American hawks want showdown with China – Pentagon adviser

This century may see the greatest shift in the balance of power in history. Plagued with economic and infrastructure troubles, and internal divisions, the US risks losing its role as global leader. China is preparing to take over the lead role, while not everyone is taking its plans seriously. With Trump in power – how far will the US-China rivalry go? Will the new administration play the containment card once again? Or will the two great powers find a way forward? We ask Pentagon consultant, adviser to the Trump campaign, and author of The Hundred-Year Marathon – Michael Pillsbury.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Pentagon consultant, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, author of the “Hundred Year Marathon” - Dr. Michael Pillsbury, welcome to the show, great to have you with us, sir. On his first visit to China as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that China and America are at ‘a historic moment in their relationship’. Could Beijing and Washington be preparing ground for some new deal, a new phase in the US-China relationship?

Michael Pillsbury: Yes, I  think the both sides are preparing for  the Mar-a-Lago summit where there’ll be extensive exchanges, many hours of talks between President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. This will be their first meeting, so it’s quite important. I agree with Secretary of State Tillerson that this is a kind of historic moment in U.S.-China relations. The Trump campaign had a lot of very negative rhetoric against China, kind of scared the Chinese government, so I think there’s a relief in China, which I last visited a month ago, on this new phase of the Trump administration to seek cooperation and what Secretary Tillerson called “Win-win” outcome.

SS: So, what’s so historic about this visit? Far from the hostile rhetoric we’ve heard from both sides in previous months, relations are quite amicable - what’s the catch here?

MP: The issue is going to be how much President Trump changes President Obama’s approach to China. President Obama, as you know, got quite offended in 2009, at the Copenhagen Climate Change summit, when he sort of stumbled into a room with Hillary Clinton with him and found that Chinese were organising a meeting of the heads of state, of Russia, India, Brazil, to oppose the American climate change plan. It was quite a hostile meeting and things never really improved from 2009. President Obama refused a Chinese request to agree to a new concept of a World Order that the Chinese call [speaks chinese] It’s translated, roughly, as “new model” of the Great Power relations. It’s supposed to be to avoid war between the U.S. and China. So, Obama administration wanted to explore it, but never quite accepted it. Secretary Tillerson has said some of the keywords in this new formulation when he was in Beijing - so it’s already a step towards U.S.-China cooperation, greater than with President Obama. There are a number of other areas of friction between the two.

SS: Yeah, he’s called  for ‘win-win cooperation’ - so where exactly can China and the US agree to cooperate?

MP: There are quite a few areas, the most important are economics and trade. There’s a series of things, that I written in an article called “The Road to Make America Great Again Runs Through Beijing” - it means if that we have good trade ties with China and China buys a great deal more American products, this will help the Trump administration to meet its pledge of 4% annual growth. Terrorism is another… there’s other areas of cooperation. China doesn’t help us on the ground, militarily, against ISIS, but they have provided cooperation on terrorism in exchange for us taking into account  their own concerns with Eastern Turkestan independence movement and terrorism inside China. So, this is another area of cooperation. Sophie, you can imagine the nightmare it would be if China were a pro-terrorist state, and actively supporting ISIS and Al-Qaeda. China used to be in favor of armed revolution back in the 1960s - so this is a great area of cooperation that we need to expand.

SS: Okay, but amicable  statements coming from top officials - it’s great, but they won’t just take the stumbling blocks away in a relationship, right? What is the Trump administration going to do about the issues standing in the way - like the South China Sea dispute? For example, will it continue the freedom of navigation patrols through what China claims as its territorial waters?

MP: In terms of freedom of navigation operation, that’s a tradition that goes back more than a 100 years, began with the British, actually. What Obama has done is not good - he had the American destroyers  to go through the territorial claims of China, turn off their weapons radar, not launch helicopters, going in the straight line and pretty much let the Chinese know where they are going. A more aggressive approach has been proposed that the U.S. and other countries - including France, England, Japan - would not respect these territorial claims of China, and they would not seek so called “innocent passage”. I don’t know, if mr. Trump is going to do that or not - it’s one option that he has, obviously.

