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Competition with China Could Be Short and Sharp: The Risk of War Is Greatest in the Next Decade

Authors: Michael Beckley and Hal Brands

Affiliation: Tufts University, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs

Date/Place: December 17, 2020/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 2390


Keywords: Taiwan, 5G Tech, Zone of Danger, the Risk of War, and the US-China Competition



The authors argue that the next five to ten years will witness a sharply growing rivalry between the US and China. The possibility of war will be frighteningly real. Therefore, the US needs a long-term strategy to compete with China in the long run, but first, it needs a short-term strategy to successfully move in what they call the zone of danger. Before defining the features of this strategy, the authors explain the reasons behind their anticipation of an upcoming sharp competition between the two powers—China has acquired the ability to disrupt the US-led existing international order, especially in the period of the noticeable US retreat under President Trump, where the balance of power has recently tilted in favor of Beijing in crucial areas of US-Chinese competition, such as the Taiwan front and the struggle over global communications “5G” networks. Moreover, China had enough money and muscle to challenge the United States in the major economic, military, and technological sectors, so it was not surprising that Beijing tested the status quo in the region extending from the South China Sea to the border with India. Nevertheless, there are problems that China suffers from that have quickly narrowed its opportunities, most notably the decline in its annual economic growth rate by more than half since 2007, the decline in its productivity by 10%, the inflation of its debt to eight times (335%), the decline in the labor force, and the growing number of the elderly who will reach 300 million people over the next three decades. All of this will bring an internal collapse of the Soviet-style, in addition to the growing feelings of global hostility against China, as about 12 countries have suspended or canceled participation in the projects of the Belt and Road Initiative, and 16 other countries have severely restricted the use of Huawei products, as well as the military alert in China’s neighboring, such as in Japan, the Philippines, and India. Therefore, the authors assume that the fear of retreat China has been feeling and the pressure exerted on it from all sides will make it gamble with the war decision, because it fears of wasting the opportunity for geopolitical greatness, as happened with Germany during World War I or Japan in 1941. Also, the authors remind us of the Soviet Union’s fall resulting from the desire for military expansion and reaping geopolitical gains in light of the slowdown in its domestic economy. Therefore, the US needs a short-term strategy to limit any potential aggression from China over the next decade. American leaders have realized that winning a long-term competition requires not losing decisive battles in the short term, especially in the danger zone. This strategy bases on three principles: 1. Focusing on denying China’s short-term successes that would fundamentally alter the balance of power in the long run. The priority is thwarting China’s attempts to invade Taiwan and curbing the Chinese superiority in the “5G” communications networks. 2. Reliance on tools and partnerships available now or in the near future, rather than assets that take years to develop. 3. Focus on selectively weakening Chinese power, rather than changing Chinese behavior or what is termed “targeted attrition.” The scholars then explain the way in which the US should support Taiwan to prevent it from being dominated by China, explaining the vital importance of Taiwan in the South China Sea. They also provide practical recommendations that would prevent China from creating a wider global technological and strategic influence that harms the US’ standing and its democratic allies. In the final part, the authors present a set of recommendations for the incoming Biden administration (with which they share the liberal internationalism) on how to deal with China during this dangerous decade. According to them, with the deep wounds that the US suffers internally in its democracy, economy, and public health, Washington should not forget the fact that it has entered the danger zone in its relations with Beijing. Therefore, the US does not have time to delay addressing the urgent geopolitical dangers resulting from China’s behavior, which necessitates a combination of strength and caution to not provoke a direct conflict that it seeks to avoid. In sum, successful statecraft of the competition will be the one that keeps it somewhat less volatile, and the US will be able to win the long competition against China if it can successfully overcome the upcoming battles in the danger zone.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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