Skip to main content

Retired Chinese colonel Liu Mingfu wields Chinese bills as he accuses American democracy of succumbing to the influence of money, one of the reasons he sees China surpassing the United States.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Call him China's happy hawk.

Liu Mingfu is a retired colonel who has become one of his country's most prominent military conservatives, a man whose book The China Dream lays out a path for China to eclipse the United States and dominate the international order.

The world is heading toward an "Amerexit" – a kind of international divorce with the United States – he believes, and it has already begun.

The very idea stirs so much delight that he does not sit when he talks, instead maintaining a blur of motion for hours in a recent conversation, occasionally breaking into mocking imitation of the two people he sees as the flawed modern leaders of the American downfall, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

But Col. Liu has a dark warning.

The Asia-Pacific region is entering into a dangerous decade as a resurgent China, buoyed by its own growing power and perceived weakness in the West, amplifies rivalry with the United States, he said.

"The best time for America to destroy China is in the next 10 years," he said in an interview this week.

But "those 10 years will also be a highly chaotic period in the U.S., which is in a state of unprecedented mania, impatience and grumpiness. They are impatient because they can see how fast China is developing and they want to control China, but they have no way to do it."

Col. Liu represents a nationalist strain of Chinese thought, one that believes – improbably, analysts say – that China's military strength will, in just two decades, surpass that of the United States, elevating China over a nation he calls a "criminal country" that should not lead, but instead be dragged before international courts for its sins.

"They claim to sow the seeds of democracy around the world, but they have actually spread disaster," Col. Liu said. "They haven't brought green to the Middle East. They have brought rubble and garbage."

Observers disagree on the degree to which Col. Liu's analysis reflects that of Chinese leadership. His opinions "can be pretty extreme and tend not to represent official views," said M. Taylor Fravel, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Those with actual power don't talk to the press, another said.

Outspoken voices such as his are often used by China "to achieve certain diplomatic objectives," which can include intimidating others, said Willy Lam, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

But the nationalist circles Col. Liu occupies have taken on new vitality in China under President Xi Jinping, a strongman leader whose language has at times closely mirrored that of the military academic, who built a career teaching at China's National Defence University. (Now 66, he was invited twice last year to the United States to expound on his views to Pentagon-connected China experts and neoconservative luminary Paul Wolfowitz after The China Dream was published in English.)

Col. Liu and Mr. Xi have reportedly met on several occasions, although Col. Liu won't discuss it. In China, "obviously, he is close to the leadership," Prof. Lam said.

When Col. Liu said in an interview that "it's quite possible" that Mr. Xi will stay in office for 20 years – double the expected term – "that's quite significant," Prof. Lam said. The Communist Party named President Xi its "core leader" last week, which means he is "emperor for life," he said.

Much of Col. Liu's thinking is predicated on the strength of Mr. Xi, whom he calls the herald of "the third new China," a country diligently "working to rebalance the world."

In that, China suddenly has what seems to be new confirmation that Mr. Xi's leadership is drawing others to his side. Leaders of both the Philippines and Malaysia have recently come to Beijing to say they intend to lean toward China. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak pledged this week to buy Chinese naval vessels, the first significant defence deal between the two countries and, in a column in China Daily, indicated a desire to further align with China "as the world's fulcrum shifts East."

To Col. Liu, the Philippines and Malaysia are the first waves of an "Amerexit tide in Asia."

"The balance is increasingly tipping toward China as it moves away from the U.S.," he said.

He said it's partly rooted in problems that have emerged in the United States and been magnified in the current election campaign. "The contradictions between Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton, and the points on which they are attacking each other, actually show the tearing apart of the U.S.," he said.

"The American democratic system is bleeding now," even as China gains in strength, he said.

Col. Liu's anxiety about a dangerous decade is rooted in fear that Washington will attempt to contain China while it can. "In 10 years, when China is stronger, it's going to be completely different," he said.

Few observers doubt that coming years will bring increased tension between China and the United States – although many of Col. Liu's arguments are disputed.

Take U.S. military supremacy, which already vastly outweighs China and continues to press forward, with Washington spending nearly three times as much as Beijing on defence. "There is no diminishing of its military power, or its political or economic power. That's illusory," Asia-Pacific military analyst Robert Karniol said.

China's hawks, too, tend to overlook the ways Washington and Beijing have sought to get along, with a vast trading relationship and co-operation on issues such as climate change and Iran. "The decade next will likely combine greater competition within East Asia and greater co-operation elsewhere," Prof. Fravel said.

But there is reason to doubt Chinese ebullience that its meteoric rise will continue. Even after pumping vast quantities of debt into its system, China's economy is slowing while its population rapidly ages.

"China is going to be old in 20 years. The Americans are going to be still young," said Shahriman Lockman, senior analyst at Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

It is "hysterical," he added, to see Malaysia as another Asian domino falling toward Beijing. Malaysia has always diversified its military – it flies both U.S.- and Russian-made fighter jets – and low oil prices have driven it to look for cheaper alternatives, he said. "It's been cast in terms of this major shift," he said. "It's not."

In the Philippines, too, a recently appointed special envoy to China quit, after criticizing President Rodrigo Duterte's "discombobulating" vacillations on the United States, which many Filipinos hold in much higher esteem than China.

Col. Liu sees it differently. Watching China rapidly surpass other countries to become the world's second-largest economy over the past 15 years was "a miracle," he said, striding across the room with a brilliant smile, and pumping his arms as he spoke.

"The U.S. is next," he said. "Every day I want to jump, run and fly! The time has come for the Chinese people to compete with the U.S., and to surpass them."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe