Op-Ed: Biden must draw red lines against China and focus on Xi Jinping’s authoritarian leadership


Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the World Economic Forum WEF Virtual Event of the Davos Agenda and delivers a special address via video link in Beijing, capital of China, Jan. 25, 2021.

Li Xueren | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

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 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 U.S. 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.”

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 Chinse 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, and those who believe that setting such red lines is an invitation either to U.S. humiliation, should they fail to be enforced, or lead 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, who since his rise to power in 2013 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. “U.S. policy 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, that any strategy to manage that country would need to begin at the top. Experts have been approaching 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 U.S. official who welcomed the paper because of its clear and lucid focus on Xi, to another who worried that such a U.S. approach would be considered as an endorsement for regime change that could only sharpen tensions.

The author’s hope is that his 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 U.S. 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 rule of law “despite 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 State Department from his perch as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. 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 now.

Kennan was guided by a knowledge of how the Soviet Union functioned internally, and the author argues that U.S. 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 Soviet collapse.

He opposes the Trump administration’s approach, without mentioning the former U.S. president, of attacking the Chinese Communist Party as a whole. He argues that would be “strategically self-defeating” and only serve to allow President 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.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.


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