Here’s How China Could Defeat Itself
The U.S. military increasingly has one overriding preoccupation. Figuring out how to deter China or, in the event of war in the western Pacific, defeat it.
But it’s possible that, in time, China will defeat itself. Economic mismanagement, poor governance, ecological crisis and external pressure could combine to flatten the country’s growth and erode its power in the region and globally.
That’s one possible future that the California think-tank RAND gamed out in a July study.
“What will China look like by 2050?” the RAND analysts asked. “The answers are provided by analyzing trends in the management of politics and society and studying national-level strategies in diplomacy, economics, [science and technology] and military affairs.”
The study sketches, and ranks, four major possibilities.
A “triumphant” China that grows, prospers and gains influence until it matches or exceeds the United States in most measures of power. The RAND analysts rated this outcome as “unlikely.”
An “ascendant” China that struggles with internal discontent, water-shortages and a slowing economy and yet still manages to become Asia’s dominant power. Probable.
A “stagnant” China that fails to address widespread poverty and environmental degradation while also managing external crises. Possible.
Finally, an “imploding” China that enters its second century as a modern state in a state of collapse. Unlikely.
Leaving aside the unlikely outcomes, the stagnant possibility is the most interesting, as it reveals how China might defeat itself, like many established world powers eventually do — and like the United States arguably is in the process of doing under the leadership of Pres. Donald Trump.
“In this scenario, the forecast is for sun and warmth through the mid-2020s, then significant cooling followed by a prolonged cold spell,” the RAND report imagines.
“Between 2030 and 2050, China’s economy stalled and now lags well behind other great powers. There is no clearly discernible economic growth. While Beijing claims annual growth rates of between one and two percent, these official figures are dismissed as not credible.”
“Official corruption remains endemic,” the report continues. The ruling Chinese Communist Party “has retrenched internally, doubling down on the slightest hint of dissent or rumble of popular unrest.”
The Party manages to maintain strict control of the ethnic-Han heartland, but outlying provinces with large minority populations have begun to push back against repressive rule. “Xinjiang proved extremely troublesome, and 2039 witnessed serious and widespread disturbances in far western China coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the July 2009 communal riots in Urumqi.”
Hong Kong remains a source of unrest, “especially in the immediate countdown to July 2047, when the territory’s status as a [special autonomous region] expired. Starting in the late 2030s, thousands of Hong Kong’s wealthiest residents, including many prominent [People’s Republic of China] citizens — most of whom also held non-PRC passports — departed the city, taking their capital with them.”
Most Hong Kong residents can’t leave, however. They “target their anger and frustration at Beijing, which they blame for the economic downturn.”
As the Party struggles to maintain control internally, it all but gives up trying to expand regionally. That spares Taiwan forced “reunification” by way of an armed invasion.
Free from the Chinese threat, Taiwan grows more assertive. “Economic stagnation on the [Chinese] mainland combined with widespread social unrest has caused Taipei to indefinitely postpone any possible moves toward enhancing cross-strait ties.”
North Korea likewise shrugs off Chinese attempts to manage it. “Tensions on the Korean Peninsula persist, and Pyongyang continues to thumb its nose at Beijing, while at the same time improving ties with Seoul and sustaining a diplomatic rapprochement with Washington.”
“Beijing’s relations with both Seoul and Tokyo are cool, in part because China’s economic stagnation has adversely affected the economies of South Korea and Japan. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi in 2050 are strained, and India has taken advantage of China’s internal problems, waning diplomatic influence and declining economic clout.”
Desperate to prove that China still is strong, Beijing “occasionally manufactures political-military crises with small weak neighbors to deflect domestic discontent — the regime deliberately picks a fight with a foe it knows it can defeat or easily cow.”
But the truth is undeniable. China has stagnated. “Regional military competition is tempered as the [People’s Liberation Army] struggles to maintain rough parity with the armed forces of other great powers in Asia.”
The great conflict with China that U.S. military planners envisioned are recently as 2020 now seems unlikely in this version of the future, circa 2050. The United States might not have won its long cold war with China, but it certainly didn’t lose.
All without anyone firing a shot.