China Is a Big Threat, But the Challenge May Not Be What It Seems

China Is a Big Threat, But the Challenge May Not Be What It Seems

A new book argues China's economy and aging population make Beijing more dangerous and more fragile.

The end of the pandemic is within reach, with almost one in four Americans having extended their arms to receive at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. But with the Chinese Communist Party continuing to withhold information about the virus’s origins while simultaneously pushing disinformation about the effectiveness of Western-made vaccines, it’s clear that there’s no quick fix to the challenges posed by the regime leading the world’s most populous country.

Americans’ attitudes toward China have hardened quickly and significantly. According to a new Pew survey, 89 percent of Americans consider China a competitor or enemy, rather than a partner. That wasn’t always the case, as the same survey shows “cold” feelings toward China rising twenty-one points in three years, to 67 percent. Then-candidate Joe Biden argued in May 2019, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man.” By March 2021, now-President Biden insisted that, when it comes to Beijing, “They’re going to eat our lunch” if Washington doesn’t step up.

China has been the primary foreign-policy focus in Washington for four years. Though the new administration differs on the specifics of the best approach, that focus does not appear likely to change. However, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Dan Blumenthal demonstrates in The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State, Republicans and Democrats are both late to the game. The China challenge has been here for quite some time. It even predates Xi Jinping, who took over as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012.

Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, “set the stage for Xi’s aggressive international diplomacy, rapid armaments program, and brutal internal crackdown.” Hu reversed economic and legal reforms that had opened up China. Hu strengthened and mobilized the People’s Liberation Army, which Blumenthal describes not as a typical military, but as the Chinese Communist Party’s “armed wing.” Hu sent the PLA Navy to push illegal claims in the South and East China Seas in pursuit of its “historic mission.” Hu did away with Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “hide your strength, bide your time,” and Xi escalated.

What is the nature of the China challenge, and why is Beijing choosing this course rather than to become a responsible stakeholder? Blumenthal combines a compelling synthesis of Beijing’s provocations across the military, economic, technological, diplomatic, and ideological domains with a provocative thesis about how Beijing’s vulnerabilities drive its behavior. The book’s main argument is that “despite (or perhaps because of) China’s growing internal weakness, it is pushing forward grand strategic ambitions.”

In part because of the One-Child Policy, which was modified after more than three decades in 2015, China is aging faster than any other country—by 2040 the over-sixty-five population will increase by 150 percent to 340 million, more than the entire population of today’s United States. Its economic growth collapsed by more than 50 percent between 2007 and 2018 as the state sector reasserted control over the economy. More than 150,000 state-owned enterprises now hold assets equal to 230 percent of GDP, stifling innovation. China will grow old before it grows rich.

These trends point to a bleak future, and some of the most interesting sections of the book address the desires and discontents of the 1.4 billion Chinese people themselves. The Communist Party, founded one-hundred years ago this July, has been in power since 1949. Blumenthal’s description of the “CCP regime in China,” however, conveys doubt that the Party has another hundred years left, in power or in any form.

The Party faces a crisis of legitimacy from a people who “if they had a choice…would build a more free and just society.” Many elites are fleeing the country, “voting with their feet and their pocketbooks” by getting visas and buying property in places like the United States and Europe while sending their children to foreign universities.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s brutal treatment of ordinary Chinese demonstrates the precarity of the regime’s position. Its concentration camps in far-inland Xinjiang hold as many as three million Uyghur Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities, the latest instance of mass repression after the decades-long assault against Tibet. On the far coast, its crackdown on once-free Hong Kong has broken what made that city a destination for investors, tourists, and journalists alike. Meanwhile, Xi has centralized power in himself, launching a “Maoist-style anti-corruption campaign” targeting his rivals while building a national-security state that touches every aspect of daily life, including through a Social-Credit System to monitor, reward, and punish political behavior and ordinary activities like obeying traffic lights. These are not the actions of leaders confident that the “People’s Republic” actually has the people’s support.

The fragility of the ruling Communist party does not mean the China challenge will solve itself, or that America’s lunch is in fact safe. The People’s Liberation Army’s increased strength and aggression, combined with China’s gains in areas like 5G, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and international influence are dangerous in the hands of such a brutal regime. Its ambitions to reunify—if necessary, by force—with Taiwan and to build a “world-class military” while crafting a “community of common destiny for mankind” are well known.

However, all is not as it may seem to those who fantasize about a purportedly insurmountable rival to the United States. If Blumenthal’s thesis is correct, though, then China’s long-term ambitions, present strength, and mounting weaknesses clearly make the next few years particularly dangerous for the United States and its partners.

The world has gotten a much-needed shot in the arm, and Americans understand that China presents a serious challenge. With a shared understanding comes the need for action, and Blumenthal begins to sketch the way forward, with calls for America to modernize its military, engage diplomatically, and maintain its primacy and position in the first island chain. He’s also shown that, after the pandemic has abated, another nightmare may be coming. But that nightmare need not last forever.

Wilson Shirley was a speechwriter at the U.S. Department of State in the Office of Policy Planning from 2020 – 2021. He is also a former U.S. Senate staffer.

Image: Reuters.