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Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China

03 Mar 23

Danger Zone – The Coming Conflict with China is, as the title might suggest, a provocative examination of potential future US-China relations.  This is a further volume to add to the ever-growing body of writing on US-China relations.  Where this examination differs is the central plank of the authors’ argument that China is reaching peak power and that it is as it starts to decline that it will pose the greatest security threat.  The authors suggest that the period of greatest menace – the Danger Zone of the title – will be in the next decade or so. The book is written by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley.  Brands is an academic based at John Hopkins university in the US and a regular writer on strategy.  Beckley is also an academic based at Tufts university, bringing a stronger China-orientated academic background.

The book is laid out in eight thematic chapters.  The early chapters make a strong argument for two ideas: first that China’s rise will, inevitably, reach a peak and second that, in great power competition it is not necessarily the emerging power that threatens, as Thucydides might have it, but rather the great power on the decline.  The arguments for a halt to China’s rapidly growing power are persuasive: demographics, increasingly expensive exploitation of natural resources, institutional decay, economic lethargy and the adverse impacts of the COVID pandemic will all start to bite in the next few years.  The authors go on to argue that it is the risen power, not the rising one, that threatens the balance of power based on their interpretation of several historic cases, particularly Germany prior to the First World War and Japan in the early 1940s.  Their broad thesis is not new: Kagan, Nye and Freedman all offer various criticisms of the Thucydides Trap with respect to China, but nor would it be universally accepted.  Taken together, the authors employ the two ideas to propose that the next decade will mark the point where China’s power has reached an inflexion, rash decision making by Chinese leaders will become more likely and consequently conflict, particularly armed conflict, with the US increasingly possible.  During this period, we will be in the ‘Danger Zone’.

The second half of the book focusses on how the US might develop a strategy to counter this scenario.  Initially, historic parallels are drawn with the early years of the Cold War and emerging US approaches to limiting Soviet influence in Europe and Asia before proposing a series of actions designed to deter China over the next few years, particularly with respect to Taiwan, and to constrain and to coerce them economically, diplomatically and militarily.  The book concludes with a proposed ten-point strategy that, the authors claim, will allow the US to bridge the Danger Zone period into a longer-term phase of (re-)asserted US dominance.

It is in this second half that the book’s arguments are weakest.  The authors resolutely view global issues through a lens of dark US tint.  There is little appreciation of how US actions, real or proposed, might be interpreted by Chinese leaders nor whether there might be adverse reactions to them.  Similarly, there is a broad assumption that US actions would inevitably be supported by allies and neutrals, either in East and Southeast Asia or in Europe.  Much of the power dynamics proposed is understandable only as a pure zero-sum-game: China’s loss would be US gain.

The narrative style throughout the book is engaging and easy to read if, perhaps, written a little too much like an elongated opinion piece for the more academically inclined reader.  It is well referenced with end notes from a wide range of sources, including many periodical and newspaper pieces alongside more academic journal articles.

Overall, this is a valuable addition to the body of work on modern US-China relations.  As with any book that seeks to explain the course of future events, its predictions are hostage to considerable fortune.  The logic behind the arguments that we are approaching the zenith of Chinese power and the potential danger that a soon-to-be declining China poses is sound. The subsequent policy recommendations laid out by the authors should be considered as but one strategy amongst a range of a range of options that US, and global, leaders might consider.