A bold new China proposal for Biden: Draw red lines and focus on Xi

Visitors are seen in front of a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an exhibition on China's achievements marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) at the Beijing Exhibition Center, in Beijing, China. REUTERS/Jason Lee

An anonymous author, self-described as a former senior government official with deep China expertise and experience, published an extraordinary Atlantic Council Strategy Paper this week.

Its aim is nothing less than to shape Biden administration strategy toward Beijing—with Chinese President Xi Jinping as its prime focus.

What makes the paper worth reading, all 26,000 words of it, are the author’s insights into China’s internal workings and party fissures, the author’s solutions to the current lack of any coherent US national strategy toward Beijing, and the paper’s controversial call that the Biden administration draw “red lines” that, “should deterrence fail, will prompt direct US intervention.”

“The United States’ list of red lines should be short, focused, and enforceable,” the author writes, thus undermining “China’s tactic for many years… to blur the red lines that might otherwise lead to open confrontation with the United States too early for Beijing’s liking.”

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The paper argues that those red lines should include:

  • “Any nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons action by China against the United States or its allies, or by North Korea where China has failed to take decisive action to prevent any such North Korean action.
  • Any Chinese military attack against Taiwan or its offshore islands, including an economic blockade or major cyberattack against Taiwanese public infrastructure and institutions.
  • Any Chinese attack against Japanese forces in their defense of Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands and their surrounding exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea.
  • Any major Chinese hostile action in the South China Sea to further reclaim and militarize islands, to deploy force against other claimant states, or to prevent full freedom of navigation operations by the United States and allied maritime forces.
  • Any Chinese attack against the sovereign territory or military assets of US treaty allies.”

The call for red lines is already stirring debate among China experts across the world, although the paper was only published on Thursday. The dispute pits those who think that setting limits more clearly would reduce Chinese aggression against those who believe that setting such red lines is an invitation either to US humiliation, should they fail to be enforced, or to unwanted conflict if enforced.

However, what has stirred even greater debate is the paper’s singular focus on China’s leader and his behavior. Since his rise to power in 2013, Xi has made the country more assertive externally and more repressive internally, most recently stepping up restrictions on private businesses and strengthening the role of state enterprises.

“The single most important challenge facing the United States in the twenty-first century is the rise of an increasingly authoritarian China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping,” the anonymous author writes. “US strategy must remain laser focused on Xi, his inner circle, and the Chinese political context in which they rule. Changing their decision-making will require understanding, operating within, and changing their political and strategic paradigm. All US policy aimed at altering China’s behavior should revolve around this fact, or it is likely to prove ineffectual.”   

It may seem a simple exercise in logic that when a country over time grows more authoritarian, with power invested increasingly in one individual, any strategy to manage that country would need to begin at the top. Experts have been approaching Vladimir Putin’s Russia through that lens for some time.

However, the initial debate this week that followed the publication of “The Longer Telegram” ranged from one former senior US official who welcomed the paper because of its clear and lucid focus on Xi, to another who worried that such a US approach would be considered as an endorsement for regime change that could only sharpen tensions.

The author’s hope is that this paper would be an important step “toward a new American China strategy” that would include ten key elements outlined in the paper, ranging from addressing domestic economic and institutional weaknesses to full coordination with major allies so that all significant action is taken in unity in response to China.

The author argues that any US strategy would need to be based on “the four fundamental pillars of American power”: the power of its military, the dollar’s role as the global reserve currency and mainstay of the international financial system, continued global technological leadership, and the values of individual freedom, fairness, and the rule of law despite the country’s “recent political divisions and difficulties.”

It was the author’s immodest choice to call this extraordinary work “The Longer Telegram,” boldly associating it with George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” of February 1946 that was sent originally as a cable marked “SECRET” to the US State Department from his perch as deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Moscow.

