Q&A: Michael Beckley Explains the 'Danger Zone' for U.S.-China Conflict
For Taiwan, a risen power could be more dangerous than a rising one.
Michael Beckley is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University and a Jeane Kirkpatrick Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Together with Hal Brands, also a fellow at A.E.I. and a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, he is the author of Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China. The authors argue that China will reach its maximum danger in the 2020s, as it is strong enough to contest the global order, yet it does not have time on its side as its power is declining relative to other great powers. They warn that China could take advantage of the United States' relative weakness in the Pacific in the next decade to invade Taiwan.
On November 14, U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are having their first in-person meeting since Biden became president, ahead of the G20 summit in Bali. Biden has said four times that the U.S. military will defend Taiwan militarily if China attacks it, although each time the White House has insisted that the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity over Taiwan remains unchanged.
I spoke with Beckley last week over Zoom about the book, the effects of Russia's war in Ukraine, and Biden's statements on Taiwan. Our conversation follows, condensed and slightly edited for clarity.
Luke Johnson: Can you explain the argument you're making about Taiwan and China as a great power?
Michael Beckley: Our book is a new twist on the old, 'let's all freak out about China' genre. We argue that China is going to be more dangerous than most people think, because it's actually weaker than most people think. It's more of a risen power than a rising one. It's had over 30 years of rapid growth, and that's made it strong and ambitious enough to upend the international order. Now, it's facing a lot of headwinds, and is running out of time to remake the world unless it starts making drastic moves. Its economy is slowing year after year, its population is about to age and die off in unprecedented numbers, and rivals are starting to gang up against it, led by the United States. We characterize China as a peaking power.
We go through history and show why that's a scary possibility, because it was the peaking powers, like Germany in 1914, or Japan in 1941, which started some of the bloodiest wars. China already seems to be headed in a nasty direction. Over the last 10 years, it's become exponentially more repressive at home and aggressive abroad. We worry it just looks poised to do what previous peaking powers did, which is to rush through near term windows of opportunity before a long term window of vulnerability opens wider. That could play out in a number of ways. We are very worried about an assault on Taiwan. But there's also other things China's doing -- it's creating an economic empire across the Global South and it's starting to engage in more political warfare -- a concerted effort to destabilize democracies and prop up autocrats around the world.
LJ: Can you explain the title Danger Zone?
MB: We argue that the United States actually has a lot of advantages over China in the long run. If it's a marathon, we think the United States is in a good position, provided that it doesn't lose key battles in the short term. But given the idea that China has reached this peak point where it still has these formidable capabilities, it can do a lot on the international stage. There's a danger zone in the short term. We think the sharpest phase of that competition is going to happen this decade simply because of where China is in its lifecycle as a great power.
LJ: I want to ask about the war in Ukraine. On one hand, it's confirmation of your thesis about falling powers having a window of opportunity. But on the other hand, it hasn't hasn't worked out great for Russia. How do you think China is watching developments in Ukraine?
MB: We go through history and look at every case of these peaking powers over the last couple of hundred years, and they all got very aggressive on the international stage, and in a lot of cases, it ended very badly. For them, they shoot the moon. Just because it fails, that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. Peaking powers tend to feel confident in their own ability to turn things around with bold moves. They tend to exaggerate the cost of inaction.
China, looking at Russia, is very concerned about the instability that's been generated because China is a major commodities importer. If the price of commodities skyrockets, it's going to put even more strain on an already ailing Chinese economy. China is also worried that their ally could go down to defeat or even collapse from within, which would be bad for China, because if Russia goes down then suddenly the strategic attention is all going to be focused on China.