SS: Now, in your book ‘the Hundred Year Marathon’ you say the Chinese hawks are following a multi generation plan to attain global dominance. Why don’t you think the Chinese leadership will ever agree to the role of one of the world’s superpowers alongside the United States?

MP: Well, the way the Chinese express it is that they want to avoid Hitler and Stalin, and Tojo and this kind of model that sought through aggressive, armed forces to expand territory. Their view is that China’s, I hate to say “domination”, but China’s role as a #1 power will come by earning it - they expect to be double of the American economy by 2030 - a couple of their most famous economists have already written this. They expect to be the triple of the American GDP by 2049 - that’s what I call “A hundred year marathon”, from a book by Chinese hawk. So, when they’re triple of our economy, they have options. They can build up their armed forces, if they wish, to double or triple our size, but their idea is to get through the next 20 or 30 years peacefully. They’re quite afraid of alerting the American public to their long-term prospects, of being double or triple us. America, as you know, Sophie, has been the #1 economy in the world since about 1898. So we’re quite complacent that God gave us this role and no one can take it away, but already the IMF and the World Bank have announced that the Chinese economy has surpassed us. They are two, almost three trillion dollars bigger than us. So, the size of the entire Russia GDP - that’s how much larger the Chinese GDP is bigger than America already. This is quite significant.

SS: But, you know, long-term planning is great, but a hundred years? That’s so far away! You can be as hawkish as you get, but there’s no guarantee your great grandkids will continue doing what you want them to do, a hundred year plan is still quite a bit of a stretch, no?

MP: Yes. I don’t think it’s a plan in the sense of details,  I think it’s an aspiration - it would be a better word. They first met in public in 1955 when the Great Chairman Mao himself said that China’s goal is to first surpass America and then pull way ahead. At that point he estimated it would take 75 years. So, it’s not a plan that worked out. That’s an aspiration, and they’ve gone quite far in succeeding. They were 10% of our economy back in the 70s.

SS: Tell me something - is the current administration listening to your arguments about the Chinese threat?

MP: I don’t argue that there’s a Chinese threat. I argue that we’ve underestimated China’s aspiration and Chinese capability. So part of of the Administration agrees with me, yes.

SS: Okay, maybe “threat” is a bad word, but are they listening to your advice? Are they listening to your analysis? Are they also seeing China in 100 years being the #1 World Power?

MP: I think you saw in three of Mr. Trump’s books. It’s very similar to my argument. In fact, you could almost say, Trump came before me - I’m not claiming that I’ve instructed him. It’s in his books going back at least 15-18 years.

SS: But here’s what I’m thinking - China has never in its history been aiming at global domination, it was always content to stay the dominant power in its region - why would the traditions break all of a sudden?

MP: Again, this word “world domination” - that’s not the word Chinese use. They claim that the Soviet Union and the U.S. sought what they call “hegemony” - they’ve got a wonderful word for it, “Ba”. “Ba” is a ruthless hegemon from the Warring States period, 25 hundred years ago. He used force and deception to maintain domination. China’s view is they are going to earn their way with virtue, economic power. Everyone is eventually going to welcome them to be the leading economic power. So, “domination” is the wrong word, they would never use that. They might use a term like “natural virtue” of China, that will cause a new world order. There’s often speak of a more just world order, that they are going to to work toward as they become stronger and stronger economically. The new world order will be more just, they say, because the Southern half of the Globe will have more power in the UN specialised agencies, in the World Bank and the IMF, in this global structure created in 1944-1945.

SS: So the key point of China’s version of the global order is removing American dominance - and I mean, me and you can use this word, “dominance”, because neither of us are Chinese. So, the way you described it: it’s about removing pressure groups and basing decisions on consensus.

MP: That’s right.

SS: Here’s what I’m asking, is there anything wrong with the Сhinese world order other than the US is no longer the world’s leader?

MP: Well, it depends on what kind of reforms China puts in place. If the new China-led world order, let’s call it, has policies on climate change and reduction of pollution, and the human rights violations, support for responsibility to protect, of the UN, the whole series of rules based on the global order approaches that the U.S. has been advocating - then that kind of China-led world is not so bad. I wouldn’t like it, I mean, I’m an American patriot who wants America First - I agree with mr. Trump very strongly. But if it’s an unreformed China, that has got some really, unfortunately, almost wicked policy features or it gets worse than it is today… Then we will all regret letting China assume the #1 post in the world.

