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Here’s How Scared of China You Should Be

It all depends on the answers to these five questions.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
A giant panda cub is seen at China's Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding on Sept. 19, 2007 in Chengdu, China.
A giant panda cub is seen at China's Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding on Sept. 19, 2007 in Chengdu, China.
A giant panda cub is seen at China's Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding on Sept. 19, 2007 in Chengdu, China. Paul Gilham/Getty Images

A critical issue in current debates on U.S. grand strategy is the priority the country should place on competing with China. How many resources (money, people, time, attention, etc.) should the United States devote to this problem? Is China the greatest geopolitical challenge the United States has ever faced, or a colossus with feet of clay? Should countering China take precedence over all other problems (Ukraine, climate change, migration, Iran, etc.), or is it just one issue among many and not necessarily the most important?

A critical issue in current debates on U.S. grand strategy is the priority the country should place on competing with China. How many resources (money, people, time, attention, etc.) should the United States devote to this problem? Is China the greatest geopolitical challenge the United States has ever faced, or a colossus with feet of clay? Should countering China take precedence over all other problems (Ukraine, climate change, migration, Iran, etc.), or is it just one issue among many and not necessarily the most important?

For some observers—such as Elbridge Colby—countering China is the highest priority, and U.S. leaders must not allow themselves to be distracted by Ukraine or any other foreign-policy issues. My occasional co-author John Mearsheimer and my Harvard colleague Graham Allison seem equally concerned about the China challenge, and especially by what they see as a rising risk of war. A recent Council on Foreign Relations task force argued that military trends in Asia were shifting in China’s favor and called for redoubled efforts to reinforce deterrence, especially in the Taiwan Strait. Hal Brands and Michael Beckley think China’s power is nearing its peak and there’s little Beijing can do to arrest its eventual decline, but they see this potential window of opportunity as a cause for alarm rather than reassurance. By contrast, my Quincy Institute colleague Michael Swaine and Cornell University scholar Jessica Chen Weiss think we are exaggerating the danger China poses and worry that the two states will fall into a self-fulfilling spiral of suspicion that will leave both worse off no matter who ends up on top.

These varied assessments are but a small sample of the opinions you can find about China’s future trajectory these days. I don’t know who’s right—and neither do you—and I freely admit that some of these observers know a lot more about China than I do. I have my hunches, of course, but I’m mostly frustrated that the community of serious China watchers hasn’t achieved more of a consensus. As a public service, therefore (and maybe to inspire them a little), here are my top five big questions about China. The answers to these questions would tell you a lot about how worried you should be.

No. 1: Is China’s economic future bright, dark, or somewhere in between?

Power in international politics ultimately rests upon economics. You can talk all you want about “soft power,” the genius of individual leaders, the importance of “national character,” the role of chance, and much more, but the bottom line is that a country’s ability to defend itself and shape its broader environment ultimately depends on its economic strength. You need a large population to be a great power, but you also need substantial wealth and a diverse and sophisticated economy. Hard economic power is what enables a state to build lots of sophisticated weapons and train a first-class military, provide goods and services that others want to buy and that can enrich its own citizens’ lives, and generate surpluses that can be used to build influence around the world. Being recognized by others as competent and economically successful is also a good way to earn their respect, get them to listen to your advice, and enhance the appeal of one’s political model.

China’s economic performance over the past 40 years has been extraordinary, and no serious person believes its economy is going to deteriorate so much that it drops out of the great-power ranks. But as its sluggish post-COVID performance suggests, China’s economy is now facing growing headwinds that are unlikely to abate. Its population is aging and declining, which means ever-fewer workers will be supporting an ever-growing number of retirees. Youth unemployment is over 21 percent, and total factor productivity growth has declined sharply over the past decade. China’s financial system remains opaque and debt-ridden, and the real estate sector—a major source of prior growth—is especially troubled. Put these things together, and it’s easy to see why many analysts are pessimistic about its long-term prospects. As I’ll discuss in a moment, U.S. policy and the quality of Chinese leadership could make these problems worse.

