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HomeGeopolitical CompassEast AsiaChina Is a Declining Power—and That’s the Problem

China Is a Declining Power—and That’s the Problem

Authors: Hal BrandsMichael Beckley

Affiliation: Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, American Enterprise Institute (resident scholar); Tufts University, American Enterprise Institute (visiting scholar)

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy

Date/Place: September 24, 2021/USA

Type of Literature: Opinion Article

Word Count: 4639


Keywords: Hegemonic Powers, US-China, Great powers, Revisionist power.  



The article evaluates the decline of hegemonic powers, which leads to the tendency of war. There’s a deadly trap that could ensnare the United States and China, yet it’s not the product of a power transition the Thucydidean cliché says it is but is best thought of instead as a “peaking power trap.” If history is any guide, it’s China’s looming decline—not the United States’—that could prompt it to snap shut. Great powers that had been increasing dramatically faster than the world average and then taking a severe, prolonged strike usually don’t fade away quietly. Gradually, they become hasty and hostile. China is also looming towards a demographic cliff—from 2020 to 2050 it will lose an astonishing 200 million working-age adults, a population the size of Nigeria, and gain 200 million senior citizens. To be clear, China probably won’t undertake an all-out military rampage across Asia, as Japan did in the 1930s and early 1940s. But it will run greater risks and accept greater tensions as it tries to lock in key gains. Welcome to geopolitics in the age of a peaking China, a country that already can violently challenge the existing order and one that will probably run faster and push harder as it loses confidence that time is on its side. The United States, then, will face not one but two tasks in dealing with China in the 2020s. It will have to continue mobilizing for long-term competition while also moving quickly to deter aggression and blunt some of the more aggressive, near-term moves Beijing may make. In other words, buckle up. The United States has been rousing itself to deal with a rising China. It’s about to discover that a declining China may be even more dangerous.

By: Maryam Khan, CIGA Research Associate



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