China Pause

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Given the current trade negotiating round and ever present static noise in Washington, I would like to recommend a clarifying book, “The Hundred Year Marathon”, by Michael Pillsbury, which casts a critical eye on the US-China relationship. Pillsbury is a fluent mandarin speaker, very sharp, and essentially a living historical artifact, having first come on to the scene as a China advisor for Nixon and Kissinger. Pillsbury presents a realpolitik view and some convincing evidence that China does, in fact, want to eclipse the United States – to diminish the relative standing and power of the US. Chinese leadership sees the US not as a partner, per se, but as an obstruction to the discretion China seeks in its dealings with the world. The Chinese view of the global system is a hierarchical one and so China seeks to supplant US de facto leadership in the global economy and the US role as an arbiter of international standards (such as the US role in establishing the WTO, post-war international institutions, the USD reserve currency status, etc.). Different people say Donald Trump is already doing that, but the Chinese leadership has something more fundamental in mind. Again, per Pillsbury, Chinese leadership does not want to destroy the US, but seeks through a steady effort to diminish US relative standing decisively. Of course, the best of all outcomes would be the one where “we all just get along” – as coevals and stewards of a benevolent international order. I think there’s a reasonable chance for that, and I hope it transpires. But, against that vision and per Pillsbury, so much of China’s strategic thinking and policy direction comes from tenured and conservative elements in the CCP. Maybe more episodes of economic dislocation/crisis in China may weaken the conservative “hawks”, and allow reformers greater sway and China strategic re-direction – although that might count as “wishful thinking”.

One thing, though, that has occurred during the last few years is the tactical gaffe the (conservative) Chinese leadership has committed, in spite of themselves and their belief in what they view as traditional will-to-power strategic truths. Pillsbury notes Chinese adherence to strategic values and concepts tested through their country’s “Warring States” historical period. One key concept is to foster greater and greater complacency on the part of your strategic state rival, so that state rival becomes increasingly oblivious to your own designs until you have achieved power preponderance.  China, with its China 2025 stated goals and significant technology and IP theft, has alerted and mobilized its now paranoid (justifiably so) rival, the US. This makes the situation pretty fluid.

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