U.S.-China Competition Enters the Decade of Maximum Danger: Policy Ideas to Avoid Losing the 2020s
December 20, 2021 | Gabriel Collins, Andrew S. Erickson
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- U.S. and allied policymakers now face a “decade of danger” through roughly 2030 emanating from the confluence of a peaking paramount leader (Chinese President Xi Jinping), a peaking Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and a peaking People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the country begins to experience the “S-curved slowdown” common to great powers.
- The PRC has achieved an extraordinary rise in power over the last two-plus decades and has succeeded in multiple regional coercion actions over the past decade; but its comprehensive national power will likely peak between 2030 and 2035—or, quite possibly, sooner.
- Within the next five years, PRC leaders are likely to privately conclude that China’s deteriorating demographic profile, structural economic problems, and technological estrangement from global innovation centers are eroding its leverage vis-à-vis Taiwan and other strategic objectives. As Xi internalizes these challenges, his foreign policy is likely to become even more risk-embracing.
- Xi’s risk appetite will likely be amplified by his nearly decade-long track record of successful revisionist actions against the rules-based order. Notable examples include the PRC perpetrating atrocities against humanity in Xinjiang, coercively enveloping Hong Kong, occupying Bhutanese lands, violently challenging its borders with India, occupying and militarizing disputed features and zones in the South China Sea, ramping up air and maritime incursions against Japan and Taiwan, and seeking to illegally restrict or endanger foreign military activities in international waters and airspace even as it operates permissively—sometimes covertly, sometimes aggressively—around the world and across all domains.
- For the Party, these “victories” have substantively exhausted the “lower-cost, high-payoff” options for aggrandizement, while emboldening Beijing as it eyes the biggest single revisionist prize: Taiwan.
- Xi, the CCP he leads, and the PRC they control, are presently pursuing extremely ambitious strategic goals for China’s “national rejuvenation.” Addressed in the nation’s five-year plans, these objectives are linked to key anniversaries, including two centenaries—the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding in 2021 and that of the PRC in 2049.
- Unless deterred successfully, Xi likely seeks a major historical achievement regarding Taiwan by the end of this decade, his maximum expected window of personal health and political opportunity. The 68-year-old leader, whose personal abilities, preparations, and available national power are all coming to a peak, will likely be tempted to make his mark on history through a major move against Taiwan near a third key milestone goal year—2027, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), with its “original mission” of defeating the Kuomintang. Indeed, China has advanced key PLA modernization goals from 2035 to 2027.
- Furthermore, the PRC’s externally-facing aggression increasingly appears to be structural in nature. For instance, the lack of apparent pushback from within the CCP against danger-generators, like its increasingly hardline approaches toward Taiwan, suggests that the Party has internalized an aggressive approach to foreign and security policy. Key challenges could therefore outlive Xi if he lost influence, became incapacitated, or—in a less likely scenario—was removed from power.
- Beijing’s actions during the past 10 years have triggered countermeasures, such as the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) trilateral security pact, but concrete constraints on China’s strategic freedom of action are currently not on track to fully manifest until beyond 2030. Absent stronger diplomatic, economic, and military pushback, Beijing will likely conclude that the 2021-to late-2020s timeframe still favors the PRC. It is quite remarkable, and dangerous, how little cost China has suffered from its actions over the last decade.
- While China’s growth in national power is slowing, the United States and its allies cannot simply avoid the contest of the decade by “waiting Beijing out.” The situation will get far worse before it gets better, and we will only avoid disaster if we “hold the line” at this critical time. Failure to do so would allow unacceptable consequences in the process, such as losing Taiwan and severely damaging or destroying regional alliances and partnerships—transformative debacles that would remove remaining guardrails to PRC aggression and give it a “second wind.”
- Precisely when China will peak is uncertain, but it is very likely to do so within the next few years. Given the potential for irreversible catastrophe if near-term PRC aggression is not countered effectively, the United States and its allies should optimize planning and preparations to address maximum up-front threats, and accept corresponding tradeoffs and risks: the best directed-energy weapons in coming decades will matter little if we lose Taiwan on our watch.
- Accordingly, U.S. planners must urgently mobilize resources, effort, and risk acceptance to maximize capacity to deter PRC aggression throughout this decade—literally starting now.
- In athletic terms, the U.S. and its allies must now marshal their efforts and focus to “peak” near-term capabilities and maximize their strategic impact by innovatively employing assets that currently exist or can be operationally assembled and scaled within the next several years.
- Xi’s repeated revisionist success indicates that to “hold the line,” proactively push back, and preserve the rules-based order during the 2020s decade of danger, America and its allies must dramatically enhance the robustness and agility of their collective deterrence and warfighting posture. “Holding the line” is fundamentally about maintaining the status quo, but doing so in practice requires opposing the PRC’s revisionist “slow boil” that has rendered Taiwan and the region less secure and will continue to do so absent concerted, impactful counter-actions.
- U.S. and allied efforts must emphasize to China that: (1) the window for action against Taiwan is closed tight; (2) PRC attempts at regional revisionism will be met robustly across the diplomatic, economic, technological, and operational spectrum—including intensified presence and operations vis-à-vis the East and South China Seas; and (3) the U.S. and its allies are jointly preparing, planning, and exercising to ensure maximum interoperability, coordination, and capacity to prevail should deterrence fail.
- The United States has taken too long to warm up to, and focus on, great power competition with China, but it retains formidable advantages and agility that will help it to prevail—provided that it goes all in now. This will require resourcing the mission commensurate with its importance. The U.S. consistently spent $50 billion annually (and sometimes much more) in Afghanistan and Iraq for much of the past two decades. Yet the Fiscal Year 2022 defense budget recently approved by Congress only appropriates $7.1 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative serving the vast, vital Indo-Pacific region. To avoid “losing the 2020s”—and with it the 2030s and beyond—Washington must put its maximum money and effort where its mouth is, starting now.
© 2021 by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy