The Pentagon has named Michael Pillsbury, a long-time China hawk, chairman of the Defence Policy Board. Photo: Bloomberg
The Pentagon has named Michael Pillsbury, a long-time China hawk, chairman of the Defence Policy Board. Photo: Bloomberg

US-China relations

exclusive | Michael Pillsbury, new chairman of Pentagon’s policy board, aims to bridge gap in understanding about China

  • Adviser to Donald Trump says he hopes to address what he believes is defence department’s lack of understanding about Beijing’s military intentions
  • Pillsbury’s appointment coincides with ouster of former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright

Topic |   US-China relations
The Pentagon has named Michael Pillsbury, a long-time China hawk, chairman of the Defence Policy Board. Photo: Bloomberg
The Pentagon has named Michael Pillsbury, a long-time China hawk, chairman of the Defence Policy Board. Photo: Bloomberg

The long-time China hawk Michael Pillsbury, newly appointed as chairman of the US Department of Defence policy advisory board, will use his tenure to address what he considers to be the Pentagon’s lack of understanding about Chinese military intentions.

Announced by defence officials on Wednesday, the appointment of Pillsbury to head the Defence Policy Board came two weeks after a purge of the panel by the Trump administration. Among those terminated were former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, two long-standing advocates of engagement with Beijing.

Pillsbury, best known for his book The Hundred-Year Marathon, which contended that Beijing was pursuing a secret, century-long plot to usurp the US as the world’s pre-eminent superpower, has served as an outside adviser to US President Donald Trump, who has called him the “leading authority on China”.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Pillsbury said he understood from the Trump administration that officials were concerned about a perceived “lack of expertise on China” on the board, prompting his appointment.

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“To deter another country, you have to know quite a bit about how it thinks, lest there be misperceptions and misunderstandings,” said Pillsbury, citing US efforts to counter China’s growing military presence in the Pacific.

Among a “whole range of research projects” that the board would undertake, Pillsbury, 75, anticipated that one focus would be how to avoid accidental conflict with China.

Even amid a coordinated effort by the Trump administration to infuse a hawkish China strategy across multiple agencies, Pillsbury said: “I think we are in the beginning phases of understanding.”

In The Hundred-Year Marathon, Michael Pillsbury contends that Beijing is pursuing a secret plot to usurp the US as the world’s pre-eminent superpower. Photo: Tory Ho
In The Hundred-Year Marathon, Michael Pillsbury contends that Beijing is pursuing a secret plot to usurp the US as the world’s pre-eminent superpower. Photo: Tory Ho

But in an indication that there were other factors in the reshuffle beyond just China expertise, Pillsbury said Trump’s interest in the panel was first prompted by his learning of public remarks made by Albright linking Trump with the rise of fascism in the US.

Albright, who served as Bill Clinton’s top diplomat, published a book two years ago warning of a global trend towards fascism, and called Trump the “first anti-democratic president in modern US history”. The former top diplomat has since then made numerous public remarks implying that Trump exhibits fascist tendencies.

“That got his attention,” said Pillsbury. Administration officials told him “they were going to remove the whole board, and the reason was the president’s own interest in it”, he said.

Spokespeople for Albright and the White House did not respond to a request for comment.

It is unclear just how long Pillsbury will be serving, given that the Trump administration departs in six weeks. But appointees to the panel generally serve multiple years.

The Defence Policy Board is an external advisory group that provides “independent, informed advice concerning matters of defence policy and focuses on issues central to strategic DoD planning as well as policy implications of force modernisation”, according to the Pentagon’s website.

Also selected for the council alongside Pillsbury was Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the former administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

“We have every confidence the [Defence Policy Board] and the department will be well served by the decades of national security experience each of these individuals bring to the board,” Pentagon spokesman Dave Vasquez said in a statement.

Following a broad array of academic and governmental postings, including a stint as an assistant undersecretary of defence for policy during the Reagan administration, Pillsbury now heads the China strategy programme at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Lu Xiang, a senior fellow on US studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Pillsbury was a knowledgeable hawk with an interest in Chinese history and culture.

“Unlike the ignorant China hawks in the US administration, Pillsbury has a passion for knowledge and is interested in understanding China,” Lu said.

Loyal to Trump and aware the trade war with China was damaging to the US and his election campaign, Pillsbury is also believed to have played a role in the phase one trade deal signed in January, Lu said.

“His appointment … will help the power transition in the US and will help to reach bipartisan consensus in the incoming Democrat administration,” he said.

Lu’s view was echoed by a Chinese think tank member who declined to be named but said Pillsbury had a much better understanding of China than US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others in the Trump administration.

“Pillsbury is an old China hand, even though he is not friendly to China,” he said. “And because he understands China, he knows that a heavy-handed approach won’t work.”

A recurring guest on Fox News, Pillsbury made headlines a year ago when he said during an appearance on the channel that he had approached Chinese officials about Hunter Biden, the son of then-Democratic presidential hopeful, now president-elect, Joe Biden.

That disclosure came around the time Trump made an extraordinary public appeal for China to investigate the business dealings of the younger Biden, over baseless allegations of a payout by Beijing to curry favour with his father, claims that became a central fixture of Trump’s failed re-election campaign.

In a subsequent interview with the Financial Times, Pillsbury said he had secured “quite a bit” of information about Hunter Biden during a trip to Beijing, comments that he later denied making to the newspaper.

The appointment of Pillsbury follows a string of 11th-hour moves by the Trump administration to escalate tensions with Beijing, including sanctions against senior Chinese Communist Party officials over Hong Kong; stringent import controls over forced labour concerns in China’s northwest; and limits on US visas for party members.

In a bellicose speech earlier on Wednesday, Pompeo warned of Chinese government influence on US campuses, insinuating without evidence that Beijing was “sending” hundreds of thousands of students to study in the country as part of a scheme to catch up with US technological innovation.

Pillsbury’s selection follows the Trump administration’s recent purging of another Pentagon advisory panel, replacing the jettisoned members of the Defence Business Board with close allies of the president, marking a stark departure from the traditionally non-partisan nature of such boards.

Additional reporting by Wendy Wu and Minnie Chan

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China hawk aims to bridge gap in understanding
Owen Churchill

Owen Churchill

Owen joined the Post in 2018 after several years working as a reporter and editor in China. He covers US-China relations, human rights, and China's influence overseas. A co-founder of the Shanghai-based news outlet Sixth Tone, he is an alumnus of SOAS in London and Fudan University in Shanghai.