A Word of Advice to the Biden Administration

Spectres & Souls

Vignettes, moments and meditations
on China and America, 1861-2021


On cue, the Chinese media began publishing articles about the ‘revolving door’ in Washington following the US presidential election in early November 2020.

Although Official China talks about the commerce in jobs and roles between government and industry in the United States with a tone of disdain dating back to Mao Zedong in the late 1940s, for decades mainland Chinese advisers, careerist intellectuals, would-be lobbyists and others have actually envied the predictable nature of the Washington merry-go-round.

In late 1988, He Xin (何新, 1948-), a maverick Beijing intellectual, observed with chagrin:

‘In politically modem states, policies are invariably designed, demonstrated and proved by academics before politicians (many of whom are also scholars) make policy decisions and implement them. China, on the other hand, is a country in which academics are given the task of justifying a policy only after a decision has been made and it has been put into practice by a politician. Academics can be no more than a mouthpiece for and defender of predetermined policy. Perhaps this is the very reason why China’s literati 文人 — including the members of the so-called “think tanks” — are so worthless in political terms.’

quoted in He Xin, ‘A Word of Advice to the Politburo’
The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs
no.23 (January 1990): 49-76, at p.54

Not to be denied, however, He Xin soon inveigled his way into Zhongnanhai, the centre of party-state power in China. Circumstances had awarded him a unique moment in April-June 1989 when he was able to frame the 1989 Protest Movement both via informal briefings and in an appealing analysis that he addressed to the leadership (translated as ‘A Word of Advice to the Politburo’). Here, at least, was one patriotic young intellectual who was willing not only to support, but to egg on, the government’s hard line.

In the years leading up to what would be a short-lived apotheosis, He Xin had assiduously cultivated Hu Qiaomu 胡喬木, one of Mao’s leading confidantes in the Yan’an era (1937-1947) and a formidable ideological architect of the anti-Americanism of the nascent People’s Republic from the late 1940s (see, for example, ‘White Paper, Red Menace’China Heritage, 17 January 2018). As a result of intellectual dexterity and brazen networking, He Xin now enjoyed a meteoric rise and, although unbounded hubris soon saw his lustre fade, he was one of the only rogue intellectuals thrown up by the cultural maelstrom of the 1980s to have left a lasting impression on Party policy and what would become the country’s commodified nationalism.

To appreciate fully Beijing’s unfolding response to US President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s China policy, an acquaintance with the likes of Hu Qiaomu, He Xin and the long tail of the Sino-American conflict discussed in our series Spectres & Souls is essential.


As advisers to the Xi Jinping government — from ambitious Party hacks to official think tanks and an ever-voluble commentariat — speculated about the ways in which the incoming Biden administration would adjust American China policy in the wake of the Trump-Pence-Pompeo era, analysts, former diplomats, thinkers and lobbyists of all stripes on the other side of the Pacific were busy offering their advice to Washington.

This chapter in Spectres & Souls: China Heritage Annual 2021 offers a select bibliography of papers, articles and analyses aimed at the incoming Biden administration. Compiled at our request by a Friend of China Heritage — A Constant Reader — the list, however, is far from comprehensive. As our friend observes:

‘My “selection bias” was in the direction of people, publications and organizations that are mainstream / “centrist”. I did not even try to be comprehensive with respect to the fare appearing at respectable think tanks like Brookings, Carnegie, and CSIS.’

Nonetheless, the annotated bibliography below is a timely addition to our work on the Sino-American relationship and relevant to a base-line appreciation of the ‘extreme competition’ between the United States and China outlined by President Biden in early February 2021.


The illustrative motifs of this chapter are calligraphic representations of 謀 móu and 略 lüè which, in combination — 謀略 móu lüè — mean to strategise, plan, connive, formulate a ruse, etcetera. They are in the hand of Sun Guoting (孫過庭, 646-691 CE) of the Tang dynasty.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
24 February 2021


Related Material & Websites:

Centre on U.S.-China Relations, Asia Society

Centre for Strategic & International Studies

Brookings Institution

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Rand Corporation

American Enterprise Institute

Hudson Institute

President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on China Policy, February 2021



móu lüè

móu — to strategise, advise, plot — in the hand of Sun Guoting

As noted by He Xin in the above, throughout its history, Chinese Party leaders have relied on intellectuals and ideologues to rationalise the quirks of their decision-making. The more talented and astute among them play a role not dissimilar to that of the advisers to the imperial court; although they could also be likened to the itinerant, and influential, ‘lobbyists’ 遊說之士 or ‘strategists’ 縱橫家 of the Warring States period.

In the ‘Five Vermin’ 五蠹 chapter of the classical Legalist text Hanfeizi 韓非子, strategists — 縱橫家 or 言谈者 — are singled out along with scholars, knights-errant, fawners and merchants and artisans as the true enemies of the state. A strategist in his own right, Han Fei fell foul of his own schemes (see here).

