Trump Advisor Advocates 'Bringing Change to China'

U.S. Defense Policy Advisor Michael Pillsbury discusses his book The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower. Orville Schell moderates the discussion (1 hr., 3 min.)

Last year, former Assistant Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning Michael Pillsbury published a book warning that China harbors a “secret strategy” to supplant the United States as the world's dominant power by 2049 — the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China’s establishment.

Now, Pillsbury is reportedly one of a small handful of Asia specialists advising President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team.

Speaking at Asia Society in New York last April, Pillsbury laid out his view of U.S.-China relations. He said that in the 1980s, many in the U.S. — including himself — believed China wanted to be “like us,” liberalize, and ultimately democratize. Thus, American leaders tried to help China along through direct investment and science and technology exchanges. “Frankly, a lot of people like me saw the McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chickens, Pizza Huts. … There were traffic jams with Mercedes Benzes and Buicks. It looked like it was happening — that the dream was coming true.”

But after the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, he said, China took a more nationalistic course and the liberalization he hoped for never materialized. He now advocates the United States take a more proactive approach at pushing reform within China. In his book, The Hundred Year Marathon, he writes:

It’s long past time to foster cooperation among those of us seeking change in China. A grand coalition should be formed in the United States with the common mission of bringing change to China and altering a harmful and outdated U.S. approach to promoting reform in Beijing. This means that the Americans who champion the Dalai Lama should ally with U.S. defense experts who promote spending for the Pentagon’s AirSea Battle program. It means human rights advocates should work with American businesses demanding protection for intellectual property. It means anti-abortion groups who seek modification of the 'One-Child Policy' make common cause with democracy promotion organizations set up by Congress.

Orville Schell, director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, asked Pillsbury, “If we're trying to change China, isn't that exactly the problem China perceives correctly?”

Pillsbury responded by invoking Silent Contest — a film produced by China’s People’s Liberation Army claiming that there is a secret American conspiracy to destabilize China through different means of “infiltration,” including support for dissidents and figures like the Dalai Lama.

“They think we're doing it already,” Pillsbury said. “They're not right. We have a puny effort at democratization, human rights, fair treatment of our companies. … If we're being blamed for it anyways …”

In the above video of the program, Pillsbury goes on to describe how China has “gangsterized” American companies through cyber theft, why he still considers himself a "panda hugger" in some ways, and why he believes violent conflict between the U.S. and China is very possible. In the below clip of the program, Pillsbury describes how he was wrong in thinking China would "bide its time" for a few more decades before directly confronting the United States and surrounding countries.

Michael Pillsbury Warns of Potential Conflict Between U.S. and China

Michael Pillsbury speaks at Asia Society New York on April 7, 2015. (4 min., 12 sec.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.