By Michael Beckley* and Hal Brands**
In foreign policy circles, it has become conventional wisdom that America and China are running a “superpower marathon” that may last a century.1 But what if the sharpest phase of that competition is more like a decade-long sprint? To be sure, a Sino-American contest that is driven by clashing geopolitical interests and stark ideological antagonism won’t be settled anytime soon. Yet the intensity of even the longest rivalries can vary greatly over time. Both history and China’s recent trajectory suggest that the Sino-American competition may reach its moment of maximum danger during this decade.2
The reason for this is that China has reached a particularly perilous moment in the life of a rising power—the point where it has gained the capability to dramatically disrupt the existing order but has lost confidence that time is on its side. On the one hand, the balance of power has been shifting in Beijing’s favor in important areas of US-Chinese competition, such as the Taiwan Strait and the struggle over global telecommunications networks. Moreover, China currently surveys a world and a superpower rival that are demoralized and distracted.
On the other hand, China has been experiencing, for years, a pronounced economic slowdown. It confronts looming political, social, and demographic challenges. Not least, the Communist Party has now triggered a strategic backlash from not just America but also democratic societies around the world. Beijing is a revisionist power whose strategic window has begun to open—but may not remain open for long.
Historically, this mixture of opportunity and anxiety has proved enormously combustible. Rising powers often become most aggressive when their trajectory flattens, their difficulties multiply, and they fear that they have only a finite period in which to achieve their vaulting ambitions. Today, China is confronting rivals on multiple fronts at once, as it ratchets up repression at home. Xi Jinping’s government is advertising its determination to bring Taiwan back into its grasp, carve out a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific, and reorder the international system to its liking. Yet the appearance of an autocratic power on the make is only half the story. If China seems to be in a hurry, that’s perhaps because its leaders believe it can no longer afford to wait.
Beijing’s predicament offers good and bad news for America. The good news is that, over the medium and long term, the Chinese challenge may prove more manageable than many pessimists currently believe. We may one day look back on China as we now view the former Soviet Union—as a dangerous rival whose evident strengths concealed stagnation and multiplying vulnerabilities. The bad news is that, over the next five to 10 years, the pace of Sino-American rivalry will be torrid, and the prospect of war in hot spots such as the Taiwan Strait will be frighteningly real, as Beijing becomes tempted to lunge for its geopolitical objectives. America will still need a sustainable strategy for managing and winning a protracted global competition. But first it needs a near-term strategy for navigating the danger zone.
*Michael Beckley is a Jeane Kirkpatrick Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where his research
focuses on US-China competition, long-term trends in the US-China power balance, US alliances and grand
strategy, and US economic and defense policy in East Asia. Concurrently, he is an associate professor at Tufts
**Hal Brands is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies US foreign policy and
defense strategy. Concurrently, he is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
- Pavneet Singh, Eric Chewning, and Michael Brown, “Preparing the United States for the Superpower Marathon with China,” Brookings Institution, April 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/research/preparing-the-united-states-for-the-superpower-marathon-with-china/.
- A shorter and somewhat different version of this report was published as Michael Beckley and Hal Brands, “Competition with China Could Be Short and Sharp: The Risk of War Is Greatest in the Next Decade,” Foreign Affairs, December 17, 2020, https://www. foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-12-17/competition-china-could-be-short-and-sharp.