EpochTV - The Epoch Times
Live Chat

Michael Pillsbury: This Is What a War With Communist China Could Look Like

Views 37.3K
“Right now the topic is: will there be war with China? How soon? Someday, there might be another set of questions. Can we win a war with China? If so, how?” says Michael Pillsbury, senior fellow for China strategy at The Heritage Foundation and a co-author of the new report: “Winning the New Cold War: A Plan for Countering China.”
“We have to be able to think through: what are our advantages? What are our weaknesses? And how would this war be conducted?” Pillsbury says.
Dozens of laws to counter the Chinese Communist Party threat have been proposed in recent years, but how many have actually been passed and implemented?
“If you just watch television, you see all these members of the House and Senate bragging about their new legislation. So of course, I would think—and others would think—we're doing a lot to stop the Chinese. What if it's not true?” Pillsbury says.


Jan Jekielek: Dr. Michael Pillsbury, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Dr. Michael Pillsbury: Thank you very much.
Mr. Jekielek: Let's start with the hard stuff first. Yesterday on stage, here at the Heritage 50th Anniversary Leadership Summit, you said you expect war with China sometime this century. When exactly do you expect this to happen?
Dr. Pillsbury: This is a highly speculative topic. The panel moderator, a 33-year-old talk show host specializing in domestic issues, asked the panelists, "Is war coming for sure or not?" Here's the key thing, she wanted a yes or no answer. I couldn't say, "No, there's no chance of war with China," so I chose yes.
But obviously, nothing is inevitable. There are various ways to deter a war. Also, the definition of war varies from the really small incursion or incident, a few people killed, ceasefire, and it doesn't really happen, to a real war like World War II that goes on for three years. Inside the U.S. government, when I was a government official, I was in many war games involving China. To get the game started, you always assume a war breaks out.
For me, it's not shocking to say yes or no to whether there could be a war with China. There are a variety of wars with China that could happen. There are a number of programs to prevent those different wars from happening. This is a business for many people in Washington, both at the CIA and in the Pentagon. To some degree, White House planning also takes place. We think about imaginary scenarios just to see if we can challenge ourselves with one that might happen, that we hadn't even thought of.
The reason for that is so often in the real world, things happen that nobody expected. The origins of World War I, now referred to as sleepwalking into a war, happened because of some random incidents, and then, the countries involved did not understand what the other might do. There was a very high level of suspicion, mobilization, trains being loaded with weapons, and soldiers. Pretty soon, millions of people are dead, and nobody anticipated that this particular incident would trigger World War I.
It was the same thing with World War II. After World War II everybody said, "Why didn't we do something when Hitler announced, 'I'm going to fortify the Rhineland. I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that.' They were violations of the Versailles Peace Treaty from World War I." At the time people thought Hitler was bluffing, or he would stop at just step one. He never killed anybody. He peacefully occupied these places.
30 years later, historians dug out the debates in London, in Paris, even in Washington, DC, about what were Hitler's intentions? Why did World War II begin? One of the discoveries historians have made is very similar to World War I, the events that happened were not anticipated. Hitler kept saying, "I want peace. I'm only taking these steps with my army to get peace." We have something like that happening with China. Now, it's very difficult to imagine how a war with China would break out. Is this something we can anticipate?
I worked at the Pentagon at the Office of Net Assessment, and also with the intelligence community on war games trying to anticipate wars that we hadn't thought of. We then asked ourselves, “Do we have a strategy to deter or prevent this war from happening?” And secondly, “If such a thing does happen, are we going to win or not?”
For me, this is very routine to talk about war, how to plan it, how to prevent it, what happens, and the history of war over the last 500 years. But you can see a 33-year-old TV podcast lady might find it quite shocking that someone would say, "Yes, a war with China is quite possible, even very likely." Now, she said she didn't have time. She didn't go into, “What kind of war do you think is the most likely? Will we win that war?”
This is considered to not be part of the current journalistic coverage of China. Right now the topic is, “Will there be war with China? How soon?” Someday there might be another set of questions, “Can we win a war with China? If so, how?”
Mr. Jekielek: You've done a great job at proposing the question I should ask. This my next question, what kind of a war would this be? This is something we've talked about in our past discussions. Is this a war that the U.S. can actually win?
Dr. Pillsbury: It depends on the quality of strategy the U.S. brings to the war. We have certain advantages in terms of economy, and experience in war with Afghanistan and Iraq. But we have certain major disadvantages, one of which is distance. It's up to 10,000 miles away from our best ports, our munition storage areas, and our bomber bases to get over near China.
Whether it's to defend Korea, to defend India, or to defend Taiwan, we have a huge disadvantage in that it takes our forces two or three weeks to sail there. It takes them 24 hours to fly there. The Chinese are right there with quick action to seize something, like a piece of Indian territory, or do something involving Taiwan. They have a series of islands around Taiwan that have been attacked in the past.
China has the advantage for a short war that involves short distances close to China, something that would be over within three or four days. Then, the Chinese simply announce, "We've done this, please don't overreact. We'll be happy to debate this with you at the UN Security Council, where we Chinese have veto power." That's one kind of war I'm implying that we would probably lose.
It's the topic of a very interesting book called, The Strategy of Denial, by Elbridge Colby. In chapter 10 of that book, he goes into detail. He was a Pentagon official for a few years, so it's important to know what his thesis is. He says, "Taiwan would probably fall. It would collapse within a week of combat. There would be 50,000 to 100,000 Chinese PLA [People’s Liberation Army] troops on Taiwan. Should we Americans surrender?"
He says, "No, this is a great opportunity for us. We can land our own forces, and link up with whatever's left of the Taiwan forces. Then, in a kind of guerrilla warfare movement, we can force the PLA off of Taiwan and to return to the mainland." I'm summarizing a 30-page description.
He says, "This will be a good thing, because right now most countries in Asia want to hedge their bets. They're all on the fence. They want to be friends with America. They want to be friends with China." But according to Mr. Colby's argument, "When the Asian leaders see that China has attacked Taiwan and occupied half of it, and they see that America is fighting back, they will then be galvanized.
“They will see for the first time just how evil Communist China is. They'll stop being fence sitters. They'll stop hedging. They'll join our new coalition. They will have a whole new world in which we're taking the China threat more seriously."
I interviewed him once on TV myself. I recommend his book, and please read chapter 10. It's quite fascinating that someone thinks this way. Notice what his answer would be. He might avoid answering yes or no to the question, “Is war coming?”
But he certainly has devoted a lot of thinking to the contingency where we can't get there in time. We don't store munitions in Taiwan. We have almost no U.S. troops on Taiwan, only a few trainers. We don't have exercises with Taiwan. They're a non-country, diplomatically speaking. We don't recognize their government. We don't call them a country.
It's quite a stretch to say, "Here's this island with 23 million people. Here's how close they are to China, 100 miles away. Here's all the forces that could be landed on the island. How are we going to take it back?" But at least the Colby book is raising the issue publicly.
You might say, "Maybe this should be something that is secret internal planning in the Pentagon, because it will never happen, or the chances are a million-to-one." But he's introduced this subject publicly, and then gone around the country making speeches about it.
You can imagine the Chinese reaction to this. It's good news from their point of view. Here's a former American defense official saying, "The Chinese can capture at least half of Taiwan, if not more. All they have to worry about is making sure the Americans don't come and land on Taiwan and start a guerrilla warfare movement to push the PLA off." This might sound like good news in Beijing.
One thing I focused on is what can we do to make the Chinese leadership think we can't win this war? That's another whole topic. But the idea of deterring the Chinese leadership gets you into how they think about war. How do they make calculations about, “Can we win or should we wait another two or three years?” The topic is how much they believe the politics on Taiwan is in their favor.
As long as they believe Taiwan is going in the direction of unification, and a pro-China candidate is becoming president and leading Taiwan, there's no incentive for them to start a war. It would be idiotic. Taiwan is going in their direction. If Taiwan is going in a different direction, then war becomes the only hope they have of reunifying the island.
This is a complex area, where to win a war with China, we would have to be able to think through, “What are our advantages? What are our weaknesses? How would this war be conducted?”
Some war games looked at a three-year war with China over Taiwan. The first thing we learned is that we run out of ammunition. The U.S. Navy, in each of its submarines, only has so many torpedoes. Each Navy warship has what they call loading. How many of each kind of missile goes into that ship? You can mix different kinds of missiles. When you make this decision, you're deciding what happens in the first couple of weeks of the war. How many ships can you shoot down on the Chinese side? What will happen to our side?
There is a very scary Rand Corporation report from 2015, highly recommended by me, called, “Military Scorecard.” It shows how the balance of power between Washington, DC and Beijing has shifted. In almost every category, we do worse and worse and worse over the last 30 years. One of the worst cases is a long war where we cannot produce anti-ship missiles, air-to-air missiles, torpedoes for submarines, or even fuel. A lot of our Navy still runs on fuel. It doesn't have nuclear reactors the way aircraft carriers do.
We will run out of all of these things. Here's China, right there, highly productive, with major arms factories already building hundreds of missiles of various types over the past 15 years. It doesn't look good for the United States to win in a long war. The other related issue is will our allies be with us? All of our forces to defend the area of Taiwan involve going through Okinawa and other bases in Japan.
What if the Japanese are attacked by China and they're told, "Keep out of this war. This is between us and the Americans. Taiwan is our own land. You Japanese keep out or we're going to punish you with another set of missile strikes.” The Japanese may say, "We don't care. We're for this war. We love Taiwan. We don't care if you hit us again, we're going to let the Americans use our bases." Because Okinawa is the closest air base to Taiwan.
That's a big question, isn't it? It’s the same thing to the south of Taiwan. We would need the Philippine naval and air bases. Some Filipino leaders say, "Yes, you can have them. Taiwan is like us. It's a vulnerable island. So, you're most welcome." Other Filipinos say, "No, this is madness. China will attack us."
In a long war of six months or a year or more, if the U.S. is denied access to Japanese bases, denied access to Filipino bases, and if our main forces on the island of Guam are also harmed by Chinese missiles and bombers that they've been flying around to show us they can attack Guam, then we don't have any support infrastructure.