Xi Jinping could say that conquest [of Taiwan] looks really hard, let's not do that. He might get more cautious. But I worry that the Chinese have, for a long time looked at the Russians with disdain, thinking of them as incompetent militarily and highly corrupt, as they view themselves as moving towards a much more much more professional and powerful military force. I'm sure there are people within China's military saying we would do way better. They've been gearing up for this Taiwan contingency for four decades. At the same time, the United States and Taiwan have been pretty slow to react. If China has learned nothing else, it probably learned that you don't stumble into an invasion, on four different axes the way Russia did. If you're going to go, you have to go big and brutal from the start to cripple your enemies to isolate your target. Taiwan can't be resupplied as Ukraine's been resupplied. [China could] rattle the nuclear saber, because that's the one effective thing that Putin has done to induce caution from the United States and its allies.
“I would put the probability of a massive war somewhere at around 10 percent. For me, that's still way too high. Five or six years ago, I would have said there's maybe a one percent chance of a war over Taiwan.”
LJ: Taiwan would be challenging to invade. It's an island. The straits are stormy, and there's a lot of cliffs and mountains, and the fighting would be in urban areas. The Taiwanese would put up fierce resistance, as the attitudes are pretty hardened against Beijing. Are these challenges surmountable for China?
MB: If the Taiwanese don't fight, they are. I think one assumption that could be made on the Chinese side is that we could just hit them hard enough and make resistance look futile -- wipe out a lot of their offensive forces and their air force before their aircraft get off the ground, and take out their navy.
If Taiwan does mount a Ukrainian-style resistance, then it's going to be a hard slog at best. And probably, I think it's almost impossible for China to fully conquer Taiwan, given the geographic and technological complexity of the mission. There are Chinese strategic documents that assume that if they can just land the army on the beach, the Taiwanese aren't going to put up much resistance. I happen to think that's probably not true; but, it's at least theoretically a possibility. China has been developing routes, so even if Taiwan does fight back, there are ways to surge such a large force across the strait. They've made all their car ferries so that you can put military vehicles onto them and use them as an auxiliary amphibious force. They're churning out helicopters that could rapidly send troops and land them on Taiwan. China is just hoping that if it goes big and brutal enough from the start, it could create a fait accompli.
LJ: Is it fair to say that in a lightning war, China could conceivably conquer Taiwan, but if this turns into a war of attrition, it's very difficult for them?
MB: If it becomes protracted, you're right that just from a military efficiency standpoint, China is not going to perform well. But if the war does become protracted, which I think would be highly likely, because I don't think either the Taiwanese or the Chinese would give up easily, and neither would the Americans. Then, China has a big advantage, just because it's such a big country. It has massive industrial capacity, and so it could regroup and reload. Even if its military doesn't perform particularly well, it can just make that up with massive wave attacks. Just by churning out more ammunition and hardware, and just being willing to bear enormous costs in a way that you can imagine the United States would not be willing to do. I think it has actually sizable advantages. Given that, right now, in the United States, for certain key missiles, there's one factory in the entire country that makes these things and so you can't produce the volume. It's also highly vulnerable, obviously, to Chinese strikes. China flew a hypersonic missile around the world. So they could clearly take out the industrial capacity of the United States to rapidly mobilize.
LJ: You're saying that they could attack a U.S. factory?
MB: Absolutely. They've shown that they can do it, they have missiles that can reach the United States. And if we're talking about a massive protracted war, where both sides are pulling out all the stops and being willing to strike each other's targets on each other's homelands. I think you can't rule out, at minimum, cyber attacks and sabotage. But if this is a massive war that's dragging on for months or years, I don't think it's out of the question. And we've seen it in every other major power war, where they try to target each other's industrial capacity so that they can't reload, and ultimately run out of the materiel they need to keep prosecuting the war.
LJ: How is China looking at the Western response to Ukraine on sanctions? Are they concerned that the Western coalition has stayed together? Does that give them any pause?
MB: I think it is very concerning for them. China has accelerated attempts to sanction-proof their economy. Xi's economic policy is trying to make China much more self-reliant, [in terms of] technology and food security, and energy. [Xi is] trying to build up the Chinese consumer base so that if you get shut out of a rich country, consumer markets that you can keep the economy going.
