A 'Very Dangerous Period' For the U.S. and China

Howard W. French describes how China recognizes that it will be severely constrained by economics and demographics beyond the next 10 to 15 years, which heightens the prospect of conflict between the U.S. and China during that period. (3 min., 28 sec.)

The next 10 to 15 years will be “a very dangerous period” for the United States and China, says Howard French, a former New York Times China correspondent and author of the new book Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China's Push for Global Power.

Speaking at Asia Society in New York Tuesday at an event hosted by ChinaFile, French said that China’s millennia-long history as the overwhelmingly dominant power in Asia, and perhaps the world, still looms large in the national consciousness, creating a sense of Chinese “exceptionalism.” According to that narrative, it wasn’t until the past few hundred years — due to poor dynastic leadership and imperialist subjugation by foreign aggressors — that China was knocked off its preeminent perch.

“This was Mao's ideal,” French said. “To return to the place that China thought then, thinks now, and probably will always think, is its natural place in the world: the front rank of nations. … That China is a very very special place that commands respect and deference from others in the world.”

“That’s what Deng [Xiaoping] was about,” he added. “What Jiang Zemin was about, and what Xi Jinping is about. The needs of the moment changed, the personal styles of each of those leaders were different, but those goals have remained consistent.”

He noted that a re-emphasis on this Chinese exceptionalism was introduced after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests through a “Patriotic Education Campaign” that stressed China’s historical greatness and later victimhood to foreign atrocities. But when China was still relatively weak on the world stage in the 1990s, then-President Jiang Zemin had to ingratiate himself with the world community in order to ensure China’s entry into bodies like the World Trade Organization that would facilitate the country's growth and re-emergence.

Now that China has the world’s second-largest economy and a much heavier presence on the world stage, the calculus has changed. “Xi Jinping's task is not to ingratiate himself,” French said. “Xi's task is to impose himself, to say, ‘We've arrived. Deal with it. This is who we are and all that stuff that's been in the Patriotic Education for the last generation has now become manifest.’”

This new balance has perhaps been most clearly illustrated in the South China Sea, where China — in spite of international rebukes — has expanded its presence and built installations with military capabilities on disputed islands.

Harvard Professor and author of the forthcoming book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? Graham Allison says that China’s drive to exert greater political, economic, and military power internationally is increasingly putting it at odds with the United States. “Most Americans, of course, believe we are number one by virtue of something — our endowment, our birthright, what we’ve earned or what we deserve,” he said in a phone interview. “And when Xi Jinping says he wants to make China great again and make it the predominant power in Asia, then wait a minute, that's in conflict with what we are and think we should be.”

Allison believes that the U.S. and China are at risk of falling into the “Thucydides Trap” — a theory that when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one, the most likely outcome is war. By his estimation, 12 of the 16 instances this situation has occurred in the past 500 years have ended in conflict. “The anxieties and angst in the ruling power will manifest in misrepresentations, exaggerations, fear — ultimately paranoia and then often extreme actions,” he said. “I don’t think anybody thinks war is a good idea, but there are many people who think unless we stand up to the Chinese — or to the Americans in their case — then they’re going to push us around and exploit us.”

French says that China and the U.S. will likely continue to test one another and push the limits of the status quo as China’s power increases, which will either end with a successful management of that testing or violent conflict. He also notes that there’s a sense of urgency for China. Its economy is rapidly slowing and it’s facing what’s been deemed a “demographic time bomb.” The labor force has been declining by several million workers per year and by 2050, the country will be home to some 500 million people over 60 years old.

“[China’s leaders] have a moment of opportunity now,” French said. “They should lock in as many gains as they can because they know in 10 to 15 years, the bill is going to come due in a horrendous way and they are going to be constrained.”

He added that to avoid conflict, the U.S. should maintain good alliances in the region, engage China as best it can at every level, and welcome China’s global initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative. “Make China feel like they're not unwelcome insurgents and more like partners,” French said.

Allison says that if both countries go the other direction or misread one another, it could result in a catastrophic chain reaction. “If it seems impossible to imagine a trade war or tariffs, embargoes, and sanctions leading to atomic bombs exploding over a country, go back to the road to Pearl Harbor,” he said. “If it seems hard to imagine war since [the United States] is still significantly stronger than China militarily, go back to the Korean War. … China's willingness to fight on things that are vital to them should not be underestimated.”

In the above video clip, French discusses why the next 10 to 15 years are so crucial for China. See the full program in the video below.

Howard W. French describes how China recognizes that it will be severely constrained by economics and demographics beyond the next 10 to 15 years, which heightens the prospect of conflict between the U.S. and China during that period. (3 min., 28 sec.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.