China Politics & Diplomacy Security & Defense United States and Canada
Transcript February 3, 2021

Senator Sullivan calls ‘The Longer Telegram’ on China ‘one of the best strategies I have read’

By Atlantic Council

On Tuesday, Dan Sullivana Republican senator from Alaska, a member of the Armed Services Committee, and the chairman of the board of the International Republican Institutetook to the floor of the US Senate in response to the Atlantic Council’s publication last week of “The Longer Telegram,” a paper by an anonymous former senior government official proposing a new American China strategy. Drawing on the paper’s arguments and describing the document as “a great, important development” that the Biden administration “needs to take a hard look at,” Sullivan noted that the United States has arrived at a historic moment similar to the period after World War II in which it devised its containment strategy toward the Soviet Union. Washington must now urgently develop a comprehensive, bipartisan strategy toward a rising China, he maintained.

“‘The Longer Telegram,’ while not perfect, sets out what I believe is certainly one of the best strategies I have read to date about how the United States needs to address this significant challenge that we will be facing for decades. I hope my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, all have the opportunity to read this [and] analyze it,” he said. Watch his full speech, and read the transcript of his remarks, below.

Watch the full remarks


SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN (R-AK): Mr. President, I also want to talk about another big challenge for our nation. It’s something that I’ve come down on the floor since I was elected six years ago to the Senate to talk about, and that’s the challenge that we have with regard to the rise of China.

And as a matter of fact, Mr. President, this is an area I talk frequently about because there’s a lot more bipartisan progress on this incredibly important issue, the most important geostrategic challenge facing our nation right now, probably the challenge that will be facing us for the next fifty to one hundred years, that is with us today. But there’s been progress. And I want to talk about this progress, and I want to talk about something that—another development that I think is very important.

There’s been an awakening. When I started to come down and talk about the rise of China, not a lot of people were talking about it. But there’s been huge progress in that now everybody’s talking about it: the Biden administration, the Trump administration had been. I think President Trump and his team with their National Security Strategy, their National Defense Strategy, deserve a lot of credit from reorienting our focus, which was the appropriate focus post-9/11, on violent extremist organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS to the new challenge of great-power competition with China as the pacing threat that we have with regard to our nation.

And again, Mr. President, this is something that’s been very bipartisan. When you look at members of this body, particularly those who focus on foreign policy and national security, they all agree that this reorientation on this challenge is something that we need to be doing as a country in a bipartisan way, dealing with the rise of China.

Now, Mr. President, I think when we talk about this challenge we are at a place in history that in many ways is analogous to the period right after World War II, and I want to talk briefly about that in my remarks.

In 1946, we had what at the time was a recognition that post-World War II we have a new challenge. Similar to the challenge that we’re seeing right now, the recognition we have this challenge with China, in 1946 we started to recognize that we have a challenge with our old World War II ally the Soviet Union. And there was a big focus on this challenge, but not necessarily an organizing foreign-policy principle that could help us get through it.

Then, in the 1946-1947 period, Mr. President, an American diplomat named George Kennan wrote an article. It was an anonymous article. He signed it the “X Article” in Foreign Affairs, and it was called “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” And what Kennan did is that for really the country, for elected officials, for the Senate, for the executive branch, he laid out what he saw as the challenge that we are facing with regard to the Soviet Union, the internal weaknesses that the Soviets actually had—incredible insights in that regard—and then what our long-term strategy should be.

And here’s what he said in this article. He said that American policymakers need to enact a firm policy of containment with regard to the Soviet Union, a country that always was trying to expand. And he said if we as a nation with our allies try to contain this expansion, it would “increase enormously the strains under which the Soviet Union and its policy must operate” and “in this way promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet either in the breakup or the gradual mellowing of the Soviet empire.”

Think about that, Mr. President. That was the strategy of containment laid out by George Kennan, followed for decades by American administrations, by this body, Republicans and Democrats—the strategy of containment. And we all know what happened. George Kennan’s fundamental insights into this policy, that the Soviet Union would either mellow or completely break down and collapse because we were putting containment pressure on them, ended up happening. The Berlin Wall came down. Just as Kennan predicted, the Soviet Union broke up peacefully. And this was a remarkable triumph of American democracy and strategy that our nation should be proud of.

So that’s what happened then. A lot of us have been saying we’re at a new point with regard to China. There is an awakening. What should that strategy be?

