China’s Grand Strategy to Become No. 1

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Book review: The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower. By Michael Pillsbury. Henry Holt and Co Publishers, 2015. 336 pages, $15.58, kindle (www.amazon.com)

Of all the recent new books on China's role in the world, The Hundred-Year Marathon, a provocative mix of policy analysis and memoir by a former CIA employee, has made the biggest splash. Directed at the US-American policy audience, Pillsburg's analysis has an alarmist tone, yet it is sufficiently grounded in personal experience and well-researched to be taken seriously. Pillsbury used to be a "panda hugger" for many years, he confesses, but at some point it dawned on him that China would never be satisfied with anything less than replacing the United States as global hegemon. The Hundred-Year Marathon describes how Chinese hawks -- who, Pillsbury believes, now control the way decision-makers in China think and behave -- seek to turn the country into the world's leading power by 2049, a century after Mao declared the Chinese Republic. Hopes that China will liberalize are delusional and based on a false Western-centric expectation that once countries become rich, they become liberal democracies.

To the author, the Chinese concept of shi (an alignment of forces or creation of an opportunity) is crucial to understanding Beijing's grand strategy, which involves “deceiving an opponent into complacency, whereby he expends his energy in a way that helps you even as you move to encircle him.” China is also drawing on arts of warfare and deception dating from the country’s ancient Warring States period. Seen through that lens, Mao managed to trick Nixon into helping China develop its economy after the Sino-Soviet alliance no longer served Beijing's interests. To Pillsbury, Kissinger did not realize that he inadvertently contributed to China's rise, part of Beijing's larger strategy to eventually topple the United States.

The book's clear thesis and somewhat conspirational tone make it a highly entertaining read, but sometimes The Hundred-Year Marathon implicitly attributes to Chinese strategists an almost superhuman talent to plan in the long term. Chinese policy makers generally come across as smarter and, notably, more cunning, compared to the slow-witted Western policy makers. They are also extremely paranoid, insecure and fixated on what they consider to be the greatest threat to Chinese supremacy: the United States.

To some readers in Washington, the fact that China wants to overtake the United States by the middle of the century may seem outrageous. And yet, viewed from an outside perspective, the plan will strike observers as rather natural. Objectively speaking, it would be astounding if the country with the world's largest population and strong growth rates would hope for anything other than global leadership. Indeed, if Chinese per capita GDP reached only half of that in the United States, the Chinese economy would be more than twice the size of the US GDP.  It seems highly questionable whether maintaining US hegemony in such a scenario would be desirable, even from a US perspective.

The author writes that "we believed that American aid to a fragile China whose leaders thought like us would help China become a democratic and peaceful power without ambitions of regional or even global dominance." Considering that Pillbury lived in China, speaks Mandarin and is aware of Chinese history and has a strongly developed sense of Chinese exceptionalism, that seems rather naive -- but then again, it must be taken into account that during good part of the Cold War, China was poorer than India is today, thus hardly seeming a credible threat.

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Pillsbury suggests that the rise of China will negatively affect the future of democracy around the world. However, there is no clear evidence that China actively promotes autocracy (Read also: Does China promote autocracy?). Beijing may prop up dictators in some instances, but it does so for strategic reasons (e.g. to gain access to resources), not specifically to undermine democratic ideas. In that sense, China's foreign policy differs little from that of the United States, which supports governments based on strategic interests, not on their democratic ideals -- think of Washington's ties to Saudi Arabia or Vietnam. Arguing that democracy in Latin America depends on continued US support is unconvincing, as is the claim that Beijing willfully exports environmentally damaging technologies. Still, his description of how China systematically monitors academics, advisors and policy makers around the world, and denies visas to those it deems a threat, is a worrisome signal that may one day pose a challenge to the freedom of expression on a global scale.

Pillsbury's argument that Kissinger was a mere tool of China's Grand Strategy is ultimately unconvincing. After all, the United States gained tremendously from China's development and integration into the global economy, and scientific exchange programs were not only beneficial to China, but also helped globalize U.S. universities and bring thousands of talented researchers to the United States.

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Still, the book's detailed descriptions of how the Chinese government is carefully promoting anti-American feelings -- for example, by depicting the United States as the eternal villain in school and university textbooks -- is intriguing and does not bode well for the future of Sino-US relations.

How important, then, is Pillsbury's thesis? He is certainly right that policy makers from around the world must spend much more time trying to understand China. The number of diplomats from countries other than the United States conversant with Chinese strategic thought, the importance of the Warring States period, or general Chinese history is shockingly low and needs to increase.

In the final chapter, the author lists a number of policy recommendations, mostly regarding competitiveness and a clearer response to Chinese cyber theft, which all sound reasonable. His recommendation to support Chinese human rights activists, on the other hand, while correct, may not be the panacea he hopes for: Democracy in China is of course desirable, but there is little evidence that a democratic China would be less nationalistic or more pro-American. Is there any evidence that the hawks would not be as influential in a democratic government as they are now?

In the end, it all comes down to Pillsbury's claim that China's hardliners -- who no doubt exist -- have now occupied key policy making decisions. Even if that were the case, however, it is too early to accept that China's rise to the top is inevitable. Environmental, economic, demographic, geopolitical and political challenges could still derail or at least delay the project. In addition, the book's overall thesis, to my mind, overestimates the degree to which China's day-to-day policy is driven by one grand plan. Still, The Hundred Year-Marathon deserves to be widely read among scholars and diplomats working on Chinese foreign policy and the future of global order.

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