Wang Xiangwei
SCMP Columnist
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei

The Longer Telegram is short-sighted. The US must accept it has a Chinese peer

  • US strategy paper exaggerates China’s ambitions – whether on exporting its development model or usurping the international order – to push an agenda of regime change and containment
  • While it regurgitates the views of Trump-era China hawks, wiser counsel says China cannot be contained and the US should learn to live with a competitor
To contain China or not, that is the question for American officials and analysts as President Joe Biden’s new administration ponders how to respond to what it sees as the most significant challenge facing the United States.
Of the flurry of proposals churned out by US think tanks, the strategy paper titled “The Longer Telegram: Toward A New American China Strategy” published by the Atlantic Council late last month has raised some eyebrows among China watchers both in China and the US.

That is partly because the author, self-described as a former senior US official with deep China expertise and experience, has modelled the lengthy paper on the American diplomat George Kennan’s better known “The Long Telegram” in 1946. In more than 5,000 words, Kennan outlined the strategy of “containment” of the Soviet Union the US government was to adopt as the corner stone of its Cold War policies, which contributed to the eventual collapse of communist rule four decades later.

Using 26,000 words, The Longer Telegram urges the US to do the same to China in a time frame of 30 years: by 2050, it envisages, the US and its allies will “continue to dominate the regional and global balance of power”; President Xi Jinping will have been “replaced by a more moderate party leadership”; and the Chinese people will come to “question and challenge the Communist Party’s century-long proposition that China’s ancient civilisation is forever destined to an authoritarian future”.


Biden calls China the ‘most serious competitor’ to the US, in his first foreign policy address

Biden calls China the ‘most serious competitor’ to the US, in his first foreign policy address

It is no coincidence that 2050 is also the target year Xi has set for China to become a great modern socialist country, to realise the “Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and to restore China as a global power.

Curiously, the author of The Longer Telegram even followed Kennan by requesting anonymity. In July 1947, Kennan published the abridged version of his ideas in Foreign Affairs magazine under the pseudonym “X”.

But questions have been raised as to why the author wanted to remain anonymous, given he is no longer in the government and the enormity of the strategy he is advocating. Kennan, in comparison, was a serving government official when his paper was published.


The Atlantic Council think tank called The Longer Telegram “an extraordinary new strategy paper that offers one of the most insightful and rigorous examinations to date of Chinese geopolitical strategy and how an informed American strategy would address the challenges of China’s own strategic ambitions”.

Beijing must recognise its own mistakes in US-China relations

So it is heartening to see that several American analysts have disagreed with it. Daniel Larison wrote in The American Conservative magazine that much of The Longer Telegram was a regurgitation of ideological claims about the Chinese government and its ambitions under Xi’s leadership, calling it “a recipe for costly failure”. Paul Heer wrote in The National Interest magazine that the so-called grand strategy would not solve the China challenge and its recommendations on how to handle Beijing could be “a recipe for trouble”.

In many ways, The Longer Telegram is a better informed and better written update of the untethered assertions of the China hawks in the Donald Trump administration, including former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. As it basically pushes for an American approach to effect regime change in China, the document, if adopted, would surely lead the two countries down the road of full-throttled confrontation.


China decries US’ nomination of Hong Kong activists for Nobel Prize

China decries US’ nomination of Hong Kong activists for Nobel Prize

As those analysts have pointed out, the biggest problem with The Longer Telegram is that it overstates China’s ambitions, reflecting the prevalent view of the China hawks.

It observes that Xi “intends to project China’s authoritarian system, coercive foreign policy, and military presence well beyond his country’s own borders to the world at large”.


It may be true that China under Xi’s leadership has abandoned the late leader Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy of “hiding one’s capabilities and biding one’s time” and is trying to maximise its economic power and influence to advance its goals on the global stage.

But the Chinese leadership well understands that it is almost impossible for Beijing to export its own governance model to other countries, not least because it considers its political model of combining the Communist Party’s authoritarian controls with free-market principles as a unique feature of Chinese exceptionalism.

Small steps by Xi and Biden could lead to big changes in US-China ties

The last time the party tried to export revolution, there were disastrous consequences. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, supported and financed communist insurgencies in some Southeast Asian countries, which has left suspicions of China’s intentions and ambitions lingering to this day.

It is true that China has become more assertive and aggressive over Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea, East China Sea, and its borders with India. But whether one agrees with China’s actions or not, all of those issues concern China’s territorial claims and sovereignty. Hong Kong is already part of the country.

The Longer Telegram also contends that China harbours ambitions to upend the US-led international order and build a China-centric rival order, without presenting any evidence.

The contrary is true. In fact, over the past four decades, China has gained so much from the current order that it wants to improve the order to benefit more from it, as any country would do. During the past four years, it was the Trump administration which undermined international organisations – including the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization – that Americans used to lead.
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Xinhua

While most of the paper’s recommendations for countering China have been said before by other China hawks, the document does contain one unique element which calls on the US to remain laser-focused on Xi, who “has centralised nearly all decision-making power in his own hands”.


The author proposes that the US take advantage of the internal fault lines of Chinese politics, as “senior party members are greatly troubled by Xi’s policy direction and angered by his endless demands for absolute loyalty.”

But it remains unclear how this can be done and pursuing this policy could produce the opposite effect, prompting Xi to further tighten his grip and other party leaders to become more compliant for fear of being accused of colluding with foreign forces.

Those are just a few examples of how the document exaggerated China’s ambitions to justify the containment policy the author advocates.

As American exceptionalism falls, Chinese exceptionalism rises

On Wednesday, Martin Wolf, a well-known commentator, ran a forceful piece in The Financial Times, arguing that containing China was not a feasible option given China’s vibrant economy, its high integration with the world economy and the US’s damaged reputation, particularly under Trump.

Another article which made more sense was co-authored by Kurt Campbell, Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, back in 2019 before they were appointed to their current positions. Published in Foreign Affairs, the article titled “Competition Without Catastrophe” argued that despite many divides between the two countries, each needed to be prepared to live with the other as a major power and such coexistence would require elements of cooperation and competition.

In other words, Americans must learn to accept a peer competitor.

Wang Xiangwei is a former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper