In an article published in Foreign Policy, Michael Beckley, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University, and Hal Brands, a professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, explore the increasingly pertinent question of China’s readiness to engage in war, particularly in the context of its aggressive posturing towards Taiwan and other nations in the Western Pacific. Their comprehensive examination sheds light on the complex interplay of factors that suggest an alarming escalation in the likelihood of China initiating a conflict, potentially drawing the United States into a direct military confrontation.
The authors meticulously dissect the prevailing optimism surrounding China’s historical restraint in military engagements since its last major conflict in 1979. They challenge this perspective by arguing that the current geopolitical landscape and China’s internal dynamics have fundamentally altered, presenting a starkly different set of circumstances that could propel China towards war. Beckley and Brands meticulously outline four critical factors that collectively heighten the risk of Chinese aggression.
Firstly, they highlight the intractability of territorial disputes involving China, which have increasingly become zero-sum games with little room for peaceful resolution. These disputes, particularly concerning Taiwan, have escalated tensions, with Beijing showing an unwavering determination to assert its claims, often at the expense of regional stability. The authors quote Chinese President Xi Jinping’s assertive stance, “We cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors,” reflecting the deep nationalistic fervor driving China’s territorial ambitions.
Secondly, they note China’s unprecedented military buildup, which includes amassing a formidable arsenal of ships, planes, and missiles. This development, they argue, could lead to overconfidence in Beijing about the potential outcomes of a military confrontation, particularly as China now boasts the world’s largest ballistic missile force and navy. The CIA Director William Burns’s assertion that Xi seeks the capability to take Taiwan by 2027 underscores the urgent nature of this threat.
The third factor is the juxtaposition of China’s improving short-term military prospects against its deteriorating long-term strategic and economic outlook. Stark challenges face China, including economic stagnation, a looming demographic crisis, and growing international isolation. These challenges, when combined with a substantial military capability, could prompt a more aggressive stance from Beijing as it seeks to secure its regional dominance before its window of opportunity narrows.
Finally, the centralization of power under Xi Jinping’s personalist dictatorship is identified as a critical element that significantly increases the likelihood of miscalculation and conflict. The authors point out that “personalist” dictatorships, such as Xi’s China, are particularly prone to engaging in wars due to the lack of checks and balances and the influence of sycophantic advisors. Xi’s actions, including his lifelong chairmanship and the incorporation of his governing philosophy into the Chinese constitution, underscore the dangers of concentrated power in fostering aggressive foreign policies.
While it is impossible to predict the exact timing of a conflict, the indicators of risk are unmistakably flashing red. They advocate for a nuanced strategy by the United States and its allies, emphasizing the need for military deterrence to counteract Beijing’s optimism about the outcome of a war, while also pursuing diplomatic efforts to reassure China about maintaining the status quo, especially concerning Taiwan. This balanced approach, they argue, is essential for preventing a slide into a devastating conflict that could have far-reaching consequences for global stability.
China wants to be ready for war, and is working toward being ready for war. Will it be ready before economic and political factors make get in the way and possible derail the preparation? Some have believed that aggression against Taiwan would begin during the Biden Administration. But recent revelations have suggested (but not confirmed, but any means) that the Chinese military has problems with with corruption and unpreparedness.
But the authors at FP believe Xi is ready to dance.