Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

The catastrophic risk of a ‘peak China’ and ‘declining America’

  • Some pundits and politicians argue that China as a rising power has peaked and that US power is in decline, making them both more insecure and dangerous. Woe to all of us if both ideas prove right

You have heard ad nauseam about the Thucydides Trap, the international relations theory according to which a rising power (China) will more likely than not challenge the status quo favoured and maintained by the dominant power (the United States), thus leading to war.

Now, there seems to be a modification. Some pundits and politicians, in China and the West, have argued that 1. China as a rising power has peaked, which makes it more insecure and dangerous; and 2. US power is in decline and that makes it more insecure and dangerous.

The world will be a much better place if both ideas are wrong, but much more dangerous if at least one of them is right. And woe to all of us if both ideas prove right. Let’s consider them in turn.

Peak China

The idea is not new but has been given impetus by a new book, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China, by two US academics, Hal Brands and Michael Beckley. Brands has arguably become his country’s most prolific anti-China hawk, his opinion pieces appearing in Bloomberg to Foreign Affairs, and everywhere in between. And of course, he never has a good word to say about China.

I haven’t read the book and I doubt I will. But the basic idea seems simple enough. As quoted by James Kynge, a well-regarded journalist with the Financial Times, “Both history and China’s current trajectory suggest that the Sino-American competition will hit its moment of maximum danger during this decade, the 2020s,” they write.

“The reason for this is China has reached the most treacherous stage in the life cycle of a rising power – the point where it is strong enough to aggressively disrupt the existing order but is losing confidence that time is on its side.”

US democracy vs Chinese-style development: the real ideological clash

They then present a litany of ills stemming from its declining economic performance. Funnily enough, in December, Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last governor and currently the dean of Britain’s anti-China critics, already presented similar arguments in a widely read op-ed titled “Post-peak China”, in Project Syndicate.

This piece neatly summaries the “Peak China” thesis, so I will refer to it from here on.

“But even if Xi [Jinping] does not want others to scrutinise his record, his closest advisers must see that he may have squandered the years of peak power China had gained because of its economic strength and the problems faced by the West since the 2008 global financial crisis,” Patten wrote.

“‘Post-peak’ China’s existential problems will now become ever more apparent. The country is not looking so unquestionably like the new and worryingly successful power that it has been. In some ways, that makes it potentially even more troublesome and threatening for the rest of the world.”

These problems are: “excessive indebtedness – not least in the real estate sector”; “demographic: spiralling debt and falling productivity have been accompanied by a dramatic decline in the size of the working-age population; and “wealth and income inequality”.

“The danger,” he wrote, “is that President Xi Jinping, whom some think is a risk-taker, may become even more aggressive.”

Declining American power

After the last global financial crisis, a large number of Chinese analysts believe that American power is in irreversible decline. Influential writers such as Wang Jisi of Peking University and Liu Mingfu of the China National Defence University, among many others, have argued US decline is a fact but Washington and its ruling elites simply refuse to accept it and will do everything in their power to maintain its global hegemony.

In previous years, this US foreign policy might only have amounted to “China containment”. But rapidly worsening relations, especially in regard to Taiwan, means war is now a real possibility.

Cold War 2.0 may end up saving US and China from domestic implosion

Meanwhile, domestic unrest in the US heightens internal instability, which will make its behaviour abroad even more unpredictable. The economically and politically disenfranchised middle class and minorities are more susceptible to demagogy. Mistrust in their own government is at an all-time high.

More than 40 per cent of Americans now believe a civil war is likely within a decade, according to a widely reported survey last month. Political extremism and gun violence are on the rise. Despite this, many if not most Americans still believe 1. in their country’s exceptionalism; and 2. hold an overwhelmingly negative view of China and its communist state. Just about the only thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on is the “China threat”. The war on China may be just what’s needed to avoid a second civil war.

‘It’s the end of the world as we know it’

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put a potential nuclear confrontation back on the table. But at least Ukraine has no nuclear weapons. However, both China and the US are nuclear-armed to the teeth, especially the US. Washington unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (2002) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (2019), the peaceful legacy of the late Mikhail Gorbachev left in tatters.

I am not clairvoyant or erudite like those scholars and pundits who predict one or the other thesis about China and the US. But it’s worth knowing what they think because their conclusions and conjectures reflect, and in turn feed into, the thinking of the political establishment of their respective countries.

But if many such people think those ideas, it means the possibility of catastrophe is in the air. Maybe if more of us ordinary folks think against the tide, war may yet be averted.