The Real China Challenge: Imperial Overstretch

    Gordon G. Chang

    Security, Asia

    At some point soon, Beijing will be unable to fulfill commitments and therefore make itself vulnerable.

    IN INTRODUCING its new National Security Strategy, President Trump’s White House identified China as a “revisionist” power, a “rival” and “competitor.” Throughout its sixty-eight pages, the document catalogues Beijing’s hostile behavior and suggests that Chinese influence in America and elsewhere is “malign.” It is right to do so.

    Fortunately for America and contrary to Washington conventional wisdom, the mighty-looking Chinese state is, in reality, particularly vulnerable at this moment. For one thing, its slowing economy is on the verge of a debt crisis. At the same time, Beijing, largely because of the expansive vision of its ruler, Xi Jinping, is overstretched. China’s provocative acts are alienating other states, strengthening a growing coalition against Beijing. Xi’s relentless pursuit of absolute control at home has weakened Chinese institutions. The Chinese people are restless.

    The popular narrative about China today resembles that of the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. Then, Americans believed they had to accommodate Moscow. Within two decades, however, the Soviet empire imploded. Trump is by no means Ronald Reagan, but the current president, like his illustrious predecessor, is willful and disposed to breaking convention. More than at any other time in this decade, the United States is in a position to demand that Beijing adhere to established rules and norms.

    AT FIRST glance, the extraordinary four-decade rise of China gives Beijing a definitive edge over Washington. And most observers believe that advantage will only widen over time. China’s economy will overtake America’s by 2032, according to a report released in December by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, in London.

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