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The Defining Decade

A new book argues that open conflict with China is growing likelier in the 2020s because of the anxiety produced by subpar growth.

Xi Jinping, chairman of the Central Military Commission CMC, presents a certificate of order at a ceremony to promote Huang Ming, commander of the Central Theater Command of the People's Liberation Army, to the rank of general in Beijing, capital of China, Jan. 18, 2023. (Photo by Li Gang/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China, Michael Beckley & Hal Brands. W. W. Norton & Company, 261 pages.

In forecasting the trajectory of China’s ongoing rise, America’s strategic discussion has erred on two related grounds, argues the American Enterprise Institute’s duo of Sinologists—Michael Beckley and Hal Brands—in their new book, Danger Zone (2022). For starters, China is not predestined to surpass the United States in economic might and military prowess as early as was expected, or at least not in a way that makes open conflict inevitable when the two countries’ respective trendlines eventually meet. Though the roughly $5 trillion gap between America’s GDP—$23 trillion—and China’s—$18 trillion—is still projected to close sometime in the mid 2030s, Beckley and Brands argue that China’s best days of bonanza are upon it. Their argument: The “miraculous, multi-decade rise” launched by Deng Xiaoping’s liberalizing reforms in the 1980s and ended by the 2008 global financial crisis “was aided by strong tailwinds that have since become headwinds,” meaning China “will be a falling power sooner than most think.”


The stall in China’s fortunes comes from five factors. First, its “demographic dividend” will soon turn into a “disaster.” While its worker-per-retiree ratio was close to double the West’s average as recently as the 2000s, due to the one-child policy, a full third of the country is expected to be over-60 by 2050. Second, while cheap access to raw materials secured China’s industrial power in the past, the country is now running out of resources, with its capital–output ratio tripling since 2007. Fourth, both the hyper-globalization and the Western goodwill that enabled China’s rise seem to be over, with the country facing the most hostile geopolitical environment since Mao’s days. All this combines to undermine China’s social contract by denying it the growth that used to secure popular consent needed for the system to churn along.

With this myth of a soon-to-be hegemonic China debunked, you might think the prescriptions that the myth informed would also be invalidated. But Beckley and Brands are calling for the opposite of complacency. China’s stalled growth, they claim, makes conflict more—not less—likely, a prognosis they share with most of the academic literature. The year Obama’s Asian pivot gave way to Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, Michael Pillsbury urged America to ready up for The Hundred-Year Marathon (2016), arguing that China’s intentions were to replace the current “rules-based” global order with one of its own creation. The year after, Graham Allison, infamous for deriving from Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War a statistically dubious theory about how China’s rise made war with America inevitable, claimed that the two were Destined for War (2017). Beckley and Brands concur with Pillsbury and Allison that a century-long “superpower marathon” is ongoing, but they claim it will reach a conflagration sooner precisely because China’s fortunes have stopped rising.

This “peak power syndrome” or “trap” is “the most treacherous stage in the life cycle of a rising power,” a high-stakes danger zone where a no-longer-rising China sees the window of opportunity for assertiveness rapidly closing, thus heightening the stakes of competition and the attractiveness of rapid, bold moves. “Xi’s regime is tracing a fraught but familiar arc in international affairs,” they write about other historical instances of the same phenomenon such as Germany in 1914 and Japan in 1941: "an exhilarating rise followed by the prospect of a hard fall.” Buckley and Brands see symptoms of China’s peaking status in its wolf warrior diplomacy, its belligerent posturing in hot spots from the Himalayas to the South China Sea, and its toughened domestic repression. Responding to that overreach, America’s allies are “tightening the strategic vise” on China, which further heightens the likelihood of quick action before the country’s encirclement worsens. The U.S., the authors claim, “faces an already strong but insecure China that views the future with as much anxiety as optimism.”

The 2020s, therefore, is the decade in which the outcome of the protracted competition that Allison and Pillsbury warned of will be ultimately decided. “To triumph in the struggle for the 21st century,” the authors write, “Washington must once again withstand a strategic onslaught in this decade.” Their roadmap for blunting China’s lurch for power and thus getting through the danger zone is as follows. First, rather than doubling down on the dreamy ambition to make China play by global rules, America must imminently deny it the monopoly of critical technologies it so craves: artificial intelligence, telecoms, quantum computing, synthetic biology, etc. Second, the U.S. must deepen economic integration with its allies and set up, as a bloc, supply chains independent from China in the technologies and resources that matter most—what the authors call “selective multilateral decoupling.” Third, blunting China’s attack on allied democracies requires what the authors call “defending forward”, namely, pre-empting authoritarian aggression against democracies by taking the fight to the adversary, such as through proactive cyber-attacks. And finally, protecting Taiwan from invasion is, the authors say, the “21st century equivalent of France’s stand on the Marne River”.

Coming up with a strategy along these lines is even more urgent, Beckley and Brands warn, given that the recent military upgrades that the U.S. has planned to counter China’s build-up won’t pay off until the 2030s. America’s defense budget, they write, is “hardly adequate for a dash through the danger zone.” That danger zone strategy, necessary though it is, may also prove politically costlier as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drags on and Washington’s focus remains on NATO’s eastern flank. The U.S. “doesn’t have a good alternative to containing two dangerous rivals simultaneously,” the authors claim. Far from warranting a reversion of the pivot to Asia, the authors see the war in Ukraine as a wake-up call and opportunity to prepare for a larger conflict brewing further to the east. “Autocratic aggression on one side of the world,” they claim, “could provide the urgency America needs to get ready for trouble on the other.” 

Whether America’s officials will be able to remain focused on great power competition with China despite the ongoing Ukrainian sideshow remains to be seen. Ultimately, irrespective of Ukraine’s influence on how Washington perceives Beijing, it is not entirely clear that the kind of proactive strategy to blunt China’s looming lurch for supremacy that Beckley and Brands propose will attain that objective more effectively than simply letting China’s aggression die out from overheating. Separately but relatedly, the case for treating a Chinese effort to integrate Taiwan back into the mainland as a red line is somewhat neutered by Taiwan’s decreased significance to America as an economic asset, given our progress reshoring the semiconductor industry. 

On the whole, these weaknesses in their case make Danger Zone fall on the hawkish side of this magazine’s policy preferences. While preparing to live in a world where China turns more aggressive as a result of its stalling fortunes sounds like the wiser option, one just hopes that getting through the looming danger zone doesn’t require open conflict.