Warning

Professor Michael Beckley (Tufts University) sounds a warning in Foreign Affairs in an article titled “The United States Should Fear a Faltering ChinaBeijing’s Assertiveness Betrays Its Desperation.”

His thesis is both simple and compelling:

  • China’s seemingly inexorable rise is faltering;
  • Although the numbers still look good by First World standards they may, in fact, be below what China needs to maintain internal social harmony;
  • History says that when rising powers struggle and falter they often look to aggression as a way around their economic problems;
  • Some (many) of China’s recent actions make it seem as if history is repeating itself.

China’s recent behavior is a textbook response to economic insecurity,” he says. “Back in the 1990s and the early years of this century, when the country’s economy was booming, China loosened political controls and announced to the world its “peaceful rise,” to be pursued through economic integration and friendly diplomatic relations … [but, he advises us to] … Compare the situation today: labor protests are on the rise, elites have been moving their money and children out of the country en masse, and the government has outlawed the reporting of negative economic news. President Xi Jinping has given multiple internal speeches warning party members of the potential for a Soviet-style collapse. The government has doubled internal security spending over the past decade, creating the most advanced propaganda, censorship, and surveillance systems in history. It has detained one million Uighurs in internment camps and concentrated power in the hands of a dictator for life. State propaganda blames setbacks, such as the 2015 stock market collapse and the 2019 Hong Kong protests, on Western meddling. These,” he says, and I agree, “are not the actions of a confident superpower.

If China’s growth slows further in the coming years, as is likely … [he warns] … the Chinese government will probably double down on the repression and aggression of the past decade. When the country’s leaders cannot rely on rapid growth to bolster their domestic legitimacy and international clout, they will be all the more eager to squelch dissent, burnish their nationalist credentials, and boost the economy by any means necessary. Moreover, powerful interest groups—most notably, state-owned enterprises and the military and security services—have developed a vested interest in maintaining China’s current strategy, which funnels money into their coffers. As a result, the government would struggle to extricate itself from foreign entanglements even if it wanted to.” In other words, Xi Jinping may not be able to stabilize a faltering China without resorting to aggressive military adventures … à la Putin’s Russia.

Professor Beckley says that “The danger to the United States and its allies is clear. Rampant espionage, protectionism, a splintered Internet, naval clashes in the East and South China Seas, and a war over Taiwan are only the more obvious risks that a desperate and flailing China will pose … [I’m not so sure I would go so far as to say “will” but I agree that they are all dangers China might pose] …. U.S. statecraft … [he says] … will need to contain these risks without causing China to lash out in the process. To that end, Washington will have to deter Chinese aggression, assuage China’s insecurities, and insulate the United States from blowback should deterrence and reassurance fail. The inherent tension among these objectives will make the task a very difficult one.” I’m really not confident that US President Trump is up to the intellectual challenge of managing a coherent, balances, even nuanced foreign policy. It’s not his style, at all.

Michael Beckley offers a couple of ideas, one very good, one not so well thought out:

  • He recommends that “Instead of deterring Chinese expansionism by sailing provocative but vulnerable naval armadas past China’s coastline, for instance, Washington could deploy mobile antiship and surface-to-air missile launchers on allied shores.” I don’t think it is an either/or proposition. First not all (maybe not even many) Asian nations are going to want to play host to US missile installations so long as Donal Trump has his finger on the trigger. I think we more allied Freedom of Navigation patrols, including Australian, British, Canadian, Dutch and even Indian warships to help reassure e.g. the Brunie, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam that the US-led West stands with them; and
  • A more productive recommendation is that “If the United States joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—and invited China to join, too—Beijing would have the motive and means to reduce its trade-distorting practices without fighting a 1930s-style trade war. China might spurn the offer, but then the treaty would at least strengthen the commitment of its signatories to the free flow of goods, money, and data. In so doing, it would limit the spread of China’s mercantilist and digital authoritarian policies.” It’s a very good idea but given President Trumps all too evident hatred of trade deals it is unlikely to happen until after 2024.

Professor Beckley concludes, and I agree, that: “Perhaps in a few decades, Chinese power will gradually mellow. Now, however, is a moment of maximum danger, because China is too weak to feel secure or satisfied with its place in the world order but strong enough to destroy it. As China’s economic miracle comes to an end, and Xi’s much-touted Chinese Dream slips away, the United States must contain China’s outbursts with a careful blend of deterrence, reassurance, and damage limitation. Compared to gearing up for a whole-of-society throwdown against a rising superpower, this mission may seem uninspiring. But it would be smarter—and ultimately more effective.” My only worry is that America, in 2019/2020 has the worst possible leadership for that sort of a calculated strategic risk.

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