The Faults in Their Stars – How the Longer Telegram Fails to Read the Chinese Mind

 

A paper by the rather elite foreign policy think-tank Atlantic Council, authored by a person who wishes to remain anonymous, garnered a lot of attention in the American press. Titled The Longer Telegram, It is ironic though that people within India refused to discuss or deliberate the paper barring one odd video deliberating on it in a rather hallowed way. 

Given the stark reality of the adversary standing next door, this paper should have certainly received more attention. Instead, what we have seen is a strangely absurd silence on the subject. Be that as it may, it is imperative that a short look at the paper is taken, and lessons are derived from it that need to be considered seriously in the defence and foreign policy circles.


The Fait Accompli Approach Has Failed – US’ China Policy Remains Incoherent

The paper can be seen as a wakeup call for the American diplomatic circles in all senses. Some of the wooly headed optimism regarding China had been wearing thin over the years, and the Trump administration’s activities can certainly be believed to have done the correct pivot unlike the Obama administration on the Chinese attempt at hegemony. In that sense, it is refreshing to see a candid admission from the paper about the China policy of the United States. As stated in the executive summary of the report:

Some will argue that the United States already has a China strategy, pointing to the Trump administration’s declaration of “strategic competition” as the “central challenge” of US foreign and national-security policy, as enshrined in the 2017 US National Security Strategy. However, while the Trump administration did well to sound the alarm on China and its annunciation of strategic competition with Beijing was important, its episodic efforts at implementation were chaotic and at times contradictory. At root, the issue is that “strategic competition” is a declaration of doctrinal attitude, not a comprehensive strategy to be operationalized.

The paper also acknowledges the sharply converging gap on technological and financial fronts, and perhaps sagely admits to the flailing perception of American power in the face of a rather public and ugly domestic political fracas following a series of economic crises and pandemic related fiascos. Thus, setting the house in order is certainly something of an urgency, accompanied by the need to address the various economic challenges that bring the American economy to a halt once in a while.

What is fascinating is an observation that has perhaps been ignored for the longest time now. There is a strong dichotomy between the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party that rules China. As the paper rightly states:

Many ordinary Chinese people, not simply confined to academic or business elites, remain highly skeptical of the party’s history, integrity, and relevance to their most basic interests and aspirations….This skepticism is particularly acute among young people, whose access to the internet and international travel have caused them to question why they cannot enjoy the same political and social freedoms as others in Asia including other Confucian cultures such as South Korea, Japan, and particularly Taiwan, all of which have successfully democratized.

This must be perhaps the first time in decades that people have come on board to acknowledge this divergence in the state and the people despite attempts to control the flow of information in an incomparable manner thanks to the Great Firewall. Even during the COVID pandemic, several videos emerged from within China that showed the distrust of the people in the CCP’s managerial abilities at an all time high. These things do not happen in isolation or has not emerged overnight. The true reason, as I had once argued, that the transition has not happened is that there is no one the people trust to lead them away from the CCP and its leadership anywhere – even a military coup is loathed, given the levels of corruption the people have witnessed on a daily basis.

Suggested Counter Strategy is Myopic; Toothcombs Don’t Help Remove Lice

While the diagnosis seemed rather pragmatic by American standards, and the strategy paper did not sermonize on democracy, liberalism and openness beyond lip service, there are several problems as I see even now in the conception of the paper itself. The paper, even while acknowledging the differences in China and the Soviet Union, fails to recognize the Chinese Communist Party for what it is. The identity of the CCP as a royal court of sorts similar to the North Korean juche is fundamentally flawed in its interpretation; CCP rather works like a mafia gang, with the quantum of access to the spoils defined at every level.

Even if the imperial court model was to be theorized, it fails to recognize a few truths. Palace intrigue works to remove leaders, but it does not fundamentally aim to weaken the very system from within. It does not however seek to conspire with outsiders, as East Asian history has often shown us. In that regards, the idea that the CCP elements would somehow work with them, and so should not be touched, is fanciful thinking at its best. The presence of CCP factions has been for long; that has not in any way let to a major divergence in the outlook towards US. In fact, much of the military tech race originated even before Xi Jinping came to power. As far back as 1993, then President Jiang Zemin, who still controls one of the main factions, had laid the seeds for revision in China’s military doctrine. Andrew Scobell had in 2000 noted for the Strategic Studies Institute of the United States Army War College that:

Beijing sees the United States as its principle threat. This is not to say that China sees war with the United States as imminent, but rather Beijing has believed for the last decade or so that Washington is working to undermine communist rule and to stymie Chinese efforts to develop a more powerful military. Since the mid-1990s, Beijing concluded that Washington had reversed its “one China” policy and was now actively working to prevent China from unifying with Taiwan. In fact, Taiwan is now viewed as a means by which the United States is actively preventing China from being a “unified, powerful socialist country.”

Even during Hu Jintao’s rule, when the grip on the military was perhaps not as strong as Xi Jinping, China had not refrained, despite an Obama visit to China, to assert claims to disputed waters in the East China Sea (vis-à-vis Japan) and South China Sea (vis-à-vis five Southeast Asian claimants). Also, under Hu, Beijing rejected Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s offer to facilitate initiatives designed to operationalize the 2002 China-ASEAN declaration on conduct of parties in the South China Sea, keeping the door open for its views. Clearly, the perception of the US within CCP is deep-rooted, and no amount of platitude will alter the status quo. This toothcomb approach to remove lice fails to address the problem of the lice eggs that remain.

This brings us to the idea that Xi Jinping’s removal is some sort of panacea to the problem. If it were that simple within the Chinese Communist Party to de-escalate and remove Xi, a way would have emerged by now. Rather, Xi’s background is not seen for what it was – being one of the original princelings, he adheres strongly to placing China at its rightful place under the sun, even if it means foregoing economic prosperity. Being the centre of the world, or Zhongguo, is a long standing ideal of the Communist Party’s core founders and their subsequent generations. This dream of course stems from a certain understanding of history, and will be hard to alter even if Xi were to be removed. If the centrality of its beliefs were not so sacred to the CCP, the party would not have held on to restive provinces for so long, or would not expend to develop technology that helps it keep its populace under check at any cost, even purloinment. That the Chinese have been pushing a propaganda war for long, with the Confucius Institutes as its face, tells us that this is an adversary that is playing a game on the calendar timescale, and not by the clock. To be afraid of racist charges and then mollycoddle the party is the tactic that would not behove even a regional superpower, let alone the United States. Its record on racism, while having points of concern, still far outweighs what the Chinese have to show for themselves. Unless the US stops criticizing others on the same, its hypocrisy on China will only end up losing it friends.

The Position of Allies and Russian Pragmatism – Critical yet Confused

This brings us to another important aspect of the paper – the fact that the paper sees Russia as an important player in the game is a refreshing change. The domestic hoo-haa on Russia will cost US dearly, as further alienation of a military power like Russia by default shifts it towards a Chinese embrace despite all their critical differences. Perhaps the US will acknowledge that the Russia bogey is not what it makes out to be, and the real threat for once can be addressed.

Also, the take on allies is very important, and seeing India not as a military ally but a strategic ally. As per the paper, a US-led coalition also could ultimately include other significant strategic partners, such as India, Mexico, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Singapore, in a broader, second layer of strategic collaboration. This would need high level strategic collaboration among these countries through a comprehensive, integrated, panallied China strategy. Ironically, this is a myopic view, as it is perhaps a giveaway of the rather confused approach the author wants. When some things like the UN Security Council reform could be a significant first step to include such countries to your own advantage, the harping on a second layer to act as your ring is a rather poor reading of these countries’ diplomatic outlook. India for certain is not going to play junior partner in Asia – this Goldilocks syndrome hangover, defined by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, is not acceptable to India. Instead of seeing China and India in a single bracket, it is perhaps time for the US to view India more in the manner that it views Russia – the difference however is that even if India does not ally with China, it remains a partner whose loss can be painful.

 

There is clearly a storm in the US diplomatic circles on how The Longer Telegram should be viewed. Even as the paper remains a start, it is certainly found wanting for its inconsistencies and contradictions. To assume that the faults lie in their stars, and that these faults can be exploited so easily is a poor assessment of China’s current position. Moreover, the rather muddled pragmatism about allies and partners cannot work in the way the US wants it, and it has to perhaps rather seek to establish a multi-polar world while containing China to gain its strategic national and global objectives.

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