Editions : July-September 2015


  The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower
By Michael Pillsbury
(Henry Holt and Company, 2015, 336 pp)

Reviewed by
Thomas E Kellogg

Michael Pillsbury has some regrets. During his five decades as a China watcher, in posts at the RAND Corporation, the US Defense Department and on various congressional committees, Pillsbury consistently urged the US government to engage with China. In the 1970s, he was among the many experts who urged normalization of relations; in the 1980s, while at the Defense Department, he worked directly with Chinese military and intelligence officials on joint programs to undermine the Soviet Union, including efforts to arm anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan.

Consistently throughout his career, Pillsbury believed that US engagement with China would both help to forge a productive working relationship and bolster moderate reformist voices within the Chinese political system.

The end result of America’s efforts, Pillsbury believed, would be that China would become “a democratic and peaceful power without ambitions of regional or even global dominance,” and a strong and productive US-China relationship, one that transcended any differences of history, culture or politics.

It was only in the early 2000s, after decades spent as a leading voice in favor of engagement with China, that Pillsbury began to have doubts. Over time, he came to believe that the Chinese hawks – military officials, nationalist academics and deeply paranoid Communist Party officials – with whom he had been dealing for decades were not a small minority. Instead, they were driving the bus. “After decades of studying China closely, I am convinced that these hard-line views are not fringe,” Pillsbury writes in his book. Instead, such views are “very much in the mainstream of Chinese geostrategic thought.”

Pillsbury wants the book to serve as a wake-up call for US policymakers and the American public. He believes that the implications of his discovery of the true thinking of the Chinese leadership – as exemplified by hard-liners whose writings he has spent decades scrutinizing – are significant. In his view, the more than 40-year-old US policy of constructive engagement with China, largely adhered to by successive Democratic and Republican administrations, has failed, and the key assumptions that underpinned that policy were wrong – “dangerously so,” in Pillsbury’s view. The author argues that constructive engagement now carries with it the risk that the United States might unknowingly aid China in its efforts to take America’s place at the top of the global heap, at which time it might well turn back and push the United States further down the hill.

As Pillsbury points out, the views of these Chinese hawks are deeply disturbing. Many conservative historians greatly distort American history as it relates to China, casting American presidents from Roosevelt to Nixon to Barack Obama as secretly plotting against China, looking for ways to expose it to greater harm from Japanese, Soviet and other enemies. Though such narcissistic narratives cannot survive serious scholarly examination, they nonetheless hold sway in certain left-wing circles in Beijing. Hard-liners also push military strategies that would undermine the (significant) US advantage in terms of military hardware and technology, and “mercantilist” (Pillsbury’s word) economic strategies that seek to give China a competitive advantage against key trading partners including the United States.

Pillsbury is right to call attention to the very troubling elements of left-wing rhetoric, some of which, as he points out, has been adopted as official state policy. Yet Pillsbury’s book would have been stronger if he had given due regard to those moments when Chinese grievances against the United States have been grounded in historical reality. Pillsbury mentions the 1845 Treaty of Wangxia, for example, referring to it as a positive early step forward in US-China relations. And indeed, in some ways it was, in that it opened up the trading relationship between the two countries. But Pillsbury neglects to mention various colonial-era elements of the treaty that the United States forced on the Chinese, including a provision granting so-called extraterritoriality rights to Americans in China, which meant that US citizens were not subject to Chinese law while in the country. This provision became an all-too-common element of Western colonialism in Asia that, not surprisingly, still features in Chinese history books today.

Overall, Pillsbury’s book is an extremely valuable guide to the views of key conservative ideologues, and he is right to remind us that these voices hold significant sway in leadership circles within China. That said, I found myself disagreeing with Pillsbury’s reading of the history of US-China relations as a story of Chinese efforts to implement a secret strategy to surpass the United States. In addition, I was troubled by the assumptions underlying his contention that unless the Unites States takes action, China might well win out in its hundred-year race to become the world’s pre-eminent superpower.

Take Pillsbury’s recapping of the US-China relationship since Nixon’s visit to China in 1971. In his retelling of this 45-year history, Pillsbury is spot-on in his analysis of the ability of Chinese leaders to take advantage of American political rivalries and preoccupations. In passages that echo and draw from two of the best histories of US-China relations, James Mann’s “About Face” and Patrick Tyler’s “A Great Wall,” Pillsbury calls attention to moments when Chinese leaders were able to identify and exploit divisions between Democrats and Republicans, or even between different arms of the same administration, and in so doing, extract better deals from their American counterparts than they otherwise might.

In Pillsbury’s view, such moments are evidence of Chinese efforts to manipulate the United States as part of its larger strategy to win the hundred-year marathon. But one could argue that such efforts are better seen as evidence of clever, hard-nosed diplomacy in pursuit of China’s national interest. If the United States were to start regarding any country that attempted to exploit American political divisions as an enemy, it would have few friends left.

What about Pillsbury’s argument that China wants to eventually surpass the United States to become the pre-eminent global power? It may well be the case that, as he suggests, Chinese leaders would like to see their country rise to the top. What country’s leaders don’t allow themselves to dream of national greatness? Pillsbury’s reading of China’s long-term strategic goals begs two questions: first, how close is China to catching up with the United States? Second, what, if anything, should the United States do in response to China’s rise?

On the first question, despite all the progress it has made, China remains far behind the United States. By almost any measure – economic, diplomatic, military or otherwise – China remains, in the words of one leading scholar, a partial power, one whose domestic and international challenges will keep Chinese leaders quite busy for the foreseeable future.

The now seemingly divergent trajectories of the economies of the two countries provides perhaps the best example. As Pillsbury points out, China has gone from an economic backwater to the world’s second-largest economy in a single generation. This is an impressive feat, but many economists would argue that going forward, China will be hard pressed to match the results of the last two decades. Even with all the progress it has made, China’s per capita income remains a fraction of that of the United States. In 2013, the World Bank estimated that China’s per capita income was $6,800, which pales in comparison to the US figure of $53,000.

If the United States is truly worried about maintaining its pre-eminence, rather than worrying about China, it should get its own economic, political and diplomatic house in order. It was not China that caused the costly US government shutdown in 2013: that wound was self-inflicted and cost America billions of dollars in lost revenue and growth. Nor was China behind America’s costly decision to wage two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which cost it dearly in terms of blood, treasure, damage to the US military and international prestige. The good news is that the United States is in charge of its own destiny: if it takes steps to fix its own shortcomings, it won’t need to look over its shoulder at a rising China.

Another concern I had with “The Hundred-Year Marathon” was that it often suggested the Chinese leadership is more unified, disciplined and strategically savvy than history has shown it to be. Pillsbury’s book, with its emphasis on strategies derived from classic Chinese texts such as Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” gives the impression that the Communist Party of China has adhered unswervingly and largely successfully to the same, very wise set of precepts since 1949, or at least since the 1960s, which is when Pillsbury’s story begins.

Pillsbury argues that Chinese officials, drawing heavily on texts from as far back as the Warring States period (475-221 BCE), have charted a course of action that has allowed China to quietly grow stronger as it bides its time, waiting for the United States to make mistakes that will damage its own hegemonic position. As it grows more powerful, Pillsbury argues, Beijing knows that it must avoid tipping its hand and instead present a friendly face to Washington. Otherwise the United States might discern China’s plans to surpass the United States and take its place as the world’s leading power. To that end, it looks to curry favor with potential allies in the United States, key among them prominent American China hands, while at the same time broadcasting a false message of continued weakness, so that American analysts will underestimate China’s growing strength.

There is no doubt Chinese leaders are influenced by classic Chinese texts, and that it has put to good use many of the specific strategic tools that Pillsbury describes. One of the strengths of this book is it reminds us that many of the key ideas that form the intellectual backbone of China’s leadership class are very different from those that animate political life in the United States. That said, Pillsbury’s portrait of Chinese strategic thinking suggests more discipline and fewer mistakes than is actually the case.

Throughout the period that Pillsbury surveys, China has been riven by internal conflicts, with the losers often paying a heavy price for their perceived insubordination. The list of senior officials who found themselves on the losing end of internecine power struggles within the Communist Party of China is long. It includes officials from across the political spectrum and stretches back over several decades. An incomplete list would include Lin Biao (1971); Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four (1976); Hu Yaobang (1987); Zhao Ziyang (1989); Bo Xilai (2012); and Zhou Yongkang (2014). If the Chinese leadership were so unified around a strategic goal of surpassing the United States, why have so many different political figures, often favoring very different policies, found themselves in jail, in exile or worse? Pillsbury would have us believe that the most hard-line voices tend to win out in China, and that they are behind China’s long-term strategy to beat the United States. Could it be that domestic debates in China are much more contentious, and much more contingent, than Pillsbury suggests?

One might also infer from this book that Beijing has honed the execution of its strategy and that the United States is, at best, asleep at the wheel. It is true, by and large, that the Communist Party has played its hand well in recent years, especially in terms of its engagement with the international community. Yet Beijing’s record is by no means as perfect as “The Hundred-Year Marathon” would have readers believe. One need look no further than its assertive actions in the South China Sea in recent years to find an example of Chinese strategy run amok: in seeking to consolidate its expansive claims, Beijing has sparked a race to militarize its own backyard and has pushed neighbors like Vietnam and the Philippines closer to America. The United States, for its part, has used its military superiority to signal to China that it has no plans of abandoning its active presence in the Pacific. In essence, China has given the United States both cause and justification for increasing its own military presence in the South China Sea, an outcome that surely was not intended by the Communist Party of China.

These disagreements aside, Pillsbury is right that there are many disturbing trends in elite Chinese politics today. “The Hundred-Year Marathon” points to many examples of Chinese behavior that demonstrate it is not yet the “responsible stakeholder” in the international system that the United States has long hoped it would become. As Pillsbury notes, the negative trends in Chinese domestic governance and in its international engagement deserve continued close attention.

One could argue, however, that US policymakers are already paying due attention to the disturbing rhetoric and action that Pillsbury believes is being ignored. Rather than fundamentally altering its strategy of constructive engagement, the United States should instead continue to monitor all of the trends that Pillsbury points to, while at the same time looking for possible areas of agreement, compromise and collaboration with Beijing where they can be found.

Why should the United States continue to engage? For the simple reason that, on a host of international issues, the United States needs as much help from China as it can get. Lest we forget, at times American efforts to work with China on a range of issues have in fact paid off. But for Beijing’s efforts, North Korea would not have taken part in the six-party talks over its nuclear weapons program. The fact that those talks stalled and did not bear fruit does not negate China’s efforts to bring its longtime ally to the table. Though the record is mixed, China has nonetheless offered at least some support to US-led efforts to convince Iran to shelve, at least for now, its dreams of becoming a nuclear-armed state. US-China cooperation also extends beyond the realm of international security: in November 2014, the United States and China signed a strong deal on climate change that Washington hopes will jump-start nearly moribund efforts toward a global compact on the issue.

In summary, though the picture of China’s engagement with the United States and the world is not as pretty as it might be, it is not quite as dire as Pillsbury suggests. It is too early to conclude that America’s policy of constructive engagement with China has failed. Indeed, as China looks toward a potentially very challenging next decade, it may well need America’s help more than ever.

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