Will a desperate China take desperate measures?


REVIEW: “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China” by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley

Chinese President Xi Jinping / Getty Images

Mike Watson • Oct 16, 2022 4:59 am

When it comes to the China problem, most Americans have seen the challenge as holding back a steadily expanding China while the United States dwindles in relative power. In her new book danger zone, Michael Beckley and Hal Brands argue that this framing is incorrect. “China will be a falling power much sooner than most people think,” they write. And that means trouble.

Her book challenges an important piece of conventional wisdom that emerging powers like China are more likely to fight established powers like the United States when on the rise but tend to retreat when they are past their peak. Brands and Beckley show that this is not necessarily the case. Once they realize that time is no longer on their side, some countries are taking bigger and bigger bets to try to stave off stagnation. Germany before World War I and Japan in the run-up to Pearl Harbor are just the two most dramatic examples they cite.

China’s rise has been remarkable since Mao Zedong’s death, but Beckley and Brands note that during this period China enjoyed many advantages that have eroded. The United States and its allies embraced China and hoped to reform it through trade for decades; Today, China’s aggressive behavior is alarming its neighbors and provoking the strategic encirclement Beijing has long feared. Mao’s successors, particularly Deng Xiaoping, promoted economic reform and ruled by partisan consensus, but Xi Jinping’s one-man rule threatens to take China back to the days of Mao’s erratic and often disastrous leadership — and the brutal power struggles when the strongman dies.

Perhaps what the Marxists in Beijing appreciate most is the shift in material factors. China’s huge demographic dividend has now expired: in the early 2000s there were 10 workers for every retiree, by 2050 it is projected to be only 2. “To prevent seniors from dying on the streets,” China needs to spend 30 percent of its GDP on elderly care, as much as it spends on its entire government today. China has also ruined its previously abundant natural resources: it has about as much water per person as Saudi Arabia, it became the world’s net importer of food in 2008, and the world’s largest agricultural importer in 2011. Taken together, these trends imply “that China will be economically sluggish, internationally hated, and politically unstable in the 2030s.”

Without insight into the high-level discussions within the Zhongnanhai, it can be difficult to say what China’s top leadership is really thinking, but there are some signs that they are realizing that all is not well. China’s military has grown significantly, but the “internal security” budget is larger. The authors note that “careful analysts of Chinese politics detect subtle concerns in government reports and statements”. Other signs, like Xi’s guidance to make sure “no one can hit us or choke us,” are less subtle.

That means we’ve entered the “danger zone,” a time when China could take risks in order to make gains before its power wanes. An attack on Taiwan is the most familiar – and in many ways the most troubling – scenario, but Brands and Beckley describe other possibilities.

In order to prevail against China without a catastrophic war, the authors draw lessons from America’s recent experiences in the danger zone. During Harry Truman’s presidency, the Soviet Union had some important military advantages, and Western Europe was about to fall into Moscow’s orbit. Truman and his associates ruthlessly prioritized, made major changes in American foreign policy, and took calculated risks to solidify America’s strategic position and set the stage for victory in the Cold War. Beckley and Brands offer a range of measures from increasing defense budgets to banning China and its autocracies from the global internet.

We know how the first Cold War ended, and that analogy can be comforting to Americans, but the confrontation with China will be worse than many realize. Brands and Beckley warn that even a successful “danger zone strategy” will “fundamentally change the structure of world politics, and not just for the better.” The world is getting tougher and we must act accordingly.

Danger Zone: The upcoming conflict with China
by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley
WW Norton, 304 pages, $30

Mike Watson is Associate Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for the Future of Liberal Society.


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