That “Long Telegram” found its place in history when it was published by Foreign Affairs magazine in July 1947 under the pseudonym “X.” Historians give Kennan credit for advancing the containment policies toward the Soviet Union that were ultimately successful, “anchored by [the] analytical conclusion that the USSR would ultimately collapse under the weight of its own contradictions,” writes the anonymous author of “The Longer Telegram” now.

Kennan was guided by a knowledge of how the Soviet Union functioned internally, and the anonymous author argues that US strategy again must be based on better understanding China’s inner workings. What’s different now, the author argues, is that the Chinese system is “much more dexterous in survival,” having learned from the Soviet collapse.

The author opposes the Trump administration’s approach, without mentioning the former US president, of attacking the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a whole. The author argues that would be “strategically self-defeating” and would only serve to allow Xi to unify a CCP that “is significantly divided on Xi’s leadership and his vast ambitions.”

What would success look like?

The author answers that clearly: “That by midcentury, the United States and its major allies continue to dominate the regional and global balance of power across all the major indices of power; that China has been deterred from taking Taiwan militarily… that Xi has been replaced by a more moderate party leadership; and that the Chinese people themselves have come to question and challenge the Communist Party’s century-long proposition that China’s ancient civilization is forever destined to an authoritarian future.”

It’s hard to argue with those goals—and even harder to achieve them.

This article originally appeared on CNBC.com

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.

Riot police officers line up during an unauthorized rally in support of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny in Oktyabrskaya Square. Donat Sorokin/TASS

THE WEEK'S TOP READS

It’s not surprising that this week’s first item and must-read is the Atlantic Council’s "The Longer Telegram," highlighted above.

This week’s top reads also include several other looks at Xi’s China, including reflections on the mixed message of his World Economic Forum “special address" this week. Recently, Beijing launched military incursions threatening Taiwan and sanctioned outgoing Trump administration officials, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as a message to Biden as well.

The fourth item includes two looks, one from the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and one from the Atlantic Council’s Jerermy Stern in Foreign Affairs, at Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s brave return to Russia and the protests that have followed his arrest. Watch this space to see whether this new resistance to Putin, focused on official corruption, will have more staying power than previous efforts.

On a lighter note, the last item is a paean in the New Yorker to bubble tea, also referred to as boba, from self-described addict Jiayang Fan. It’s also a nice reminder of how America’s immigrants keep bringing us such cultural and culinary richness. 

#1. TOWARD A NEW AMERICAN CHINA STRATEGY

THE LONGER TELEGRAM: Toward a New American China Strategy
Anonymous / ATLANTIC COUNCIL

To Counter China’s Rise, the U.S. Should Focus on Xi
Anonymous / POLITICO MAGAZINE

If ever 26,000 words were worth reading, this is the time.

The Atlantic Council has never published something of this length and significance for our times.

So, this remarkable paper, all 26,000 words of it, is this week’s must read. We’re delighted as well that it was published in shorter form and with a more appropriate narrative for Politico Magazine, where it has generated the same high level of interest and debate. Read More →

The central sentence that drives this extraordinary paper’s unprecedented narrative is the following: “The single most important challenge facing the United States in the twenty-first century is the rise of an increasingly authoritarian China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping.” Read More →

#2. XI’S PLAY FOR GLOBAL LEADERSHIP

Xi Tells the World What He Really Wants 
Stephen M. Walt / FOREIGN POLICY

Hypocrisy is not new in major-power affairs.

That said, for those who want a closer look at what Xi wants for the world, and its stark contrast with reality, read every line of his “special address” to this week’s first virtual global gathering at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting and spend some time reading between the lines as well.

The title of the speech itself prompts an Orwellian gulp: “Let the Torch of Multilateralism Light up Humanity’s Way Forward.” Delivered five days after Biden’s more prosaic first inaugural, “America United,” nothing could more dramatically underscore Beijing’s belief that this is China’s moment as the United States faces its own internal struggles. 

In short, Xi outlines a future that has all countries working together through macroeconomic coordination, has disparate forces joining for peaceful coexistence, bridges the gap between developing and developed countries, and encourages the countries of the world to work together on global challenges from pandemics to climate challenges.

