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Running the Race of the Century
By Thomas E. Kellogg

Book-100-Year-MarathonMICHAEL PILLSBURY has some regrets. Over 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 also 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. Instead, such views are “very much in the mainstream of Chinese geostrategic thought.”

 

Pillsbury wants his book to serve as a wake-up call for American policy-makers 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. Pillsbury argues that constructive engagement now carries with it the risk that the US 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 US 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 US.

 

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 US 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 US forced on the Chinese, including a provision granting so-called extra-territoriality rights to Americans in China, which meant that US citizens were not subject to Chinese law while in-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 Chinese leadership circles. 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 US. In addition, I was troubled by the assumptions underlying his contention that unless the US takes action China might well win out in its hundred-year race to become the world’s preeminent 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 US 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 US were to start regarding any country that attempts 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 US to become the preeminent global power? It may well be the case that, as Pillsbury 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 US? Second, what, if anything, should the US do in response to China’s rise?

 

On the first question, despite all the progress it has made, China remains far behind the US. 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’s economy 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 of the progress that it has made, China’s per capita income remains a fraction of that of the US: in 2013, the World Bank estimated that China’s per capita income was US$6,800. This pales in comparison to the US figure of US$53,000.

 

If the US is truly worried about maintaining its preeminence, rather than worrying about China, it should get its own economic, political and diplomatic house in order. It is not China that caused the costly US government shutdown in 2013: that wound was self-inflicted and cost the US 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 the US dearly in terms of blood, treasure, damage to the US military and international prestige. The good news is that the US 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 that 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 Chinese Communist Party 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 US to make mistakes that will damage its own hegemonic position. As it grows more powerful, Beijing knows that it must avoid tipping its hand, and instead present a friendly face to Washington. Otherwise the US might discern China’s plans to surpass the US and take its place as the world’s leading power. To that end, it looks to curry favor with potential allies in the US, 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 that 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 Pillsbury’s book is that 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 US. 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 CCP 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 US, 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 US: could it be that domestic debates in China are much more contentious, and much more contingent, than Pillsbury suggests?

 

One might also infer from Pillsbury’s book that Beijing has honed the execution of its strategy, and that the US is, at best, asleep at the wheel. It is true, by and large, that the CCP 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 China’s 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 in the South China Sea, Beijing has sparked a race to militarize its own backyard and has pushed neighbors like Vietnam and the Philippines closer to the US. The US, 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 US both cause and justification for increasing its own military presence in the South China Sea, an outcome which surely was not intended by the CCP.

 

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 that it is not yet the “responsible stakeholder” in the international system that the US 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 policy-makers 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 US 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 US continue to engage? For the simple reason that, on a host of international issues, the US needs as much help from China as it can get. Lest we forget, at times, US 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 stalled talks did not bear fruit does not negate China’s efforts to bring its longtime ally to the table. Though the record is mixed, nonetheless China has offered at least some support to US-led efforts to convince Tehran to shelve, at least for now, its dreams of becoming a nuclear-armed state. US-China co-operation extends beyond the realm of international security: in November 2014, the US 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 sum, though the picture of China’s engagement with the US 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.

 

Thomas E. Kellogg is the Director of the East Asia Program at the Open Society Foundations in New York. He is also an adjunct professor of law at Columbia Law School.

Back to Issue
    The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower By Michael Pillsbury Henry Holt and Company, 2015, 336 pages, $30 (Hardcover)
    Published: March 2015 (Vol.10 No.1)
    About the author

    Thomas E. Kellogg is the Director of the East Asia Program at the Open Society Foundations in New York. He is also an adjunct professor of law at Columbia Law School.

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