Winston Churchill was rebuked as a warmonger when he tried to alert the United States to the immense danger of the Soviet Union with his “Iron Curtain” speech. In March 1946, the USSR was still America’s heroic ally; Stalin was the benign pipe-smoking Uncle Joe who had valiantly defeated the Germans, thereby sparing countless American boys an early death.
But this wilful ignorance was best captured in another call to arms that also celebrates its 75th anniversary this year: that of George F Kennan’s “Long Telegram” on the sources of Soviet conduct, which was received by the State Department in February 1946. Written by Kennan under the pseudonym ‘Mr X’, the Telegram was an attempt to bore through the layers of ignorance, foolish optimism and disinformation spread by local Communists and Soviet sympathisers. He hoped to mobilise his fellow foreign service officers in the State Department and their chiefs, and through them the press and then Congress, to “contain” the further spread of Stalin’s power across Europe. Kennan had to estrange the USSR in order to make his colleagues and the wider world see its threat.
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Today, foreign policy leaders have attempted to exhume the memory of Kennan’s Long Telegram to evoke comparisons with our own confrontation with the Communist Party of China. I had a few conversations with George Kennan in 1973-74, and while I do not recall him as much given to humour, I am pretty sure that he would have found the comparison risibly absurd.
Take the influential Atlantic Council’s “Longer Telegram”. It mournfully begins by asserting that the United States “has so far had no… strategy with regard to China. This is a dereliction of national responsibility”. That is total nonsense: the one problem the Trump administration did confront systematically was China’s aggression abroad and repression at home, to such good effect that the Biden Administration reaffirmed every single one of his policies on China.
Kennan would also have ridiculed the very first operational recommendation: “US strategy and policy toward China must be laser-focused on the fault lines among Xi and his inner circle.” Back in 1946, the inner politics of Stalin’s court were totally secret and the same is true of Xi’s party today — with total centralisation very few protagonists are in the know, and they all have better ways of committing suicide than to talk.
Finally, there is the point where Kennan would have risen in hilarity from a chortle to a guffaw: “The foremost goal of US strategy should be to cause China’s ruling elites to conclude that it is in China’s best interests to continue operating within the US-led liberal international order….” You might as well try to sell them beach holidays in the Gobi desert: Xi’s global policy is driven precisely by the realisation that China’s Communist Party cannot survive unless democracy is viewed as the plaything of rich Anglo-Saxon exploiters, while everyone else prefers authoritarian rule.
We all know what Xi Jinping is made of. While the Long Telegram was necessary to estrange Stalin’s Soviet Union, no such effort is needed to awaken the US to the People’s Republic of China. China’s own leadership has done all the awakening that is necessary since the rise of Xi Jinping to supreme, almost Mao-like power. Xi has publicly proclaimed the imminence of China’s industrial superiority, and strived to achieve it via the largest industrial espionage offensive in history. Last year, the FBI’s Director disclosed that it was tracking almost a thousand Chinese attempts to steal civil and military technologies, or commercial secrets.
Add to all this the calculatedly arrogant tone of Chinese diplomacy since Xi Jinping’s rise to power — they call it “wolf” diplomacy — in countries as varied as Canada (following the detention of Huawei CFO for extradition hearings in the US), Sweden ( which was warned to treat Chinese citizens with greater respect after a rowdy family had been ejected from a hotel) and Australia (which was presented with a long list of demands including an end to Human Rights complaints and a stop to strategic research on China).
Finally, there is the relentless accumulation of Chinese military strength, funded by a still growing economy, whose more visible elements include a growing fleet whose combat value matters less than the symbolism of such a direct challenge to American power in the Pacific.
This information reached the American public in fragments, but what came through was enough to shift attitudes in the US from optimism to weary vigilance, and then from growing approval for counter-measures to active support for safeguards in every sector. Even in elite universities, fewer learned fools rush to the defence of fellow academics arrested for passing US-funded high-tech research to their Chinese handlers. Today, it’s almost universally acknowledged that agents of the Guoanbu — China’s Ministry of State Security — attempt to recruit every single China-born US citizen known to have access to valuable technological information (recent cases ranged from jet engine designs to genetically engineered soya beans).
Though the US doesn’t need to be to awakened to the threat of China, Kennan’s Telegram does have one useful lesson for us: the importance of overcoming provincialism.
Kennan had to wake up a distant America which still trusted Stalin’s promises to the grim events unfolding in Eastern Europe. This time, American provincialism is manifest in the credence given to American-centered explanations for what has happened to US-Chinese relations. The most widely circulated example of this is to point to America’s straightforward “hegemonic jealousy”, whereby the United States, today’s number one global power, is doing all it can one to preserve its primacy by pressing back against the CCP. A cruder variant I have heard in China, but which has certainly also appeared in the West, blames White racism for the refusal to accept the rise of the Han nation.
Some might find these explanations plausible, but there is a logical reason why no American-centered theory makes sense. Relations between the People’s Republic of China and every other country of any importance (except Russia) have evolved on exactly the same trajectory as its relationship with the US: from cooperative, even friendly relations to increasing suspicion, followed by vigorous defensive reactions.
Moreover, these reversals from amity to hostility have occurred on the same timetable, or near enough. That cannot be a coincidence. Nor are those countries US dependencies, whose relations with Beijing were ruined at Washington’s orders, an untrue proposition but particularly absurd in India’s case, whose non-alignment even had an Anti-American tinge to it. When, in 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s state visit to Beijing and the major joint programs then announced inspired heady talk of “Chindia”, influential Indian figures argued that their country had to “wean itself” off American temptations to get into bed with Beijing. But what ensued was the opposite: the joint programs never happened but border incidents did — with territorial claims asserted once again and “Chindia” cast into ridicule.
