Michael Pillsbury is currently Director of the Center for Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He has concentrated on the People’s Republic of China over a career of service to Presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, mostly serving at the Defense Department but also doing seminal research at the Rand Corporation. He earned his PhD at Columbia. It is his mastery of Mandarin, however, that has allowed him to read Chinese documents that were never meant for Western eyes and thus gain the insight into Beijing’s policy that informs this powerful book.
Mainstream views of China among American academics and pundits, especially in the post-Mao era of economic reform and “opening up,” were dominated by optimism. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, China supposedly learned the lesson about the incompetence of Marxism and the futility of confronting the United States. China’s embrace of (state) capitalism would inevitably lead to democracy and Beijing’s integration into a new world order of peace and cooperation. Hardliners were supposedly marginalized, a view that continued even after Deng Xiaoping, once considered China’s greatest reformer, sent troops into Tiananmen Square to crush pro-democracy demonstrations in May, 1989. Pillsbury was in Beijing at the time and had visited the students shortly before the People’s Liberation Army gunned them down.
Official and elite opinion in Washington did not change after the massacre, not even within the Republican administration of George H. W. Bush. Trade on preferential terms was continued in the vain belief that economic progress would lead to political progress in line with early 19th century classical liberal theory (a philosophy spread by business interests who wanted to make money in China regardless of its politics). Many conservatives fell victim to this libertarian notion despite its poor historical record because it put capitalism at the center of world affairs. They forgot the old slogan “strong economy, strong army.” Economic growth gives the Beijing regime more resources to pursue its ambitions, which are opposed to American interests.
Chinese leaders are also aware of this theory, and are determined to prevent it taking root. As Pillsbury argues, Tiananmen was not an aberration; it was a turning point for the Communist leadership. Deng was pulled towards the extreme nationalists, who argued that Western influence was “spiritual pollution” purposely being spread by American agents to bring down the ruling party. Deng came to refer to “so called dissidents” as “the scum of the nation.” It has all been down hill from there.
Pillsbury sees President Xi Jinping as “closely connected to the nationalist ‘super hawks’ in the Chinese military.” Xi talks frequently about the “strong national dream” that is at the heart of his policies. Pillsbury has tracked its origins to the bestseller, The China Dream, written in 2009 by PLA Colonel Liu Mingfu. An entire chapter is devoted to how China’s challenge to the U.S. will be successful, whereas the Soviet threat failed. Since taking power in 2012, Xi has sought to purge decadence and corruption from the party and restore core values, especially weeding out excesses of capitalism that he believes are weakening patriotism and the willingness to sacrifice for the common good.
The hardliners not only survived the reform era, they came to dominate policy. “I learned that these hawks had been advising Chinese leaders, beginning with Mao Zedong, to avenge a century of humiliation and aspired to replace the United States as the economic, military and political leader of the world by the year 2049 (the one hundredth anniversary of the Communist Revolution),” writes Pillsbury, “This plan became known as ‘the Hundred Year Marathon.’” China starts this race as the tortoise against the American hare, thus, “The hawks assess that China can only succeed in this project through deception,” argues Pillsbury.
The importance of deception comes from the most important period of Chinese history studied by strategists and leaders; the Warring States period (475-221 BC) from which a unified state was born. “It was a brutal, Darwinian world of competition” writes Pillsbury, where warlords fought to become the hegemon, the single ruler of all China. It bears no resemblance to the “Confucian, pacifist nature of Chinese culture” that permeates so much Western misunderstanding about how Beijing’s elites look at their own past. Pillsbury, with his frequent visits to China and fluency in the language, found the government-run bookstores filled with “books and articles [that] explicitly distilled ideas from hundreds of years of successes and failures of rising powers during the Warring States period.” The main theme is how weak states can rise, overthrow and replace the old hegemon. The current meaning of such a struggle is not very subtle. Indeed, Pillsbury recounts a visit to a military-run bookstore in 2013, where he asked whether there were more books on the Warring States period in the section of the store restricted to officers only. “Yes” was the reply, “Those books are not for foreigners to see because their lessons are too specific,” explained the PLA officer in charge.