Yet shorting China would be a risky bet. Its industries dominate some important sectors—including solar and wind technology—and its electric car industry is outperforming the rest of the world. Three of the world’s top construction companies (including the one with the largest annual revenues) are Chinese. It has gone to considerable lengths to secure access to critical minerals and metals and may eventually be in a position to deny some of them to others. There is every reason to expect China to remain a major economic player far into the future. The big question is whether it will blow past the United States, remain permanently behind on most dimensions of economic power, or achieve rough parity. If you knew the answer to that question, you’d be a long way to knowing just how worried you should be.

No. 2: Will U.S. export controls work?

How you answer the first question depends in part on whether you think the Biden administration’s economic war against China will be successful. By denying China access to advanced semiconductors (and related technologies), the United States is hoping to retain technological supremacy in this important sector. Although U.S. officials insist that these measures are limited to narrow national security concerns (what National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan characterized as a “small yard and high fence”), the real aim seems to be to slow China’s technological advance more broadly.

The question is whether this campaign will succeed over the longer term. Even a partial decoupling is never cost-free, and these restrictions will slow innovation in the United States and in the other countries that must go along with the U.S. campaign if it is to work. Technological barriers are never 100 percent effective, and this policy gives China a huge incentive to become more self-sufficient over time. For these and other reasons, well-informed experts disagree about how effective these measures will be.

Let’s not forget that when export controls do work—as they did against Japan in 1941—the target state may not sit back and take it. China is already retaliating against U.S. firms and allies, and its countermeasures may not stop there.

The bottom line, however, is that if you think this campaign is going to work well, you’d be much less concerned about the long-term challenge that China poses to U.S. primacy or the existing global order. If you think it may work for a while but not forever, or that it will eventually trigger a backlash in China and in some other key countries, you ought to be a lot more concerned.

No. 3: Is Xi Jinping another Mao Zedong or another Lee Kuan Yew?

China’s rapid rise began under its post-Mao “collective leadership,” even if Deng Xiaoping was “first among equals” in the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy. Today, however, Xi has concentrated power to an extent unseen since Mao himself and cultivated a Mao-like cult of personality in which his thoughts are considered infallible and his decisions cannot be questioned.

Letting one person have unchecked power in a country is usually a recipe for disaster. No human being is infallible, and allowing an ambitious and willful person to operate without constraint makes it more likely that big mistakes will be made and go uncorrected for a long time. Just consider Mao’s ill-conceived Great Leap Forward (which caused a famine that killed millions), or the damage China suffered during the Cultural Revolution. If that’s not warning enough, consider the costs of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s disastrous views on monetary policy or the trainwreck Elon Musk is presiding over at the social media site formerly known as Twitter.

To be sure, there are a handful of individuals who defy the odds, consistently beat the market, and never seriously put a foot wrong. Maybe Warren Buffett or Lee approach this level of wisdom, but most leaders fall well short. My point is that China’s near- to medium-term future depends a lot on whether Xi is even half as smart as he thinks he is. He’s clearly a genius at consolidating power—as the recent purge of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang and several top military officers reminds us—but he also mismanaged the pandemic, undermined some of the brightest stars in the Chinese economy, and has presided over a steady decline in China’s global image. And the more power he amasses, the worse his policy judgments seem to be. Those of you who are bearish about China’s economic prospects might take heart in the fact that he’s probably in the job for life.

No. 4: Will Asia balance effectively?

One of Xi’s major failures was not doing more to discourage China’s neighbors from joining forces to keep Beijing in check. China’s rising power was bound to be of some concern to other Asian states, but openly proclaiming China’s global ambitions, embracing “wolf warrior diplomacy,” overreacting to perceived slights, and employing aggressive salami tactics against Taiwan and in the South China Sea made the problem worse.

The result? India and the United States continued to move closer, and they are now joined by Japan and Australia in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The AUKUS agreement has strengthened strategic ties (and security collaboration) between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Japan is increasing its defense spending rapidly and mending its delicate relations with South Korea. Farther afield, the European Union is becoming less enamored with Chinese investment, and public opinion in Europe and Asia has become much warier of China’s global role.

