

The new US strategy to China

The Longer Telegram goes into great detail on its vision for a US national strategy towards China, but focuses on seven primary components: 1) the US needs to rebuild economic, military, technological, and human capital foundations of American power; 2) the US must agree on a set of policy “red lines” that China should not cross; 3) the US must agree on major national security interests that will guide its strategic behavior with China; 4) the US must identify areas of strategic competition with China; 5) the US must define areas where strategic cooperation with China furthers US interests; 6) the US should wage an ideological battle in defense of liberal freedoms not upheld by China’s model of governance; and 7) the US must agree on this strategy with its Asian and European allies. By developing a comprehensive approach to China in this fashion, the US will be better equipped to handle the China challenge.

True to its name, The Longer Telegram details in-depth the reasoning behind its proposed strategy, explaining each aspect and its associated priorities and considerations. For example, the author views greater investment and leadership in STEM as one of the core domestic tasks for the US. The author states that red lines for China could include the use of nuclear weapons against the US or its allies, failure to try to prevent North Korean nuclear action, military action against Taiwan, attacks against Japanese forces in the Senkaku Islands or the East China Sea, and hostile actions in the South China Sea or the territories of the US or its allies. Areas of strategic competition could range from stabilizing relations with Russia to renegotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while areas of strategic cooperation range from collaborating on the denuclearization of North Korea to greater cooperation on climate change and green technologies.

Interestingly, the author of Longer Telegram is particularly concerned with President Xi Jinping and his influence on the direction of Chinese policy. The author claims that Xi has changed China’s ambitions to make it a more authoritarian and aggressive threat to the world, marking a distinct break from previous leadership: “China under Xi, unlike under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, is no longer a status quo power…it has become a revisionist power.” Expanding further, the piece asserts that Xi’s goals are not limited to just continued economic growth domestically, but also to expand China’s military, export China’s governance model to the developing world, secure maritime and continental peripheries, and transform the global order into one aligned with China’s interests. The strategy outlined in the article seeks to return China to its pre-2013 form, one which the author believes is more invested in the existing international order and cooperation with the US. Noting growing dissent and dissatisfaction with Xi within the CCP, the author points to Xi’s increasing isolation as an important vulnerability for the US strategy to consider.

Reactions to ‘The Longer Telegram’

The Longer Telegram article is still relatively fresh, so reactions are limited. However, the majority of articles written in response to the piece largely express disagreement and dissatisfaction. For example, Wang Xiangwei of the South China Morning Post writes that The Longer Telegram exaggerates China’s ambitions and argues for a strategy that is doomed to fail. Wang disagrees with the author’s claim that China seeks to export its system and values to other countries, arguing that while China is certainly interested in expanding its influence, it realizes that its model, so unique to China, is nearly impossible to replicate elsewhere. Further, Wang writes that much of China’s aggression occurs within its own territorial claims. The world may disagree with China’s actions in Hong Kong and the South China Sea, but China believes it is acting within its own borders.

Paul Heer of The National Interest dismisses The Longer Telegram’s strategy as incapable of solving the China challenge, and in fact, worries that it could be a recipe for disaster. Like Wang, Heer believes the article overstates China’s ambitions and does not see a China seeking to destroy liberal values or center itself in a new global order. Further, Heer questions the author’s singular focus on Xi Jinping, asserting that US-China tensions existed under previous Chinese leaders as well. In addition, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times took issue with the article’s claims on the grounds that the US cannot contain China. Wolf points to China’s economic success, booming technological sector, huge population, fairly cohesive polity, and competent government as characteristics that set it apart from the Soviet Union. He also points out that countries desire good relations with both China and the US, and are unlikely to choose the US over China, especially given the recent reputational damage within the international community the US has undergone.

Dov S. Zakheim, writing for The Hill, takes a more positive view on The Longer Telegram. Though he expresses skepticism that there would be much change in CCP behavior following Xi’s departure, he also gives the piece credit for identifying China’s strengths and weaknesses and more importantly, for spurring a debate about how to form and implement a US strategy for China. He writes that President Biden’s policymakers should utilize the piece’s recommendations.

Takeaways from the piece

From its familiarly hawkish contents to its title, The Longer Telegram offers little in the way of originality. However, it does provide a comprehensive US approach to Xi’s China, and does a thorough job of examining the strengths and weaknesses of the CCP, Xi’s priorities, US priorities, and areas of both strategic competition and cooperation. It also does well to consider a holistic approach to US-China relations, reflecting on a variety of ideological, technological, and global issues in addition to economic and military concerns. Furthermore, it has sparked a conversation on how to develop a cohesive US approach to China. While there will likely be further disagreement about the true ambitions of Xi and the CCP, as well as the wisdom of taking such a hawkish approach to the bilateral relationship, The Longer Telegram is valuable for its careful analysis and clear stance.

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