In the case of Australia, when the Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister in 2007, the “broadening and deepening” of Sino-Australian relations accelerated. Australian exports to China rose every year to reach 30% of Australia’s total. Meanwhile, everything Chinese was welcome, including Chinese purchases of Australian firms, housing and agricultural lands. The Chinese tourists that arrived in ever-growing numbers were uniquely valuable, not least because they stayed away from the over-visited Great Barrier Reef, instead preferring harmless sightseeing, shopping, and even more profitable gambling.
Australia’s welcome extended to the Hanban, the Chinese Language Council which opened “Confucius Institutes” in several Australian universities, operated by Chinese personnel who not only provided Chinese language teaching but also helped university administrators to handle the ever-increasing influx of students from China. Australian travel to China was also much facilitated by the opening of consular offices in six Australian cities (the United States only had four), which also provided services for the increasing number of Chinese students and immigrants.
Everything is different now. Yes, if Chinese gamblers arrive, they would still be welcomed, and China can still import all the Australian raw materials it wants. But Chinese attempts to purchase Australian firms are now very closely examined and mostly denied, and all the Confucius Institutes in New South Wales have been closed after it became clear that they were propaganda outlets whose staff compelled Chinese students to function as their agents, to shout down Hong Kong protesters for example.
Most dramatic is the changed strategic attitude to China, from Kevin Rudd’s confidence that Beijing was willing “to make a strong contribution to strengthening the regional security environment and the global rules-based order” to a rising sense of insecurity that already in 2011 induced the Australian government to invite US Marines to train in their country. Not just once either, but on a prolonged basis with increasingly permanent facilities in Darwin. That was a response to China’s claims to some three million square kilometers of ocean waters that extend very far from China and very close to the coasts of Australia’s neighbours — claims rejected as entirely baseless by the Law of the Sea arbitration court.
The off-duty Marines in Darwin are the most visible evidence that Australia now views China as a strategic threat. The least visible is Australia’s “strategic dialogue” with Vietnam, China’s most resolute opponent and favourite target (Vietnamese fishing boats are regularly attacked by Chinese vessels), with “strategic” an euphemism for intelligence; the Vietnamese contribute ground intelligence while Australia shares satellite intelligence released by its Five Eyes partners.
The Chinese have since retaliated, applying the logic of war in the medium of commerce with import blockages that exploit the dependence of Australian exporters on the Chinese market. Only last November, Beijing leaked 14 demands as their conditions for the restoration of normal trade relations, starting with the opening of the Australian telecom market to Huawei and extending to the dismantling of Australian security measures across the board, as well as an end to Australian statements on Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan and “unfriendly” media coverage of China.
In the case of Japan, the reversal in relations with China was a good deal more abrupt, and again it was entirely unrelated to US-China dynamics. At the start of the financial crisis in 2009, Sino-Japanese relations had improved so much that Japan’s Minister of Defence Hamada Yasukazu visited Beijing to sign a comprehensive set of agreements covering extensive information-sharing arrangements, an overall “maritime contact mechanism”, mutual naval visits, a very extensive schedule of high-level meetings and joint military exercises. The US-Japan security relationship seemed to be in danger.
But on 7 September, 2010, the Chinese trawler Minjinyu 5179, one of many fishing in Senkaku’s waters, collided with two Japanese coastguard patrol vessels. Its skipper was drunk, but when he was duly detained, Japan’s ambassador in Beijing was summoned to the Foreign Ministry where he was told that Japan should stop operating its coastguard in the entire Senkaku archipelago. A nationwide campaign of incitement led by the Chinese Foreign Ministry generated vast protests in front of the Japanese embassy with demands for the immediate handover of the archipelago.
Soon it was rumoured that Japan’s advanced manufacturing would be strangled by Chinese threats to stop the supply of rare earth metals, which are indispensable for high-tech industries. Japan’s response had to await the accession of Shinzo Abe to the premiership in December 2012. By the time he resigned eight years later , he had roundly rejected China’s territorial claims, and had strengthened Japan’s national security structure along with the US alliance.
Likewise the UK, which only a few years ago under David Cameron was pursuing a privileged “Golden Age” relationship with China, started contending with its technology thefts and its threat to global security. Along with India, Japan, Australia and many others, it will continue to do so, regardless of who is in the White House.
In the end, there is no need for another Kennan, or another Long Telegram. There is no need to invoke Thucydides when Goethe’s Faust is quite sufficient. Xi Jinping’s China is bent on world domination, starting with the international institutions that one-by-one cease to uphold Western values.
But because China threatens a few countries while seducing many more, what we do emphatically need is another George Marshall. More than any other individual, Marshall built up the Alliance that successfully resisted the Soviet Union, precisely by subordinating military priorities to a comprehensive economic plan that defeated its ideology by drastically accelerating the recovery of war-wrecked Europe.
This time, there has to be a better response to Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, which is building ports, highways and rail lines around the world. The current global response amounts to little more than quoting Proverbs 22:7 — “the borrower is slave to the lender” — to countries desperately in need of investment. The World Bank has degenerated into a provider of very high tax-free salaries to employees who hold up even modest projects with impossible environmental, indigenous rights and rate-of-return demands.
So, there is room for a “strategic infrastructures” initiative by the US and Japan with Australia, Canada, India the UK, and other members of the China-containment coalition. To cite a very obvious example, a Calcutta-Haiphong road and rail project would provide a horizontal alternative to China’s north-south influence vectors for Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Laos while connecting India and Vietnam, who are already cooperating at sea to resist China.
At a time when Mr Musk can invest $1 billion in the digital abstraction of bitcoin, a “coalition bank” should be able to outcompete China’s investments. George Kennan managed to wake the world up to the threat of the Soviet Union. Our leaders are awake to China. Truly ambitious action on a Marshall-like scale must follow.