The Hundred-Year Marathon: Michael Pillsbury’s Warning to Japan


Eisuke Suzuki*

Dr. Michael Pillsbury, the author of the book, The Hundred-Year Marathon (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015), reveals at length how the past eight United States presidents, from Richard Nixon through Barack Obama, had carried out, as a matter of policy, a series of initiatives to strengthen China against its adversaries. For more than 40 years, the United States has helped China to build the world No. 2 economy and develop its scientific and military capabilities in pursuit of the “Chinese Dream” in the realization of the “great renewal of the Chinese nation,” to use Xi Jinping’s pet phrase.


Dr. Pillsbury “was among the first people to provide intelligence to the White House favoring an overture to China, in 1969 [p. 6].” Since then, for decades, he “played a sometimes prominent role in urging administrations of both parties to provide China with technological and military assistance [p. 6].” As he acknowledges, “as a China expert who has worked in the Congress and in the executive branch for every administration since Richard Nixon’s, [he has] arguably had more access to China’s military and intelligence establishment than any other Westerner [p. 14].” For such an expert to confess that he has failed to detect the Chinese hidden strategy of world dominance and has been misled and deceived by the Chinese counterpart is an extraordinary admission.     



According to Pillsbury, for the past 40 years, the Chinese hawks through the leadership of Beijing, manipulated American policy makers to obtain intelligence and military, technological, and economic assistance. The source of that project is what the Chinese hawks instilled in the mind of all the leaders since Mao Zedong a plan that became known as “the One Hundred-Year Marathon” in order “to avenge a century of humiliation” and “to replace the United States as the economic, military and political leader of the world by the year 2049 (the one hundredth anniversary of the Communist Revolution) [p. 12].” That is the title of the book.


U.S. assistance to the development of China was not limited to innocuous “cultural exchanges” in academia, but it purposefully focused on military know-how and engineering. It provided China with “major weapons systems” to strengthen its “army, navy, and air force, and even to help China to expand its marine corps [p. 78].” It also extended to “genetic engineering, intelligent robotics, artificial intelligence, automation, biotechnology, lasers, supercomputers, space technology, and manned spaceflight [ibid.].” Behind such expanding aid programs for China in the past decades, notes Pillsbury, are “American business leaders eager to maintain their growing relationships and business opportunities, as China almost certainly promised to be the largest emerging market in the world [p.90].” The same expectations were behind the Open Door Policy for China in the 19th century just like Europeans today who have flocked to the newly established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.  


The book is far from the author’s exposé of Chinese state secrets; rather, it is the review of US relations with China on the basis of the author’s awaken awareness that the Chinese hawks’ assertion is “the mainstream of Chinese geopolitical thought [p. 15].” As the author acknowledges, the book took 50 years in the making through his career of research and intelligence analysis including rare opportunities of discussions and exchanges of views with 34 Chinese “scholar generals [p. 303].” Nevertheless, it must be remembered that, as the author noted, “None ever violated his or her oath to protect national secrets and uphold the Party line [ibid]” and there is no new disclosure of information or new exposé. Needless to say, as stated at the outset in the form of Author’s Note, “The CIA, the FBI, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and an agency of the Defense Department reviewed this book prior to publication to ensure that there was no disclosure of classified information [p. xi].”


What is astonishing about the book is that American experts in China or those government bureaucrats and politicians dealing closely with Chinese affairs have misread Chinese foreign policy. Even on President Nixon’s visit to Beijing that was the beginning of US-China rapprochement, they were wrong: “Nixon did not first reach out to China; instead, China, in the person of Mao, first reached out to Nixon. Americans just didn’t realize it [p. 56]”; “the administration soon made numerous offers of covert military assistance to China---all based on false assumption that it was building a permanent cooperative relationship with China . . . [p. 60]”; and so, since “the China supporters in the Bush administration put the best possible spin on events [p. 95],” “[n]o one I worked with at the CIA or the Pentagon in the 1980s raised the idea that China could deceive the United States or be the cause of a major intelligence failure [p. 85].” Despite unfavorable and disadvantageous events taking place against the interest of the US, “even these revelations did little to shake our complacency and optimism about China [p. 96]” and “[m]ost American officials ignored the anti-American signs altogether [ibid]” and even when they were aware of the instruction not to translate anti-American commentaries, the author admits that “I was still not a China skeptic. Many channels of intelligence seemed to prove that this was all a passing phase [p. 97].”



