The Anonymous paper, that has created quite a buzz, paints a grim picture of the China challenge for US, with and after Biden, but doesn’t rule out cooperation.
Longer Telegram: Toward a New American China Strategy — an anonymous paper claimed to be written by a decorated US official has drawn a lot of global attention. The paper makes some significant observations with regard to Xi Jinping’s style of leadership and the main economic and strategic objectives of the Chinese Communist Party. It also tries to underscore what should be the US strategy to deal with a more assertive China under Xi Jinping.
Its timing is significant, given that US President Joe Biden in his address to the US State Department minced no words with regard to China as an economic and security threat. Biden dubbed China as the most ‘serious competitor’ to the US and said that his administration would not refrain from taking on Beijing on Economic and Human Rights related issues.
A day after Biden’s speech which adopted an aggressive stance vis-à-vis China, Anthony Blinken held a conversation with Yang Jiechi, the top foreign policy aide to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He emphatically stated that the US would continue to stand up against the violation of human rights and democratic values, including in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. Blinken also pressed China to join the international community in condemning the military coup in Myanmar. (China so far has adopted a cautious approach concerning the Coup)
How Xi is different from his predecessors
The paper has argued, that Xi Jinping’s style of leadership is far more ambitious than leaders like Deng, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. Says the paper: … China under Xi, unlike under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao is no longer a status quo power. For the United States, its allies, and the US-led liberal international order, this represents a fundamental strategic change’.
For long, observers have argued that Xi’s leadership style is akin to that of Mao, but according to the author of the paper his style of leadership is too complex and while there may be similarities, there are significant differences. The paper thus argues: ‘He is a variation of Mao on domestic and international politics and a further variation of Deng on the economy: not as “left” as Mao, but by no means as “right” as Deng’.
It makes interesting references to the left world’s turn in economic policy, and how Xi has also not been particularly comfortable with big entrepreneurs and private wealth. The discomfort of Xi Jinping with Alibaba CEO Jack Ma is often attributed to this point.
The paper lists some of Xi’s domestic policies such as keeping the CCP in power, ensuring military strength, and close ties with its neighbors. The paper is also important because it not only foreshadows China’s strategic interests but also does shed some light on some of the key political, environmental, and economic challenges which Xi faces. While the Anonymous paper highlights China’s strategic and economic rise and ambitions under Xi Jinping, it also recognizes domestic challenges, such as sustaining economic growth, domestic opposition to some of Xi’s policies.
China’s rise as a challenge and the important role of US
This rise is highlighted as a key change to the world order. There has to be a response and the US is in the best position to provide an alternative while working with its allies. While the paper recognizes, that the US has the capability of keeping the liberal world order intact (in spite of an increasingly isolationist policy of the Trump Administration). If the US gives up this role, it would mean conceding the future order, and its underlying ideational construct, to varying forms of dictatorship.
The paper also gives importance to both US ‘interests’ and ‘values’, this is important because in recent years the focus has been more on ‘interests’, while the ‘values’ part has been neglected. It remains to be seen how Biden will balance both. His first test is likely to be in reacting to the recent coup in Myanmar. While the US has reacted strongly even threatening to impose sanctions, US allies like Japan and India due to strategic and economic interests have been far more circumspect. A number of recommendations have been made such as greater cooperation with allies in Asia and Europe, providing an acceptable economic and technological aspect.
The anonymous paper also categorically states that there is no clear cohesive policy to deal with the new China under Xi. Even documents such as the NSS published in 2017 have no clear vision for dealing with China.
Watch: How China’s rise affects US’ global power and relations with US allies?
Other significant contributions of the Paper
Two other significant parts of the anonymous paper are the drawing of clear red lines and having deterrents with regard to China’s approach vis-à-vis allies and the highlighting of Chinese threats to the US and its allies as well as the violation of Human Rights. The red lines drawn are Chinese aggression vis-à-vis US allies like Japan, any attack on Taiwan, and hostile actions in SCS amongst others.
The important major threats identified by the paper are; ‘Chinese cyberattack against any US or allied governments, important economic, social, or political infrastructure, any act of large-scale military or economic belligerence against US treaty allies or other critical strategic partners, including India’. Interestingly, it does not rule out cooperation in areas such as the denuclearization of North Korea, under the Umbrella of G20, and climate change.
Challenges for Biden Administration
While President Biden has repeatedly spoken about many of the issues discussed in the paper, there are two important issues; US cooperation with allies to take on China not just on the basis of finding common ground, but also giving space to them with regard to their economic ties with China. This point has been made by the coordinator of Indo-Pacific Kurt M Campbell who was also one of the key architects of the ‘Pivot to Asia’ narrative. One of the problems, during the Trump Administration, had been an expectation that allies should make a choice between China and the US. Relations of US allies with China is likely to remain a complex issue, Washington, for instance, was skeptical about the EU’s investment agreement with China, this could also be a problem with Australia, certain member states of ASEAN who may have a strained relationship with China, but have close economic linkages.
The other important point made in the paper is the need for the US to have a better relationship with Russia and understand the fault lines between the eastern neighbors. Russia is not comfortable with China’s increasing influence in Central Asia for instance. According to the paper: ‘Effectively reinforcing US alliances is critical. Dividing Russia from China in the future is equally so. Allowing Russia to drift fully into China’s strategic embrace over the last decade will go down as the single greatest geostrategic error of successive US administrations.‘ So far, Biden has been aggressive on Russia and it remains to be seen if he will change course.
On the Right Note
On the whole, President Biden and his team have made the right noises with regard to foreign policy and the key threats. The ‘America is back’ narrative has been aptly messaging, but with an increasingly assertive China, under Xi Jinping, Biden Administration’s task is clearly cut out. It is imperative for the US not just to strengthen ties with allies, but also to understand that the interests of allies will not be identical. The paper provides some important insights into Xi Jinping’s personality and the changes in CCP and the country, while also providing important recommendations. Ties between China and the US, of course, are dynamic and complex and academic recommendations can only go so far, ultimately it is ground realities that will shape bilateral ties between Beijing and Washington. The paper is important because while understanding the China challenge it has not ruled out cooperation in a few areas of traditional security and non-traditional security areas.