The Danger of an Impending Clash with China

The U.S. is entering a period where competition with an aggressive Beijing becomes especially risky, says Tufts political scientist in new book

In early August, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, and set off a storm of criticism from China, which considers the island nation to be a renegade province. Chinese warships surrounded Taiwan, as the Chinese military held live fire drills, all aimed at projecting China’s power in the South China Sea.

The response didn’t surprise Michael Beckley, an associate professor of political science at Tufts. He’s just co-written a new book, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China, with Hal Brands, a professor at John Hopkins University. In the book, they detail why they think China is now peaking in its power and is soon to decline, and why that makes it especially dangerous for the United States.

China’s economy is slowing, Beckley says, its population is contracting, it is encircled by countries wary of its power, and it is an authoritarian society, with a leader who has consolidated more power than any leader in China since Mao Zedong. Countries facing such circumstances—like Germany in 1914 and Japan in 1941—often strike out to gain power and prestige, Beckley says.

“I think China has a window of opportunity this decade if it wants to get militarily aggressive with Taiwan, because even though the United States and Taiwan have powerful militaries, they haven’t adapted to China’s military strategy,” says Beckley, who is also author of the 2018 book Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower.

Tufts Now spoke with Beckley to learn more about China’s economic and political power, and its role in international politics.

Tufts Now: Why do you think China has peaked now in terms of its power?

Michael Beckley: The first reason is that China is in the midst of an economic slowdown—its economic growth rate dropped from 2010 to 2019 by more than 50%. That was even before COVID and its zero-COVID policies, which have dragged down the economy even further.

The second main factor is strategic encirclement. China is starting to face anti-China alignments at various points around Asia and even in Europe. Anti-China sentiment around the world has skyrocketed to levels we haven’t seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Third, the tailwinds that propelled China’s rise over the past 30 years are quickly becoming headwinds pushing it back down.

Dange Zone book cover

For example, China is going from demographic dividend to disaster in a single generation: in the 2000s, China had 10 workers to support every elderly retiree—most countries don’t even have five workers per retiree—but by the late 2030s that ratio will collapse to just two workers per retiree, as China loses more than 80 million young workers, taxpayers, and consumers while gaining more than 130 million senior citizens.

China also is running out of resources. It used to be self-sufficient in food, water, and energy, but because of environmental destruction it is now the world’s largest importer of food and energy and is suffering severe water scarcity. That resource scarcity has driven up China’s price of raw materials, and now China has to spend three times more than it did in the 2000s to produce each unit of economic growth.

China’s government used to be committed to a process of reform and opening of the economy, but now China is ruled by a dictator for life who consistently sacrifices economic growth to enhance his political control—witness the zero-COVID lockdowns, for example. And finally, the world has become less welcoming for China’s rise; Beijing now faces thousands more trade and investment barriers from the world’s largest economies than it did 10 years ago.

These are the big headwinds that China is facing, which will make it much harder for it to continue to grow its wealth and power in the decades ahead.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, is consolidating power—he is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. What’s the danger in that?

I think the problem with dictatorship is that when every decision gets funneled back to a single person, the system starts incentivizing people to tell that person what they want to hear rather than the truth.

That person is typically paranoid about rivals, so they’re constantly preemptively purging allies. In this kind of threatening environment, it’s hard to make cool, calm, rational decisions or to invest in productive areas, when you’re just so focused on maintaining your own security.

“If China conquered Taiwan, it would gain an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ to project power into the Pacific, blockade Japan and the Philippines, and fracture U.S. alliances in East Asia.”

Michael Beckley, co-author of “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China”

In the book, you talk about the danger of countries that are starting to decline—that they take risks because they feel this is the last chance to grab the gold. You point to Germany in 1914 and Japan in 1941 in this respect. How does that work?

If a country’s economy slows down, it has an incentive to expand abroad, to look for new sources of wealth.

Expanding abroad also can be used by a declining country’s leadership to say, “Look, we may not be able to supply you, our people, with as much wealth growth, but we’re going to pursue glory or greater territory.”

In the United States at the end of the 19th century there was an economic slowdown, and that’s the great age of American imperialism. America said, “We need to go abroad to find new markets, new resources.” That was a modest case, but even modest cases tend to produce a more assertive, prickly, great power. We think that China checks a lot of these worrying boxes.

Where do you see China expanding? And if it did so, how would that be a threat to the United States?

In terms of military expansion, we’re most worried about Taiwan—it is really the center of gravity of geopolitical competition in east Asia. It’s vital to the Chinese Communist Party for its ideology and its national narrative. And Beijing wants to squelch this rival Chinese government that is making it clear that Chinese culture is in fact compatible with democracy.

Xi Jinping has said at various points that it’s not a problem that can be handed down generation to generation, which implies that he wants to see Taiwan recovered during his generation.

We worry about a full-on invasion scenario for Taiwan, as remote as that may seem. You see similar dynamics in the South China Sea, where China is expanding its presence, and creating conflict with Vietnam, the Philippines, and others.

Why is a threat to Taiwan a threat to the United States? Some people here would see it as something happening far from our shores and none of our business.

Americans should be concerned about Chinese military expansion. Take Taiwan, for example.

If China conquered Taiwan, it would gain an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” to project power into the Pacific, blockade Japan and the Philippines, and fracture U.S. alliances in East Asia. It also would eliminate the world’s only Chinese democracy, removing a persistent threat to the Chines Communist Party’s legitimacy and shattering U.S. credibility as a security guarantor and the unity and confidence of the democratic world.

