A new document detailing America’s response to the rise of China only shows how little Washington understands about Beijing. While the US seems to want to pursue a Cold War, China is chasing more global integration.
A recent report on Axios citing insider sources suggests that the US State Department is set to release a “blueprint for America’s response to China’s rise” called “The Elements of the China Challenge”, which will aim to shape and direct US policy for generations to come.
This blueprint was described as “Kennan-style”, a reference to the former US diplomat George F. Kennan, who in the late 1940s wrote a series of essays, including The Sources of Soviet Conduct and the Long Telegram, which became instrumental in shaping American foreign policy towards containment in the Cold War.
Not surprisingly, this new document, more than 70 pages long, attempts to frame China as an ideological adversary to the US that is seeking global pre-eminence, and lists 10 tasks the US needs to accomplish as it strives to secure freedom on a global scale.
Although it is hardly atypical of the President Trump administration, the document is significant because it represents yet another attempt by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to immortalize his Cold War confrontation between the US and China, bind the succeeding administration to it and most strikingly, institutionalize anti-Beijing ideas into American bureaucracy.
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The push against China by the Trump White House is not designed to be a passing phase, but a permanent and defining change of direction, for which this entire term in office has sought to prepare. This document aims to be a blueprint for long-term ideological struggle and a series of aspirations for maintaining hegemony, an affirmation of priority and a statement that things cannot “go back to normal”. But it makes no guarantee that the US can ever adequately understand China, or that it will succeed in its aims.
The reference to George F. Kennan in pitching this document is appealing given the historical parallels, but it is not an exact fit and this, in turn, helps shine a light on Pompeo’s own ignorance of China. It might be described in one simple sentence: China is not the Soviet Union and the ideological stakes are not quite the same.
The world has changed. During the original Cold War, the Soviet Union existed outside of what might be described as ‘the global economy’, operating an internal economy under a state command system only trading with the Eastern Bloc. It exported weapons to the outside world, but little else of value or influence. This divide sharply heightened the stakes of global ideological struggle, but also contributed to the USSR’s eventual stagnation and demise.
What US foreign policymakers fail to deal with, however, is that China is different. Beijing is an economic and industrial superpower that is deeply integrated into global commerce and finance; it is not an isolated actor, but has been a driver of global growth for decades.
Seeing economic integration with the outside world as essential for economic growth, Beijing is not on a global ideological conquest as Washington policymakers have assumed. Nor is it striving for an expansion of communism. Instead, it has sought to maintain an environment to foster economic growth for domestic legitimacy, while drawing red lines on territorial issues.
It is underpinned far more by its sense of identity than the doctrines of Marxism and as a result, the wholesale depiction of China as a ‘life or death’ adversary is wrong. Thus, the premise that a country so deeply intertwined with the world economy can be feasibly contained without collateral damage to US interests is also misleading.
A senior US official said to Axios that “other nations still fail to appreciate the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] determination to remake the world order in its quest for global pre-eminence.” However, it is America, and not the rest of the world, which is out of touch.
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The document reveals a quench for unchallengeable US hegemony which does not accept a changing world, but endorses an all-embracing zealousness in an obsession with absolute primacy. Excerpts which commit to maintaining the world’s largest military and entrenching knowledge of the China challenge, through both education and bureaucracy, speak volumes.
Yet as the Trump administration ought to have already realized, none of these goals truly matters if it cannot account for what the rise of China really is, and what Beijing and other countries really want. The idea that Washington can decouple itself from Beijing and compel others to do so represents an ironic twist, which puts the US – rather than China – on a par with the historical Eastern Bloc.
And it demonstrates the growing insecurity at play here. The US doesn’t truly fear communist infiltration or subversion, nor does it fear an uprising of workers who will lynch wealthy Americans.
What it fears is the emergence of a country that possesses the genuine capability to overtake it and outgrow it. But in recognizing this, the US does not know how to truly respond, and looks to pitch a zero-sum ideological struggle that doesn’t quite exist on the memory of a former one, and as a result looks ever more out of touch with the world.
Thus, far from being a rehash of Kennan’s famous telegram, this new Cold War blueprint is really a road to nowhere, and doesn’t offer the coherent policy roadmap Pompeo, still stuck in a pre-1991 mindset, believes it does.
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