The Corner


The Trump Administration’s Long Telegram?

President Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, November 2017. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Win or lose, President Trump’s tough approach to China will be one of his administration’s longest enduring successes. The National Security Council yesterday posted to its website a collection of Trump-era speeches on China that seems at least partly an attempt to define that legacy.

The foreword, written by National-Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, describes the administration’s work in no uncertain terms:

Taken together, the speeches herein are similar to U.S. diplomat George Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram” to the State Department that outlined his views on the Soviet Union. This book is different from the “Long Telegram” in two important respects. First, unlike Kennan’s case, written by an envoy at post, this book contains the words and policies of the President and his most senior officials. Second, given China’s population size, economic prowess, and historic global ambitions, the People’s Republic of China is a more capable competitor than the Soviet Union at its height.

The comparison to one of the central documents of the Cold War is a bit of a reach, though a combination of the some of the speeches in the booklet does amount to a solid appraisal of the U.S.–China competition.

So which speeches are contained in the booklet, and what does their selection say? It begins with Vice President Mike Pence’s 2018 address at the Hudson Institute warning of all the ways that the Chinese party-state has exerted malign influence in the United States and around the world. Pence sounded some tough notes but ultimately expressed faith in the ability of the U.S. and China to maintain healthy ties throughout the strategic competition.

Fast forward two years, and much has changed. The next speech in the booklet — Pottinger’s May 2020 speech at the University of Virginia — took place over a year later. Why?

The most likely reason for the gap is just to point out the truth about Trump’s “tough on China” attitude: The groundwork for it has been there since the 2017 National Security Strategy described the state of strategic competition between Washington and Beijing, but the administration has really only picked up this thread in 2020.

The trade war was one persistent obstacle — with ongoing negotiations, the president listened to the exhortations of dovish advisers to hold off on the most stringent measures. But now that coronavirus-era China looks unlikely to meet its obligations under the trade deal but likelier to take a more assertive role in the world, administration officials have brought the approaches described in the 2017 NSS and Pence’s speech to their logical conclusion.

In recent months, the U.S. government has taken a full spectrum approach to correcting the long standing imbalance in bilateral ties, expelling spies, going after vectors of Chinese influence in the U.S., levying sanctions targeting human-rights abusers, and banning Chinese tech companies that pose a national-security threat, to name a few.

And that shift is reflected in the remarks by these senior Trump officials. Most interestingly, although the element of strategic competition has been around since the start of the administration, the latest phase has seen the ascendancy of ideological competition with the Chinese Communist Party. This features most heavily in the remarks by Pottinger, O’Brien, and Pompeo. However, the final speech in the booklet — Trump’s address to the U.N. in September — left a lot to be desired, eliding the nature of the CCP’s totalitarian underpinnings and its global ambitions.

Incidentally, these are points that Pottinger addressed in October, during a speech to a British think tank (Representative Mike Gallagher recently said that the Trump adviser is the Kennan of our time). However, since the booklet was apparently compiled on October 9, that latest speech didn’t make the cut.

The Long Telegram is a high bar, but the Trump administration has certainly come up with a blueprint of sorts for this new phase of competition with the CCP, whether or not the president is reelected.

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