That's why other historians and I have gone back to World War II to ask, "How did it happen then, when the Japanese took such a large area in just a few months?" The answer is that the Pacific Islands were the fallback. We had to start out in Australia and New Zealand, go north, and take these Japanese-occupied islands one by one. A lot of people know these islands names, because they have a parent who was killed there. No one knew the names. We hadn't built bases in advance. The Japanese very carefully left to themselves the privilege of using these islands.
It took two years to reclaim these islands that could then be used as air bases, depots, or naval storage areas. Only then could the war be brought to an end by a complete blockade of Japan. Could we do that again today? There has been a lot of public discussion by the Pentagon, "We need to focus on the Pacific Islands." There's only a few hints as to why. By logic, if we have to fall back from the Japan ring, the first island chain and the Philippines, if we have no bases, the next set of bases are in the Pacific Islands.
What do we find China doing there? They are opening embassies, signing security agreements, and building air bases. As early as five or 10 years ago, the Chinese have obviously thought this, saying, “We can take care of the Americans near China in the first island chain. What we have to be careful of now is making sure the Americans can't use the Pacific Islands like they did in World War II to come back into the war zone.” So, that also looks not promising, if you start thinking about what a war with China would look like.
The United States has only started in the last two or three years, beginning under President Trump, to start looking at access agreements. It’s a whole set of measures that the Defense Department has announced in a paper about the Indo-Pacific. The word Pacific includes all these islands. A lot of people don't think about war with China in terms of geographical scope, but that's another factor.
There's another issue that's come up in a lot of war games. This is nuclear power. China’s nuclear power, at a minimum, is 300 warheads. What would they do with all this? Some smart people interested in nuclear strategy write a lot about deterrence through demonstration. They might fire off a nuclear weapon someplace in the ocean just as a demonstration, "Look what we can do. We're really serious about this, pull out."
Or would they not touch nuclear weapons? Would they consider them something that's only for long-term strategic purposes? Would they use nuclear weapons more readily, more easily than we might, because it's their territory, in the case of Taiwan?
The whole nuclear balance is another thing that's changing quite strikingly. It used to be that everybody wrote articles about Chinese nuclear strategy. They will never exceed 200 or 300 weapons. This is Confucius. It's a philosophical principle. They don't think like we do or the Russians do, in terms of 5,000 or 10,000 nuclear warheads. Everybody in the academic world was very certain of this.
I actually raised a contrarian view, and next thing we know, the Defense Department has just announced in the past year that within five to seven years, China can and probably will go to 1,000 more warheads, and then to 1500 warheads by 2035. By the way, 1500 is an important number.
Our ceiling for strategic nuclear warheads is 1500. The Russians have the same cap. It was negotiated. The Chinese refused to come to the talks. President Trump invited them, actually. They refused to come, even at the last minute. The nuclear balance is also changing against us.
When you line up these various trends, you can get yourself into a very pessimistic mood. You can start thinking about Mr. Ma in Taiwan. He's already been president. He's western-educated, and fluent in English. He wants to run again and come back in January of next year. If he wins the presidency of Taiwan, his platform is to be friends with China.
That starts looking pretty good to China. Nuclear war with thousands or millions dead versus a guy who's doing well in the polls in Taiwan and wins. Then, he says, "China is our friend." I couldn't get into this in detail with our 33-year-old host, because of lack of time.
Mr. Jekielek: There are some lessons from the pre-World War II period to be learned with the mentality that you just described, even though nuclear weapons obviously weren't in play.
Dr. Pillsbury: The main thing is deterrence. How do you deter the leadership in Beijing that may not think the same way we do about the nature of the world? The Chinese view of what we're doing to them right now is very different from what we're actually doing. You can see this almost daily in Chinese propaganda. They say, "Number one, America is trying to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party. The Americans did this to the Soviet Union. They got Gorbachev to be their puppet. They overthrew the Soviet Union, and that was a great victory for America. They're trying to do that to China today."
We tell them, "That's not true. There's no such program. We're not trying to overthrow the Communist Party of China. That is not U.S. policy, and it never has been U.S. policy." They just don't believe it.
The second area is a very recent Chinese foreign ministry article. It's a long attack on America. It says, "America dominates the world in culture, economics, politics, propaganda, the use of armed forces to invade little countries." It’s quite a long article, and very detailed. If they believe this, they see us as the evil, malevolent force that not only wants to overthrow the Communist Party of China, but wants to seize Chinese territory, like they claim Taiwan wants to. We're perceived by them to be a demonic force.
Let's say a little incident happens, and one jet fighter pilot shoots down another jet fighter pilot. Our side is thinking, "This is an accident. Let's get in contact." This actually happened in 2001, when our plane had to crash-land on Hainan Island. Our motives were magnanimous. This P-3 aircraft needed to land safely, because of a Chinese fighter pilot's reckless behavior. They didn't see it that way.
They essentially held our crew hostage, and sent us a bill for a million dollars. If there's an incident involving shooting down two jet fighters, our leadership will probably think, "This was an accident. We're all adults here, let's contact each other. Maybe we have to pay something for the accident.”
“Whose fault was it? Let's review the tapes." Can we assume the Chinese view will be the same, or will they see this as a hostile test? That is how they saw our B2 bombing 25 years ago. Will they see it as a test to which they need to respond in kind with another use of force against us?
Then, an accident explodes into a really major war within 24 to 48 hours. I'm not confident that the Chinese leadership has a lot of goodwill toward America and would think, "Yes, we understand, this must have been an accident. You didn't intend it." More than likely they will have an interpretation which is very unflattering. Unlike in the past, when they couldn't do anything about it, they will now be able to use force and intimidate the American leadership.
Mr. Jekielek: There are so many things I want to ask you. There were joint naval exercises, the largest ever, with the Philippines. You're saying that doesn't mean the Philippines and the Americans are on the same side?
Dr. Pillsbury: No, not at all. Everything I said about war with China is hypothetical speculation based on war games and thinking about what might happen for extremely unlikely events, one chance in a million. Reporters and journalists sometimes hear something about exercises, war games, or something that has happened, and they don't have the background to understand the circumstances.
They usually approach two different kinds of sources; sources that will tell them, “Don't worry about it, everything's fine. There's nothing to look at here. Just move on to your next story." Or it could be sources who exaggerate and scare everybody and say, "Yes, World War III could happen tomorrow. You better get ready, because we're all going to die."
We've got a school of thought that says China is going to collapse. They're not going to be around as a great power more than a few years into the future. This view, when it's understood by our military planners, they will come to the civilian leaders and say, "Why should we plan against China? The place is going to collapse." You can see how the assumptions that you make for war games or studies or forecasts, whether it's a journalist or a military planner, depend on your initial thinking.
Those who said, “Hitler just wants to straighten out the Versailles treaty and it's okay for him to take these few steps.” What we learned later from declassified German documents—and this is very important for Chinese deterrence—Hitler and his generals had many conversations, where the generals, and they've been preserved in records that were found later by the American Army, the generals said to Hitler, "Don't do this. If you do this, the French and British and the Poles will contain us and encircle us and harm Germany. This will be a disaster if you do this." Hitler said, "I'm doing it anyway. You're wrong in your forecast of their reactions."
The records show that after Hitler would do these things, the generals backed down and began to not criticize him or advise caution. They were not a deterrence. This wasn't internal German master planning, it was Hitler testing and then seeing if he could get away with it.
If something like that is happening in China today, which is a big if, this is the message they're taking from the reaction of the environment—that the Americans think China's going to collapse, and that we have to be alert to an American effort to overthrow the Communist Party, which doesn't actually exist.
By the way, are we going to create an effort to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party? There are ways to do that. It was done against the Soviet Union. Everything has been declassified now. If it's not being done, why not? The issue ought to be discussed and people should think about it.
But have you seen any debate about overthrowing the Communist Party? I have not. It's not a topic. Do you see how deterrence theory works? You have to understand both sides of the deterrence equation. Then, you have to plug in how the two sides each see history. My next book is about how Chinese see history differently than we do.
Mr. Jekielek: I'm extremely interested in that book. Based on the example that you gave of Hitler testing and seeing what the reaction was, we have had decades of appeasement policy, and not any form of deterrence.
Dr. Pillsbury: It's certainly true, we have no organization to fight a war with China. If you look around the world at the Pentagon's structure, where are the admirals and generals working? What's the name of the command? What's their area of responsibility?
You have commands in charge of the Middle East. You have the NATO planning staff that allocates weapons systems and makes war plans for NATO. We have exercises and we have scenarios. We know this might happen and that might happen. Here's what our Japanese and American forces will do together.
You may have noticed where I'm leading you. Do we have a command in charge of fighting a war with China? No, we don't. Is there any kind of China command somewhere in the world? Is there an admiral or general with four stars who can be brought before the press or testify in Congress who will say, "My duty is to prepare to win a war with China?"
The answer is no. We have a command in Honolulu up on a mountain called Camp Smith. It used to have about 700 people total. They're in charge of exercises, planning, and arm sales for about 35 nations running all the way from India around to South Korea.
To some degree China falls in their domain. It's one of the 35 nations. But is it the China combat command? No, there's no such thing. If you go in the building, which I have done many, many times, do you think you're going to see a sign saying China division? No, it's not set up that way. We don't have a command for war against China or to deter China within our whole U.S. government.
Mr. Jekielek: This is a great opportunity.
Dr. Pillsbury: Some people might say it's provocative to do such a thing. "Dr. Pillsbury raised that issue. Oh, how stupid. If we have a command for fighting China, that will just provoke China and cause a war. How irresponsible can you get? Besides, we have a few China experts scattered around various places. They must know what they're doing."
Mr. Jekielek: It's a fantastic question and deeply concerning. We're here at Heritage, and you have a proposal on how to counter the China threat.
Dr. Pillsbury: Not exactly. This exercise ordered by the new president of Heritage was not to create a new set of measures, it was to survey and canvas the best ideas that have been proposed so far, mainly in legislation by Senate and House members. There's also a couple of congressional commissions that have been producing recommendations for almost 20 years.
One is called the United-States China Economic Security Review Commission. Every year it produces about a 500-page report. Usually, it averages 70 to 80 recommendations. None of them ever get implemented.
For example, the current one is to monitor American high-tech investment going into China. Most people are surprised that we don't do that. We have no idea what American high-tech firms are investing in China's state-of-the-art technology.
Myself and others went back through the last five years looking for ideas. We found a lot. We found 300 pieces of legislation, each one quite useful and quite thoughtful. Marco Rubio had a proposal in 2018 for the White House to set up a technology czar to review technology about to be sent to China, and stop it if necessary. It should coordinate across all departments of government. Technology czar was the title. It never passed. We put it in there.
Another proposal was discussed many times, and never got more than 10 votes. American federal pension money should not go into China, especially to the company that builds formations and little islands in the South China Sea. It was voted on. President Trump said, "Do something about it." The people in charge refused. They got fired. It's a long story. Three years later, technically speaking, federal pension money can still go to companies in China.
Mr. Jekielek: To the CCCC [China Communications Construction Company].
Dr. Pillsbury: Yes, the Chinese Construction Company, so that's in here. But this is not a new Heritage plan or a new Pillsbury plan for China. It's pointing out that there were so many good ideas that were proposed which never happened, and that were never implemented. As a former Senate staffer myself, I saw it happen in at least 200 pieces of legislation where the sponsor would introduce it, get a number on it, and then go on television and say, "Today, I introduced a bill to block the purchase of farmland by the Chinese Communist Party." It was a big news story. The media would cover it.
Mr. Jekielek: Of course.
Dr. Pillsbury: At last, the CCP will be denied American farmland near sensitive military installations. As a staffer, you take a look at how many co-sponsors there are. When you want to bill to pass, you do a lot of work. You go around and get co-sponsors. In some cases, the majority of senators would sign up as co-sponsors.
I did this as a staffer for Radio Free Asia for broadcasts in Tibetan, Uyghur, Cantonese, and Mandarin. This was 1994, and we got a lot of opposition. We got 40 co-sponsors, including Joe Biden and Teddy Kennedy, and a lot of liberals, as well as Jesse Helms, Orrin Hatch, and a lot of conservatives. When the average senator sees that there's 40 co-sponsors from both sides, "Hey, I'll sign on to that." We got Radio Free Asia, otherwise it wouldn't exist.
But today, that's not happening. You get senators and congressmen who have a sexy bill. They introduce it and get on Fox News or the Epoch Times, because they're a hero. They are going to stand up to the Chinese Communist Party. But is there a follow-up a month later, six months later, or two years later? "Senator or Congressman, whatever happened to that bill of yours?" They reply, "I don't know. Somebody blocked it."
We had a very shocking incident. It's in this Heritage Foundation list of recommendations that others have made in the past. There was a great concern that the U.S. Army's drones are being bought from China, and they can send data back to China about U.S. Army operations. Lots of other people in America were buying from this one particular drone company in China. Legislation was actually passed in the House and the Senate banning purchase of Chinese drones by a variety of organizations.
It was supposed to go into the National Defense Authorization Act. You know what happened? It mysteriously disappeared from the bill. It was passed, and the President signed it. The drone termination legislation was removed. At the conference meeting, if you're a staffer, you know this, but the conference meetings are in secret.
We say in the report, “We don't know who took this out, but it passed both chambers. We'd like to see it put back in.” There's actually almost a hundred examples here of good ideas that have gone nowhere. However, the people who have introduced the ideas get a lot of credit in the media.
Mr. Jekielek: Let me cite one of your recommendations, which is to cut off all Chinese regime lobbying dollars. I suspect that those lobbying dollars may have had something to do with what you're talking about.
Dr. Pillsbury: That's just speculation.
Mr. Jekielek: Of course.
Dr. Pillsbury: What surprised me about our report, I thought we would find 10 or 15 examples of this. I had the impression that a lot more legislation was passing than actually is. The media may be taken in, and saying, "Oh my God, at last Congress is standing up to China." Because if you just watched television, you would see all these members of the House and Senate bragging about their new legislation. Of course, I would think, and others would think that we're doing a lot to stop the Chinese.
What if it's not true? I run into people all over the world who think China's going to collapse soon. It's been found out that the Chinese themselves sometimes pushed this argument. "Don't worry about us." They don't say we're going to collapse.
They say, "We have so many problems with our one child policy, cancer, pollution, the water table, and the lack of agricultural production, you Americans don't need to worry about China. We'll be lucky to be around 20 years from now." I remember thinking to myself when I heard a Chinese official say that to an American delegation that I was part of, "I've heard this before."
In the meantime, the U.S. government has other threats that hit it right in the face; 9/11, the towers coming down with dead people, the discovery that there are Islamic terrorists all over the place who want to create terrorist incidents, kill Americans, and blow up embassies. This is really vivid and really clear.
We had to do something about it, and we did. I've seen various estimates that $2 trillion was spent on counterterrorism. We built new organizations. We built Homeland Security. We built the Global War on Terror infrastructure. We took it really seriously, and we were right to take it as a threat.
Like Pearl Harbor, where it's vivid and American ships are being sunk by a Japanese sneak attack, sailors are drowning in those ships, and 3000 are dead, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to say, "We have to do something now about Japan." But in the case of China, their strategy is very, very different. They deny that they seek hegemony, and they deny that they seek domination.
With critics like the Falun Gong movement, they attack them ruthlessly and smear them. They keep a list of critics of China around the world, and make sure they are never invited to visit China. It’s a whole series of things, which a friend of mine once called a stealth superpower. China is a stealthy superpower that denies it's going to hurt you.
