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
October 16, 2022

When it comes to the China problem, most Americans have viewed the challenge as holding off a steadily rising China as the United States declines in relative power. In their new book Danger Zone, Michael Beckley and Hal Brands argue that this framing is off. "China will be a falling power far sooner than most people think," they write. And that spells trouble.

Their book challenges an important piece of conventional wisdom, that rising powers like China are more likely to fight established powers like the United States when they are on the ascent but tend to back off when they pass their peak. Brands and Beckley show this is not necessarily the case. Once they realize that time is no longer on their side, some countries make bigger and bigger gambles to try to stave off stagnation. Germany before World War I and Japan in the leadup to Pearl Harbor are only the two most dramatic of the examples they list.

China's rise has been remarkable since Mao Zedong's death, but Beckley and Brands note that China enjoyed many advantages in that period that have eroded away. 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 reforms and ruled through interparty consensus, but Xi Jinping's one-man rule threatens to return China to the days of Mao's erratic and often catastrophic leadership—and the brutal struggles for power when the strongman dies.

What the Marxists in Beijing may appreciate most clearly is the change in material factors. China's enormous demographic dividend has now expired: In the early 2000s, there were 10 workers for every retiree, but by 2050 there will only be 2. "To prevent senior citizens from dying in the streets," China will have to devote 30 percent of its GDP to elderly care, as much as it spends on its entire government today. China also ruined its previously abundant natural resources: It has roughly as much water per person as Saudi Arabia, it became a net importer of food in 2008, and by 2011 it was the largest agricultural importer in the world. All told, these trends "imply that China will be economically sluggish, internationally hated, and politically unstable by the 2030s."

Without insight into the high-level conversations within the Zhongnanhai, it can be hard to tell what China's senior leadership really thinks, but there are some indications that they realize all is not well. China's military has grown significantly, but the "internal 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 guidance to make sure that "nobody can beat us or choke us to death," are less subtle.

This means that we have entered the "danger zone," a period where China may take risks to lock in gains before its power diminishes. An attack on Taiwan is the most well-known—and in many ways most worrying—scenario, but Brands and Beckley describe other possibilities.

To prevail against China without a catastrophic war, the authors take lessons from America's last experience in the danger zone. During Harry Truman's presidency, the Soviet Union had some important military advantages and Western Europe was teetering on the verge of falling into Moscow's orbit. Truman and his staff prioritized ruthlessly, made major changes to American foreign policy, and took calculated risks to firm up 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 cutting China and its fellow autocracies out of the global internet.

We know how the first Cold War ended, and that analogy can be comforting for Americans, but the confrontation with China will be grimmer 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 we must act accordingly.

Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China
by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley
W.W. Norton, 304 pp., $30

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