That said, the ultimate effectiveness of these measures remains to be seen. As I’ve written previously, a balancing coalition in Asia faces significant collective action problems, and Europe isn’t going to take on a major strategic role there. The distances separating these states are vast (which may tempt some states to pull back if trouble starts far away), nobody wants to lose complete access to the Chinese market, and countries like South Korea and Japan have a troubled past. Many of these states may want to let Uncle Sam handle China while they free-ride, which will undermine deterrence and could eventually lead to a backlash here in the United States. These same states also tend to get nervous if the United States becomes too confrontational, because they don’t want to be collateral damage in a Sino-American clash.

America and its Asian partners are actively balancing today—as balance of power/threat theory would lead us to expect—but whether they do enough of the right things is hardly a foregone conclusion. If they do, Chinese hegemony in Asia is much less likely and the risk of war goes down. If not, you should probably worry a bit more. Here, a lot depends on whether the United States can lead a potentially fractious coalition and find the sweet spot between doing too much and doing too little. Who wants to take a bet on that?

No. 5: What will the rest of the world do?

The final issue isn’t about China, per se; it’s about how the rest of the world is responding. A clear pattern is emerging: The Asian states most worried about China are moving closer to each other and gravitating toward the United States; most of Europe is reluctantly following America’s lead because they are still dependent on U.S. protection and thus don’t have much choice; Russia has little choice but to stick with its only major power partner; and medium powers around the world are hedging their bets, diversifying their strategic supply chains (trade and investment, diplomatic ties, and military support) and trying to avoid having to pick a side. For South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and some others, rivalry between China and the United States is an opportunity to play the great powers off each other and benefit from ties with both.

The key issue here is which of the two strongest powers plays this new game most effectively. The United States has squandered a lot of good will in the developing world over the past 30 years, and its failures have given China an opportunity. But China’s own actions—including the vaunted Belt and Road Initiative—haven’t been the game-changers many expected. Looking ahead, it’s easy to see a world order that looks surprisingly like the early Cold War: the U.S. aligned with Europe and much of East Asia and the Pacific, China aligned with Russia and some key states in the developing world, and other medium powers oscillating between them. The lineup on these scorecards isn’t a perfect match, and some of the players will have switched teams, but the overall pattern resembles the one we’ve seen before.

One more thing…

There may also be known unknowns out there, too. If you really want to worry about China, or if inflating the threat is part of your job description, you can always fall back on scary scenarios whose veracity is almost impossible for outsiders to determine. The Red Scare in the 1950s is a classic example: Lots of Americans genuinely believed that their society was being infiltrated and undermined by scores of people who pretended to be patriotic citizens but were in fact secretly loyal to their evil Kremlin overlords. Such fears were vastly overblown but also hard to disprove, for how can we ever know another person’s innermost thoughts and loyalties?

Viewed in this light, what are we to make of the recent New York Times story describing U.S. efforts to find and eliminate computer malware that Chinese hackers are said to have secretly embedded in critical U.S. infrastructure, perhaps in the hope of disrupting or delaying a U.S. military response to a future conflict? Fears of a cyber-Pearl Harbor have been around for a long time, but the article suggests that the danger is very real. It’s hard to know just how worried we should be, however, because we don’t know how effective the malware might be and we can never be 100 percent certain there isn’t some even more dangerous code lurking somewhere that our cybersecurity folks haven’t found yet.

Perhaps we should be really worried, but what struck me about the Times piece, which is based on interviews with unnamed senior administration officials (that is, on officially sanctioned leaks), is that it says almost nothing about U.S. efforts to do similar things in China. It quotes one Chinese official complaining about the cyberattacks it faces, which he says come mostly “from sources in the U.S.,” but otherwise the article is silent on what our own cyber-warriors are up to. It is hard to believe that China has been planting malware in critical U.S. infrastructure for years and those well-funded geniuses at the National Security Agency or U.S. Cyber Command have just been playing defense. If that is the case, we’ve got bigger problems to worry about.

So how scared should you be? I don’t know. If history is any guide, the United States is more likely to overreact to a possible China challenge than to under-respond, and the current bipartisan enthusiasm for confronting China on multiple fronts supports that prediction. But whether you think we are doing too much or too little depends to a considerable extent on how you answer the five questions listed above. I’d be ever so grateful if some smart China experts put their heads together and tried to narrow the range of disagreement. It would be even better if they did so publicly and laid out their sources and reasoning in as much detail as possible so that those of us who care about these questions could have better-informed debates on this vital strategic question.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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