Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

The sources of Chinese misconduct?

  • How the wisest of the wise men of US foreign policy might counter and contain a rising China; or not
Axios, the news website, claims to have an exclusive by obtaining an advance copy of the US State Department’s new blueprint for America’s response to the Chinese threats.

According to reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, the 70-plus pages document draws inspiration from George Kennan’s famous 1947 “Long Telegram”, which laid out the strategy of containment against the Soviet Union and subsequently guided US policy until the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire.

The exclusive gives me an excuse to revisit Kennan’s writings. I have been a fan since first reading his classic, The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order, in college.

It has shaped my political outlook ever since and guides me in thinking about a resurgent China, its place in the world, and how it might achieve prosperity for its people and peace for the world. Become frightfully powerful yet exercise self-restraint and complete self-awareness, that’s what I got from Kennan’s portrait of Bismarck.


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Explained: the history of China’s territorial disputes

The book accounts for the diplomatic system of Europe in the second half of the 19th century according to an American foreign policy realist.

As a companion piece, you might want to read anther American foreign policy realist, Henry Kissinger’s doctoral thesis at Harvard, published as A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822, which explains the post-Napoleonic diplomatic system of Europe in the first half of the 19th century.

It’s a literary masterpiece, that is, before the young genius went off to Washington and became a war criminal.

To cut a long story short, I think the political realism of Kissinger and Kennan is still the only way for Washington to deal with Beijing, which will no doubt reciprocate with the Chinese brand of realism and pragmatism.

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Unfortunately, after Trump, Biden may be even more set on an ideological confrontation, which will trigger an ideological and nationalistic response from Beijing. I shudder to think about the potential escalation.

The dogmatism and unreality of the Soviet leadership under Stalin which Kennan describes in the Long Telegram sounds more like Trump’s Washington than Beijing today.


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But, back to the famous diplomatic cable, which has taken on mythical proportions since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and it’s every US diplomat’s wet dream to produce one such cable in their career. It was addressed to then-US Secretary of State James Byrnes through secure diplomatic channels and was actually sent in February 1946, not 1947.

It was Kennan’s influential essay, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, which was published in Foreign Affairs in 1947, that was based on the secret diplomatic dispatch with the concept of containment.

It’s the Long Telegram that I will reference here. It’s available for free on the website of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. Foreign Affairs makes you pay for the essay behind a paywall.

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Half written in “power points”, the cable is much more condensed than the essay. Even so, it runs to 17 full telex pages at a time when telex was expensive.

That led Kennan to “apologise in advance for this burdening of telegraphic channel; but questions involved are of such urgent importance, particularly in view of recent events, that our answers to them, if they deserve attention at all, seem to me to deserve it at once”.

The telegram was in response to a series of questions sent by Washington to its embassy in Moscow, where Kennan was serving as deputy chief of mission.

In many ways, the Soviet Russia Kennan described was the very opposite of China today. The real question then is: does it make any sense to apply “containment”, whatever it means, to the exact antithesis of what that policy was originally conceived to counter? Let’s consider.

Kennan wrote: “USSR [believes it] still lives in antagonistic ‘capitalist encirclement’ with which in the long run there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence.”

China has gone capitalist.

“Soviet efforts, and those of Russia’s friends abroad, must be directed toward deepening and exploiting of differences and conflicts between capitalist powers.

“If these eventually deepen into an ‘imperialist’ war, this war must be turned into revolutionary upheavals within the various capitalist countries … On unofficial plane particularly violent efforts will be made to weaken power and influence of Western Powers of [on] colonial backward, or dependent peoples.”

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China today conducts no communist subversion abroad. At most, it carries out so-called debt trap diplomacy, though its scope is often exaggerated, and it’s primarily driven by economics rather than ideology.

“Experience has shown that peaceful and mutually profitable coexistence of capitalist and socialist states is entirely possible … [However,] Soviet leaders are driven [by?] necessities of their own past and present position to put forward which [unreadable in telex] outside world as evil, hostile and menacing.”

