China Expert Takes a Hard Look at America’s ‘Wishful Thinking’
“They’re outsmarting us,” says China expert Michael Pillsbury. “It’s really very simple.”
In this recent episode of “American Thought Leaders,” host Jan Jekielek talks with Michael Pillsbury, director for Chinese strategy at the Hudson Institute and author of “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower.” Pillsbury played a key role in the United States initiating military and intelligence ties with China as far back as the 1980s. Here, they discuss China’s Warring States tactics, its secret exploitation of America to fuel its own rise, and the pressing reasons why the United States needs to formulate a response.
Jan Jekielek: The Chinese Communist Party Congress just ended with some very public theatrics. The past supreme leader of the Communist Party in China, Hu Jintao, was walked out of the room in front of the cameras. What do you make of this?
Michael Pillsbury: You can interpret it as Hu Jintao making an appeal to Xi Jinping. He turns toward him and says something. Xi Jinping replies very briefly. Then the former general secretary moves to the prime minister and puts his hand on his shoulder. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “Do I really have to leave?”
But as you point out, Jan, to put this on global television is really a sign of Xi Jinping’s power that even a former president can be dismissed with a wave of the hand.
Mr. Jekielek: The thesis of “The Hundred-Year Marathon” is that the Chinese Communist Party has a 100-year plan, which will end around 2050, to subvert America—to take America’s role as the global hegemon.
Dr. Pillsbury: China has a strategy for turning themselves into the global superpower by obtaining technology, capital trade, and other goodies from America. It’s a brilliant plan. It’s a long-term hope that if they squeeze the Americans for everything they can, and pretend to be America’s friend and ally, they will end up number one in the world. They often refer to the tactics of the Warring States period. One of those tactics was a win or lose. I win. You lose. Only one country got to lead the world, and that country had to destroy the others, set them against each other, or undermine them.
But almost never was there war itself. That’s the most important lesson.
The Chinese deny this. They say they don’t have a secret plan, that they will never seek hegemony or global domination.
My book begins with six examples of wishful thinking that I and others in the government working on China policy all shared. This belief might have come from our undergraduate courses in history that progress is the nature of civilization. All countries are moving toward progress, enlightenment, prosperity, world order, and so China is not studied as a unique civilization in our schools or our government programs. China is thought of as being part of this grand movement of humanity toward a progressive future in which there’s no more war, no more poverty.
It’s the Chinese Communist Party’s secrecy that lets them get away with so much. A new defector I admire very much, Tai Sha, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs where she says the majority of the Communist party in China hates Xi Jinping and his colleagues. What are we doing to help those people?
We had something under [former President Donald] Trump called the Global Engagement Center at the State Department. I’ve asked my Biden administration friends to name a director for this center and focus on China through Radio Free Asia broadcasts, where you explain to the Chinese people the bad things the regime has done. But there’s still no Global Engagement Center director. There’s legislation in the House of Representatives, which [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi does not support, that would really change our China policy, but that’s blocked unless there’s a Republican victory in the House. So, we have policy paralysis on how to deal with the Chinese Communist party.
Mr. Jekielek: What is the Chinese Communist Party’s end game, in your view?
Dr. Pillsbury: In Xi Jinping’s two-hour speech last week, he portrayed the world as threatening to China, with the main threat being America. He didn’t use the word America. He said things like hostile foreign forces. He’s mobilizing the Party for a world in which America is a threat that must be neutralized without stirring up the Americans even more.
The Chinese communist leadership’s nightmare is that they will overreach, that they will inadvertently provoke the Americans.
Their most recent step in this strategy, I think, is brilliant. Our experts for decades have said China just wants a couple hundred nuclear weapons, the same number as France or Britain. They don’t believe in nuclear war.
The Chinese were supposed to be noble and wise because all they wanted were 200 nuclear warheads, just enough so they wouldn’t feel insulted or humiliated, which they claim they had been by us in the past. Now it turns out that 40-year-old theory is wrong. A few months ago, the Defense Department estimated China will almost certainly have 1,000 nuclear warheads in just six or seven years, but with the facilities they have for highly enriched uranium and plutonium they don’t have to stop at 1,000.
We and the Russians now have a limit of 750 or so both sides, strategic delivery vehicles. China will surpass that. If the DOD [Department of Defense] forecast is correct, they’ll be superior to both Russia and America in deliverable warheads. What if they go to 2,000 or 3,000? They’ll be the dominant nuclear power in the world without provoking the Americans into a counter-response.
The Russians I knew when I was 24-years-old told me, “Watch out for China.” Now, I’ve asked them, “What do you think about the Chinese going to 1,000 or more nuclear warheads?” Do you know what one of the Russians told me? “We told you so.”
They’re outsmarting us. It’s really very simple. “The Hundred-Year Marathon” cites 100 or more cases where the Chinese outsmart us again and again, and we never do a postmortem.
Mr. Jekielek: You have a number of policy prescriptions in the book. What do you see as the immediate steps for slowing or stopping this marathon?
Dr. Pillsbury: In Chapter 12, one of the first recommendations I make is for a White House presidential report on the competition between the United States and China. Who is ahead in various fields, whether it’s supercomputers, chip design, or the number of aircraft carriers. We need to understand how we’re doing in this competition. But this idea has been resisted.
I have a friend who’s a panda hugger who said, “If there were an annual presidential report on competitiveness with China, it would show the Chinese are surpassing us in lots of areas, and that would just produce a hysterical panic, an anti-China sentiment.” I once asked our secretary of commerce, “Did you ever try to do this?” He said, “Yes, but I couldn’t get agreement on what indicators to measure. If you cherry pick things that make America look good, then the headline will be China will never surpass America.” What would be the result of such a study? Are we far ahead, so we can be complacent, or are they at our heels? I think we need to know this, but the opposition to it is quite striking.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the themes coming through in this interview for me is the pervasive nature of this bureaucratic, progressive mindset that we’re all in this together, one world. This seems to be stifling any realistic view of what’s going on.
Dr. Pillsbury: One reason I wrote “The Hundred-Year Marathon” was to expose this sort of wishful thinking, to show readers that we’re in a lot of trouble and what we might do to fix the situation. We have no new organization to deal with the China threat, and they’re almost our size now economically. For example, they’re going to launch more satellites into orbit this year than we are. Satellites used to be zero for China, several hundred for us. Fast forward to this year, and China’s gone from 100 satellites just a few years ago to 500 satellites. The scale of the China challenge is far beyond our present capacity.
And this whole issue of deception is another story that I hope to address in my next book, The Deep Chinese Cultural Study of Deception, as a normal, even a superior technique to get what you want. The Chinese are knowledgeable about our wishful thinking, and they’re not beyond stimulating that wishful thinking themselves, which might be deception on a really colossal scale. That’s the essence of deception for the Chinese.
If you sense that I fear they’re outsmarting us over and over again, that’s correct. That is my concern, but I do think we can review the past record and how we got here, and derive some lessons from it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.