Chinese is replete with terms that relate to strategising and plotting. As we contemplate a new stage in the Sino-American stand-off under the Biden administration, some of those hoary expressions are worth recalling:

謀臣似雨, 猛將如雲 móu chén sì yǔ, měng jiàng rú yún: strategic advisers are as numerous as drops of rain, just as blustering generals gather like storm clouds. Some, however, argue that it is better to have a surfeit rather than a dearth of canny strategies 疏謀少略 shū móu shǎo lüè.

Courtiers often claim that they are deep strategic thinkers 老謀深算 lǎo móu shēn suàn and they hasten to warn their masters that all the advice in the world counts for naught if indecision rules the day 多謀少斷 duō móu shǎo duàn.

lüè — to manage, moderate, frame — in the hand of Sun Guoting 孫過庭

Advising the Biden Adminstration
on China

Compiled for China Heritage by

A Constant Reader


A Parting Shot

Billed in backgrounding to the media as a ‘George Kennan type’ of essay (which, in 1946, argued for what became the US policy of containment of the USSR), the 72-page paper by unattributed author/s can be viewed as the parting effort by [self-perceived] architects of the Trump/Pompeo strategy toward China to lay out a detailed theory of ‘The China Challenge’ and to elaborate the premises that underpinned the U.S. policy approach toward China in the final year of the Trump presidency.

A kind of scripture for China hawks — in many ways more aspirational than implemented policy, and in fact rather short of policy specifics — the substance of this paper was leaked pre-publication to a Trump-friendly journalist at the often-Trump-friendly Axios website in an apparent attempt to generate positive publicity so as to tie the hands, to the degree possible, of the incoming Biden administration. As such, the opus is destined to have minimal readership within or influence upon the Biden administration.

Perhaps the best published short takedown of this effort was by Daniel Baer who wrote in December 2020 that:

‘[The paper] brings to mind an old line from British playwright Tom Stoppard: “It’s half as long as Das Kapital and only twice as funny.” The document is a slog. It is a mix of a bill of particulars about China’s aggressive tactics, often-strained explanations of Marxist-Leninist theory that recall a college political science paper, ideological jingoism, and, ultimately, 10 ideas for what the United States should do going forward — recommendations that are most notable for what they fail to address.’

— Daniel Baer, ‘Department’s Swan Song?
A Strange, Flawed China Paper’

Foreign Policy, 8 December 2020

Another critique was by Odd Arne Westad who offered that:

‘… the greatest weakness [of this analysis] … is its inability to break free of what has hobbled U.S. policy toward China up to now: an attempt to apply twentieth-century remedies to twenty-first century problems. Although the administration’s diagnosis may be close to the mark, the treatment proposed is destined to fail.’

Odd Arne Westad, ‘The U.S. Can’t Check China Alone—
What the State Department Gets Wrong about Beijing’
Foreign Affairs, 10 December 2020

The Beijing Story

One of China’s most polished practitioners of ‘public diplomacy’, Fu Ying offered less ‘a way forward for the world’s two leading powers’ — as the NYT subhead declares — than the standard line offered in relatively soothing tones. While calling as usual for the US to respect China’s core interests, desist from bullying behavior and interference in China’s internal affairs, and seeking areas for win-win cooperation, Fu more unusually: (1) notes that it is ‘important that Beijing listen to and address the legitimate concerns of American companies in China’; and, (2) concedes that ‘China’s growing navy has put some pressure on the United States in the western Pacific.’

A Hundred Schools

Originally published on-line a month before the election, on 13 October, Gewirtz’s article is worth a second look since he has left the Council on Foreign Relations for a National Security Council  position as China Director in the Biden administration. The core of Gewirtz’s argument is that:

‘Washington needs a China strategy that not only assesses Chinese capabilities and aims but also takes full account of the way China’s leaders understand the United States and have reacted to Trump’s presidency. This strategy must also reject the faddish but inaccurate notion that China is somehow an impervious force, advancing on an immutable course and unresponsive to external pressure and incentives. The United States can craft a strategy that much more effectively deters China’s most problematic behavior. But to do so, Washington must endeavor to upend Chinese leaders’ assumption that the United States is inexorably declining.’

— Julian Gewirtz, ‘China Thinks America Is Losing:
Washington Must Show Beijing It’s Wrong’

McChrystal argues that the US ‘must invest more in the capability of its military forces and regional alliances, in part to forestall a move on Taiwan … My concern would be, we wake up one morning and China has just done a fait accompli …’

The authors contend that ‘Today, the United States again needs a danger-zone strategy, which should be based on three principles. First, focus on denying China near-term successes that would radically alter the long-term balance of power. The most pressing dangers are a Chinese conquest of Taiwan and Chinese preeminence in 5G telecommunications networks. Second, rely on tools and partnerships available now or in the near future … Third, focus, on selectively degrading Chinese power rather than changing Chinese behavior … the United States must act assertively now to prevent more destabilizing spirals of hostility later.’

Holmes argues ‘The closer the United States and its allies come to fielding a cohesive democratic armada, the better their chances of deterring aggressors and shoring up the rules-based international order at sea… U.S. and allied strategy is converging on an approach that seeks to confine the PLA, the navy in particular, to the China seas. Allied forces will make the first island chain a barrier to Chinese maritime movement by plugging up the straits with mines, submarines, warplanes, surface craft, and marines operating on the islands.’

Their core argument is ‘the United States must forge a geostrategic coalition of countries that oppose Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, an economic coalition to offset the coercive leverage that China’s commercial heft provides, a technological coalition to ensure that the CCP does not capture the commanding heights of innovation in the 21st century, and a governance coalition that can prevent Beijing from rewriting the world’s rules and norms. Gone are the days when America could simply rally the West to its side. Unless the United States adopts a more sophisticated approach to coalition building, it will be stuck trying to re-create a world that no longer exists.’

Campbell was subsequent to publication of this article named to be the NSC ‘Asia Czar’ and Rush Doshi to be on the NSC staff. In their assessment, ‘the combination of Chinese assertiveness and U.S. ambivalence (under Trump) has left the region in flux … drifting out of balance, its order fraying, and with no obvious coalition to address the problem.’

They suggest that ‘regional orders work best when they sustain both balance and legitimacy’ and so ‘a strategy for the Indo-Pacific today needs “a balance of power” … an order that the region’s states recognize as legitimate … an allied and partner coalition to address China’s challenge to both.’

They argue that the US ‘should prioritize deterring China through the same relatively inexpensive and asymmetric capabilities Beijing has long employed. This means investing in long-range conventional cruise and ballistic missiles, unmanned carrier-based strike aircraft and underwater vehicles, guided-missile submarines, and high-speed strike weapons.’

At the same time, the US and its partners must seek ‘to persuade China that there are benefits to a competitive but peaceful region organized around a few essential requirements: a place for Beijing in the regional order; Chinese membership in the order’s primary institutions; a predictable commercial environment if the country plays by the rules; and opportunities to jointly benefit from collaboration on climate, infrastructure, and the Covid-19 pandemic.’

Cossa asks that the Biden administration assign top priority to strengthening and expanding the Quad … while avoiding ‘loaded terms’ like Pompeo’s ‘league of democracies’ or ‘an Asian NATO’. He unapologetically defends engagement, though more in the sense of ‘constrainment’ or ‘competitive coexistence’ — ‘a combination of cooperation and (gasp) compromise on the one hand, backed by firmness and a willingness to push back both unilaterally and multilaterally with like-minded states when appropriate.’

This Politico article is the CliffsNotes version of The Longer Telegram: Toward a New American Strategy, an 85-page study released by Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. The study garnered a great deal of attention — and prompted guessing games — because of the anonymity accorded the author/s, described as ‘a former senior government official with deep expertise and experience dealing with China’. By harking ostentatiously back (yet again) to George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’, the author/s aim to assign great historical weight to the effort as a blueprint for now and the years to come.

There is, of course, much in the study that makes sense and is unobjectionable in the abstract. Indeed, much of the narrative is familiar — as, perhaps, what some in the Trump administration imagined or hoped their China policy might achieve. When all that is stripped away, however, one is left with quirky, extremely dubious judgments: that Xi Jinping has steered China back to classical Marxism-Leninism; that Xi’s China unlike that of his predecessors has become a revisionist power whose challenge must be met; that Xi by becoming ‘chairman of everything’ has alienated significant segments of the party elite; and, that US policy accordingly should aim toward exacerbating differences between Xi and others in the intent of ousting Xi. Not regime change, but leader change.

Such an analysis of highest-level intra-party dynamics demands much greater rigour than the author/s offer/s, and the policy recommendation seems as grounded in American capabilities and Chinese realities as the notion two decades earlier that Iraqis would welcome US military forces as liberators and strew rose petals before them as they entered Baghdad. (See Daniel Larison, ‘ “The Longer Telegram” Is a Recipe for Costly Failure’The American Conservative, 29 January 2021, for a short, lacerating dissection of the proposed policy approach.)

Ambassador Roy offers three pieces of advice:

  1. ‘we think about change in China in much too short a time frame. This is what I call the mistake of proving that grass doesn’t grow’ … ‘the outcome will be determined over decades, not simply over a few short years’;
  2. ‘we should be focusing on achievable foreign policy goals, not on changing its domestic system. An all-too-familiar flow in American strategic thinking is our tendency to define objectives that involve domestic changes in other countries that are beyond the reach of foreign policy, or even military interventions, to achieve’; and,
  3. ‘we should display more consciousness of the dangers of nuclear war. An all-out military conflict with China is an unthinkable as it was with the Soviet Union because such a war would result in mutual self-destruction.’