Even a failed Chinese assault on Taiwan would be a disaster. Vital waterways would become shooting galleries; the world might find itself cut off from the more than 90% of cutting-edge semiconductors that are manufactured in Taiwan. A global depression would be all but guaranteed. In sum, Taiwan is the center of gravity in East Asia. In Taiwanese hands, it is a cork that keeps Chinese expansion in a bottle. In Chinese hands, it is a launching pad for further aggression.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was followed by live fire drills and cyberattacks on Taiwan by China. Does her trip make invasion by China more likely?

Michael Beckely portrait

“We need to find ways to stem the spread of China’s digital authoritarian system,” says Michael Beckley.

Even before this incident, I was very worried about Taiwan. I think China has a window of opportunity this decade if it wants to get militarily aggressive with Taiwan, because even though the United States and Taiwan have powerful militaries, they haven’t adapted to China’s military strategy.

That strategy would use lots of missiles and combat aircraft to pummel U.S. and Taiwanese bases at the very outset of a war and knock out a lot of their big weapons platforms, and then China could have its way with Taiwan. We’re still centered on big bases and a few really expensive combat systems that could be wiped out.

If you look ahead to the 2030s, the economic slowdown in China will take a greater toll. Just as importantly, the U.S. and Taiwan, as well as Japan and Australia, all have ambitious plans now to overhaul their militaries and make them much more resilient and powerful relative to China. Also, Xi Jinping will be in his 80s by the 2030s.

So if he does want to make a move, as he’s hinted that he does, I think it looks like the 2020s are a moment of vulnerability for the United States and Taiwan.

“If a country’s economy slows down, it has an incentive to expand abroad, to look for new sources of wealth.”

Michael Beckley, associate professor of political science

In the book, you argue that the U.S. is now in a danger zone for conflict with China. What should the U.S. be doing in the next two to three years to reduce that danger?

We call for a surge of any kind of off-the-shelf system, especially simple missile launchers and mines, that you can put around the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and China or on the shores near that area to defend Taiwan. The basic idea is to try to make it really hard for massed armed forces to move across from the mainland, or for a blockade force to surround the island and choke it off.

Even though the U.S. Commerce Department has been restricting various technologies and trying to keep them from going to entities linked to the Chinese military or the Chinese surveillance state, it needs to do more to keep those technologies out of China’s control.

Wall Street has been pouring investments into China, bankrolling companies that are making weapons systems that are going to be pointed at the United States and its allies. We need to find ways to reduce those investments.

Lastly, we need to find ways to stem the spread of China’s digital authoritarian system. China has been selling advanced surveillance technology and helping to operate it in more than 80 countries around the world. These systems make dictatorship much more efficient and effective than ever before. This is a very dangerous situation from a democracy vs. autocracy perspective.

Has the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed how the United States and Taiwan view the threat from China?

I think so. Ironically, Vladimir Putin ended up doing a slight disfavor to his friend Xi Jinping because his invasion reminded the U.S. and Taiwan that conquest can still happen—that when dictators say a country “is not real and they belong to us,” that they mean that literally, and will act on it.

So the U.S., Taiwan, and Japan are much more galvanized, though we argue that they should be moving even faster than they are, because we think the threat is actually outpacing defense efforts.

Is the alliance of Russia and China a concern?

It’s a massive concern, even though there are reasons to doubt how durable the long-term partnership between the two countries will be. They both have an overriding interest in pushing back against not just the United States, but the broader global political order the U.S. has tried to construct, which is much more hospitable to democracies than to autocracies.

Even if they don’t cooperate in direct ways, they could make this a two-front sort of cold war situation. Russia making moves in Europe, and China on the march in East Asia will overstretch the resources of the United States and its allies—it’s just much more difficult than dealing with a single adversary.

American businesses have a huge presence in China, taking advantage of its cheaper labor. I think of all the products consumed in the U.S. that have “Made in China” labels. How does that affect U.S.-China relations?

It’s obviously very difficult for companies that, like Apple, have invested billions of dollars setting up manufacturing and distribution plants in China. Those are hard assets to try to transfer elsewhere.

But you have seen a steady kind of drip of these companies gradually reducing or rolling up their China operations and expanding elsewhere. We saw that over the 2010s, as various Chinese regulations were announced and as the Chinese economy started to slow.

The demographic trends are going to really cut into China’s consumer base as well, affecting American business sales.

There are still tremendous amounts invested there, but I think it is shifting. It’s just gotten to the point that political risk has become so high in China that I would expect maybe not an exodus, but certainly a hurried retreat by multinational enterprises.

Is there anything that could stop the decline of China that you forecast?

Yes, though factors like the demographic shift cannot change. China’s population by some estimates is going to collapse in half by about 2060 to 2100, and the working-age population is going to collapse even faster than that. That’s not something that you can reverse overnight.

In terms of China’s external environment and internal governance, though, there are chances to turn things around. I think if China dropped its wolf-warrior diplomacy and was willing to tone down the military incursions in and around Taiwan, that would lessen the odds of a new cold war.

The government could change, too. It doesn’t look like Xi Jinping is planning to appoint a successor, but maybe there’s succession change that happens and brings in a new leadership, which is willing to take a different approach.

The problem is, I just don’t see that being very likely, given that Xi Jinping is about to cement his appointment as Chinese leader for the rest of his life.

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