China is not a rising power but a faltering one. At first glance, this seems an absurd statement. Since it initiated market reforms in 1978, the Asian giant has claimed economic growth averaging 10 percent annually, rising from the world’s seventh-largest economy in 1980 to the second-largest today.
During those decades, it converted its newfound wealth into military power and geopolitical influence, asserting itself both regionally and globally. It now seems to be on the verge of realizing President Xi Jinping’s goal of creating a Sino-centric world order – one that reflects Chinese, rather than American, values and interests.
To many, the notion that China is a faltering power is laughable. It has not only risen meteorically to the commanding heights of the international pecking order, it now looks poised to ascend to the very apex of that order.
But appearances can be deceiving. While it has not yet quite peaked, all the signs are that China’s relative power is nearing the high-tide mark and will soon begin to ebb.
Whether as a result of the “middle-income trap,” the imminent prospect of “growing old before growing rich,” the suffocating effects of the ever-more intrusive and pervasive surveillance state, or all three, China will soon peak. Soon thereafter it will sputter, then fade, all long before it is able to muscle the United States aside and remake the international order in its own image.
While from an American perspective this might seem like good news, a faltering China might also be a dangerous China. For one thing, a China that realizes that its reach has exceeded its grasp is likely to do everything in its power to lock in whatever geopolitical advantages it currently enjoys, before its ability to Sino-form the world begins to wane. This includes redrawing the map in the South China Sea and Himalayas; transforming international organizations to reflect Chinese values and interests; and generally working to reorder the global balance of power in its favor.
Perhaps even more ominously, a China that sees the brass ring of global supremacy begin to recede may well respond as Germany did when facing a similar situation in 1914. German leaders saw their Russian adversary growing demographically, developing industrially, and building the kind of rail and road infrastructure necessary for rapid mobilization in time of war. This terrified them.
It terrified them so much they decided to trigger a war sooner, because then they might have some chance of defeating Russia and its allies, whereas later, after they entered a period of relative decline, they would simply be at their adversaries’ mercy. Peak China today, like peak Germany in 1914, might feel its hand similarly forced.
What, then, is to be done? History suggests a three-pronged approach aimed at preserving the current liberal order in the face of Chinese revisionism, while avoiding the prospect of war in the face of Chinese disappointment and perhaps desperation.
The first leg of this strategic stool must be to encourage and support the counterbalancing dynamic that has already kicked in across the Indo-Pacific region. China has been probing with a strategic bayonet and, where it once found mush, is now beginning to find steel. The United States should work to ensure that that continues to be the case, at least in the short-to-medium term.
Minimally, this means building on the emerging consensus in Washington and in regional capitals like New Delhi, Canberra, and Tokyo that China is an aspiring hegemon with an ambitious vision of creating a Sino-centric order. It also means that the United States must maintain a military posture in the region that reassures its friends and allies that if they hang together with the United States they will not be left to hang separately.
The second pillar of a prudent China strategy must be a policy of containment. Such a strategy would necessarily entail preventing China from racking up wins in the arena of great power politics. It would also involve taking concrete steps to intensify the contradictions inherent in the Chinese system, largely by forcing China to do more strategically than it can sustain economically, and denying it the opportunity to mitigate its internal decline by exploiting client states or captured international institutions.
As with the containment policy George Kennan outlined at the onset of the Cold War, the goal would be not merely to limit the challenger’s geopolitical gains but to undermine the legitimacy and attractiveness of its entire political project.
The final pillar of a prudent China strategy must be to anticipate and mitigate the turbulence that will accompany China’s stalling rise. The hard-won lessons of 1989 are clear: faltering challengers like the Soviet Union, if managed wisely, can be guided to a relatively soft landing. But the hard-won lessons of 1914 are also clear: faltering contenders that are not managed wisely sometimes roll the dice and start wars—a world war in the case of Wilhelmine Germany.
American strategy, therefore, must include constructing what the classical Chinese strategic theorist SunTzu called a “golden bridge”: an “off ramp” for the CCP to retreat across. As the Chinese master put it: “Surround them on three sides, leaving one side open, to show them a way to life. Show them a way to life so that they will not be in the mood to fight to the death.”
That is how to manage a China that is not a rising power but a faltering one.