Accepting that ‘long-term competition with China is here to stay’, Mulvenon states that ‘the best defense is a good offense’ and proceeds to outline the key elements of a successful strategy that ‘strike[s] a successful balance, pursuing aggressive investment and, in some cases, rebuilding the U.S. research and technology and industrial base, while also pursuing foreign policies that seek to promote trade that is marked by mutual benefit and reciprocity … promoting U.S. opportunities in overseas markets while also protecting American technology from illegal export and theft.’

In his long and rich essay, Rudd presents a case — ‘akin to the procedures and mechanisms that the US and Soviet Union put in place to govern their relations after the Cuban missile crisis’ — for ‘managed strategic competition’ to ‘reduce the risk of competition escalating into open conflict’.

Without referring to The Longer Telegram (see above), Rudd rebuts its approach by observing that ‘regime change has not exactly been a winning strategy in recent decades … bombastic statements such as Pompeo’s are utterly counterproductive, because they strengthen Xi’s hand at home, allowing him to point to the threat of foreign subversion to justify ever-tighter domestic security measures, thereby making it easier for him to rally disgruntled CCP elites in solidarity against an external threat.’

Rudd highlights the danger that Xi’s strategy on Taiwan, coupled with China’s form of strategic realism, could lead Beijing to miscalculate the costs of conquering and occupying Taiwan and to underestimate the prospect of US intervention because its calculus fails to see that ‘the [US] failure to fight for a fellow democracy … would also be catastrophic for Washington, particularly in terms of the perception of U.S. allies in Asia’ who would come to doubt the worth of US security guarantees.

The authors, both of whom held senior positions in NSC and the State Department, argue in their 60-page study that Taiwan cannot rightly be identified as a ‘vital U.S. national interest’ (in the way that Europe, Canada, Mexico and Asian allies are) but Taiwan is nevertheless vital to the national interest in terms of its future relationship to peace, stability and freedom in East Asia. Hence, the US ‘strategic objective regarding Taiwan should be to preserve its political and economic autonomy, its dynamism as a free society, and U.S.-allied deterrence — without triggering a Chinese attack on Taiwan.’

One striking — and unique — element in the Blackwill-Zelikow analysis is their contention that while Taiwan is merely ‘important’ to the US national interest, it is ‘vital’ to Japan’s national interest. From this comes much argumentation concerning what Japan ‘should’ and probably ‘would’ do by way of adopting, with the US, a ‘strategy’ for bolstering Taiwan’s defensive capabilities and dissuading China from taking any action. One does not find persuasive documentation of Japan’s asserted readiness to engage in such endeavors in either the narrative or the notes.

The authors pronounce Trump’s trade strategy against China a failure. China survived the trade war, and the tariffs failed to achieve their domestic objectives. Against that backdrop, the authors join those who advocate that the Biden administration adopt coordinated industrial policies emphasizing international competitiveness in next-generation technologies and clean energy alternatives. They offer specific legislative fixes, political approaches, and means of ‘operationalizing the international components’ of the strategy.

Green, NSC Senior Asia Director in the George W. Bush first term, and Medeiros, the NSC Senior Asia Director in the Obama second term, emphasize the need to bolster alliances in both the Indo-Pacific and Europe as the first step toward meeting the China challenge. They outline steps the Biden administration should take in four areas — economics, infrastructure, alliances and defense — ‘that can help restore confidence in the United States’ commitment and competence in the Indo-Pacific.’

They urge the US and its European allies/partners to focus immediately on construction of a ‘shared China strategy’.

In light of differing views among European nations, including within NATO, Green and Medeiros suggest that the most effective approach will be to build ‘coalitions of the willing on specific issues’ (and not falling into the trap of seeking the impossible: EU-wide unity).

Ambassador Freeman concludes his analysis and detailed suggestions with the observation that:

‘Our China policy should be part of a new and broader Asia strategy, not the main determinant of our relations with other Asian nations or the sole driver of our policies in the region. And to be able to hold our own with China, we must renew our competitive capacity and build a society that is demonstrably better governed, better educated, more egalitarian, more open, more innovative, and healthier as well as freer than all others.’


Short Assessments/Prognostications

(News Articles/Blog Posts/Editorials/Columns/Op-eds)

An Aide Memoire

‘[W]e’ll also take on directly the challenges posed by our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China.

‘We’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance.

‘But we are ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so.  We will compete from a position of strength by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost.’

— from ‘Remarks by President Biden on America’s Place in the World’, 4 February 2021