Why does the United States tend to take a persistent denial mode in thinking in dealing with China in the face of objective evidence disadvantageous to its own interest? The author explains “[m]any of us who study China have been taught to view the country as a helpless victim of Western imperialists---a notion that China’ leaders not only believe, but also actively encourage [p. 5].”  “This perspective―the desire to help China at all costs, the almost willful blindness to any actions that undercut our views of Chinese goodwill and victimhood―has colored the U.S. government’s approach to dealing with China [ibid].” Such perspective is deeply grounded in numerous stories told by Christian missionaries in China as reflected in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931). The United States was the most generous and tolerant to China than any other countries, and such basic attitude has remained the same today. As John van Antwerp MacMurray attested at length in his 1935 Memorandum on Developments Affecting American Policy in the Far East, the United States, having few realistic interests in China, tended to trust China’s potentials and preferred to adopt a rather idealistic policy. The same attitude is evident throughout the book. George F. Kennan attributes it to “a certain sentimentality toward the Chinese―a sentimentality as disrespectful to them and as unhelpful to the long-term interests of our relations as the feelings of blind petulance into which it now has a tendency to turn [American Diplomacy, Expanded Edition, 1984, p. 53].”  For Japan, on the other hand, China was a country indispensable to it economically as well as politically, and the situation has not changed today. That gap or difference in their respective interests toward China between the United States and Japan has produced totally different policy toward China.


Historically, US-Japan relations have constantly been affected and troubled by the developments of US-China relations. The common denominator in trilateral relations among the United States, China and Japan is the United States. The competing relations between the US-Japan relationship and the US-China relationship bifurcate with the United States as a pivot. Even though China and Japan share the United States as a common pivot, an obvious difference in interests exists in their respective policies toward China between the United States and Japan. That difference creates an irregular triangle, and the bottom side of this triangle represents the Sino-Japan relationship, reflecting the competing interests of the US-Japan relationship and US-China relationship. And behind the US-China relationship lie, of course, American business leaders interested in China trade from the days of the American clipper ships of the 19th century.


Professor Arthur Waldron who edited Mr. MacMurray’s 1935 Memorandum in the form of How the Peace Was Lost (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1992) with an introduction and notes made an interesting observation on the dissolution of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1923 in the wake of the Washington Conference of 1921-22. He says it is more accurate to ascribe the abrogation of the alliance to not so much Britain’s Asian policy as Britain’s policy toward the United States. For the sake of mental exercise, let us convert Professor Waldron’s analysis of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance to the US-Japanese Alliance. We will be able to see the problems Japan faces today more clearly.


For China the US-Japan Alliance is a thorn in China’s side, and China is trying to drive a wedge in the US-Japan relationship and working very hard in suggesting, more than once, the United States recognize China’s new major power relationship with the United States. When the United States changes its perception of its relations with China will depend on when the United States will consider it more profitable and advantageous for the United States to shake hands with China just like Nixon’s sudden decision to visit China in 1971. What it means is that the termination of the US-Japan Security Treaty would be effected by not so much the United States’ Asian policy as its policy toward China.


The importance of China has increased enormously not merely as a vast market, but as “the world factory” that drives the world economy, and so has the importance of China as an increasingly growing military power. The United States needs China as the world No. 2 economy for its own economic prosperity. The growing military power capable of challenging the United States presence in the western Pacific Ocean prompts the United States to deepen its understanding of China as a major military power and to develop the mutually acceptable “code of conduct” with China. Since 2014 the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has been invited by the United States to participate in its largest naval exercise Rimpac.


If we peruse a series of events surrounding the USS Lassen’s so-called freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) of October 27, 2015 (Defense News), we would appreciate the extent of US-China coordination and cooperation: (1) pronouncements and leaks made by U.S. officials of the planned “freedom of navigation” operations well in advance; (2) radio communications to the PLA Navy that the Lassen’s operations were not harmful nor discriminatory to China; (3) a video conference on October 29 between top U.S. and China naval officers (Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson and Commander of the PLA Navy, Adm. Wu Shengli); (4) Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris’s visit to Beijing on November 2; and (5) the first U.S.-China joint naval exercise in the Atlantic Ocean on November 7; (6) the USS Stethem’s visit to Shanghai on November 16; and, may I add, (7) the White House’s instructions to Defense officials to be quiet about the Lassen’s FONOP.


They all give the impression that the Lassen’s FONOP was scripted, choreographed and well-staged in the name of “freedom of navigation.” So much so, immediately after the USS Lassen’’s FONOP in the South China Sea, the United States conducted, as if nothing had happened, the first U.S.-China joint naval exercise in the Atlantic Ocean on November 7, 2015. There is no question that different perceptions about China are developing between the United States and Japan.  



With these sobering revelations about the U.S.-China relations and the presence of Xi Jinping in the helm today as the aggressive promotor of the “Chinese Dream,” we need to examine the implications of the different interests at stake between the United States and Japan toward China. A series of recent events relating to the freedom of navigation operations by the United States Navy in the waters around the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea has allowed us to catch a glimpse of the future of the US-China relationship. Therein lies the warning of Dr. Pillsbury to Japan.


The so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) by the USS Lassen within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built on Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands on October 27, 2015 was abundantly commented on and analyzed by many articles in The Diplomat. There is no need to recap the analysis here except to re-confirm that the Lassen chose not to “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” as Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced. It demonstrated by deed its respect for the territorial boundary of sea and air space of the Subi Reef artificial island. Such a conclusion is further reinforced by the Pentagon’s explanation that a B-52 bomber’s flight on December 10, 2015 within two nautical miles of Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands was “unintentional.” That is, the B-52 bomber did not plan to fly to within 12 nautical miles, and according to the Wall Street Journal, bad weather had contributed to the pilot flying off course and into the area claimed by China. It denied its own freedom of flight over the high seas, as recognized by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law. The Pentagon did not maintain that it exercised its lawful right under international law. Rather, as consistently demonstrated above, the U.S. Navy and Air Force recognize the territorial sea as well as space claimed by China in the Spratly Islands, if not the South China Sea.  



With the airport on Subi Reef, U.S. policy of being neutral to territorial and maritime disputes has allowed the rule of naked power to prevail. As China increases its A2/AD capabilities, it may not be so far away for the East China Sea and the South China Sea to be effectively controlled by China. The United States seems to have accepted that reality at last. Unlike the USS Lassen’s FONOP last year, the USS Curtis Wilbur, a guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of a disputed island in the South China Sea on January 30, 2016, Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis formerly announced that it made the "innocent passage" off Triton Island in the Paracel Island chain, which is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.


It is significant that the Pentagon acknowledges that it conducted the “innocent passage” because the notion of “innocent passage” exists only in the territorial waters of the coastal state. Which means the Pentagon acknowledges that the waters around Triton Island are the territorial waters of that coastal state. Although the Pentagon official claimed that the operation was conducted "to challenge excessive maritime claims of parties that claim the Paracel Islands," the conduct of “innocent passage” does not challenge the lawful authority of the coastal state. International law does not require prior notification to enter the territorial sea under the innocent passage regime.


The apparent discordance among ASEAN member governments on the manner of settlement of South China Sea disputes indicates not only the presence of competing and crisscrossing interests among ASEAN member countries, but also an undeniable Chinese influence. China uses its most preferred mode of “bi-lateral negotiations” between the two parties directly concerned with the issue at stake, rejecting the involvement of any outside parties. China thus deals with one country at a time from the position of strength. All countries want to benefit from China’s riches. China’s Renminbi will soon become an international currency as one of the IMF’s SDR basket currencies. The world should welcome the internationalization of the Renminbi as a source of global liquidity. But China pursues policy of outward expansion with impunity in defiance of international norms and comity.


