China’s Secret Plan to Supplant the United States


We are entering the season of presidential primary politics, and many of the candidates—or at least their advisors—might benefit from a fresh look at the current crop of foreign policy books. China should be at or near the top of every candidate’s bedside reading list. With that in mind, I have begun to make my way through the mounting pile of new books and reports on U.S.-China relations that has accumulated over the past few months and thought I might offer a few reflections on what is novel and most useful—or not—from each. For those of you who have already read one of books, I welcome your thoughts.

First up is Dr. Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon (Henry Holt and Co., 2015). Let me begin by noting that this is a highly engaging and thought-provoking read. It does what few books do well, and that is to mix scholarship, policy, and memoir-style writing in an accessible but still intellectually rich fashion. Pillsbury, senior fellow and director for Chinese strategy at the Hudson Institute, presents a straightforward thesis. In its most bald form, he argues that China has a long-term marathon strategy to supplant the United States as the sole superpower by 2049. If successful, Pillsbury argues that China will reshape the world into one that will “nurture autocracies,” “rewrit[e] history to defam[e] the West and prais[e] China,” sell its own highly polluting development model to other countries, and constrain the political space for international organizations (195).

If that were all there were to this book, it would be easy to dismiss. Pillsbury, however, manages to draw on his extensive knowledge of Chinese historical military writings and theory as well as his interactions with Chinese defectors and senior military officers to develop a compelling analytical defense of this thesis. He describes his theory elegantly in Chinese terms, using a Chinese concept of shi (an alignment of forces or creation of an opportunity). For Pillsbury, in shi and the Chinese game weiqi, one can discern the basic Chinese strategy of “deceiving an opponent into complacency, whereby he expends his energy in a way that helps you even as you move to encircle him” (42-45). This theme of Chinese deception and U.S. naivete underpin much of Pillsbury’s analysis. He argues that through an elaborate plan of deception in which China underplays its strengths, Beijing has managed to dupe the West into helping China develop its economy and advance its scientific capabilities, therein planting the seeds of the United States’ own destruction.

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Throughout the book Pillsbury provides fascinating snippets from his discussions with Chinese, who admit to him the existence of various elements of this strategy. For example, the Chinese government uses media and foreign policy writings very deliberately to shape foreign public opinion—essentially engaging in a long-term and widespread campaign of disinformation. He reviews Chinese history texts only to discover that Beijing has rewritten the history of U.S.-China relations as one in which the United States has been committed to the containment of China since President John Tyler in 1844 and has done nothing to help the development of the PRC (104). He also offers instances in which mistranslations or ignorance of Chinese phrases have led U.S. officials to take a far more benign view of China’s leaders than was merited.

If the strength of Pillsbury’s book is in the clarity of his argument and the fresh insights he provides, the weakness rests in the book’s lack of nuance. For example, although he acknowledges that there are moderates within China who do not subscribe to this marathon strategy, their perspectives and how much weight they have in the decision-making process are not explored. By the end of the book, I had the feeling that the author could only see the U.S-China relationship through this dark prism that he had constructed. In a few cases, he also overplays his hand. In discussing the environment, for example, he talks about China’s export of pollution, claiming that China will condemn the world to “smell, taste, and choke,” on Chinese success (186). Implicit in this is a failure to acknowledge that the people who suffer most from this pollution are the Chinese themselves. I don’t really believe that China’s pollution problem is a deliberate or malign effort to make the world suffer.

Pillsbury offers recommendations, of course, for how the United States can avoid losing out to China (215-228). Some are on target: translate more Chinese writings so that we understand what they are really thinking. Some are already happening: building coalitions of like-minded countries in China’s neighborhood. And some will be difficult—if not impossible—to implement in the current environment: fund more rule of law and civil society programs in China. In the end, whether you agree with Pillsbury or not, the book is well worth a careful read.

Next up I will take a look at two reports on U.S.-China relations—one by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on U.S.-China relations and another by former U.S. government officials and scholars Ashley Tellis and Robert Blackwill.

Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s FutureThis post appears courtesy of and Forbes Asia.

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