Danger Zone – The Coming Conflict with China (Hal Brands and Michael Beckley)

4-11-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

As we are living through times reminiscent not only of the forgotten Cold War, but also of the gradual rise to WW2, it should be useful to review “Danger Zone”, the new book on the collision course of China with the West by American scholars Hal Brands (Johns Hopkins, American Enterprise Institute) and Michael Beckley (Tufts, American Enterprise Institute). 2022 has seen a return to old geopolitical ways in the middle of Europe, with Russia’s failed rapid invasion of Ukraine and, more globally, with a China, under the leadership of an increasingly Mao-like Xi Jinping, that seemed ready to assert its ambitions through old ways at a time when it is also faced with serious internal challenges. The dual threat to both the West and the world order as we knew it was surprising to many (like me and…Angela Merkel amongst others) who genuinely thought that globalisation and the “economy first” would create enough incentives to (relatively, for some) powerful autocratic states never to return to old ways of supremacy assertion. Ukraine changed everything rapidly, putting Taiwan on the map of serious potential world issues. While Russia leads an ill-fated and, so far, unsuccessful existential drive not to be relegated to what it actually is, energy and nuclear weapons aside, China is the “potential” and “eventual” world leader in the making, the question being in how many years. While the world is getting upside down due to an erratic Russia and a soul-searching China, the West is getting weaker by the year led by a Civil War-like-divided America. Even the European Union, weakened by a Brexit that that never made Britain stronger, is divided among its members on many issues and policies, the latest being the funding of its energy needs. At this stage, China may be a factor of stability or one of crisis enhancement globally, the latter being the topic covered by Brands & Beckley.

Brands & Beckley start the book with a bang in January 2025, and a Taiwan invasion at a time when a truly-divided America is arguing anew who won the 2024 presidential race, with fights in the streets in a super-January 6 mode—this time across the whole land. The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier is also hit by a missile, while Chinese special forces target Taiwanese leaders, and cyberattacks take down Taiwan’s power grid and an amphibious assault begins. While this scenario seemed outlandish in the early to mid-2010s, the world changed as China started to assert itself more forcefully but also Russia gradually changed the game, first starting via “little green men” and local Russian nationalists in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014 and then more clearly in February 2022 with the direct invasion of its European neighbour. Brands & Beckley put forward a sound explanation for China’s potential bellicose assertiveness, that would not be driven by seeking world leadership (as often stated) but more as a result of serious internal weaknesses, like poor demographics, slow economic growth and a more autocratic leadership style—as seen with the new (life?) term of Xi Jinping. China is still relatively strong, if only due to its size and its role in the world economy, but actually not so much as seen with the inept Zero Covid policies in large urban centres, that create economic and social havoc, with no real health basis, annoying the local population, and stressing a rather incompetent Chinese political leadership. Some should question the relevance of the Chinese Communist Party in 2022 in terms of its current relevance and societal usefulness—in the same way the out-of-this-world Iranian theocratic regime and its inept policies, that could likely fall at some point as younger and even older Iranians who want to live in the real world “don’t want it anymore”. The deal between the CCP and the middle class based on “travel the world and buy Western goods” is under potential threat (hopefully not, especially for Toorbee, a start-up I am close to and which is focused on making Chinese travel the world better as well as bringing good ideas back home). According to Brands & Beckley, the key Chinese problem lies in its “peaking power” status that makes it very dangerous. One of Beijing’s problems, that could accelerate a conflict, is that it has reached a point of historical weakness in its competition with the US for world supremacy, which might trigger a more hostile stance. Insecurity would be a driver, as it may have been for Putin, arguing that his Ukraine move (once the childish Peter the Great points are cast aside) is driven by the eastern NATO expansion and the direct threat to Russia (as if the West wanted to invade it… which makes eyes roll across all Western capitals). It would seem that China’s problems may be linked to its earlier economic successes that were not skilfully managed by a CCP leadership, also going back to a Mao-like era, with Xi Jinping who drew a line over the recent past (what was to be gained from the public dismissal “for health reasons” of former Premier Hu Jintao as if to make things of a new era clearer?). Brands & Beckley point to declining economic performance, misallocation of capital on a grand scale, an oversized property sector and rising uncontrolled debt—to which could be added issues with its grand “Belt and Road Initiative” scheme of investing in developing nations, like across Africa, and suffering many financial setbacks—all reminding observers of many of the lethal pitfalls that made the former Soviet Union eventually fall. This last point opens the debate on whether autocracies can really manage the economy well and, again, whether loyalty to the leader(s) is not always accompanied by incompetence that eventually destroys the leader(s)—Russia and Iran being ongoing cases in point.

China should be engaged more forcefully—not to make it more dangerous but to remind it that its best interests are to be part of the concert of key nations in a globalised world. China should learn from Turkey’s Erdoğan who seized the Ukraine crisis to play a positive moderating world role, at a time its image had not been very positive for years. It looks like China was taken by surprise by the Ukraine invasion, right after a warm declaration of mutual friendship with Putin’s Russia a few days before the invasion. China had to be neutral and not condemn Moscow but grew increasingly concerned as months went by and Putin failed militarily (both on the battlefield, and with his ill-fated mobilisation drive, that showed more Russians leaving the motherland than joining the army) and found itself gradually isolated, only finding firm support from the likes of North Korea or Iran. It should be noted that the US is not the only party to have issues with China, as seen with the recent visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Beijing, as he deals with the massive and increasingly Berlin-uncomfortable trade between the two countries. The West, as a whole, has good reasons to ensure that China stays on a globalised course and avoids Putin’s delusions that will mark Russia for generations likely after he is gone, willingly or not.

There are other books on China today that are worth mentioning, namely from Mandarin-speaking former Australian Premier Kevin Rudd’s “The Avoidable War”, which presents a more optimistic future of the challenging US/Western -China relationship. While always being attentive to the hostility of autocracies, and fighting its overt expressions like with Russia, the united West (hopefully also at home in the case of America) should always remain positive when dealing with China, as it is too big an opponent to have regardless of its many own challenges. A Western-China conflict would be a lose-lose scenario, which does not mean that the West should be too accommodating or forgetful of its founding values. The world should concentrate on stability, and sound globalisation should be its focus as a way of maintaining mutually-beneficial peace.

Warmest regards,

Serge

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