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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchHow Primed for War Is China?

How Primed for War Is China?

Authors: Hal Brands and Michael Beckley

Affiliation: Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)/ Political Science at Tufts University, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Foreign Policy Research Institute (He worked for the U.S. Department of Defense, the RAND Corporation, and continues to advise offices within the U.S. Intelligence Community and U.S. Department of Defense) 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy

Date/Place: February 4, 2024/ USA

Type of Literature: Analysis 

Word Count: 5010


Keywords: Sino-American Rivalry, Taiwan Dilemma, Xi Jinping, Chinese Power


In this article, Hal Brands and Michael Beckley argue that the likelihood of China initiating a war against Taiwan or another target in the Western Pacific is at the highest it has ever been. If China does so, it could result in a conflict with the United States, potentially escalating into a war between two nuclear-armed superpowers vying for dominance in the region and beyond. This scenario, especially amid ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, could engulf the world in interconnected conflicts across key regions of Eurasia, reminiscent of the scale of conflict seen during World War II. 

The article warns that the warning signs of potential aggression from China are evident, despite recent diplomatic efforts between Beijing and Washington. While some analysts believe that the risk of Chinese aggression is exaggerated and manageable with careful diplomacy, Brands and Beckley argue that the changing circumstances in China could lead to a more belligerent stance. Factors such as territorial disputes, shifting military balances, a darkening economic outlook, and Xi’s authoritarian leadership style contribute to an increased risk of conflict. Despite the uncertainty of when a conflict might occur, indicators suggest that China’s risk of aggression is significant and warrants attention.


To begin with, the authors posit that China’s behavior could undergo changes based on domestic developments and external circumstances. While the possibility of a US-China war might seem remote, as Beijing has not fought a major war in 44 years, China’s aggressive actions in the South and East China Seas and its conflicts with neighbors like India suggest a potential for escalation. Chinese officials tout their peaceful rise, contrasting it with America’s history of warfare. However, historical precedents warn against this argument; seemingly peaceful rising powers have turned aggressive before. For instance, before World War I, Germany had remained relatively peaceful for over 40 years. In the 1920s, Japan appeared as a responsible player, signing treaties to restrict its navy and cooperate in Asia. Similarly, in the early 2000s, Russia contemplated closer ties with NATO and the West under Vladimir Putin’s leadership. However, despite these seemingly peaceful intentions, each nation eventually engaged in aggressive wars of conquest. This highlights the unpredictability of countries’ behavior, showing that circumstances can lead to drastic shifts in their actions over time. While a US-China war may seem unlikely, history cautions against dismissing the possibility entirely.


The second part highlights the factors that might lead China to wage a potential war, including territorial disputes, shifts in military power, fear of future decline, and the nature of the regime. As the authors point out, “Roughly 85% of international conflicts waged since 1945 have revolved around territorial claims.” Territorial disputes, driven by the symbolic and strategic importance of land, often escalate when one side fears losing control. In addition, a shifting military balance is another cause of war. Wars arise from false optimism when both sides believe they can win, particularly when military balances become more competitive or ambiguous, such as the introduction of new technologies or a massive military buildup by the weaker side. Furthermore, great powers may turn belligerent when they sense that economic stagnation or strategic encirclement is threatening their international position. Even the most powerful nations can descend into a state of volatile insecurity when faced with economic stagnation, strategic isolation, or prolonged challenges that jeopardize their global standing and make them vulnerable to aggression from adversaries. Finally, dictatorships, prone to extremism and surrounded by loyalists, are more inclined to initiate wars because they are less exposed to the costs of conflict. These four factors shed light on China’s potential for aggression today.


The third part examines “the peaceful/aggressive” history of China since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. The authors argue that China was born amid conflict and endured a century of foreign imperialism followed by the devastation of World War II and a bloody civil war. Forged amid these conflicts, China emerged as a hyper-belligerent state. It fought five wars and became a chief enemy of both Cold War superpowers. Under Mao’s rule, marked by dictatorial power and disregard for human life, China became hyper-belligerent, engaging in multiple wars. For instance, Mao instigated an international crisis in 1958 by shelling islands held by the Nationalist government in Taiwan. China found itself surrounded by hostile or unstable neighbors along most of its borders. By the 1960s, its boundary with the Soviet Union was heavily militarized. Taiwan, supported by the United States, aimed to retake mainland China. India hosted a Tibetan government in exile and laid claim to parts of Chinese territory. Additionally, China’s heartland was situated between Cold War flashpoints in Indochina and the Korean Peninsula. These dangerous borders fostered a sense of constant vulnerability and fueled territorial disputes. From the 1950s to the 1980s, China initiated several conflicts, driven by fears of decline. The authors provide many examples in this regard. 

