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Col. Liu and Dr. Pillsbury Have a Dream: The Inevitable Showdown Between China and America

The two military strategists view military conflict between their two countries as likely but are spending their time hanging out together at Georgetown book parties.

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On Monday night in a tony mansion in Washington’s leafy Georgetown district, two China hawks held a book party together. Unusually, one of them was Chinese: Liu Mingfu, a retired colonel in China’s People’s Liberation Army and author of The China Dream, a book about how China can displace the United States to become the world’s most powerful country. Liu suggests that Beijing should pour resources into its military, so that the United States won’t dare meddle with China in the seas off of its coast. “Turn some money bags into bullet holders,” he writes. Published in China in 2010, the book probably played a role in influencing Chinese President Xi Jinping to adopt the book’s title as his favorite slogan.

The English edition was published in May, and Liu was in Washington on a book tour. Liu shared the floor with the mansion’s owner, Michael Pillsbury, a self-identified former “Panda hugger” and longtime China strategist at the Pentagon. Pillsbury’s book, The Hundred-Year Marathon, which was published earlier this year, argues that China has a “secret strategy to replace America as the global superpower” by 2049 — 100 years after Mao Zedong established his rule over the country. Pillsbury told me that China “is essentially outsmarting us in this game of thrones,” and that as a result, the United States needs a strategy to manage China’s rise.

“I really like Dr. Pillsbury,” Liu told the audience, a collection of China observers that skewed healthily to the right — far enough that a moderate in the audience felt the need to tell me privately, “I’m only here ironically.” A friend of his, Liu said, cautioned that Pillsbury is possibly “a high-ranking, big-deal spy. They told me, ‘you definitely don’t want to be with him.’ But I just like Dr. Pillsbury too much.” The colonel’s deep personal feeling for Pillsbury notwithstanding, it was strange to see those two worlds engage — a retired PLA colonel turned nationalist lighting rod joining forces with an ex-Pentagon China alarmist.

On Tuesday, Pillsbury and Liu came to Foreign Policy’s office for an interview, and I asked the two men about the overlap between their very different messages. “Each of us is telling the respective audience not to underestimate the sophistication” of the other side, Pillsbury said. “My message is: Don’t underestimate the strategic sophistication of the Chinese.” And Liu’s book, which reaches back to the strategic thinking of George Washington, is almost “the reciprocal discussion,” he added. “It says we Chinese should not underestimate the grand strategy of the United States.”

For Pillsbury, who’s now a senior fellow and director for Chinese strategy at the think tank the Hudson Institute, Liu’s book also bleeds into issues of his own credibility. Pillsbury writes in his book that he “first spotted a specific written reference” to China’s “One Hundred Year Marathon” in Liu’s book. Liu’s existence — and his non-mainstream view that China needs to prepare the world for “harmonious” Chinese supremacy — is evidence that justifies Pillsbury’s claim that the United States needs to prepare for an aggressive China.

PLA colonels, retired or otherwise, are not known for their loose lips, and Liu wasn’t offering any openness about his intentions. He was there, he said, because of his personal friendship with Pillsbury, and for that hoary goal of “U.S.-China friendship and cooperation.”

Instead of answering my questions, Liu proposed that each of us give a 10 to 15 minute speech as a way to “exchange views.” When I explained to him that that is not how interviews work, he politely but firmly insisted that I ask him eight questions at once, which he then proceeded to dismiss. Asked about reports of the corruption investigation by Beijing authorities against Guo Boxiong, the former vice-chairman of China’s top military body, Liu batted them down as “just rumors.”

(He was, however, willing to express his opinions about the interviewer. “You’re adorable,” he told me patronizingly, after I insisted he answer my questions. He inscribed my copy of his book with, “Isaac is a good youth. Contribute to U.S.-China friendly relations!”)

So what was Liu doing there? It’s hard to speculate, beyond guessing that, in a very small way, the more the United States believes that people like Liu do come in peace, the more successful their campaign is. Liu did have what he called a “surprising” idea that he wanted to share with me. “The Nobel Peace Prize is very problematic,” he said. (The reward is still controversial in China for honoring in 2010 Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese dissident.) He proposed the idea of a “more influential prize,” to whomever did the most to further the cause of U.S.-China relations. There will be an award ceremony and “the U.S. president will go, the Chinese president will go,” he said, with an ingratiating smile that looked studiously practiced.

Photo credit: LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish
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