When he argues against zero-sum outcomes and a new Cold War, what Xi is really saying is that his and other authoritarian clampdowns on human rights and free speech shouldn’t be the concern of the global commons. This may be the most dramatic difference in a China-run world.

It’s worth noting that Xi spoke these words in a week in which China engaged in more military incursions into Taiwanese territory, more crackdowns on domestic dissent, and other international bullying. “His suggestion that states should refrain from threatening or intimidating others is at odds with China’s behavior on its border with India, its efforts to punish Australia for proposing an independent international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, or its continuing campaign of intimidation against Taiwan,” writes Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy. Read More →

#3. XI’S SHOT ACROSS THE US BOW

Beijing’s Warning Shot to Biden
Edward Fishman and Ashley Feng / DEFENSE ONE

Even as Biden was delivering his inaugural address on the steps of the US Capitol, the Chinese government sent a parting shot to the Trump administration: sanctions against ten of its former senior officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.

Chinese officials, misunderstanding how Washington works, might have thought the incoming Biden administration would welcome such a slap at its predecessors. Instead, Biden officials see the Chinese gambit as an ugly glimpse into the bilateral future.

“This is not the first time the Chinese government has imposed sanctions against U.S. officials,” write the Atlantic Council’s Edward Fishman and Ashley Feng of the Center for a New American Security. “But these measures stand out for their ambition, targeting the most senior U.S. national security officials and handing U.S. companies a stark choice: break ties with the sanctioned Americans or jeopardize access to the Chinese market."

The authors argue the move was not just a parting shot at Trump, but was also designed as a warning shot at the incoming Biden administration. ​Read More →

#4. THE NAVALNY INFLECTION POINT?

Even from prison, Navalny is the most potent political threat Putin has ever faced 
David Ignatius / THE WASHINGTON POST

To Silence Navalny, Putin Will Try to Enlist the West
Jeremy Stern / FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Could we finally be approaching an inflection point in Russia, where the continued rule of long-time authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin comes into question? 

Upon Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s brave return to Russia last week, after recovering in Germany from his apparent poisoning with Putin’s blessing, the Kremlin greeted him with handcuffs.

In response, thousands of angry Russians took to the streets to protest Putin and his regime. As the protest movement continues, it may become Putin’s greatest domestic test yet. Navalny is focused on the most legitimate complaint against the rule of Putin and his cronies: corruption.

“Alexei Navalny combines two qualities that Russians admire,” writes David Ignatius, “a mordant sarcasm toward the country’s leaders and great personal bravery. Together, they make him the most potent political threat that President Vladimir Putin has ever faced.” Read More →

That said, Atlantic Council senior fellow Jeremy Stern warns in Foreign Affairs that while the West will want to simultaneously show support for Navalny and work with Russia on resuming nuclear arms control talks, Biden and European leaders should “beware a trap that the Kremlin is likely to set” by trying to “coax the United States and European governments into helping him neutralize his most problematic critic.” Read More →

#5. THE DEEPER MEANING OF BUBBLE TEA

Chronicles of a Bubble-Tea Addict
Jiayang Fan / THE NEW YORKER

I include this final piece in honor of our thirteen-year-old daughter, who like the author is a bubble tea addict. After crucial soccer matches, or frankly for reasons of various sorts, it often was only bubble tea that would console her.

So I was delighted to read this chronicle of how boba, another name for the tapioca pearls, invaded the United States and over time became a “newfangled drink, served in plastic cups with jumbo straws and what appeared to be shiny marbles piled on the bottom.” Or, as the author referred to them, “a few pearls of leisure” that could be savored by a bewildered immigrant.

There’s no greater geopolitical message or inflection point in this wonderful read by New Yorker staff writer Jiayang Fan, who since 2010 has contributed rich reflections on China, American culture, and those stories that connect them. Just buy a bubble tea the next chance you can, and think about how this beverage is another flavor in the American melting pot. Read More →

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Atlantic Council top reads