So, Mr. President, I want to talk about a strategy document that just came out. Kennan’s document was called “The Long Telegram.” Just this past weekend, the Atlantic Council—which is a think tank here in DC, been around for decades, very well-respected on the Republican side, Democrat side—put out a strategy that they called “The Longer Telegram,” literally in kind of the analogous situation that George Kennan had done this in 1946 and 1947. This strategy, which also coincidentally does not identify the author—so similar to that “X Article” in 1946 and 1947, the author is anonymous—put out a strategy with insights on how we as a nation should deal with the rise of China.

The Atlantic Council, as I said, has been around for decades. They published this and they said this is probably the most impressive strategy document that they’ve ever published. Now, is it perfect? Is this the answer? Is this the containment strategy from 1946 and 1947 that was the triumph of American diplomacy over the last fifty years with the Soviet Union? We shall see, Mr. President. We don’t know. But I’ve looked through it and I do think it’s quite a remarkable document. And it’s a great, important development that we all need to come together on and this new administration, the Biden administration, needs to take a hard look at it.

The focus of this strategy document says, which we all believe now, 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. Now, I think a lot of us know that. I think a lot of us have been talking about that. That’s the awakening that I believe has happened here in the United States and certainly here in the United States Senate.

But Mr. President, like the Kennan article, this one has some very perceptive insights. One is that it focuses on what it sees as one of the biggest weaknesses in China right now, and that’s the fracturing of the Communist Party leadership. And I’m going to talk about that because it emphasizes—Anonymous here emphasizes that should be our focus.

So the piece begins by setting the stage of where we are right now. And Mr. President, this is the document, and I’d like to insert this after my remarks for the record in its entirety with unanimous consent.

THE PRESIDING OFFICER: Without objection.

SENATOR SULLIVAN: So it talks about the scale of the economy of China and its military, and the speed of its technological advancement, and its radically different worldview than that of the United States. It notes that China now profoundly impacts every major US national interest. This is our challenge, one that has gradually emerged over two decades and has accelerated greatly under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

How has Xi Jinping ruled during this rise? He has eliminated his political opponents, he has stalled market reforms, used ethnonationalism to unite his country, and his treatment of ethnic minorities has bordered on genocide. In doing so, he has fostered a quasi-Maoist personality cult and a new form of a totalitarian high-tech police state.

Anonymous writes, “In what is a fundamental departure from his risk-averse post-Mao predecessors, Xi Jinping has demonstrated that he 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. China under Xi, unlike Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao”—three previous Chinese leaders—“is no longer a status quo power. It has become a revisionist power.” That, Mr. President, is very troubling for the United States. And this is the situation as laid out by the author of “The Longer Telegram.”

What has the United States’ response so far been? It’s been good, but it needs to improve. The author gives credit to the Trump administration for sounding the alarm in its National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy with regard to the strategic competition, central challenge to our foreign policy, and great-power competition that all have resulted from the rise of China.

But Anonymous writes that a simple Kennan-like strategy of containment won’t be effective with regard to China because China has studied what happened to the USSR, learned from its mistakes, understood that the inherent structural weakness with regard to the Soviet model itself was something that caused it to collapse. So China is focused on that.

But as I mentioned, the author emphasizes another central vulnerability of the Chinese system, and one in which he or she, the author, thinks we need to take advantage of. Here’s what Anonymous says: The political reality is that the Chinese Communist Party is significantly divided on Xi Jinping’s leadership and his vast ambitions. Senior party members have been greatly troubled by Xi’s policy directions and angered by his endless demands for absolute loyalty. They fear for their own lives and the future livelihoods of their families. Of particular political toxicity in this mix are the reports unearthed by the international media of the wealth amassed by Xi’s family and members of his political inner circle like so many other authoritarians who amass wealth through corruption, despite the vigor with which Xi has conducted his own anticorruption campaign, which has destroyed many of his rivals.

So what do we do with this information? As Anonymous, the author of “The Longer Telegram,” here says, we need to focus on Xi Jinping himself. “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.”

This, Anonymous writes, has been the missing piece of the puzzle for our China strategy so far. “While US leaders often differentiate between China’s Communist Party government and the Chinese people”—correctly—Washington leaders “must achieve the sophistication necessary to go even further. US leaders also must differentiate between the government and the party elite, as well as between the party elite and Xi” Jinping himself. That is critical.

According to Anonymous, we must work to drive a wedge between these groups to frustrate Xi’s ambitions in order to “cause China’s elite leadership to collectively conclude that it is in the country’s best interests to continue operating within the existing US-led international order rather than” to build a rival authoritarian order throughout the world and it is in the party’s best interests not to attempt to expand China’s borders or to export its authoritarian political model beyond China’s shores. That, Mr. President, is the juxtaposition of the significant challenge we have right now with current strategy and what Anonymous says in this document we should be building on.

And building on these insights, the author emphasizes US strategy should [comprise] seven integrated components. Many of us have come down on the floor to talk about some of these. Let me touch on a few.

Rebuilding the economic, military, technological, and human capital underpinnings of long-term US national power. I think we can all agree on that.

Agreeing on a set of limited enforceable policy red lines that China should be deterred from crossing under any circumstances, such as forcibly invading Taiwan.

Agreeing on a large number of major national security interests which are neither vital nor existential in nature, but which require a range of retaliatory actions to inform Chinese strategy behavior.

Defining those areas where continued strategy cooperation with China remains in the US interest.

Prosecuting a full-fledged global ideological battle in defense of our political and economic models in contrast with China’s authoritarian state-capitalist models around the world.

And finally, Mr. President, all of this needs to be done in conjunction with and closely coordinating with all of our allies in Europe, in North America, and of course in the Asia-Pacific.

Mr. President, this last point is critical. Our allies are critical. We need to remember we are an ally-rich nation. China is an ally-poor nation. That is one of our huge comparative advantages in the geostrategic challenge that we have with China over the next decades.

And at the end of the day, as Anonymous writes, ideas matter. Ultimately, this is going to be the contest of ideas: China’s authoritarian model, which it wants to promote and export, versus the US and Western model of open economies, just societies, and competitive, free political systems.

Over the long term, the author says, the Chinese people may well come to question and challenge the party’s century-long proposition that China’s great ancient civilization, thousands of years old, is forever destined to an authoritarian future over which the people have no choice. That decision, however, must come from the Chinese people themselves. We can only provide a model. We can only show the way. And we need to do so with confidence and with our allies.

As Anonymous concludes, there is a subtle yet corrosive force that has been at work in the United States for some time, raising doubt about our nation’s future and some who are encouraging a sense that as a country America’s best days may now be in the past. Well, I, for one, certainly and fully disagree with this, as does the author of “The Longer Telegram.” We are a young country. We are a resilient country. Our innovation is beyond compare. We are a free country. And as a result of the long twilight struggle with the Soviet Union, we also know what works: maintaining peace through strength; promoting free markets and free people at home; and having the confidence in George Kennan’s insights from 1946 and 1947 that the Chinese Communist Party, like the Soviet Communist Party, likely “bears within it the seeds of its own decay.”

While democracies are resilient, adaptive, and self-renewing, there are many vulnerabilities embedded in China’s perceived strengths. One-man rule creates acute political risk, as Anonymous has described, that we need to take advantage of. Historical grievance can breed violent nationalism. State-directed economic growth can produce massive overcapacity and mountains of debt. The gradual and in some ways abrupt snuffing out of freedom in places like Hong Kong is creating spontaneous protests of tens of thousands of young people that we have been seeing now for months. China’s budding military power and historical view of itself as a—as a nation and culture superior to many others is alarming its neighboring states, inspiring them to step up their security cooperation with the United States. And Mr. President, nearly half of wealthy Chinese want to emigrate. And these are the winners from China’s four decades of heady economic growth.

As we have in the past, Americans can prevail in this long-term geopolitical and ideological contest. But doing so will require a new level of strategic initiative, organization, and confidence in who we are and what we stand for. And this also means we must redouble our efforts in making the strategic case not just to Americans, but to others around the world—around the world, particularly our allies.

Mr. President, let me conclude by saying “The Longer Telegram,” while not perfect, sets out what I believe is certainly one of the best strategies I have read to date about how the United States needs to address this significant challenge that we will be facing for decades. I hope my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, all have the opportunity to read this, analyze it. For like Kennan’s strategy of containment, our China policy, to be successful, also needs to be very bipartisan and ready to be operationalized for decades.

I yield the floor.

Further reading

Image: U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan speaks during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing for U.S. Secretary of Transportation nominee Pete Buttigieg in Washington, DC, U.S., January 21, 2021. Stefani Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS