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 • October 16, 2022 04:59

With regard to the China problem, most Americans saw the challenge as holding back a steadily growing China as the United States lost relative power. In their new book Dangerous zone, Michael Beckley and Hal Brands argue that this framing is wrong. “China will be a falling power much sooner than most people think,” they write. And that means trouble.

Their book challenges an important piece of conventional wisdom, which is that rising powers like China are more likely to fight established powers like the United States when they are on the rise, but tend to fall back when they are on the rise. reach 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 making bigger and bigger bets to try and avoid stagnation. Germany before World War I and Japan approaching Pearl Harbor are just the two most dramatic examples they list.

China’s rise has been remarkable since the death of Mao Zedong, but Beckley and Brands note that China enjoyed many advantages during this period that have eroded. The United States and its allies have embraced China and hoped to reform it through trade for decades; today, China’s aggressive behavior is worrying its neighbors and causing the strategic encirclement that Beijing has long feared. Mao’s successors, especially Deng Xiaoping, encouraged economic reform and ruled by cross-party consensus, but Xi Jinping’s one-man rule threatens to return China to the era of erratic and often disastrous leadership of Mao – and brutal power struggles when the strongman dies.

What the Beijing Marxists can most clearly appreciate is the change in material factors. China’s huge demographic dividend has now expired: in the early 2000s there were 10 workers for every retiree, but by 2050 there will be only 2. the streets,” China will have to spend 30% of its GDP on care for the elderly, as much as it spends today on its entire government. China has also ruined its previously abundant natural resources: it has about as much water per person as Saudi Arabia, it became a net importer of food in 2008, and in 2011 it was the largest agricultural importer. in the world. Altogether, these trends “imply that China will be economically sluggish, internationally hated, and politically unstable by the 2030s.”

Without insight into high-level conversations within the Zhongnanhai, it can be hard to tell what China’s top leadership is really thinking, but there are signs that they are realizing that all is not well. China’s military has grown significantly, but the “domestic security” budget is higher. The authors note that “careful analysts of Chinese politics detect subtle anxiety in government reports and statements.” Other signs, such as Xi’s advice to ensure “no one can beat us or choke us to death”, are less subtle.

This means we have entered the “danger zone”, a time when China can take risks to secure its gains before its power wanes. An attack on Taiwan is the best-known and in many ways most disturbing scenario, but Brands and Beckley outline other possibilities.

To prevail against China without a catastrophic war, the authors draw lessons from the latest American experience in the danger zone. During Harry Truman’s presidency, the Soviet Union had significant military advantages and Western Europe was on the verge of falling into Moscow’s orbit. Truman and his team ruthlessly set priorities, made major changes to 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 policies, from increasing the defense budget to removing China and its other autocracies from the global internet.

We know how the first Cold War ended, and this analogy may be comforting to Americans, but the confrontation with China will be darker than many realize. Brands and Beckley warn that even a successful “danger zone strategy” will “fundamentally alter the structure of world politics, and not entirely for the better.” The world is getting harder and harder and we have to act accordingly.

Danger zone: the coming conflict with China
by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley
WW Norton, 304 pages, $30

Mike Watson is the associate director of the Center for the Future of Liberal Society at the Hudson Institute.

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