China is running a hundred-year marathon. It has an unwritten, unofficial, 'secret' plan to supplant the United States as the world's most powerful nation by 2050 – the hundredth anniversary of Communist party's proclamation of the People's Republic of China.
To win this marathon, ying pai (hawks) in China have drawn lessons from their millennia-old rich history, especially the Warring States period, which culminated in seven feuding states coming together to form one nation under the Qin dynasty. While the prevalent strategic thought in China today is steeped in such militaristic values, it projects itself and its history as one inspired by Confucian pacifism. Wai ru, nei fa (on the outside, be benevolent; on the inside, be ruthless) is its watchword.
The plan in itself, however, is not the best part about China's grand design – it's the trick it has managed to pull off, convincing the world that the devil does not exist. This strategy of deception has lulled the American establishment because of which the United States has fallen prey to various false assumptions. For instance, believing that increasing engagement with China will bring complete cooperation or that the Communist state is on the road to democracy or that China is fragile and needs constant support from the US or that it wants to be like America and shares its values and so on.
This is the contention of Michael Pillsbury's book, "The Hundred‑year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America As the Global Superpower". Pillsbury has closely followed China since 1969 when he joined the United Nations Secretary General’s office as political affairs officer at the age of 24.
While being there, he worked with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to get intelligence on China-Soviet relations. Pillsbury, fluent in Mandarin and a frequent visitor to China, has helped shape the United States relations with that country since the Jimmy Carter administration. Earlier, a champion of close cooperation between the two nations, Pillsbury turned into a sceptic and is now considered a China hawk. Consequently, once in good books of the Communist party-state, he has since fallen out of favour.
According to Pillsbury, China's hundred-year marathon strategy comprises of nine principal elements: induce complacency to avoid alerting your opponent; manipulate your opponent’s advisers; be patient - for decades, or longer - to achieve victory; steal ideas and technology liberally from your opponent; military might is not the critical factor for winning the marathon; recognise that the hegemon, in this case the US, will take extreme, even reckless action to retain its dominant position; never lose sight of shi; establish and employ metrics for measuring your status relative to other potential challengers; always be vigilant to avoid being encircled or deceived by others.
The best way to induce complacency is to never reveal your real intentions. The easiest way to win the marathon is to not let your opponent know that the marathon has begun. This first principle is best captured in the 24-character strategy of Deng Xiaoping, which roughly translates to: Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.
During the Cold War era, when the US and the USSR were battling it out, China observed calmly. To secure its position, it opened itself to the United States. Pillsbury challenges the long-held view that US president Richard Nixon went to China. He says that it was the other way around. To secure its position and to defeat its northern neighbour, it allied with America, a strategy best summed up by an ancient Chinese proverb quoted to Mao in a memo in 1969: "Ally with Wu in the east to oppose Wei in the north."
Wooing the advisers nearest to your opponent's leadership comprises the second element of the strategy. Bill Clinton's case is in point. During his 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton lambasted President George HW Bush for his apologist stance towards China. Despite the Tiananmen Square massacre, the US had no qualms in supplying arms to the Dragon.
Clinton’s stance, Pillsbury writes, was the hardest ever taken by a US president since Lyndon B Johnson in the 1960s, so much so that he invited forty Chinese dissidents, including the Dalai Lama, when he won the White House. China, however, coped with affairs calmly. It reached out to pro-China members in the Clinton administration and successfully built a pro-China coalition inside his administration through a number of ways, including lobbying the Clinton campaign donors.
It led to a thaw in relations. Clinton's position softened and culminated into China's historic entry into the World Trade Organisation a few years later. The rest is history. But is the history repeating itself? Current US president Donald Trump, who made all the right noises against China during the campaign, started 'bromancing' Chinese premier Xi Jinping soon after the election. The jury is still out but this author thinks Trump's bonhomie is only optics so that when push comes to shove, he could point to his vain attempts to straighten the dog's tail.
The fact that China is not running a sprint but a marathon and that too a hundred year one explains its patience in itself. They are in fact catching up with the US faster than they had themselves thought thanks in part to the 2008 economic crisis and incalculable harm done to the US by getting into useless regime change wars in West Asia, especially the Iraq war.
China surpassed the US economy in 2014 in terms of purchasing power parity, six years ahead of earlier projections. In absolute terms, China is expected to overtake US by 2030. After this, China will still have 20 more years to convert its economic might into a military one. It has already started projecting its cultural soft power by opening scores of Confucius institutions across the world.
In addition, it has downplayed its strength in the international arena, showing itself vulnerable, carefully relaying messages to the West that if it is constantly helped with technology and monetary deals, it will move towards a more open economy and democracy. The ground truth, however, is that the party state still controls the commanding heights of the economy.
Pillsbury, in fact, reveals how the World Bank worked with China for years in secrecy, endorsing its socialist approach and charting out plans so that it can grow its economy without going the capitalist way. Beijing has executed the bank’s plan steadfastly. All this coupled with the liberal stealing of western technology and reverse engineering at home facilitated by its duplicitous promises and behaviour have made China into a dragon worth fearing.
China also understands that military might is not critical to win the marathon. The fall of USSR was a perfect lesson in that regard. Additionally, not getting into an arms race with the US is also in synergy with the first principle of its plan. The Chinese strategy, in fact, hinges on what it calls developing shashoujian or the assassin’s mace. It’s a weapon mentioned in ancient Chinese folklore employed to defeat a bigger power. A trump card, if you will.
China has identified many chinks in the US' armour which can be exploited to defeat it.
