Two groups of specialists have been locked in a battle to dominate U.S. policy toward China for the past three decades, and the camp of hawkish skeptics sharply increased its influence in the last few years, according to a long-time Pentagon specialist on Asian affairs.
Establishment China hands who favor a partnership with the communist government in Beijing at all costs are declining, said Michael Pillsbury, a policymaker and adviser to three presidents who spent 40 years studying China and its military for the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, a think tank devoted to studying future warfare.
"One school basically comes out of the Wilsonian mode. ‘We must cooperate with China. Everything depends on cooperation with China. And anything that gets in the way of that in China is a minor source of friction or needs to be better explained to the Chinese,’" Pillsbury said during a Capitol Hill forum.
These China specialists, both within government and in academic circles, do not fear a stronger China, but trust China to join the current U.S.-led world order and keep its military forces modest and unthreatening to the United States, according to Pillsbury.
However, these policy specialists were repeatedly embarrassed by China's rejection of their proposals, and they have sought to minimize evidence of China's growing resistance to American global leadership.
For the U.S. media and Congress, these advocates portray China as willing to cooperate on most issues, he said.
However, Pillsbury said the increasingly influential experts who are skeptical of China are providing more pessimistic predictions and see Chinese leaders as increasingly assertive regarding China's intention to move toward a China-led world rather than accepting subordination to U.S. global leadership. China has explicitly rejected U.S. proposals for a "G-2" world order co-led by the US and China in which China plays the role of a mutual stakeholder with the United States.
President Obama highlighted the pro-partnership faction’s views when he said the United States welcomed a strong China in response to a reporter’s questions about blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who had sought refuge from authorities inside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
The contrarian view on China is held by pessimistic analysts who share a growing sense of wariness over the fact that "we have a competitor here who is deep inside our system, who knows a great deal about us, and not just from espionage, classic means, but from being in our system," Pillsbury said.
"Partnership advocates" are influenced by the fact that U.S. academic journals and universities are open to Chinese Communist Party members and teachers who hold Chinese passports.
Additionally, China influences U.S. policies and perceptions of China through U.S. companies that engaged in partnerships, mergers, and acquisitions with Chinese firms.
"So this is not a kind of Soviet Union or Russia that can be held at a distance and analyzed as a potential threat," Pillsbury said. "This is a competitor—this other school argues—this is a competitor who is inside us and knows a great deal about us. We’ve never faced this kind of thing before, and the China experts in our society are therefore split into these two camps and tend to go over every little fact that comes in and analyze it in terms of one way or the other."
Pillsbury said one positive trend in U.S. media reporting is coverage of both sides of the debate over China. News media until recently showed only one side, the dominant optimistic partnership view advocated by those such as former Clinton administration China specialist and Brookings Institution expert Ken Lieberthal, who in 1994 was the first to call for ending U.S. sanctions on China imposed after the Tiananmen massacre. Pillsbury said partnership camp advocates have insisted to establishment news media editors there is no debate and thus no need to balance their coverage.
But that ploy is no longer working, he said.
Pillsbury compared the failure of U.S. Soviet affairs experts during the Cold War, whose books showed them to be "95 percent wrong" about the nature of the Soviet communist system, to China analysts today. Like most China hands today, those Soviet affairs experts also advocated forming a partnership and building trust with the Soviet Union, portraying its forces and goals as non-threatening.
The debate today on China is "very similar," he said.
The group that argues China must be a partner and that any differences or friction must be overcome is shrinking from about 95 percent to a still-dominant 85 percent of all China specialists, said Pillsbury.
However, Pillsbury said the new camp of China skeptics is increasingly successful in challenging old establishment views of China as a benign power.
"There’s a growing school examining the same evidence, and saying ‘Wait a minute,’" Pillsbury said.
The two camps are currently in competition for the attention of the president and secretary of defense.
The debate is playing out in several areas, including what he called evidence of "the world order debate," Pillsbury said.
The partnership school has suppressed growing evidence that shows the Chinese are promoting the idea of a China-led international order that will gradually replace the U.S.-led "hegemonic" order, where the word hegemon in Chinese means "dictator" or "tyrant."
"The Chinese are saying, ‘No, we will not join the American-led world order," Pillsbury said. "‘We are going to organize a separate world order,’ and they’re busy doing that."
The partnership camp has also minimized evidence about China developing military forces to neutralize the U.S. in order to maintain the future Beijing-led world order.
Chinese generals, when questioned about their buildup, say "Chinese forces will need to protect the new world order against the hegemon, that is to say the immoral hegemon," Pillsbury said.
By contrast, partnership with China advocates claim the Chinese word for hegemon, he said, means "leader" not "tyrant." It is difficult to translate into English but connotes both an immoral power and a dictator or tyrant, he said.
"So when they say the Americans are the current hegemonic leader, it means we are the tyrant," Pillsbury said. "So who is going to protect the world against the tyrant?"
That is the basis for China’s new high-technology weapons, including anti-satellite lasers and weapons to "blind the tyrant in a crisis," and anti-ship ballistic missiles capable of targeting aircraft carriers at long distances, he said.
China’s military also says other countries may have to buy these weapons systems from China to protect themselves from the U.S. hegemon.
Pillsbury said there is a set of about 10 weapons systems ranging in such areas as developing counter-laser systems that can disrupt U.S. precision-guided munitions; missile defenses against the hegemon’s missiles; and anti-submarine warfare capabilities against its submarines.
Pillsbury says that the partnership camp realizes that U.S. efforts to partner with China have failed, on issues ranging from climate change to nuclear weapons talks.
"On everything, including talks on nuclear zero, China says no," Pillsbury said, referring to President Obama’s goa of a world without nuclear weapons.
The increased influence of pessimistic camp is due to their paying closer attention to the growing evidence, and to China's growing assertiveness since 2010, he said.
Pillsbury said a consensus is emerging between the two camps in which each side lets the other pursue contradictory policies.
"Those who want to be partners with China say, ‘You guys can do those things you want to do, like the Air-Sea-Battle office or a next generation bomber,’" he said.
"There’s quite a long list of American countermeasures to the rise of China. But you must never say in public that these systems are against China."
The language used to describe the Pentagon shift, also called the pivot, is to say that rise of trade with Asia calls for rebalancing in a general way toward the Asia Pacific region.
This compromise between the two camps leaves both the U.S. Congress and the Chinese "quite mystified," Pillsbury said. "We seem to be both seeking partnership and trust, but also hedging that this will not be possible."