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The Threat From China Is Exaggerated – OpEd


New census numbers from China show the Chinese population just barely increased in the last 10 years. Demographers predict that in a few years, that same population will start declining. Birth rates have been plummeting in China since 2016. As countries develop economically, birth rates decline, because of factors such as education and focus on other life paths such as careers. For example, in East Asia, Japan and South Korea also have a problem with declining birth rates. However, China’s birth rate decline is severe and has happened before China has gotten rich as indicated by GDP per capita.

What does all this have to do with U.S. national security? China’s demographic time bomb likely will mean slower economic growth, as many fewer workers support many more elderly people. This inversion of the age pyramid could slow China’s stellar economic growth of the past decades. That recent explosive growth benefited greatly from favorable demographics, which are about ready to dissolve rapidly. A decline in younger people will mean a drop in the working-age population (people 16 to 59), which is already happening, thus slowing economic growth. And diminished economic growth will likely mean slower growth in Chinese defense spending.

Even now the United States has vastly outspent China on defense for decades, and cumulative spending does matter in the security realm. While China, with recent exponential economic growth, has been catching up, the gap is still wide: In 2020, the U.S. spent $778 billion and China spent only an estimated $252 billion. If China’s economic growth plateaus, so will its defense spending.

However, China hawks in the United States already make a big deal about Chinese “economic penetration” across the continents, including the developing world. Yet this threat has been vastly overstated. China’s state-driven “belt and road” worldwide infrastructure program to win favor and markets in recipient nations, many of which are developing, is likely to be a huge waste of money. Already, China has gotten a bad reputation for trying to gain leverage over developing countries by ensnaring them in unsustainable, high levels of debt to finance these boondoggles. Besides, unlike security relationships with potential foes—which are often a zero-sum game in which, if one country gains, the other loses—economic interactions between nations are usually mutually beneficial and even economic competition among rival countries makes the companies of both nations stronger.

At home, China also has troubles. A significant portion of China’s banks are weak, and it still has many inefficient state-owned industries, which drag economic growth. In the western provinces, it still oppresses Uighurs in Xinjiang and the Tibetans in Tibet, which require security forces and other draconian measures. Most important, the autocratic Xi Jinping has become the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. This further empowering of the government and tightening of repression, even on the majority Han population, is never helpful for economic growth.

But what about China’s recent assertiveness in the East and South China Seas and toward Taiwan? These are non-strategic problems for the United States, about which it should worry less. Before the Trump administration, U.S. policy was official neutrality in territorial disputes between nations in East Asia. Yet, some of the countries opposing exaggerated Chinese territorial claims in those seas were either U.S. allies or friendly nations—so in reality, a U.S. naval presence in those seas put the United States effectively on the side of China’s opponents. To curry favor with the anti-China crowd at home, Trump shed even the veneer of neutrality in such territorial disputes, potentially dragging the United States further into the maw of conflict. Instead, the United States should not get involved at all in this regional squabbling, officially or unofficially. Because China is a big beneficiary of international commerce, it has little incentive to close passage of these seas to other nations; but if it does, U.S. commerce has alternative trade routes in the region.

Although Taiwan is a small democracy threatened by a large autocracy, the United States needs to wean itself away from even informal commitment to defend the island against China. The United States can sell arms to the wealthy Taiwan and even increase such sales. Taiwan, as an island, has intrinsic defensive advantages because amphibious invasions over open water are one of the most difficult military operations to successfully execute. The Taiwanese have a good air force, which could be made even better, that would likely be very successful in hitting vulnerable Chinese vessels carrying invasion forces and their surface ship escorts. Also, the United States could think about selling Taiwan offensive missiles that could deter a Chinese attack by posing a greater threat to the mainland. All such measures could be part of a Taiwanese “porcupine strategy,” where a less powerful country does not need to be able to win a war, only inflict unacceptable damage to a more capable adversary.

Whether China’s economic growth slows because of its problems, including too much state intervention in its economy (as the Japanese have experienced), or not, such a U.S. relaxation of its forward defense strategy in East Asia is a good idea. China should be respected as a rising power and allowed some influence over its near abroad. The Chinese do convincingly argue that they do not meddle militarily in Latin America, the traditional American sphere of influence. Thus, the American people should ask why the United States needs to be a military nanny to the smaller nations in China’s immediate neighborhood.

This article was also published in The American Conservative

Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

One thought on “The Threat From China Is Exaggerated – OpEd

  • May 18, 2021 at 3:09 pm

    Between isolationism and “forward defense”, a negotiated structure of conventional peace is the only route without severely negative consequences. Even the geopolitical Realists do not believe in a Pacific Ocean-US naval and air withdrawal from forward bases without a logical alternative to the perception of weakness and retreat. In such an isolationist scenario, the entire US global alliance system would be shaken to its core. And the spread of nuclear weapons would certainly ensue to fill what would become the largest geo-strategic vacuum in history. But one country’s “forward defense” is another country’s perception of a rival’s regional hegemony. And in geopolitics, abutting spheres of influence and/or perceived hegemony are usually challenged. This is true, even in our age of so-called nuclear deterrence. In fact, the entire human perception of nuclear weapons — i.e., their strategic utility in the face of the absence of a legitimate and long-lasting balance of power — has yet to be developed in any kind of coherent strategic framework. This was true during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it remains so nearly sixty years later. Would any leader actually risk global nuclear war in order to maintain a shaky balance of power? Some might risk conflagration in order to achieve conventional ends, and others might not. Human behavior has historically been a convoluted mix of rationality, anger, outright fear, and other degrees of paranoia. Then, there is the realization that the very concept of balance of power has never been long-lasting and has always failed in world history. Within such a dubious conventional “balance” context, why would anyone believe that nuclear weapons could add a hopeful architecture to such an impermanent mix? Hence, for our era, the essential geopolitical question to ask: Is how does the world replace conventional military imbalances with negotiated structures of permanent peace? In Asia, such a negotiated structure is dependent on the future of both South Korea and Taiwan. And while South Korea is recognized as a sovereign nation-state, Taiwan is not. But the safety of both is crucial in any negotiated settlement. Political autonomy for Taiwan within a structured demilitarization of both US-allied and Chinese naval and other military assets must become the negotiated platform upon which peace rests. Taiwan must remain as part of China, but its unique political culture within that one-party state is a very crucial criterion for a structure of permanent peace. For US troops and naval assets to leave South Korea and Japan, China indeed must also make concessions with regard to Taiwan, as well as South Korea. The leaders of both the Koreas must become cognizant that a tripartite global partnership — consisting of China, Russia and the US — will maintain the independence and integrity of both Seoul and Pyongyang. In other words, for such a permanent structure of peace to hold, everyone needs to feel safe, including the two Koreas and Taiwan. And while demilitarization of Pacific Ocean military assets is crucial, in order to develop a US-China-Russia global partnership, a workable understanding as to the future of the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and the end-game for both NATO, and the Russian Eastern European sphere of influence, must also be on the agenda. To move from our current situation of global bipolarity (US vs. Russia-China) to entirely new framework of a structured multipolarity (US, China, Russia partnership) is nothing less than a global project. But in the face of the extremely dangerous alternatives between isolationism or hegemony, and all the nuclear risks that those two positions imply, permanent structures of negotiated peace seem far more desirable. But are both China and the US capable of the kinds of concessions necessary to establish a permanent structure for negotiated peace? And will autonomy for Taiwan completely kill the deal? Do the Chinese Communist leaders regard autonomous political zones such a threat, that they would abandon the opportunity to replace the much larger threat, of US forward defense from their borders? Time will tell. However, in our era of weapons of mass destruction, and the very real existential risk of climate change, can we all really afford not to dramatically change our historic trajectory? And hasn’t the institution of war vastly outlived any usefulness that humans once might have perceived as necessary? Again, time will tell. But the problem is that time is running out! And from an ecological stand-point, this shortage of time has now become literally true. I believe that in the 21st century, peace has become paramount. But even such an idealized vision will require a certain number of compromises and negotiated “Grand Bargains”. Taiwan autonomy, through Pacific Ocean demilitarization — in exchange for the end of US hegemony — is just such a “Grand Bargain”.


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