May 2019: View of the entrance to the Forbidden City, Beijing, China. (miszaszym /
What Biden’s Top China Theorist Gets Wrong

A review of Rush Doshi, “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order” (Oxford University Press, 2021).


By one telling, the tensions and troubles that plague the U.S.-China relationship today can be traced back to the quiet departure of an unmarked C-141 military cargo plane from Andrews Air Force Base, shortly before dawn on a Friday in late June 1989. Less than 20 years after Henry Kissinger faked a stomachache and set off on a secret flight from Pakistan to Beijing that would lay the groundwork for diplomatic normalization after decades of estrangement, Brent Scowcroft was on a secret journey of his own to salvage Kissinger’s legacy.

Three weeks earlier, the People’s Liberation Army had cleared away protesting students, workers, and activists in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square with tanks and machine gun fire, killing hundreds if not more. Amid an outpouring of anger and grief among the American public, media, and Congress—as well as the suspension of arms sales and high-level contacts, and votes to impose further sanctions—Scowcroft was there to smooth things over. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who had ordered the crackdown, expressed mild appreciation for George H.W. Bush’s “cool-headed attitude.” But the United States was “too deeply involved” in the protests, too willing to “add fuel to the fire,” Deng told Scowcroft. “Such actions are leading to the breakup of the relationship,” he warned, and it was now Washington’s responsibility to “untie the knot.”

Thirty years hence, this same phrase would crop up again as the two countries jockeyed for position and leverage in a new, fluctuating post-Trump world. “Whoever tied the knot is responsible for untying it. The US side needs to change course,” declared China’s most famous “Wolf Warrior,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, following a series of meetings in July where Chinese officials presented their counterparts with a “List of US Wrongdoings that Must Stop” if relations were to be repaired. Later in September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Biden administration climate envoy John Kerry that “China-US cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-US relations.” Wang called on the United States to “stop viewing China as a threat and rival, and cease containing and suppressing China all over the world,” adding that “he who tied the knot should untie it. The ball is now in the US’ court.”

In “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order,” Rush Doshi, who works on China policy on President Biden’s National Security Council, offers a clear and compelling framework to understand why another series of knots have emerged in the U.S.-China relationship today. In fact, the one Deng referred to in 1989 was never fully undone. But while Doshi pulls back the curtains on the past 30 years of Chinese foreign policy, he fails to fully grapple with and apply his own insights, presenting a path for navigating the 30 and more to come that will likely end not only in failure but possibly something much worse: a century-defining tragedy.

Read the full article in Lawfare.

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