Feb 2, 2021 - World

China strategies bloom in Washington

Illustration of the Chinese star arrangement made from flowers. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A proliferation of new policy ideas often accompanies a changing of the guard in Washington. But this time around, growing concern over China's rise has driven debate into overdrive, as numerous stakeholders present competing visions for a U.S. response.

Why it matters: The actions the U.S. and its allies choose to take over the next few years could make the difference between a world made safer for autocracy or one in which human rights and liberal ideals still have a fighting chance.

The big picture: The U.S. is currently hovering in a rare moment of total possibility. The Trump era of shoot-from-the-hip confrontation with China is over, while Biden has yet to roll back Trump's China policies or announce his own.

  • Numerous analysts are seizing this moment to showcase their ideas for containing China's authoritarianism and rejuvenating democracy, in the hope that their proposals might influence the Biden administration's future direction.

China's leaders, too, view the current period as critical. "The world is in a turbulent time that is unprecedented in the past century," Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a January meeting, though he projected a sense of confidence by adding that "time and momentum are on China's side."

What's happening: Some U.S. strategists have made comparisons to the early days of the Cold War, when State Department official George Kennan published an anonymous essay based off a cable, later known as the "Long Telegram," that laid out what would become the U.S. strategy of containment toward the Soviet Union.

  • In November, the Trump State Department's office of policy planning produced a 70-plus-page China strategy paper that openly drew inspiration from the Long Telegram but was not named after it.
  • Last week, the Atlantic Council published a lengthy strategy paper called "The Longer Telegram," attributed to an anonymous former U.S. senior official.

These two "telegrams" identified similar problems — China's growing global dominance and increasingly aggressive authoritarianism, and an underperforming U.S. They also presented some overlapping solutions, including the need for strengthened alliances and U.S. domestic rejuvenation.

  • But the Longer Telegram had a more optimistic view of the Chinese Communist Party, suggesting the U.S. had the ability, through carefully calibrated policy, to roll back the clock on the CCP's totalitarian transformation under Xi.
  • The State Department paper, by contrast, viewed the CCP's extreme authoritarianism as a permanent feature and focused instead on containing China's power.

Other proposals focus on U.S.-China tech competition, which the Biden administration has said it will focus on.

  • One report by U.S., European and Japanese researchers recommends the creation of a "democratic tech alliance" to establish tech standards that support democratic principles and to provide a common market and source of partnerships for innovation.
  • Last week, a group of tech leaders and China analysts called for selective decoupling in the U.S. and Chinese tech sectors, the creation of a national tech analysis and forecasting center, more resilient supply chains, and other measures to protect U.S. users and preserve a U.S. tech advantage.

And a new book called "The World Turned Upside Down" by Clyde Prestowitz, an economist who served as counselor to the commerce secretary during the Reagan administration, also provides a list of recommendations to fix U.S internal problems and outcompete China, which include:

  • Merging the National Economic Council and the National Security Council to recognize that economy and security are closely linked.
  • Government backing for a 5G joint venture to take on Huawei.
  • Bring production back to the U.S. with the goal of making manufacturing 16% of GDP.
  • A marginal tax rate of 70% on the top 1% of earners, with those tax revenues used to invest in new infrastructure and R&D spending.
  • Strengthen labor unions.

The bottom line: There is now broad consensus China can and will shape the U.S.-led international system in its more illiberal image, unless democracies act in concert to prevent this. But so far, we've only just begun to discuss what to do about it.

Go deeper: Trump leaves Biden tough choices for his own China playbook

Go deeper