China is one of the boogeymen of modern American politics. But as somebody who has written weekly articles about China for most of the last half-decade —and has a book coming out on the subject— its often difficult to summarize the big picture in yet another hot take on the controversy of the day in the South China Sea, hypersonic missiles, or new technology. This post is a brief large picture overview of why I’m not concerned about the so-called rise of China.
There are many approaches to studying the rise of a power. Gordon G. Chang, for example, was particularly insightful about China’s historical periods. Many dynasties had trouble exerting power outside of traditional Chinese territory; he shows how China has tried to expand far more than they reasonably can.
Most analysis is based on some self-interest because fearful click-bait that people can scream about on Twitter is more popular than nuanced analysis, or the evaluation is based on short-sidedness because the same kinds of articles about superweapons dominate the news, and because politicians can get people to vote for more funding by stoking fears about China or Russia.
I take a different approach that I think is more grounded. I look at things like economic trends, demographic challenges, and different lessons from history to suggest they won’t expand. Their political growth won’t always defy gravity, and their top-down, centrally-planned approach has created a bubble that will dwarf the U.S. housing crisis when it bursts. Their one-child policy has resulted in a massive imbalance between men and women, and an aging population where one grandchild has to care for their four grandparents. An historical approach might look at how pre-World War I Germany feared encirclement and had such an aggressive policy to avoid it that they created the alliance that eventually defeated them. A historical approach also looks at broad technologies such as anti-missile defenses developed over the last 70 years compared to whatever whiz-bang supermissile that is supposed to change the game.
Instead of fearmongering and hyperventilating over every new development, I recommend that at the very least we consider alternatives that suggest we shouldn’t be afraid. This is a big-picture view that summarizes the debate being held in 500-word chunks every week. The next time you read an article, just seeing what information is presented and categorizing it as economic, technological, or historical, will help you be better informed about the debate.