For this week at least, Russia’s revived aggression is dominating the news in the United States. Once the furor subsides, the conflict with al-Qaida will likely regain most of the attention from the media and national security experts. But in the long term, these issues pale in importance to the challenge of China’s rising power, however much it may have faded into the background today.
As China’s economy took off in recent decades, the nation undertook a vast military expansion and became increasingly confident and assertive, shifting from a sullen, insular nation to a global power. The United States
responded with a dual-track policy
, simultaneously engaging and balancing China. Engagement was intended to assure Beijing that a cooperative relationship was possible and to encourage China to help maintain the existing Asia-Pacific security and economic system. Balancing, which involved expanded American cooperation with traditional security partners like Australia, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and the development of new partnerships with nations like India and Singapore, was to convince China that it could not alter the regional order by force.
In the broadest sense, this strategy was designed to “manage” China’s rise. Security experts differ on how it will unfold. Some, like the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer
, are pessimistic, believing that eventually the United States and China will reach the point of outright confrontation, possibly even armed conflict. Others, like Princeton’s Aaron Friedberg
and David Lai
of the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, believe that sustaining a cooperative U.S.-China relationship will be difficult but possible. The key is understanding when to engage and when to balance.
Despite these differences, most security experts assumed that China’s rise would continue at least for a while. Eventually, official corruption, an aging population and an unsustainable economic model will slow down China’s economic growth and moderate its behavior. The task for the United States is to safely manage the relationship until that point. Hopefully this is accurate.
But there is another, more frightening possibility: Rather than moderating Beijing’s assertiveness, economic decline might intensify internal problems and make China aggressively belligerent and prone to miscalculation. If so, the real danger is not managing China’s rise but weathering its eventual decline.
History is littered with instances when declining nations lashed out because they felt long-term trends were against them, and with autocratic regimes using hypernationalism to blunt internal opposition and distract attention from their failings. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 because it knew that American economic sanctions were sapping its economic power and military capability. For the Japanese high command, the window of opportunity was closing. Today, Iran uses national paranoia and fear of external enemies, both real and imagined, to distract its people from the regime’s repression and economic mismanagement.
China could replicate these historical patterns. While previous predictions of China’s economic demise proved wrong
, signs are mounting that the amazing economic growth of the past two decades is slowing. This would undercut Beijing’s ability to mute internal dissent with constantly increasing prosperity. To preserve the system that has rewarded the elite with wealth and power, China’s leaders might attempt to sustain public support by turning to hypernationalism, warning of great external threats and enemies lurking at every turn, hoping that the Chinese people will turn their frustration outward rather than against the regime itself.
An economic slowdown could also cause the regime to mistrust its military. The People’s Liberation Army has benefited greatly from economic growth with lavish increases in defense expenditures funding the acquisition of all kinds of new military equipment and technology. A regime that could no longer buy the loyalty of the military with massive increases in defense spending might feel compelled to exploit the patriotism of military leaders through risky and aggressive action. As with the Japanese in 1941, China might feel that as its economic growth slows or even reverses, its chances of regaining Taiwan will also decline, leading to “now or never” logic guiding its calculations.
Unfortunately, there is little the United States can do to prevent China from turning to hypernationalism or lashing out as economic stagnation or decline inflames internal tensions. Washington’s influence over Chinese domestic political and economic decisions is minimal at best. The Chinese elite will cling to a political and economic system that have made them and their families massively rich and influential, resisting deep, fundamental reform in favor of Band-Aid solutions and distractions.
Throughout history, the beginning of economic decline has been a time of great danger for any state as the expectations that grew from prosperity are frustrated. Economic downturns spawn extremism and conflict of all kinds. It may turn out that the pessimists are wrong and China is not approaching economic decline. Perhaps the existing elite will be able to reform its way out of the dilemma without surrendering power. But if decline is coming, it will be just such a time of great danger.
For the United States, the priority is to prepare to respond as quickly as possible to any increased hostility and aggression that comes from China. Washington must remember that if primarily internal factors are driving increased bellicosity—if aggression is an effort to distract attention from domestic economic and political failings—appeasement won’t work. Only military strength will. Efforts by the U.S. military to assure that it can strike Chinese targets if necessary are part of the solution, but so too is the ability to reverse the rapid drawdown of the U.S. military if China turns hostile. U.S. military leaders often use the word “reversibility” as they think about how to shrink the armed forces. By this, they mean drawing down in a way that would make a future expansion of the armed forces as effective and as possible. This, more than anything else, would help the United States weather aggression from a hypernationalistic China in the throes of decline.
Steven Metz is a defense analyst and the author of "Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy
." His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons
, appears every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz