international analysis and commentary

China: a very short telegram


Just three-quarters of a century ago, the US charge d’affaires in Moscow, George Kennan, wrote a famous lengthy telegram, that was anonymous at the time, to explain to decision makers and the American public how the Soviet Union – an enemy – really was, and how the USA should manage this protracted confrontation. Today, China seems to deserve an even longer telegram because the public is even less informed – the Atlantic Council, a well-known Washington think tank, has recently published an anonymous policy paper on the topic that happens to be about six times longer than the 1946 original.

The China-USA relationship is the most important short-term global issue that has the potential to detonate a world war, if mismanaged by both sides and the international community. No one is concretely envisaging such a war at the moment and everybody will believe that war is the last recourse, but vigilia pretium pacis (being on watch is the price of peace), paraphrasing the NATO Headquarters’ (SHAPE) motto (“Vigilia pretium libertatis”).

First-year students holding a Chinese flag during a commencement ceremony at Wuhan University in Wuhan, China


The Pacific Ocean is the geopolitical pivot of contention, while the rise of China obviously puts into question obsolete global settings. One should not forget that the first practical application of the Indo-Pacific concept was carried out by the Chinese imperial navy (1405-1433) and that, since 1898 (US conquest of the Philippines), the Pacific was the essential strategic theater for Washington during the whole Second World War, a fact confirmed by the unprecedented launch of two nuclear bombs.

Humanity has endured already three world wars (the Cold War was such only for NATO and Warsaw Pact member states) and experience shows that often decision makers fail to estimate the probability, length and outcome of the next war. The timely antidote for what will be a civilization catastrophe is a reasonable course of action looking at short- and medium-term gains for US citizens, shared national interests and global interests.

This means that a credible strategy must be based on the tried and tested NATO “Harmel method” (from the famous 1967 Harmel Report on the future tasks of the Alliance): dialogue and deterrence. While deterrence is practically guaranteed by the evident and vast US military superiority, dialogue is the prerequisite to avoid the failure of deterrence due to political miscalculations in both countries (e.g., the perception that the USA is declining or that a quick war can solve the problem of a power rebalance).

Beijing and Washington have all the wherewithal to tone down nationalist rants and pragmatically agree on useful negotiations while allowing a peaceful competition and coexistence for at least five years in order to recover from a turbulent and badly managed relationship.

Interests are at the center of this strategy for the China-USA relationship, starting at home. In fact, the long recession that gripped the world has been compounded by the economic ravages of the pandemic: Its social and political effects are very visible in the USA. The short and medium-term priority is to rebuild and heal the society by improving the economic conditions of vast sectors, enhancing social rights and welfare, redressing environmental damages, overcoming political and racial antagonism, restarting a sustainable economy and restoring credibility to the decision-making elite. As the history of the last three decades and its present consequences show, this, and not some illusory quest of enduring supremacy, is the main American national interest.

Against all mainstream perceptions, China too has enormous internal problems to be addressed: a deep crisis of ideals among the population; the difficulty in offering a convincing political model to Taiwan; the demographic greying due to the “one child” policy; the still enormous gaps in wealth distribution; a shaky healthcare system and a dangerously polluted environment; the rise of powerful organized criminal groups; a very fragile financial/banking network and a dysfunctional prison system. These are the elements that can lead to a dangerous social and political fragmentation, despite the one-party rule.

Both countries share quite concrete common strategic interests: ending the pandemic at least in the northern hemisphere; galvanizing global exchanges and economy; setting up mechanisms of mutual strategic reassurance on vital security interests, while avoiding dangerous confusions between trade and security.

In addition, national interest is no more an all-encompassing category in global affairs. Surely it still exists, but the pandemic proves once again the verses of John Donne, “Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind. For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee”. There is a global common good, overarching national interests, because problems cannot be solved by single countries. A pragmatic list includes at least:

  • wider nuclear arms control treaties and enhanced crisis control mechanisms for weapons of mass destruction;
  • agreements on the peaceful use of space and the restrained use of espionage, interference and offensive means in cyber-space;
  • agreements on military uses of artificial intelligence, starting with limitations on autonomous weapon systems;
  • multilateral agreements on macroeconomic stability, climate change and joint climate and renewables research;
  • multilateral cooperation on global pandemic management and major diseases.

Thus, the national interests of both countries are rather clear to both leaderships, while those pertaining the global common good are recognized even by thinkers who advocate a change in the top Chinese leadership in favor of a more pragmatic one. The interests shared by both countries are quite concrete and urgent, but often cluttered by the antagonistic heritage of the past four years.

Nevertheless, it should be clear that both a new cold war or a “Thucydides trap” (the inevitable tendency toward a clash between the rising and the declining major powers) vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China are unhelpful oversimplifications. The Cold War happened in a substantial economic segmentation of economies, while globalization has created strong interlinkages and its freedom of movement paradigm, albeit imperfect, is a common advantage also for a post-pandemic recovery.

On the other hand, wars are not mechanical traps since they are waged either by necessity (as defensive ones) or by choice (committing aggression against a country). One country, miscalculating either its fears over national unity interests or overestimating the feasibility of a quick, limited and decisive war, will attack first and decide, after due consideration, the course of a widespread disaster. If the immediate, concrete priority is to rebuild societies, hard-nosed experience shows that fragmented societies are devastated by a war, not consolidated by blood and tears.

Realpolitik is about recognizing in time the limits of power and the necessity of structural changes. The COVID-19 pandemic is a global stressor that clearly revealed an untenable global system in which single-handed supremacy is unrealistic and unaffordable, global debt has reached more than 355% of the existing GDP, one on three Earth inhabitants is either in misery or hungry and 82% of the global wealth is in the hands of barely 1% of the people, if not less. This system does not hold water and facts are less pliable than creative economic doctrines.

A flexible globalization, where all major stakeholders are engaged in writing agreed rules, is a sensible way to ensure that vital interests underpin a common sustainable future, avoid very expensive and lethal power competitions and help free more people from misery thus helping them to pursue full civil rights. In other words, it is similar to the concert of powers suggested by Richard N. Haass and Charles A. Kupchan recently on Foreign Affairs.

In brief, a credible China strategy is a concrete China-USA strategy to preserve four shared essential interests: repairing the society at home; escape together from escalatory dynamics through dialogue and deterrence; stimulate global sustainable growth; and tackle together and multilaterally five vital global common concerns (nuclear weapons, space/cyberspace, military artificial intelligence, climate change, pandemics). It is interesting to see that voices like the ones of Henry Kissinger, James Stavridis, Elliot Ackerman and Robert Farley nudge their readers from different sides to the same wise conclusion: avoiding a cold or real war. The rest is dangerous self-delusion.

The latter concept, in a nutshell, is the necessary message to be sent in our very short telegram.


– This piece is based upon an article originally published by the NATO Defense College Foundation