The more the Renminbi is used as an international settlement currency, the more it will be considered China’s challenge to the Bretton Woods system. The grandiose vision of “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” or otherwise known as “the Belt and Road Initiative” was originally announced by President Xi Jinping in pursuit of the “Chinese Dream.” It is designed to create a vast economic zone embracing a new Eurasian economic belt in the north and a new maritime route in the south starting from the eastern seaboard of China through the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and Middle Eastern and East African countries to the EU. It is the wing that will lift the development of “the Renminbi Financial Zone.” The AIIB is a vehicle to realize that Chinese dream. What China aims at would be the establishment of China-centric world order with the renewal of its global tributary system.


It cannot be denied that the funding source of China’s military expansion is the growing supply of the Renminbi. With the internationalization of the Chinese currency together with the opening of the Euro-Renminbi market in the City, London, under the auspices of the U.K. government, China will be in a more advantageous position to print more Renminbi bills at will and its military power will expand correspondingly. As Pillsbury remarked on the basis of the RAND Corporation’s study, “From now through 2030, the Chinese will have more than $1 trillion available to spend on new weapons for their navy and air force [p. 141]”. “This,” concludes Pillsbury, “paints a picture of near parity, if not outright Chinese superiority, by mid-century. The future military balance of power is slowly shifting, from a ten-to-one U.S. superiority, toward equality, and then eventually to Chinese superiority [ibid].” Before that happens, I suspect influential American business leaders, who are major donors to presidential campaigns, will lobby the administration to promote and protect their vast business and commercial opportunities in China. New support will be no doubt “mobilized in Congress, based on constituents’ economic interests [p. 91].” Sooner or later, the United States would make a move to protect its own interest by providing America’s goodwill and assistance to China as usual because of “a certain sentimentality toward the Chinese” as George Kennan pointed out long ago.


We have to be prepared for that eventuality, so that we would not repeat the same fate of being dumbfounded at the United States’ rapprochement with the Communist China in 1971. The so-called Nixon Shock and its resultant humiliation, sorrow, disappointment, and anger at being bypassed by the United States, with which we thought we had a special relationship, taught us a lesson. To maintain the close relationship with the United States cannot be the sole purpose and objective of Japan’s foreign policy, but a means to safeguard Japan’s interest.


We have to prepare ourselves for the inevitable U.S. acceptance of China’s offer of “major-power relationship with the United States,” which President Xi Jinping has been seeking. It is an open secret that China considers the Pacific Ocean large enough to accommodate the United States and China, the former controlling the eastern half of the Pacific Ocean and the latter controlling the western half of the Ocean. Such scenario has already been played out by none other than Foreign Policy magazine’s simulation exercise over the Senkaku Islands: “the last thing in the world we want is to start a shooting war with the world’s only other super power over a bunch of worthless rocks.” What is in effect projected is, I would suspect, the U.S.-China Condominium of the Pacific Ocean, and the Lassen‘s innocent passage was a prelude to the shaking hands of the United States with China. And that is the warning given by Dr. Pillsbury. ###      



Eisuke Suzuki is Professor of Law, Ateneo Law School, Ateneo de Manila University, Manila, Philippines. He was Professor of Policy Studies, 2009-13, Kwansei Gakuin University School of Policy Studies, Kobe-Sanda, Japan. Formerly, he was Deputy General Counsel, 1994-2002; Special Adviser to the President, 2003; Director General, Operations Evaluation Department, 2003-04, Asian Development Bank. His latest publication includes “Japan: Farewell to ‘One Country Pacifism’” of August 31, 2015 in The Diplomat ; “Non-State Actors in International Law in Policy Perspective” in Math Noortmann et al. (eds.), Non-State Actors in International Law (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2015) 33-56.