Mr. Jekielek: A lot of rhetoric, but not a lot of actual action, as we've discussed in the past.
Dr. Pillsbury: Yes, and the counter-rhetoric is also very strong. It's not as though China lacks friends or cheerleaders in Washington, DC, and in the various states around the country. China either has a lobby, or has people who honestly believe that China is a good, healthy force in the world.
Here, we have a very weak effort to stop China, combined with a very powerful lobby and cheerleading force, and frankly, lots of goodhearted Americans who think everybody is like us, and think, “They all want to have a constitution and democracy. This will break out in China someday. There's no need for us to do anything.”
Mr. Jekielek: One of the recommendations is a crackdown on illegal Chinese police operations in the U.S. Indeed, it looks like that recommendation is being taken up as we speak.
Dr. Pillsbury: Not exactly. Again, this is from legislation, and others have raised this idea. The police station, in the case of Manhattan, has been going on for many years, and somebody tolerated it. For accountability, once a better number is known for how many of these police stations there are, and once the set of arrests has been conducted, wouldn't it be interesting to find out why this was tolerated for so long?
Usually a foreign country, unless it's a friendly ally, would not be allowed to have its own police stations tracking dissidents and critics inside the U.S., and then sending them back, in this case, to China. It's unthinkable. Who approved this? Was it mayors and governors who were told, "The Chinese have this friendly office, and it's above a noodle shop. Should we worry about it? We should not, because they're just hunting down criminals."
That's the Chinese explanation of what they're doing. "These are criminals we're trying to catch, and we're going to take them home and save you Americans trouble." Who tolerated this? Where is the congressional hearing? Accountability is going to be very important moving forward— accountability of what has been happening, who's been asleep at the switch, how many switches is someone asleep at, and for how long?
Now people can say, "That's just bringing up old grudges. We don't need to worry about the past. We have to look forward." But my contention is if we don't understand how we got here, we're not going to pass legislation like this. We're going to continue to talk tough about China, but actually do nothing. The Chinese are very aware that that is exactly what's happening right now.
Mr. Jekielek: Talking about these theories of how the Chinese economy is fragile, we know that there's fragility in our own economy. We know there's a huge housing bubble.
Dr. Pillsbury: Sure.
Mr. Jekielek: All of this. At the same time, we know there's still massive investment from the U.S. through these index funds that you were talking about.
Dr. Pillsbury: It's not even tracked. We don't have the number. There's one guy in the private sector, Roger Robinson, who's come up with different estimates of up to $3 trillion or more. But the important thing is there's no government law that says, "Track this. We care." It’s the same thing with farmlands. It was just revealed a couple weeks ago that the Farm Service Agency on a voluntary basis can be told the Chinese or someone fronting for them is buying land. It's voluntary.
If you don't want to tell the Farm Service Agency, you don't have to. Plus, these are often county-level transactions, and counties don't necessarily say, "This is national security being threatened. I better call somebody in Washington." It’s at the level of, what's a good word? I hate to say complacency, but it's keeping the level of perception of threat very low. This seems to be what I would call the Chinese secret formula that over time really pays off.
To counter it, and that's the purpose of our exercise here, is to pull together all this legislation that has not passed. In a way, it's to have a shock effect on the reader. Because if it's just one or two bills never passed, “Okay, let's work on them next year.”
But what if it's a 100 bills that haven't passed, but members and senators have taken credit for it when they introduced it? That means we're looking at a disaster on our hands. We can't respond to China other than by talk, rhetoric, papers, articles, condemning the Chinese, which they simply laugh at.
It confirms their hope that the Americans are not going to wake up, other than talking, of which we have plenty. I was watching a recent TV show. The guy called in and said, "It sounds like, from what your guest is saying, we're a nation of talkers. That's all we can do." I saw the host kind of smile, like this is a pretty shrewd observation.
Our hope is that we're going to track these recommendations to see how many co-sponsors it had? Did it go into conference? Did it come out as law? Did the president sign it? Because it's fairly simple. With some of them, the legislation is no longer active. The person who introduced it just gave up hope. But if you would be interested, I'm happy to keep you informed on what we're learning and what is actually happening.
Mr. Jekielek: I would love that. How does this relate to this index of strategic competition? You mentioned your book, The Hundred-Year Marathon, earlier. That's something that you suggested in that book, and now I believe you're implementing it as part of the Heritage program.
Dr. Pillsbury: Yes. Eight years ago, when The Hundred-Year Marathon came out, I thought it was pretty obvious that if we see China as a competitor, at the minimum, a competitor, we need an index to keep track of how we're doing with supercomputers and biotech. I mentioned a number of categories. Because I knew from my government experience that this is not being done now. At the minimum, the National Science Foundation, every few years publishes reports on how many people get degrees of various kinds.
I thought this would be immediately taken up. No legislation was written for eight years to do this. I went around to different government departments and asked, “Do you have any kind of indicator system that could be made into an index?” Because Heritage does this for economic freedom, and Heritage does it for American military strength, has various indicators of how we're doing in different categories, and what the metrics are.