Though China may think Pompeo “evil, hostile and menacing”, it certainly doesn’t see the world this way, or even the United States.

“Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear[ful] of more competent, more powerful, more highly organised societies.”

China has been, and is, more than eager to learn – and steal – and improve on what it can from the West in terms of technology, finance and advanced management.

“[Soviet leaders] found justification for their instinctive fear of outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifice they felt bound to demand.”

Someone please visit a supermarket in Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen and see what life under Chinese “dictatorship” is like.

“Many Soviet leaders are too ignorant of outside world and mentally too dependent to question [unreadable in telex] self-hypnotism, and who have no difficulty making themselves believe what they find it comforting and convenient to believe …

“The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth – indeed, their disbelief in its existence – leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another.”

It strikes me that’s a better description of the Trump administration and the Republican Party, with their dismissal of science and hard data in favour of ideological and religious beliefs, than the Chinese communist leadership, which is made up of mostly hardcore realists trained as engineers and taught to respect hard data.


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“In international economic matters, Soviet policy will really be dominated by pursuit of autarchy for Soviet Union and Soviet-dominated adjacent areas taken together …

“Our stake in this country [Soviet Russia], even coming on heels of tremendous demonstrations of our friendship for Russian people, is remarkably small. We have here no investments to guard, no actual trade to lose, virtually no citizens to protect, few cultural contacts to preserve.”

The Soviets operated their own economy separately from the capitalist West. That was why it was possible to contain it. In fact, it “contained” itself. Today, China and the US are the yin and yang of the world economy. You try separating them, or decoupling, and see who gets hurt more.

“In summary, we have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.”

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Today, it’s the Chinese who are trying to reach a modus vivendi with the US, while the Americans reject them and practically declare a new cold war.

So, all very long and long-winged. What does Kennan mean by “containment”, which can mean anything to anyone. A well-known passage in the Foreign Affairs essay expresses succinctly what he means by it.

“The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies …

“Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and manoeuvres of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.”


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The Marshall Plan – which helped countries in post-war Europe to rebuild, including West Germany, and to prop up their governments to better deter communist subversion – was an example of containment as conceived by Kennan.

“The Vietnam war was not. But it was the application of military force, the promotion of proxy wars, and the propping up of right-wing dictatorships around the world that became Washington’s version of containment, and which Kennan disowned.

Washington would end up playing “whack-a-mole” wherever it thought Soviet influence might appear somewhere, anywhere, rather than countering with strategic engagement against real threats, as conceived by Kennan.

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In fact, except for a brief period when he was serving under secretary of state George Marshall, of the famous European reconstruction plan, he was all but ignored in Washington.

The name of his policy proposal was immortalised, but not its contents. His cable was canonised by the American diplomatic community because of its impeccable intellectual pedigree, not because of any actual influence.

But it’s useful to be cited by US politicians who never read it, just like semi-literate senators quoting Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Kennan was to the Cold War what Jesus Christ was to the Inquisition. Thanks to its loose and multiple meanings, US politicians of all stripes can cite it to mean whatever they want it to mean.

You can cite Kennan and his containment theory to justify the most hardline position against China or any other countries, to cover yourself with a veneer of intellectual respectability, on the assumption that your audience are like you and haven’t read him.

But if China is the exact opposite of the Soviet Union, then pursuing “containment” cannot be an appropriate response and would only lead to a wrong and dangerous policy.

That’s exactly what Kissinger warns this week against “risk[ing] a crisis that could escalate into military conflict”.

“Unless there is some basis for some cooperative action, the world will slide into a catastrophe comparable to World War I,” he told Bloomberg. Kennan would concur.

At most, Washington needs a scalpel, not a sledgehammer, to deal with China. Unfortunately, there are mostly Neanderthals and few trained surgeons in the American capital.