America’s primacy in ASEAN is over; ‘The Longer Telegram’ completely misses the mark

On January 28th, the Atlantic Council published “The Longer Telegram”, written by an anonymous author described as a former senior government official with extensive experience dealing with China. Its source of inspiration is, as its name suggests, no other than the Long Telegram, the article that set forth America’s national strategy of containment written by diplomat  George F. Kennan. Except, of course, the Longer Telegram’s target is not the now-deceased Soviet Union but rather China, America’s new great power competitor. 

That the article has come under deep scrutiny is unsurprising, given that it seeks to set the tone of American grand strategy for its greatest geopolitical challenge in this century. One criticism, of course, is already obvious — why afford the writer the opportunity to cosplay Kennan given that they are no longer in office? — but let us leave aside the stylistic choices and focus on the content. 

Let’s begin with the main thrust of the argument. The most bizarre of the recommendations may be the author’s insistence that America focus on Xi Jinping. In a separate piece for POLITICO that condenses the Longer Telegram’s recommendations (it really is quite long), the author counseled that the US builds “a strategy that focuses more narrowly on Xi, rather than the Chinese Communist Party as a whole.” 

This, the author argues, is necessary because Xi presents a unique challenge to America by changing China from a status quo power into a “revisionist power, a state bent on changing the world around it.”

It is charged that Xi has “returned China to classical Marxism-Leninism” and “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.” 

The assertion that China has returned to classical Marxism-Leninism will surely surprise most analysts — a return of some Maoist political practices, a greater emphasis on Marxist ideology and a revitalization of the role of the state in the economy, yes, but China’s system of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” remains largely in place. And the author overstates Xi’s interest in exporting the Chinese model — pliant democrats willing to do business with the CCP will suit him just fine.

Above all, however, the idea that the United States can capitalize on splits in the CCP by focusing on Xi Jinping seems like fanciful thinking. 

It is true that there are divisions within the CCP.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, in which he promised to crack down on both “tigers” and “flies”, has made him many enemies. But factional divisions still remain largely unclear. Analysts have often speculated that the party is riven by a split between Xi Jinping and aged former president Jiang Zemin, but as Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese elite politics, has written, evidence on this is unclear. Instead, Cheng puts forward a model he calls yidang, liangpai (“One country, two factions”): an elite camp led by Jiang and Xi versus the tuanpai faction of politicians primarily from less privileged backgrounds. The bottom line is the author does not outline which factions are against Xi or how to appeal to them. 

Indeed, the author may be seeking a mission impossible. They argue that “the mission for US China strategy should be to see China return to its pre-2013 path—i.e., the pre-Xi strategic status quo.”

Not until Xi came along, the author feels, did China stop following Deng Xiaoping’s maxim to “hide its light and bide its time.” But was Deng’s caution not always implicitly a temporary one? A time was assumed to come when China could stop biding its time, and that point presumably was reached by the time Xi ascended to power — a few years after the 2008 financial crisis, a turning point that hugely boosted Chinese self-confidence — Beijing had gained enough wealth and power to start projecting greater authority abroad. A different leader may have been less assertive, but perhaps not markedly less so. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech via video at the opening ceremony of the 17th China-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Expo in Nanning, in southern China’s Guangxi province on November 27, 2020. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT

What does this mean for ASEAN?

From the perspective of someone sitting in Southeast Asia, the Longer Telegram also feels strangely lacking. 

The author notes that one of Xi’s top ten priorities is to “secure China’s maritime periphery to its east” by “ultimately decoupling US alliances with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines…while also undermining US sub-treaty military cooperation with other Southeast Asian and South Pacific island states.”

The US response should be “prioritizing trade, investment, development, diplomatic and security relations between the United States and each of the Southeast Asian states, particularly with US allies Thailand and the Philippines, to prevent further strategic drift by Southeast Asia toward China.” 

It is refreshing to see the importance of America’s traditional allies recognized. But that is about the amount of detail that the author provides on how the US should re-engage with Southeast Asia after the neglect of the Trump years. Southeast Asia is discussed only in passing, and ASEAN mentioned only once. Quite striking, indeed, for a piece that runs 26,000 words to largely ignore the region in which Chinese influence has accelerated so fast at America’s expense.  

And while what the author calls for sounds easy, it also raises a number of questions.

Firstly, the two US allies that the author calls for the US to more closely cooperate with — Thailand and the Philippines — have increasingly divergent strategic interests from Washington D.C. This is not the Cold War, when Mao exporting communism was an existential threat — today, Thailand’s elites are quite comfortable with the friendly historical ties that Bangkok has enjoyed with Beijing. To borrow an Indonesian minister’s phrase, Thailand would much prefer to have “a thousand friends and no enemies,” especially given that it has no territorial claims in conflict with China. What is America actually willing to offer that will be able to countermand the gravity of geographic proximity? 

It should also be remembered that while the Longer Telegram calls for its strategy to be implemented “with the full participation” of US allies, forcing its Asian allies to have to “choose” between the US or China might yield choices that are far from favorable to America. Of course, America is still viewed more favorably in the region; a recent ISEAS survey showed that 61.5% of Southeast Asians would rather align with the US than China. But how the general population feel may not matter when China’s economic might is an undeniable reality. It is far preferable to allow allies to coexist within the spheres of influence of two great powers than to make them pick one over another.

Secondly, for the US to prioritize relationships with Thailand and the Philippines, it would ironically have to give up what the author claims is also critical to defend: democratic values. Neither Thailand nor the Philippines are currently bastions of democracy and human rights. Indeed, Duterte volcanically erupts whenever Washington D.C comments on his excesses, and the men in Thailand’s halls of power bristle whenever the State Department issues a note of concern at a political development. Is the United States willing to turn a blind eye in favor of stronger ties? And if it is, then is it not tolerating the same illiberal political orders that it claims China wants to export? 

Ultimately, the Longer Telegram reeks of a certain hubris: that American primacy in Asia must be sustained without any ground given. Its measure of success is “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.”

But consider China’s own perspective that the 21st century merely represents a rectifying of the international order to normality after its ‘century of humiliation. Is a complete refusal to accommodate this rising power not simply the route towards a more perilous world?

This is not to say, of course, that America’s role in the Asia-Pacific is not welcome; its balancing power, which ensures that no country can achieve complete hegemony in East and Southeast Asia, is a positive stabilizing factor. And it does not mean that we must condone everything the CCP does. But as Graham Allison wrote, “The resurgence of an ancient civilization containing a billion people is not a problem to be fixed but a situation that must be managed with a depth of understanding.” 

There is something on which the Longer Telegram is undoubtedly correct: when it recommends that the United States also pays attention to its own domestic problems. America used to represent both the dream of opportunity and a commitment to values. These past two decades, people across the world have much reason to doubt whether America truly represents either.

The author is clear in stating a belief that China represents an ideological challenge: “The US position should be: let the battle for ideas begin once again. May the competition for global hearts and minds be engaged in earnest, and may the best argument win.” But I would not be so confident that the US, unless it can again demonstrate that democracy works, will win that argument. 

What American governance has produced over the past two decades were disastrous foreign wars, an economy that enriches the few with few benefits for the many, unfixed reckonings over racial division, and from 2017 to earlier this year a morally bankrupt leadership. People across the world needs to see its commitment to its values, even as inconsistent and imperfect as it is, truly manifested at home, and they need to see that its government can truly deliver results. 

America is strongest when it, as President Joe Biden said in his inauguration speech, leads “not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”

That, beyond anything else, is what America needs to do to sustain its primacy. 

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