The End of China’s Rise
Beijing Is Running Out of Time to Remake the World
By Michael Beckley and Hal Brands
October 1, 2021
But if Beijing looks to be in a hurry, that’s because its rise is almost over. China’s multidecade ascent was aided by strong tailwinds that have now become headwinds. China’s government is concealing a serious economic slowdown and sliding back into brittle totalitarianism. The country is suffering severe resource scarcity and faces the worst peacetime demographic collapse in history. Not least, China is losing access to the welcoming world that enabled its advance.
Welcome to the age of “peak China.” Beijing is a strong revisionist power that wants to remake the world, but its time to do so is already running out. This realization should not inspire complacency in Washington—just the opposite. Once-rising powers frequently become aggressive when their fortunes fade and their enemies multiply. China is tracing an arc that often ends in tragedy: a dizzying rise followed by the specter of a hard fall.
Making a Miracle
China has been rising for so long that many observers think its ascendance is inevitable. In fact, the past few decades of peace and prosperity are a historical anomaly, caused by several fleeting trends.
To start, China enjoyed a mostly safe geopolitical environment and friendly relations with the United States.
The opening to the United States in 1971 broke this pattern. Beijing suddenly had a superpower ally. Washington warned Moscow not to attack China and fast-tracked Beijing’s integration with the wider world. By the mid-1970s, China had a safe homeland and access to foreign markets and capital—and the timing was perfect. World trade surged sixfold from 1970 to 2007. China rode the momentum of globalization and became the workshop of the world.
China did not need much outside help to supply its citizens with food and water and its industries with most raw materials. Easy access to these resources, plus cheap labor and weak environmental protections, made it an industrial powerhouse.
Reversal of Fortunes
But once-in-an-epoch bonanzas don’t last forever. For the past decade, advantages that once helped the country soar have become liabilities dragging it down.
For starters, China is running out of resources. Half of its rivers have disappeared, and pollution has left 60 percent of its groundwater—by the government’s own admission—“unfit for human contact.” Breakneck development has made it the world’s largest net energy importer. Food security is deteriorating: China has destroyed 40 percent of its farmland through overuse and become the world’s largest importer of agricultural products. Partly owing to resource scarcity, growth is becoming very expensive: China must invest three times as much capital to generate growth as it did in the early years of this century, an increase far greater than one might expect as any economy matures.
China is also running out of people, thanks to the legacy of the one-child policy.
As China has become more assertive and authoritarian, the world has become less conducive to Chinese growth. Beijing has faced thousands of new trade barriers since the 2008 financial crisis. Most of the world’s largest economies are walling off their telecommunications networks from Chinese influence. Australia, India, Japan, and other countries are looking to cut China out of their supply chains.
With the end of its four-decade holiday from history, China now faces two trends—slowing growth and strategic encirclement—that spell the end of its rise.
Owing to its accumulating problems, the Chinese economy has entered the most protracted slowdown of the post-Mao era. China’s official GDP growth rate dropped from 15 percent in 2007 to six percent in 2019, before COVID-19 dragged growth down to a little over two percent in 2020. Even those figures are overstated: rigorous studies show that China’s actual growth rate could be as low as half the government-listed figure.
Worse still, most of China’s GDP growth since 2008 has resulted from the government’s force-feeding capital through the economy. Subtract stimulus spending and China’s economy is hardly growing at all. Productivity, the key ingredient for wealth creation, declined ten percent between 2010 and 2019—the worst drop-off in a great power since the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Ring of Fire
Eurasia has often been a deathtrap for aspiring hegemons: there are too many nearby enemies that can make common cause with offshore superpowers…As Beijing has become more aggressive in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and elsewhere, it has engendered hostility nearly all around.
Over the past five years, the United States has abandoned engagement and embraced neo-containment. Washington has carried out its largest naval and missile expansion in a generation, imposed its most aggressive tariffs since World War II, and implemented its tightest restrictions on foreign investment since the Cold War—all directed at China. Arms sales and military support to frontline states have increased; U.S. technological sanctions are threatening to destroy Huawei and other Chinese firms.
The United States’ turn against China has contributed to a broader backlash against Beijing’s power. In Northeast Asia, Taiwan has become more determined than ever to maintain its de facto independence, and the government has approved a bold new defense strategy that could make the island extremely hard to conquer. Japan has agreed to cooperate closely with the United States to fend off Chinese aggression in the region. Through its own belligerence, Beijing has given the U.S.-Japanese alliance an explicitly anti-China cast.
The countries around the South China Sea are also starting to hedge against China.
China’s ambitions are provoking a response beyond East Asia, too, from Australia to India to Europe. Everywhere Beijing is pushing, a growing cast of rivals is pushing back. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—a strategic partnership that includes Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—has emerged as a focal point of anti-China cooperation among the most powerful democracies in the Indo-Pacific. The new AUKUS (Australia–United Kingdom–United States) alliance unites the core of the Anglosphere against Beijing. The United States is forging overlapping mini-coalitions to ensure that advanced democracies stay ahead in key technologies, while the G-7 and NATO are staking out tougher positions on Taiwan and other issues.
China is a risen power, not a rising one: it has acquired formidable geopolitical capabilities, but its best days are behind it. That distinction matters, because China has staked out vaulting ambitions and now may not be able to achieve them without drastic action. The CCP aims to reclaim Taiwan, dominate the western Pacific, and spread its influence around the globe. Xi has declared that China seeks a “future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.” Yet that dream is starting to slip away, as growth slows and China faces an increasingly hostile world.
Revisionist powers tend to become most dangerous when the gap between their ambitions and their capabilities starts to look unmanageable. When a dissatisfied power’s strategic window begins to close, even a low-probability lunge for victory may seem better than a humiliating descent. When authoritarian leaders worry that geopolitical decline will destroy their political legitimacy, desperation often follows.
China today checks many worrying boxes. Slowing growth? Check. Strategically encircled? Check. Brutal authoritarian regime with few sources of organic legitimacy? Check. Historical axe to grind and revanchist ambitions? Check and check. In fact, China is already engaging in the practices—the relentless military buildup, the search for spheres of influence in Asia and beyond, the effort to control critical technologies and resources—to be expected from a country in its position. If there is a formula for aggression by a peaking power, China exhibits the key elements.
Many observers believe China is throwing its weight around today because it is so confident in its continued ascent. Xi certainly appears to think that COVID-19 and political instability in the United States have created new possibilities to advance. But the more likely—and much scarier—possibility is that China’s leaders are determined to move fast because they are running out of time. What happens when a country that wants to reorder the world concludes it might not be able to do so peacefully? Both history and China’s current behavior suggest the answer is: Nothing good.