The World Has China Wrong, Says Top Pentagon Adviser

November 25, 2014 Updated: October 25, 2018

Military leaders in China are known for their outlandish plots. Due to the nature of their strange proposals, which are often coupled with highly aggressive undertones, many China experts write their claims off as little more than internal propaganda to rally the Chinese people.

According to Michael Pillsbury, a long-time adviser to the Pentagon, the failure to recognize China’s aggressive threats have brought about a major problem whereby the public and the defense community too often only recognize China’s strategies after they happen.

The community of China and security experts, he said, needs a new approach in its analysis on China. Thus, Pillsbury and analysts at the Hudson Institute are building a new approach in analyzing the nature of China’s strategy towards the United States.

We’re not taking seriously a lot of writings and speeches by the Chinese hawks.

Their approach is to first look back 30 years or more, then look ahead 30 years. By doing this, Pillsbury hopes the United States can gain a clearer picture of China’s strategies and motives, and better predict what it will do next.

One of the first problems, Pillsbury said in a phone interview, is “We’re not taking seriously a lot of writings and speeches by the Chinese hawks.”

He noted the Chinese regime does in fact follow through on the strategies proposed by its military leaders, however outlandish they may sound. Examples of this can be seen in recent developments in the South China Sea.

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In March when China participated in the search for Malaysian Airlines flight 370, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy Adm. Yin Zhou said that China should build airstrips, harbors, and ports in the South China Sea-in case China’s military needs to help with relief efforts in the future.

Yin’s statements were largely overlooked by China experts at the time, yet soon after China began constructing airstrips, harbors, ports, and even man-made islands in the South China Sea—and news of its activities can now be found in most major news outlets.

Then there was Chinese Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, who proposed in May 2013 what he called the “cabbage strategy” to capture disputed territory in the South China Sea. Zhang said it worked by sending fishing ships into disputed waters, then marine surveillance ships, then warships.

Just months later, the world saw Zhang’s strategy take shape. The Chinese regime began equipping fishing fleets with military-grade satellite navigation systems, and now most major news outlets have covered China’s use of fishing boats in what appear to be highly coordinated incursions into disputed waters in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

China’s “cabbage strategy” is now well known among China defense experts.

The problem, according to Pillsbury, is that many China experts are only recognizing China’s strategies after they unfold—and this trend has been going on for decades.

Concepts of military strategy are different in China. Pillsbury said the very word for “strategy” in Chinese has the word “war” in it. And areas of society not recognized as grounds for war-fighting in the United States are being used by the Chinese regime in its military strategies towards the United States.

China is challenging the U.S. concepts of cyberattacks, political warfare, and economic theft.

Yet, even its use of unconventional warfighting and its intentions behind these strategies have been clearly stated by Chinese military leaders.

Pillsbury said one of the clearest texts on China’s use of unconventional warfare was a 1999 book by two Chinese colonels—one of whom is now a Major General—called “Unrestricted Warfare.”

“That was widely dismissed at the time as two crazy Chinese colonels,” Pillsbury said, referring to the book. He added, the book was not translated into English for many years, and in the community of China experts, “almost nobody read the book.”

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Pillsbury wrote, “How did Western policy makers and academics repeatedly get China so wrong?”

“The experts in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations believed it would not enter the Korean War. Kennedy and Johnson believed that China would stay out of Vietnam,” he wrote, and noted several other miscalculations on China from the unexpected 1969 Sino-Soviet border war, to the lack of foresight on the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

As things now stand, he wrote, “the Middle Kingdom—potentially the most formidable opponent we have ever faced—remains as much of a mystery as ever.” Pillsbury said he hopes to change that.

Follow Joshua on Twitter: @JoshJPhilipp