For example, in the military metric, it came out this year that America is quite weak, because the number of combat hours American Air Force pilots put in has been declining, and there's a graphic. There are a number of other measures of American military strength that are quite shocking when you see them all together. The Pentagon does not produce a report on, "These are our weaknesses." It probably should, but it doesn't.
The idea was if no one else will do it, partly because it's very difficult to know which indicators to look at, why doesn't the Heritage Foundation? We started our own index of the strategic competition. Some of our initial findings have been quite shocking. We are falling behind in a number of high technology areas with, again, no press coverage.
It's not a new story to say this. People know hypersonic missiles are falling behind, but they don't know about biotech. There are a number of indicators that when put together in our report will have quite a shock effect. They are superior to us in a number of areas where we thought we were superior.
Mr. Jekielek: I was thinking about this index of competition, or as you're suggesting an index of policy implementation as well. I was reminded of the Chinese regime's comprehensive national power measurement.
Dr. Pillsbury: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Which, again, makes a lot of sense.
Dr. Pillsbury: That's actually where I got the idea. I wrote a book in the year 2000 with a long chapter on how does China measure national power? I was quite surprised when I visited China in the '90s, a lot of think tanks were producing these reports looking ahead 20 or 25 years asking, “What rank will China be? What rank will the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan be?” They had very fine-tuned analysis of their indicators, and they had debates among themselves.
I came back to the U.S. saying, "The Chinese are doing all this. What's our counterpart? Certainly, we must have this kind of measurement." I was told, "No, nobody cares, because we're going to be number one forever. We have no need to measure how other competitors are doing against us."
Mr. Jekielek: As we've discussed before, the Chinese regime is very focused on these unconventional warfare methods. As you've been describing an elaborate way of subverting the U.S., is this part of the Chinese regime's plan, in your view?
Dr. Pillsbury: The Chinese say they have no plan. They translated my book into Mandarin, a perfect translation. They classified it secret just to be read by party members. "Look at this guy. He's claiming we have some kind of strategy," and they did counter propaganda against The Hundred-Year Marathon.
I collected some of the articles. You're welcome to them. Basically, the argument was, "We Chinese have no plan. We don't want to be number one. Our constitution says we will never seek hegemony. Anyone who says these kinds of things has no basis for it."
I soon found critics of the book in the United States writing book reviews saying, "China has no plan. China doesn't want to be number one, and we're just muddling through. Pillsbury's material that he cites is all just anecdotes." Well, that's not true. There's 60 pages of footnotes through this book with large numbers of citations to Chinese materials. But the critics simply ignored that.
You have at least one author, and now I'm no longer alone, but a few of us sound the alarm. We can't succeed. Our voices are too few, and they're countered by this group of cheerleaders who say the opposite.
For one of my examples I put in the afterward for this report, I heard from people who were with President Trump when he went down to see Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires. The meeting began, and they sat down. There's always the same dialogue, "Our custom is you go first." "No, you go first." Trump got Xi Jinping to go first.
Xi Jinping said, "I think you should know, President Trump, we are not pursuing a hundred-year marathon." He used the exact words from the title of my book. "We do not seek global dominance. We do not have any plan to replace America," and some more things concerning the book. Now, four people who were there on the American team told me about this. I didn't hear it myself.
I'm not disclosing a Trump/Xi Jinping meeting, but I heard it from four people who were there. Some of them have put it in their own books, by the way. John Bolton put it in his book. Jared Kushner put it in his book. Peter Navarro put it in his book.
What is happening here? Now, President Trump is the kind of guy who, if Xi Jinping says, "I don't have these plans," do you think he's gullible and he believes it? He said, "I'm very glad to hear that." No, for President Trump, it strengthened his view that this book, The Hundred-Year Marathon, must have something in it that the Chinese don't want us to think about.
One of the things was the Index of Strategic Competition. But there are many other recommendations I made in the book, none of which have been implemented. In some cases, they were partially implemented. How am I going to respond to the China collapse?
Another really big one, and I'm sure you know this, is the Chinese Communist Party is going to reform itself and turn into a democratic system. There are Chinese authors who advocate this, but it's like they're either in jail or they became exiles or they got real quiet.
I have a section in the book where I talk about the constitutional debate, where one famous professor at Beijing University said, "The Constitution should be above the Communist Party." Xi Jinping, at one point, seemed to endorse that, but then it all reversed. They began to say, "No, the legal system and the Constitution are below the Communist Party."
This professor, by the way, was not invited on TV programs. He should have been a hero. People should have gone to him in Beijing and interviewed him. He was writing for public national debate magazines. He would have granted the interview. Our media ignored him like he’s nobody.
Mr. Jekielek: They were afraid they would get kicked out if they covered it.
Dr. Pillsbury: At that point, the system was debating this. Later on, when they said, “It's subversion to argue this way,” it would be much more dangerous. That's one topic I cover in my recommendations for The Hundred-Year Marathon. We need to pay attention to debates inside China, especially in order to be able to give feedback to China, "This is what's happening at the top." Most people in China did not know about this constitution versus the party debate.
We have Radio Free Asia to do that. But we made a mistake, including myself, when we created Radio Free Asia. We were modeling it on Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Radio Free Europe, by Congress, created a large research staff and publications, including a weekly which cost a lot of money. People all over the world would cite the Radio Free Europe research report, and there would be quotations from speeches and articles.