SS:  In the title of your book, you call China’s quest for domination a ‘secret’ strategy - but the way you’ve learned all about it is actually by being invited to China’s armed forces conference in Beijing. Now why would Chinese hawks invite an American policy-maker like you to their gathering - perhaps they want to get their position across to the US leaders?

MP: I think that’s the reason. I think the Chinese hawks who are known as “eagles” to some degree in Chinese language, “ying pai”, “ying” can be a “hawk” or an “eagle” - they’ve felt frustrated that the American government has not understood their views. Their books have not been translated into English, and so a lot of what I do in the “Hundred Year Marathon” is to give a voice to China's hawks. They are not all military and they seek to avoid war, but they are quite a bit more concerned that an accidental war could break out between U.S. and China due to misperceptions. That’s why they sometimes go into  detail with me with me about military scenarios. China’s view, especially the hawks, is that America is in decline, actually, in a very sharp decline, and needs to be more modest in the world and accept its role of what in Chinese history is very common - an old haegeman, an old emperor in decline, and replaced by new powers. So that doesn’t mean they want to humiliate America, but it means they expect more modesty from us and they’re very concerned to use me as a channel to convey these… sometimes, the warnings of war to the U.S. - “Don’t mess with China!”.

SS: Don’t you think that surrounding China will only empower the hawks in Beijing and make it more confrontational?

MP: That’s the most dangerous thing we’re facing now. The U.S. Air Force and Navy operate closer and closer to Chinese Air Force and Navy units. As happened in 2001, there could be an encounter, an accident, in which both sides have their own view on what happened. In some ways, that’s how 1950 and the Korean War broke out. U.S. thought it had a UN mandate to unify North Korea and South Korea, but as our forces came closer and closer to the Chinese border, they interpreted it as potential invasion, secretly sent more than 200,000 troops, many wore white snow suits, who surprised the heck out of U.S. in North Korea, and, ultimately, 30,000 American soldiers were killed because of this failure to analyse on both sides the dangers of our units getting closer and closer together. I am also afraid of this scenario.

SS: What about American hawks? Are there forces in Washington that desire a confrontation with China? Can they be tamed?

MP: I wouldn’t say they desire a war, but there are American hawks, they sometimes want to have a showdown to teach China a lesson, because they feel China doesn’t respect the American power, or China has broken so many rules: technology theft, espionage against our companies, there’s quite a long list of what our hawks see as bad behaviour by China. Our hawks tend to not accept that we’re a declining power. They think America’s best days are still ahead, as Ronald Reagan would say, so you have this difference in our balance of power assessments on the American side. The China, they believe, is quite weak. There’s a famous book called “The Coming Collapse of China” that came out about 10 years ago. Very widespread view that China is a paper tiger itself and could easily collapse, and therefore American pressure will cause Chinese concessions. That’s quite a strong view here in Washington.

SS: In your book, you mention that ‘unfortunately the vast majority of China experts in the US don’t speak Chinese beyond a few words’ - so how informed is Washington’s China policy then?

MP: In many ways, it’s very well informed. I have only praise for CIA and DIA. On the other hand, on the strategic thinking level, I’ve been advocating that we need to publish in English some of China’s best books on strategy. The hawks and others have written series of lessons they’ve learned from the Warring States period that they apply today and to the future. Seems to me, we can’t go wrong by reading Chinese authors in English, in translation, to get an idea of how different their thinking is from our own. They do that with us. Almost every major book by anybody in the U.S. - dr. Kissinger and others - you can find in Chinese bookstores, fairly quickly after publication, in Chinese.

SS: The US is deploying a missile defence system in South Korea - officially it’s aimed against the North Korean threat, but China sees it as a threat to its own security. Do you expect China to retaliate? What can it do?

MP: Yes. They’ve already had some threatening articles. This was the main topic when I was in Beijing. They have gone to Raytheon company website and learned that this missile defence system has a kind of switch that can convert it from a short-range, a 300 mile range, to a long range, as much as between 1500 to 2000 miles, and therefore covering the Chinese ICBM fields, and in some sense, be able to give an excuse to China’s hawks to greatly increase the number of nuclear weapons, ICBM force that they have. I don’t want this to happen myself, but we’ve got to try  to persuade them that THAAD as it’s called, isn’t really designed to do that, it’s a defence against North Korea, and we need to enlist China’s cooperation in much stronger pressure against North Korea. Otherwise,  they’re putting at risk their own strategic ICBM fields. So, I think, China is probably going to cooperate more on North Korea, at least in the area of sanctions and pressure. That could be just my wishful thinking which I had before.

SS: Washington says the One China policy towards Taiwan isn’t going to be challenged for now - however, the US is preparing to sell a large arms package to Taiwan, how’s that going to sit with the Chinese?

MP: They object to even selling one bullet or one spare tire to the Taiwan military, but a lot of that is just bluff to let us know that they don’t appreciate it. We have a law that requires the President to provide enough weapons so that Taiwan can defend itself and to keep our own forces in good shape in case there’s a crisis in the area. The Chinese know this very well, it dates back to Jimmy Carter administration. So I don’t expect some huge out-of-the-proportion reaction by the Chinese. What I’m more worried about is, I’ve mentioned this to you, the accidental war with patrols so close to each other, including in the Taiwan Strait. It’s only a 100 miles wide and often  their jet fighters in mainland China and  Taiwan’s jet fighters, in my view, come too close to each other. So, the issue of Taiwan is not going to go away, but so far, it’s been managed and obviously the Chinese were very relieved when mr. Trump in his phone call to President Xi said that he intends to maintain “our China policy” - now, I want to underline the word “Our” - he didn’t accept the Chinese principle that Taiwan belongs to China, he agree with what Nixon and Jimmy Carter and other American presidents since 1972 have done - that we just won’t discuss whom Taiwan belongs to. It’s our “one China” policy, which is what Mr. Trump said according to the press, and I’m very strongly supporting his approach.

SS:You say the US needs to stop helping China ‘increase its productivity’ - but is it too late for that now?  Not like you can get General Electric, Microsoft, General Motors to stop investing in China? Where will iPhone's be put together?

MP: My books talks about U.S. government programs to help China’s economic growth. They were put in place by Jimmy Carter in 1979 when China was really only 10% of our economic size, and they’re all still there. We cooperate far more with China, we help China far more, for example the National Science Foundation, than we do with Russia. We have almost a hundred agreements, we have a large National Science Foundation office in Beijing. When we make a discovery like prairie grass roots that can go deeper, helping Chinese agricultural productivity, we transfer it immediately to China, for free. All U.S. government departments have some sort of assistance program with China. It made a lot of sense in 1979, but it needs to be re-evaluated, it seems to me, especially, if China’s going to demonize us in their books and articles as a declining hegemon who’s seeking war. I think China should not say that about America.

SS: You believe Trump succeeded in staying unpredictable in the eyes of the Chinese - why do you think that’s an effective strategy?

MP: Mr. Trump thinks it’s an effective strategy, because he has so much praise for how clever the Chinese are. This is in all three of his books, where he mentions China. It’s actually a very witty observation  that he makes about how Chinese are the best negotiators he personally has ever encountered and he explains in his most recent book that that’s why he wants to be unpredictable to give him a kind of advantage or an edge in negotiating with the Chinese. It’s really a kind of flattery or admiration for the Chinese. I think, as you know, Ivanka, Trump’s daughter, only 5 years old, has been studying Mandarin for more than three years. She goes on Instagram reciting Tang dynasty poetry - so the Trump family has been involved with China. China - after the election, actually - has approved that the Trump brand can be registered in China, the case that has been going on for almost 30 years and it has not been the one in favor of Mr. Trump. So he seems to have a kind of admiration for their negotiating skills and the Chinese art of the deal.

SS: Alright. Thank you so much for this wonderful interview. We were talking to Michael Pillsbury, author of the “Hundred Year Marathon”. Dr. Pillsbury, can you hold up your book for us, please, so that the viewers can see what the cover looks like? There you go, a “Hundred Year Marathon” by Michael Pillsbury. We were discussing the challenges of the looming global rivalry of the U.S. and China. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.