How likely is China to start a war?

How likely is China to start a war?

Michael Beckley and Hal Brands write:

In 1995, more Taiwanese citizens considered themselves exclusively Chinese than Taiwanese, and more favored moving toward unification with China than toward independence. Today, nearly two-thirds of the population considers itself exclusively Taiwanese, versus only 4 percent that identifies as exclusively Chinese. While most Taiwanese support maintaining the status quo for now, 49 percent of the population prefers eventual independence over an indefinite continuation of the status quo (27 percent) or unification (12 percent). Meanwhile, the United States has tightened its relationship with Taiwan, with U.S. President Joe Biden declaring at least four times that the United States would defend the island from a Chinese attack. As Washington and Taipei overhaul their militaries for a potential conflict with China, Beijing is growing more alarmed about the fate of the territory it covets most.

In the South China Sea, China’s military presence has greatly expanded, but its diplomatic position is eroding. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea were null and void. Since 2022, the Philippines—the country that brought the case—has been reasserting its maritime rights and allowing U.S. access to additional military bases on its territory to help defend them. Japan is forming a quasi-alliance with Manila, and a growing cast of nations, including Britain, France, and Germany, are sending warships through the South China Sea in defiance of Beijing’s claims. In response, China has gotten physically aggressive. Last year, for example, Chinese coast guard ships blasted Philippine supply boats with water cannons, preventing them from delivering food to military personnel stationed on the Second Thomas Shoal.

As China’s military power has grown, its larger geopolitical outlook has darkened. China’s economy has lately been stagnating and shrinking relative to that of the United States. Productivity is down, and debt has exploded. Upwards of 20 percent of young adults were unemployed as of mid-2023—when Beijing temporarily stopped releasing statistics on the problem—and that number almost certainly understates the severity of the problem. Droves of wealthy and well-educated Chinese are trying to get their money and children out of the country. Those problems will worsen as China suffers the worst aging crisis in world history: Over the next 10 years, China will lose 70 million working-age adults while gaining 130 million senior citizens.

Finally, China faces an increasingly hostile strategic environment. The world’s wealthiest countries are choking off its access to high-end semiconductors—the lifeblood of economic and military innovation—and slapping new trade and investment restrictions on Beijing every year. Anti-China pacts, such as AUKUS, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral agreement, are proliferating. China’s only great-power ally, Russia, has thrown its military into a meat grinder in Ukraine and turned public opinion in many European countries against Beijing.

If China were ruled by a committee of technocrats, it might respond to these pressures with diplomatic compromise and economic reform. But China is ruled by a dictator, who has already shown he’s willing to sacrifice the well-being of the Chinese people to achieve his grandiose objectives. [Continue reading…]

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