I don't know what the reason was, maybe just laziness. When we created Radio Free Asia, especially at the broadcasts in Chinese, we didn't create a research center. If you visit Radio Free Asia in DC, you'll see a huge area where all the broadcasters are broadcasting.
You will not see a weekly report on new developments in Communist China. You will not see original research on things that are happening. I think that should be fixed. I'm sure Radio Free Asia would like the additional money, but once again, it would take legislation. It would take some focus.
People might say, "Oh, we don't need a research report on what's going on in China." I maintain we do, because there are debates. Xi Jinping himself, every now and then, you get the impression he's worried about something. A British book by Roger Garside, called China Coup, about how the Prime Minister could overthrow Xi Jinping got their attention. The next thing we know, the Prime Minister is not continuing in office. That taught me there's probably a debate going on around Xi Jinping, but where is our media coverage of it?
Mr. Jekielek: In The Epoch Times.
Dr. Pillsbury: Hopefully, you can interview Xi Jinping's advisors.
Mr. Jekielek: We'll have to give it a shot. Is your policy recommendation to start passing these pieces of legislation that you reference in this report?
Dr. Pillsbury: There's a book about the Heritage Foundation by Lee Edwards, called The Power of Ideas. It points out how, beginning 50 years ago, Heritage Foundation executives tended to be House and Senate staffers. They knew how to do legislation, but they complained, because the Left had the Brookings Institution and a couple other think tanks to help them draft legislation.
The conservatives did not have that. They had themselves. So the idea of Heritage from the beginning has been to help legislation get drafted and considered in a friendly way, with ideas and research. Otherwise, there's no support system for them.
These recommendations are feeding back to current members of Congress and especially their staff from people at Heritage who, like me, are former Senate staffers or House staffers. The long-term President and founder of Heritage, Ed Feulner, helped create something called the Republican Study Committee. There's something on the Senate side called, which still exists, called the Senate Steering Committee. Both of these are active on China policy. But our idea is having this together kind of like a guidebook.
It's not fresh new recommendations from Heritage, but it's saying, "Look at what could be done." It's extremely specific about each recommendation and how to implement it. We will know within about two years how many of these action items have actually passed both the House and Senate, and been signed by the President. It's going to be very obvious.
Mr. Jekielek: As we finish up, your overall thesis in this interview is that we are not awake to the China threat as a society.
Dr. Pillsbury: No. Society is awake. The polls show that a high percentage of Americans are very concerned about the China threat. No, I'm talking about members of Congress who don't pass legislation. I'm talking about the county governments that don't report Chinese farmland purchases. These are government people. This collection of recommendations is not for the broad American society to read and go, "Gee, I like those."
No, this is a handbook for insiders. You are going to be judged. People are going to know a year or two from now if your legislation passed or not. Is the Army still buying drones from China? Or did the legislation pass banning that? It's going to be yes or no, and it's going to be graphic.
It's not for American society at all. We're not going to publish this as 100,000 copies, and please read it. No. This is a very sophisticated guide on how our government is doing on China at local, state, and congressional levels. We have some things in here, very few, that are Executive branch, White House jurisdiction.
No, you misunderstand me. If you think this is some sort of recommendation to read as your university textbook, no. This is designed to alert Washington, DC insiders, “If you fail to take actions with this legislation, people are going to know, including the donors to your campaign.
I saw an interesting article. Recently, 40 percent of the time of members of the House of Representatives is used to meet with donors to raise money. Now, if the donors start saying, "You introduced that legislation, but it never passed. I think I'll pass on my $5,000 check," if that starts getting around, that's really bad.
When I was a Senate staffer, we had a phrase, “There are two kinds of senators, showboats, and work horses.” The work horses were not very well known publicly, but they got a lot of legislation passed. With the showboats, that is self-explanatory.
Mr. Jekielek: To the person that's watching that is in the broader society that might feel a bit despondent after watching this interview, what is your recommendation to them about how to respond?
Dr. Pillsbury: We've got to have accountability. What is the government and the Congress actually doing about China? Very few people in America are actually involved with the government. There's been interesting efforts to find out how many people ever vote? What kind of elections do they vote in at the school board, county, state or national levels? Probably the most important is how many American citizens actually donate money to a candidate at any level; local, county, state, or national?
There's a website you can go to called opensecrets.com. Put in somebody's name, put in Michael Pillsbury, you can see every donation I've made for the last 20 years over about $200. You can see it right there. You can't secretly make donations, at least not for direct funds.
But it turns out, apparently less than two percent of the American public make any kind of campaign contribution to a political election. This is amazing to me. If you're a donor, and you know a member could do better if you remind him or her, that's the key to viewers who otherwise might be despondent. You could say, "Well, I can do something about this."
Mr. Jekielek: Michael Pillsbury, it's such a pleasure having you on again. I'm sure we'll have you back.
Dr. Pillsbury: You'd like a progress report-
Mr. Jekielek: That's right.
Dr. Pillsbury: -on these various indicators and whether the legislation actually is passing. Okay, I promise to keep you informed.
Mr. Jekielek: Wonderful.
Dr. Pillsbury: Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Dr. Michael Pillsbury and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I'm your host, Jan Jekielek.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.