I'm very skeptical that China will be able to do this just because they're running out of natural resources, the population is shrinking, and so that makes consumption driven growth very hard. In key areas, as we're seeing with semiconductors, as well as advanced medical devices and advanced manufacturing equipment, they are still critically reliant on advanced technologies from abroad. I think China remains prone to certain types of sanctions, but they're working very hard to try to plug those holes precisely because they've seen what's happened to Russia.
LJ: President Biden has said a few times that the United States would use force, when asked if the United States would defend Taiwan. The White House has walked that back and said that the policy of strategic ambiguity has not changed. What do you make of public statements coming out of the White House and how are they seen in Beijing?
MB: If a president says something four times, it's policy at that point. I think it's almost certain that the United States would intervene militarily, even before Biden said that. The United States has always been clear about the ends that it seeks with Taiwan -- a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue. It's just been ambiguous about the means.
The Pentagon has been planning for Taiwan contingencies for a long time. It's gone with the assumption that they will likely be called into action. From Beijing's perspective, this is all a slippery slope -- having the President say it so explicitly and repeatedly, high-level congressional delegations, cabinet secretaries going to Taiwan, massive arms packages, and legislation pending on Capitol Hill that would upgrade the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Taiwan's international status is improving in some ways, because countries realize what an important economic and geostrategic player it is, and they admire its democratic institutions at a time when we're increasingly seeing a framing of autocracy versus democracy. For the Chinese, this is very concerning, because it means there aren't good peaceful reunification options. [For Beijing], does that mean, should we flex our military muscle to try to stop this slippery slope from getting steeper? I'm very concerned about how they're going to answer that.
LJ: Do you have an alternate scenario to this worst-case scenario, which is that you're basically painting a picture of a world war? Is there a best-case scenario where conflict is avoided?
MB: I don't want to give the impression that I think conflict is extremely likely. I would put the probability of a massive war somewhere at around 10 percent. For me, that's still way too high. Five or six years ago, I would have said there's maybe a one percent chance of a war over Taiwan. It's not that this is the most likely outcome, but given how catastrophic it would be, we have to really take it seriously.
I think there's many other options. Some people argue quite persuasively that China can be somewhat patient over Taiwan -- it's able to deter any kind of rash moves, like a declaration of independence, and as long as it can do that, it can kick the can down the road. They also have other options besides a massive invasion. They could put more economic pressure on Taiwan; they could carry out a blockade without an invasion, which would be a slow-motion military operation to pressure Taiwan; or they could seize its offshore islands, which I don't think the United States would respond to in a massive way militarily. I don't take that much comfort from these alternative options, given that I don't think they're not going to give China what it ultimately wants, which is the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland.
Given that more and more Taiwanese view themselves as solely Taiwanese and not as Chinese, the Democratic Progressive Party (the party that leans towards independence) keeps winning election after election, and there is an election coming up in Taiwan in 2024, where you could get a new president who's not nearly as pragmatic as the current president Tsai Ing-wen, I don't think we can always count on [alternative scenarios].
LJ: What are you looking ahead to in the coming months in China and Taiwan about the possibility of conflict?
MB: 2024 is going to be critical because of elections in Taiwan and the United States. In Taiwan, if certain candidates come to the fore, if they start really pushing Taiwan more towards a more independent status, or if they campaign on an anti-China platform, wanting to rapidly mobilize Taiwan, that could instigate a crisis. On the American side, one of the few things Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on is getting tough with China. Politicians like to signal their seriousness and competence as a potential commander-in-chief by bashing China and supporting Taiwan. That's why you've seen tremendous rhetorical support from leading American politicians, almost trying to outdo each other in proclaiming their support for Taiwan. That's just dangerous, because that kind of talk is cheap -- and it's also provocative to China. Given the military window of opportunity that I see Beijing having this decade where it's coming off of this huge wave of military modernization, and Taiwan and the United States have these great plans that will probably pay off in the early 2030s, making Taiwan harder to conquer. That's the situation I worry about most: the political provocation without the military deterrent.
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