Here’s How China Could Defeat Itself

 In China, Sea, Air, Forces & Capabilities, P5

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.

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“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.

Forbes: Aerospace & Defense source|articles

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