The key to overturning the world order is to keep the hegemon from seeing the challenge. If he sees the threat too soon, he will still have the power to put it down. The challenger must build his strength in secret, while using diplomacy to keep the hegemon complacent. One way to do this is to “manipulate your opponent’s advisors,” which Pillsbury notes has “long been a hallmark of Chinese relations with the United States.” Academics, journalists and merchants are easily duped, but even some officials and military officers fall prey to wishful thinking because it makes their jobs easier.
Pillsbury’s counter strategy for the U.S. centers on curtailing the further growth of the Chinese economy and its acquisition of technology that could close the capability gap with America. There are two halves to this policy: 1) reducing trade deficits, investment, tech transfers and the outsourcing of production from the U.S. to China; and, 2) rebuilding America’s own manufacturing base and investing more heavily in science. Chinese cyber espionage must be countered, as well as its massive conventional spying apparatus.
President Xi has set as a goal the doubling of China’s economy from its 2010 level by 2020. The Chinese economy, however, has been slowing and U.S. policy should seek to aggravate that trend. That is how President Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviets without fighting a full-scale war. Pillsbury would also give more support to Chinese dissidents who could make a stronger bid for reform, if the Communist party is disgraced by economic failure. There is a reason that Beijing constantly warns against any “return to Cold War thinking” in America. The hare must go to sleep for the tortoise to catch up.
Winning without a war is how Pillsbury hopes to proceed; but he perhaps goes too far in assuming that outcome. He claims, it would be an “intellectual trap” to see the China threat in military terms because PLA capabilities are so far behind those of the U.S. It has no network of bases to support global power projection, or plans for territorial expansion, he clams. That may be true today, but the marathon has another 34 years to run. If China truly means to become the new hegemon, it must complete the process of converting economic strength into military power to support an ambitious political leadership – just as America did in the 20th century.
The Warring States period did not get its name by holding tea parties. The largest armies in the world fought bloody battles to decide the fate of provincial states and their “warlord” regimes. Deception and intrigue were used to prepare for military victory, they were not substitutes for victory. While Sun Tzu is often cited for saying, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” he was a combat-tested general who also said, “Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”
In its very active support of Hanoi during the Vietnam War, China saw (and contributed to) the defeat of a much stronger U.S. by North Vietnam using a mix of propaganda, deception, guerrilla tactics, duplicitous diplomacy and in the end, a conventional military assault. A decadent America gave up a fight it should have won. Beijing can see the same lack of the will to win in current events.
China’s leaders are sending warships into distant theaters, building island bases to control the South China Sea, and developing new missiles and aircraft designed to destroy American fleets and airfields. It is arming other adversaries of the U.S. and honing new skills in cyber warfare. And it already dwarfs in size strategic U.S. industries such as shipbuilding. Beijing is clearly not ignoring the potential for military conflict. Pillsbury devotes an entire chapter to China’s “Assassin’s Mace” weapons meant to deliver decisive blows. He notes, “From now through 2030, the Chinese will have more than $1 trillion available to spend on new weapons.”
If Pillsbury is warning in other chapters that it would be a mistake to think only in military terms, he is right of course. But it is still vital to think about what needs to be done to insure that the balance of power remains in America’s favor in 2049 and beyond. Yet, the Navy’s 30 year shipbuilding plan, even if fully funded, only envisions a fleet in 2045 the same size as the fleet of 2000, oblivious to China’s continuing naval expansion.
Reagan’s economic strategy against the USSR included a military buildup that both pressured Moscow and deterred it. So must America’s strategy against China.
First, however, Americans must understand that they need a strategy against China. Pillsbury makes the case with overwhelming evidence and insight. At a time when the public is worried about terrorists and “JV teams” like Islamic State, Pillsbury’s warning that even larger dangers are upon us is a must read.
William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.