Washington veteran Michael Pillsbury has quietly become a key figure behind Trump’s confrontational China policy, to the dismay of Beijing — and some fellow China experts.
A day before President Donald Trump departed for the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, several top officials gathered in the Oval Office to strategize about Trump’s highly anticipated meeting there with China’s president.
Seated around Trump’s Resolute Desk were Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. On couches a few feet away were White House chief of staff John Kelly, Trump’s son in law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, and Matt Pottinger, the National Security Council’s top Asia hand. White House trade adviser Peter Navarro joined by speakerphone.
Before the discussion ended, Pence stepped out to fetch an outsider for a final briefing about Trump’s Saturday dinner with Chinese president Xi Xinping, which could determine whether the U.S. and China plunge deeper into a potentially disastrous trade war.
That outsider was Michael Pillsbury, a starchy academic at Washington’s conservative Hudson Institute enjoying a remarkable, and unlikely, influence. He has caught the ear of Trump, who during a November press conference proclaimed him “probably the leading authority on China.”
The former Reagan and George H.W. Bush Pentagon official has spent decades in the cold, dismissed by critics as a mix of conspiratorial and self-promoting. But now, current and former Trump officials say he is among the most important voices shaping a confrontational U.S. turn towards China which some analysts fear could trigger a new global cold war.
In recent months, the 73-year-old Pillsbury’s views have become increasingly influential in the Trump administration, where top policymakers have welcomed an intellectual framework that channels Trump’s instinctive animosity towards the rising Asian power.
His core argument is that China’s communist leaders have lulled the U.S. into complacency as they plot to overtake American hegemony by 2049. Even worse, he argues that China has been tricking the U.S. into hastening its own demise by stealing scientific and military secrets under the guise of cooperation.
“We need a strategy to prevent losing our world leadership,” he told POLITICO in an interview. He also predicted that Xi would not make major concessions in Argentina this weekend. “I don’t expect a breakthrough,” he said. “President Trump wants reciprocity and much better treatment of America.”
Appearing on Fox News last month, China’s ambassador to Washington sniffed that he “would not recommend” Pillsbury’s book. But some of Washington’s most powerful people are passing it around. Those who have read the tome include Kushner, Ross and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who brought along a copy on his June trip to China, according to a person briefed by a participant in the trip.
Pence, meanwhile, quoted from the book in a bellicose October speech at the Hudson Institute, where Pillsbury is director of the China program. His remarks denounced a litany of China’s military, economic and human rights offenses and boasted that, after decades of weakness, the U.S. “has taken decisive action to respond to China.” Beijing branded the remarks, on which Pillsbury provided input, as “ridiculous.”
Pillsbury’s growing influence has delighted China hawks, while alarming advocates of comity with Beijing. Some respected China experts have called his writings “shoddy” and infected by paranoid notions of Chinese malevolence.
But he is welcome at the Trump White House, where he is a regular visitor, and where hardliners like Peter Navarro — who featured Pillsbury in his 2016 documentary “Crouching Tiger” – view him as a key ally in countering the administration’s pro–free trade faction, which argues that confrontation with China brings huge risks to the U.S. and world economies.
In addition to occasionally conferring with Pillsbury directly, Trump also catches and approves of his frequent television appearances, in which the China hand often lavishes praise on the president.
At a September press conference, Trump noted that he’d seen “Mr. Pillsbury, the leading authority on China” on television “saying that China has total respect for Donald Trump and for Donald Trump’s very, very large brain. He said, ‘Donald Trump, they don’t know what to do.’”
“He’s informed a lot of our thinking early in the administration and as we’ve pursued those policies, he’s been a validator,” said a White House official.
Critics don’t see that as a good thing: “Under any other Republican president, he wouldn’t be given the time of day,” said one person in regular touch with the Trump White House.
Leaders in Beijing, meanwhile, have viewed Pillsbury’s ascension with apprehension. A Chinese national close to Xi’s government said Beijing sees Pillsbury as “one of the only few China experts who have a big influence on Trump.”
Tao Wenzhao, a specialist on U.S. issues with the state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, called Pillsbury’s book a “conspiracy theory.”
“His opinions were not considered mainstream until Donald Trump came to power,” Wenzhao said.
Even so, Pillsbury — a fluent Mandarin speaker who makes regular visits to China — has sometimes acted as a middle man between the White House and China’s government. He has urged Chinese officials, for instance, to maintain that Xi was unaware of Chinese technology theft as a face-saving way to allow the Chinese president to curb the practice.
In October, the Wall Street Journal reported that he had discussed Trump’s trade policies — which have recently included mounting tariffs on Chinese goods — with Wang Huiyao, the head of a Beijing think tank with ties to China’s communist leadership. During a September visit to Hudson, Wang publicly unveiled proposals to tamp down the trade fight, which Pillsbury relayed to the Trump White House
He also makes more modest contributions to U.S.-China relations, such as regularly correcting officials’ pronunciation of Xi’s name. (“Shee.”)
The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Known for his ego and derided for his heterodox foreign policy views, Pillsbury has flourished in the freewheeling environment of Trump’s Washington.
Over several decades in the Washington policy establishment — he worked on Capitol Hill in the 1970s and 1980s before joining the Reagan Pentagon — Pillsbury has earned a reputation as a self-regarding bureaucratic infighter.
He reportedly lost (then regained) his security clearance in the 1980s amid suspicion that he leaked classified information. He said he is currently in the process of trying to renew his clearance.
Several Washington foreign policy insiders echoed Wenzhao’s criticism of his views and described him as off-putting, though they would not say so for attribution.
Pillsbury speculated that he has made enemies thanks to his “excessive candor.”
“You’re supposed to be more deceptive than I am,” he said. “You’re supposed to be smooth, polite.”
A persistent misconception is that his wealth — reflected in his posh Georgetown home — comes from the Pillsbury flour fortune of “doughboy” fame.
Pillsbury said that he hails from a different branch of the family but refused to discuss his money in detail. “Can’t talk about it,” he said. “It’s a mystery.”
Though his prominence has grown in recent months, Pillsbury argues that his influence on decades of American foreign policy remains underappreciated, dating back to his stint as a 24-year-old graduate student working at the United Nations Secretariat in 1969. In “The Hundred-Year Marathon,” Pillsbury describes spying on his Soviet bosses at the UN for the FBI and the CIA, helping the Nixon administration understand that the potential existed to cleave a Sino-Soviet split by opening relations with China.
He also takes credit for Henry Kissinger’s often-repeated observation that Westerners view strategy like a game of chess, while the Chinese view it through the prism of their ancient board game, Go. (“Plagiarism!” he says.) He said the idea comes from a report he wrote for the Department of Defense, where he has held various roles, including at the Office of Net Assessment, a kind of in-house Pentagon think tank.
Pillsbury does not quite claim credit for winning the Cold War. But he highlights his dogged insistence on arming the Afghan Mujahideen with Stinger missiles well after his boss at the Reagan Pentagon instructed him to drop the issue. Those missiles crippled the Soviet occupation of the country, whose failure accelerated the Soviet Union’s collapse.
And he points to a Thursday Washington Post article about China experts preaching a tougher line towards Beijing as vindication.
“Each controversy I usually win,” Pillsbury boasts.
Pillsbury is no nativist China-hater: His home is filled with east Asian art, including a Tang Dynasty sculpture of a camel mounted by a monkey, a piece he favors because he was born in what the Chinese zodiac calls the year of the monkey.
But his influence reflects the fact that he has tapped into rising anxieties about Chinese power. “The Hundred-Year Marathon” has been translated into 7 languages and is a best-seller in Sinophobic Japan. An unrepentant self-promoter, Pillsbury has twice brought boxes of the book to Capitol Hill to distribute to members and their aides.
While earning several positive reviews, the book sparked controversy among his fellow professional China watchers, many of whom call Pillsbury’s scholarship sloppy and argue that he overstates the notion of a secret Chinese government plot to surpass the United States in global influence.
One review by a China expert at the University of California San Diego— which called his book “replete with errors” and said it “stretch[es] even the most lenient of reader’s patience” — so angered Pillsbury that he referred it to a lawyer for a possible defamation suit.
“His work is shoddy and filled with inaccuracies and false quotations,” said Dennis Wilder, managing director of the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University. “I don’t believe China has the kind of well worked out grand strategy that he professes that China has.”
Wilder, a former CIA and National Security Council official, said that Pillsbury’s ideas could “make people overestimate the Chinese in a way that I think can make people make questionable policy positions.”
Pillsbury responds that Wilder has long sought to personally undermine him and badly underestimated the Chinese, and said that he has asked the CIA to declassify older studies of China that Wilder helped write for the agency. Pillsbury nevertheless thanks Wilder in the acknowledgments of “The Hundred-Year Marathon” as one of many who “contributed ideas” to the book.
Pillsbury first encountered Trump in October 2012, at a Manhattan fundraiser for Mitt Romney aboard the USS Intrepid, where he praised the then-businessman for a section on China in Trump’s 2000 book “The America We Deserve.” In it, Trump slammed American leaders for softness towards China, which he called duplicitous and “our biggest long-term challenge.”
Pillsbury told Trump it was the first time he had seen anyone correctly decode Chinese strategic intentions.
Four years later, in December of 2016, Pillsbury was summoned on short notice to Trump Tower by transition brass. The newly-elected Trump had just caused a diplomatic uproar by speaking on the phone with Taiwan’s president — a major diplomatic affront to Beijing. Pillsbury hurried to New York to attend a Monday morning meeting at Trump Tower with Kushner, Steve Bannon, Navarro, and Pottinger as they sought to plot out China policy.
While roughly aligned with the administration’s hardliners, Pillsbury insists that true China hawks are suspicious of him, because he counsels both competition and cooperation with Beijing.
Amid a summer debate about U.S. “freedom of navigation exercises” in parts of the South China Sea claimed by China, for instance, Pillsbury — who has said he worries that mutual misunderstanding could lead to military conflict between the U.S. and China — warned against excessively provoking Beijing.
Still, China experts and current and former U.S. officials say that Pillsbury has played an important role in steering Trump’s policy towards political and economic confrontation with Beijing.
One former senior White House official supportive of Pillsbury’s views said that several key administration figures like Mattis were initially reluctant to view China as a primary strategic threat.
Now, thanks to Pillsbury, the former official said: “Everybody’s woke.”