Winter 2016
Number 30

Book Review - China’s Long Global March

Jeff M. Smith

Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (Henry Holt & Co., 2015), 336 pp. $30.00.

Over the course of eight U.S. administrations, Michael Pillsbury has observed and informed America’s China policy from a variety of influential vantage points, ranging from the Pentagon to the Senate, and from the National Defense University to the U.S. Agency for International Development. And that’s just the beginning.

Pillsbury, a Columbia Ph.D., has held senior positions at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, and at the National Defense University. At one point, he oversaw the Defense Department’s covert action programs and during his stint on Capitol Hill was “a kind of foreign policy Machiavelli for a string of… conservative senators,” according to author George Crile.

Even by Washington standards, that’s a thick resume. When it comes to China, however, his influence has been broader than his resume will ever show. Pillsbury has repeatedly—almost eerily—surfaced to leave his imprint on policy at key junctures in U.S.-China relations. Perhaps most infamously, he played an important but secretive role in promoting a rapprochement with China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, in the 1970s.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that Pillsbury has forcefully injected himself into the public debate on China policy at yet another critical juncture in bilateral relations. His new book, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, stakes out a bold thesis that, at its core, is an attempt to settle a long-standing battle between America’s China “doves” and “hawks” decisively in favor of the latter. He enters the debate with the wind at his back, amid an era of heightened Chinese assertiveness and mounting anxiety over the abandonment of China’s “peaceful rise.”

Since President Richard Nixon spearheaded an “opening” to China in the 1970s, Washington has adopted an engagement strategy toward Beijing informed by two key assumptions: first, that economic liberalization would ultimately produce political liberalization, and second, that U.S. efforts to integrate China into the global economic and political architecture would prevent China from seeking to challenge or overturn that order.

With a growing body of evidence behind him, Pillsbury passionately argues that those assumptions were fundamentally flawed from the outset. Unbeknownst to U.S. diplomats, says Pillsbury, influential hawks in Beijing have, since the Communist Revolution of 1949, been spearheading a Chinese grand strategy cloaked in deception and designed to replace America as the global superpower:

[Chinese] 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 plan was] implemented by the Communist Party leadership from the beginning of its relationship with the United States… [to] set up a world order that will be fair to China, a world without American global supremacy.

What’s worse, the hard-line views of these Chinese nationalists, long dismissed by Washington as representative of a small minority, “are not fringe, but are very much in the mainstream of Chinese geostrategic thought,” he says. In pursuit of their grand strategy, China’s nationalists have gleaned various tactics from China’s traumatic history, particularly the Warring States Era (roughly 475 B.C.—221 B.C.). The Hundred-Year Marathon repeatedly emphasizes how profoundly this period informs the paradigm through which Beijing views the nature of global politics in general, and its great-power competition with the U.S. in particular.

Indeed, the book argues that several “Warring States Strategems” now form the core of Chinese grand strategy: indulge complacency to avoid alerting your opponent; manipulate your opponent’s advisors; be patient—for decades or longer—to achieve victory; steal your opponent’s ideas and technology for strategic purposes, and so forth. This “true” Chinese grand strategy, Pillsbury contends, has been hiding in plain sight all along but has evaded detection by a U.S. foreign policy establishment that harbors “a desire to help China at all costs.” In the process, the U.S. government has embraced an “almost willful blindness to any actions that undercut our views of Chinese goodwill and victimhood.”

Despite its many strengths, The Hundred-Year Marathon overreaches on occasion. For example, the book implicates China in “aid[ing] America’s enemies in an effort to chip away at American power, especially in America’s war on terrorism.” The evidence supporting this contention is not particularly revelatory or convincing: China concluded technical and economic agreements with the Taliban government in Kabul in the late 1990s; Chinese companies sold fiber-optic communications systems to Iraq and steel to Iran for its missile programs; and China hosts a poor proliferation record with its longtime partner, Pakistan. But, while often at cross-purposes with U.S. foreign policy, these initiatives do not represent a coherent strategy to oppose or undermine the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Nor do China’s hawkish leaders bear unique resentment toward the United States, as The Hundred-Year Marathon appears to imply (one of the book’s chapters is titled “America the Great Satan”). To Pillsbury’s credit, he acknowledges on numerous occasions the reality is more nuanced, but first impressions are hard to erase.

Chinese nationalists do indeed harbor great mistrust for the U.S., and resent many American policies they believe are designed to “contain” China. Many also see China as engaged in a long-term competition with the U.S. for global supremacy. Yet many influential Chinese, including the nationalists, also hold a great deal of respect and admiration for the U.S. If China is engaged in a “Hundred-Year Marathon” for global supremacy, it is less a crusade against the U.S. than an unfortunate coincidence that the U.S. is standing in China’s way.

These, however, are minor quibbles amid hundreds of pages of more meaningful arguments and insights. For example, Pillsbury helps shed light on one of the great paradoxes in China-U.S. relations, namely: Why does China bear so much mistrust for the United States, given America’s decades-long effort to support China’s rise and peacefully integrate the country into the international system? The culprit, he explains, is the culturally ingrained zero-sum paradigm that dominates Chinese strategic thought, informed greatly by the lessons of the Warring States Era. To wit:

Beijing’s assumption is that the U.S. government has a long-standing policy of hostility and deception toward the Chinese government… [the] distrust of the United States is largely based on deeply held cultural axioms that underlie nearly all Chinese strategic decisions… [and not] merely a matter of Chinese misunderstanding due to ignorance.”

If true, Pillsbury’s assessment suggests it may matter little how forcefully America works to dispel Chinese misconceptions about U.S. strategy and intentions. It also helps to explain a principal feature of Chinese strategy: deception. As Pillsbury puts it, “China’s leaders believe that because all other potential rivals are out to deceive them, China must respond with its own duplicity.”

Were The Hundred-Year Marathon released a decade ago, its findings might have been dismissed as excessively alarmist. Since 2008, however, the world has witnessed a materially more assertive—some would say belligerent and revisionist—“Middle Kingdom.” China’s “secret” grand strategy has become a lot less secretive, as China has adopted a materially more assertive global posture, and a considerably more repressive domestic one. What’s worse, both trends have accelerated since the country’s current President, Xi Jinping, assumed power in 2012.

Whether this represents the natural evolution of a “Hundred-Year Marathon” sketched out over six decades ago or the product of a more contemporary confluence of factors doesn’t change the fact that it’s happening. That much is clear to not only America’s China “hawks,” but to nearly all of China’s neighbors, as well as to a growing number of converted China “doves.” For that reason alone, Pillsbury’s work is an indispensable read.

Jeff M. Smith is Kraemer Strategy Fellow and Director of South Asian Security Programs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. He is the author of Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century (Lexington Books, 2013).