USCNPM: Michael Beckley on Fearing a Faltering China

Michael Beckley is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University and a Jeane Kirkpatrick Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He recently published an article on Foreign Affairs titled “The United States Should Fear a Faltering China.” Zhang Juan of US-China Perception Monitor recently had an email interview with Professor Beckley, discussing this topic among other issues.

You released a widely read book last year titled Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower.  Could you explain to us why you think that the U.S. will remain the world’s sole superpower?  

One reason is that the United States has a huge lead by the most important measures of national power. China is the only country that comes close, and America still has three times China’s wealth and five times its military capabilities. That gap would take decades to close even if things go badly for the United States.  

The other reason is that things probably won’t go badly for the United States, at least relatively speaking, because it has the best long-term economic growth prospects among the major powers. Economists have shown that long-run growth depends on a country’s geography, demography, and political institutions. The United States has an edge in all three categories.  

Geographically, the United States is a natural economic hub and military fortress. It’s packed with resources and natural transport infrastructure  and its only neighbors are Canada and Mexico. China, by contrast, has burned through its resources and is surrounded by nineteen countries, ten of which still claim parts of China’s territory as their own. Demographically, America is the only nation that is simultaneously big, young, and highly educated, and it is the only major workforce that will grow throughout this century. China, by contrast, will lose 200 million workers over the next thirty years and add 300 million senior citizens. Institutionally, the United States is a mess, but China’s system is worse. The United States is a flawed democracy, but China is an oligarchy ruled by a dictator for life. 

President Trump’s election can be attributed to fear among ordinary American’s about changes in the world and the reality that life is getting harder. How is your theory persuasive in explaining the Trump phenomenon?  

It doesn’t.  My book shows that the United States is, and will likely remain, the most powerful country in the world.  But average Americans are clearly struggling.  That’s shameful.  In the book, I try to show that the United States can afford to devote a bit more of its immense resources to improving the lives of its citizens.

What is your perspective on the impact of Trump’s slogan America First with regards to the United States’ long term global standing? Is this the right course?

Trump is probably right that the United States could improve its relative position by adopting an America First policy.  But one of the benefits of unrivaled power is that the United States can afford to pursue absolute gains, sacrificing a bit of relative advantage to make America and the world better off overall.  As the most secure and powerful country in history, the United States can and should do more than ceaselessly struggle for power.  Would other countries suffer more than the United States from the collapse of the liberal order?  Probably, but that strikes me as cold comfort if it means living in a nasty and brutish world of rigid trade blocs, militarized sea lanes, fewer democracies, and more nuclear proliferation.  

In your most recent Foreign Affairs article, you argued that the US should greater fear a faltering China rather than a rising China. Could you share some of your thinking on this?

China’s growth rates have fallen by half over the past decade and are likely to plunge in the years ahead as massive debt, foreign protectionism, resource depletion, and rapid aging take their toll.  Past rising powers that suffered such slowdowns became more repressive at home and aggressive abroad as they struggled to revive their economies and maintain domestic stability and international influence.  China already seems to be headed down this ugly path. 

As China’s economic conditions have steadily worsened since the 2008 financial crisis, China’s government has cracked down on dissent and dialed up nationalist propaganda.  At the same time, it has invested heavily overseas to generate demand for Chinese exports and secure scarce resources for Chinese firms.  To protect these investments, China also has gone out militarily, tripling its procurement of long-range naval ships, quintupling its patrols in major sea lanes, militarizing strategically placed features in the South China Sea, and increasing its use of maritime coercion seven-fold. 

The standard narrative in Washington attributes this surge in assertive behavior to China’s growing power and ambition.  In reality, it reflects profound unease among China’s leaders, who are facing their country’s first sustained economic slowdown in a generation and see no end in sight.  China has experienced several recessions since the Reform and Opening period in the late 1970s, but China’s government was able to rekindle rapid growth each time through stimulus spending or economic reform.  Now stimulus is increasingly ineffective, and China’s leaders have ruled out reform as too politically risky.  Consequently, they are resorting to a classic authoritarian strategy:  tightening their grip on power while carving out privileged economic zones overseas. 

Slowing growth makes China a less competitive long-term rival to the United States, but a more explosive near-term threat.  Whereas a rapidly growing China could afford to tolerate some dissent, forgo some opportunities for expansion, and deescalate crises—confident that its wealth, power, and status were rising and that the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic legitimacy was secure—a slowing China is more desperate for wealth and primed to overreact to slights and setbacks.  As U.S. policymakers determine how to counter China’s repression and aggression, they should recognize that economic insecurity has spurred great power expansion in the past and is driving China’s belligerence today. 

You wrote, “When fast-growing great powers run out of economic steam, they typically do not mellow out.” You go on to say that China is in a moment of “maximum danger.” Could you tell us what happened historically to those great powers whose economies slowed down? 

The historical precedents are plentiful. Over the past 150 years, nearly a dozen great powers experienced rapid economic growth followed by long slowdowns. None accepted the new normal quietly.

U.S. growth plummeted in the late nineteenth century, and Washington reacted by violently suppressing labor strikes at home while pumping investment and exports into Latin America and East Asia, annexing territory there and building a gigantic navy to protect its far-flung assets. Russia, too, had a late-nineteenth-century slowdown. The tsar responded by consolidating his authority, building the Trans-Siberian Railway, and occupying parts of Korea and Manchuria. Japan and Germany suffered economic crises during the interwar years: both countries turned to authoritarianism and went on rampages to seize resources and smash foreign rivals. France had a postwar boom that fizzled in the 1970s: the French government then tried to reconstitute its economic sphere of influence in Africa, deploying 14,000 troops in its former colonies and embarking on a dozen military interventions there over the next two decades.

As recently as 2009, world oil prices collapsed, which led a stagnating Russia to pressure its neighbors to join a regional trade bloc. A few years later, that campaign of coercion spurred Ukraine’s Maidan revolution and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. 

Professor David Shambaugh wrote an article in 2015 arguing that the coming Chinese government would eventually collapse. Do you see any similarities and differences between your theory and his?

I’m perhaps a bit more optimistic than Professor Shambaugh—I don’t think a Chinese collapse is guaranteed—but I think he’s right about many of the problems China faces.  Any country that has accumulated debt, lost productivity, or aged at anything close to China’s current clip has lost at least one decade to near-zero economic growth. And China’s brittle political system is ill-equipped to handle such a growth slowdown.

You recommend Washington should take a balanced approach to deal with China, rather than a whole-of-society throwdown against it. Could you give us some examples of your “balanced approach”? Can we place your approach within the category of previous engagement policy towards China?

U.S. policy needs a mix of engagement and containment.  Several initiatives could help strike the proper balance. Instead of deterring Chinese expansionism by sailing provocative but vulnerable naval armadas past China’s coastline, for instance, Washington could deploy mobile antiship and surface-to-air missile launchers on allied shores. If the United States joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—and invited China to join, too—Beijing would have the motive and means to reduce its trade-distorting practices without fighting a 1930s-style trade war. China might spurn the offer, but then the treaty would at least strengthen the commitment of its signatories to the free flow of goods, money, and data. In so doing, it would limit the spread of China’s mercantilist and digital authoritarian policies. The United States could supplement this stance by investing more in scientific research and investigations into specific Chinese companies and investors, so that it can maintain technological superiority without banning Chinese investment and immigration into the United States. These moves would not eliminate the root causes of U.S.-Chinese rivalry, but they would protect U.S. interests while avoiding a slide into a cold or hot war.