However, following Mao’s death, China experienced significant changes. Deng Xiaoping’s leadership ushered in institutional reforms and geopolitical shifts, reducing threats to China’s territorial integrity. During the 1970s, with the US opening to China, the relations between the two powers improved and economic growth tempered China’s aggression. To contain the Soviet Union, the United States established a quasi-alliance with China, sharing advanced technology with Chinese firms. This partnership deterred Taiwan, the Soviet Union, India, and Vietnam from threatening Chinese territory due to the risk of US intervention. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the primary threats to China’s land borders vanished almost entirely. All of these factors led to a period of relative peace for China and pushed it to focus on economic development and integration into the global community.


The authors believe, in the fourth part of the article, that China has shed its cloak of secrecy and patience, now openly ramping up its military capabilities at an unprecedented rate. Warships and missiles are churned out in abundance, with aggressive simulations targeting Taiwan and US interests. Chinese military outposts dot Asian sea lanes, while forces amass along the Sino-Indian border. This combative stance stems from a newfound capacity; China’s military budget has swelled tenfold since 1990, now surpassing the combined spending of all Asian countries. It boasts the world’s largest navy and ballistic missile force, potentially rivaling the US nuclear arsenal by the decade’s end. With the US bases on Okinawa within reach of China’s missiles, the US’s immediate response to a Taiwanese assault is uncertain. With China’s current huge manufacturing capacities, “Beijing might believe—correctly or not—that the military balance would shift further in its favor the longer a war continues.” There are many signs that prove that China has growing motives for war. Territorial disputes fuel China’s aggression. Peaceful options for Taiwan’s reunification dwindle as Taiwanese sentiment shifts towards independence, backed by tighter US relations. In the South China Sea, China’s military might grow, but its diplomatic clout wanes. Also, nations like the Philippines and Japan are resisting China and bolstering defense alliances with Western countries, challenging Beijing’s assertiveness. Moreover, the authors argue that as China’s military might grows, its economy falters, with rising unemployment, debt, and an aging population crisis. Meanwhile, a hostile global environment restricts access to crucial technology and fosters anti-China alliances. For instance, alliances opposing China, like AUKUS, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and the trilateral agreement between the US, Japan, and South Korea, are increasingly gaining momentum. Furthermore, Russia, China’s primary ally among major powers, invaded Ukraine, causing backlash against Beijing in European public opinion. Furthermore, China’s uncompromising stance on territorial claims and superpower ambitions raises concerns. Xi’s consolidation of power and readiness for conflict, coupled with internal aggression such as human rights abuses, suggest a potential for external aggression. “In recent years, Xi has given internal speeches instructing the Chinese military to be ready for war and the Chinese people to prepare for “extreme scenarios.” These factors highlight the need for caution regarding China’s future actions on the world stage.


The authors do not trust the voices that suggest that Russia’s actions in Ukraine might dissuade China from aggressive ventures, serving as a cautionary lesson of the perils of military aggression. They suggest that the true lessons learned are not evident from public statements but likely influenced by the perceptions of Xi Jinping, China’s authoritarian leader. Xi’s public remarks indicate a commitment to driving significant global changes alongside Russia, suggesting an unyielding stance. “When Xi visited Moscow in March 2023, he told Putin, “Right now, there are changes—the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years—and we are the ones driving those changes together.” Moreover, Xi’s views on the Ukraine conflict may not align with Western expectations. Unlike Russia’s situation, China has long prepared for a potential conflict over Taiwan and maintains a distinct strategic outlook. Xi may perceive Western responses to the Ukraine crisis as ineffectual, bolstering his confidence in China’s ability to weather international pressure and pursue its objectives. 


In the final part of the article, Brands and Beckley discuss China’s potential for military aggression towards Taiwan or other nations. They think it remains uncertain, with various contingent factors influencing the likelihood and timing of such actions. Historical understanding of war causation suggests China is currently predisposed towards violence. At the same time, external powers, like the United States, face limitations in altering these dynamics. While Washington cannot directly resolve China’s demographic or economic challenges, it can influence Beijing’s perception of future outcomes, potentially deterring aggression. To curb China’s optimism about the outcome of conflict, strategic measures are necessary, including bolstering Taiwan’s defense capabilities and enhancing the US military presence in the Western Pacific. Strengthening alliances and forming a global coalition to impose economic sanctions are also crucial. However, efforts to counter China’s military threat are hindered by a lack of urgency and resources. Simultaneously, the US must balance deterrence with reassurance, particularly regarding Taiwan, to prevent unilateral changes to the status quo. Avoiding provocative actions, such as overt displays of support for Taiwanese independence, is essential to managing tensions. Maintaining a credible defense commitment to Taiwan while upholding the One China policy is paramount in navigating these complexities.


The authors conclude by emphasizing that this strategy is rife with contradictions, as strengthening deterrence may heighten China’s apprehensions, complicating cross-strait diplomacy. The urgency of addressing China’s trajectory towards aggression must be tempered with prudence, especially amid domestic political considerations. As China’s trajectory veers towards conflict, it will require steadfast resolve and diplomatic finesse from the US and its allies to avert a catastrophic outcome.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Research Fellow



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