Over-reliance on high-tech information systems is one. The trump card here is to develop a capacity to render critical US infrastructure useless through hacking in the case of war. That's why China engages in cyber espionage and developing hacking capabilities.
The second weakness is space satellites, which play a critical role in helping the US ships sails throughout the world with ease. Blow the satellites in the space and the mighty US Navy will be dead in the water. China, in fact, used one such anti-satellite missile to destroy its own weather satellite in 2007.
The Chinese have a plan for the US Air Force as well. They are developing black boxes which can transmit thousands of signals. If the Chinese fire one missile, the US military planes would detect thousands of incoming signals making it impossible to differentiate the real from the fake! There isn't just one trump card, but multiple ones that China is developing to neutralise the US advantage.
Never losing sight of shi is a critical component of Chinese strategy. Though shi doesn't have an English equivalent, Pillsbury says it can be loosely translated as "alignment of forces" or to "asses the overall strategic political situation". Reading shi correctly is very important to topple your opponent.
The Chinese leadership, Pillsbury writes, didn’t read shi correctly in the 1960s. USSR rightly discerned China's intention of displacing it from the leadership of the Communist world. This resulted in stanching of all the financial, technological and military support that was flowing to China from the Soviet Union. After USSR’s disintegration, China realised shi had shifted. The US, however, continues to dangerously revel in naivety.
Measuring one's strengths vis-a-vis your opponent is central to understanding shi and effectively using it against the enemy. China regularly indulges in qualitative measurements, audits if you will, to determine its standing among global competitors, chiefly the United States. Contrary to popular perception, it accords less than 10 percent weightage to military strength.
Not losing sight to shi also helps Beijing in achieving another of its principle: being vigilant to avoid being encircled. China is quite paranoid about any alliances that it thinks are spoiling its shi. This paranoia perhaps best explains why it always gets rattled when India and Japan or the US, Japan and India conduct joint military exercises. This is the reason why it vehemently opposes any attempts towards the realisation of a quadrilateral alliance of the US, Japan, Australia and India.
China’s strategic thought borrows heavily from its ancient military history which involved multiple players trying to encircle each other through deception and conceit. That’s why it does everything in its power to encircle others, be it via the belt and road initiative or by nuclearising rogue states like Pakistan and North Korea to do its bidding against India and the US respectively. However, it frustrates every attempt of others to do the same to it.
Pillsbury paints a scary picture of a Chinese world order, one dotted with authoritarian regimes, "harmonised" dissent on the internet, less democratisation, cancer villages, undermining of international organisations, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and pollution, etc.
The Chinese masterplan, a visibly flawless one at that, getting executed without fanfare or failure for over 70 years now, may seem too good to be true to many but they would be well advised to revisit the credentials of the author. Pillsbury is a top US national security expert, a hard-nosed practitioner of realpolitik who has only recently transformed from being a "panda hugger" (Sinophile) to a China hawk.
Clearly, he is not dogmatic and has changed his opinion after closely observing that country for over 45 years. His interactions with Chinese defectors, understanding of the Chinese ancient military thought and nuances of the Mandarin language Chinese leaders use to send ambiguous signals adds immense credibility to his arguments.
It is no one’s case that nothing can go wrong for China. It’s just a masterplan and that too by a planning obsessed ideological dinosaur. From India's experience, we know for a fact that masterplans hardly ever work. Economists have been predicting for long that China is sitting on a lot of economic bubbles which can burst anytime.
At best, if the growth spirals down to below five percent, China’s plan to overtake the US economy by 2030 would be postponed by at least five to ten years. At worst, it risks disintegration. However, one must prepare for the worst and err on the side of caution when the civilisations are at stake.
One major lacuna in 'the hundred-year marathon' is that while the diagnosis of the Chinese problem is spot on, prognosis plan is lacking in daring and ambition that is worthy of an opponent like the dragon. Pillsbury’s suggestions to counter China are short on details but even the steps recommended are not going to cut it.
The US will have to reorient its economic, military and trade policies, give up its fruitless wars in West Asia, stop the obsession with Russia, maybe cede some space to it in Eastern Europe and Upper West Asia to massage Kremlin’s oversized ego; get out of NATO if possible or drastically reduce its role in that group and create a new one along NATO lines to encircle China which would have to include India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries tired of Asian ba’s bully.
On diagnosis part, Pillsbury’s account is a serious indictment of America’s naivety vis-a-vis China. From Nixon to Clinton, by providing economic, military and technological support, the US has unwittingly contributed to China’s meteoric rise. However, the Communist-party state in return has germinated seeds of anti-Americanism in its citizenry, especially after the Tiananmen massacre which it believed was instigated by the US. Soon after, China put in place a "patriotic education" program to drill not just the false economic history of America but also that of China-America relations into its children’s minds.
The book was written for an American audience and published two years ago. The intention behind reviewing it now is two-fold: First, it didn’t get the attention in India that it deserved and second, the current prevailing situation in the Doka La plateau.
Pillsbury laments that the US is yet to recognise the actual threat China poses to America and the world. Even if it does, probably it would be too late to do something about it. In any case, its strategy would involve taking on a comparatively weaker opponent.
Here India has two advantages. First, it already recognises China as a major threat. Second, it needn’t come up with a unique solution of its own to counter China. It can tweak and follow China’s nine principles which are ideal for taking on a more powerful enemy. But we need to start our own marathon as early as possible. We are running out of time.
Published Date: Jul 11, 2017 16:16 PM | Updated Date: Jul 11, 2017 18:25 PM