DANIEL VAUGHAN: The China Century Hits Reality: Demographic Crisis Looms

 July 26, 2023

The Thucydides Trap is a theory that when a rising power in international politics gets strong enough to challenge the ruling regime, war almost inevitably follows. As the theory goes, Athens grew to challenge Sparta, giving us the Peloponnesian War. The unification of Germany led to two world wars. More recently, the United States and the USSR were at the precipice of war numerous times throughout the 20th century.

This theory's hypothesis is simple: is a rising China destined to challenge America in a war for global supremacy? Is that inevitable? Are the threads of our relationship frayed so much that war is unavoidable, or is America so unsettled by China that we're overreacting, causing a war standing?

Historian Graham Allison put this theory together in his book and essay on US-China relations. He posits that China's relentless march upward economically poses an existential challenge to America, which ups the odds of a global conflict.

A Counter Argument: China's Shrinking Influence.

I'd counter that if the United States gets a war with China, it'll have nothing to do with this theory and everything to do with China's shrinking influence. The United States isn't going anywhere right now. China faces the genuine possibility of dropping off economically and in power, just as Japan did after the 1980s, or collapsing outright like the USSR.

Lessons from the Soviet Union's Collapse

In his famous X Telegram, diplomat George Kennan noted that the Soviets believed in Marxist conceptions of history. Marx believed that capitalism had the seeds of its destruction within it, and capitalist states would inevitably destroy each other for resources, leaving the communists to inherit the world. Kennan, in 1947, said the opposite was true, "Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced."

He was right. Marxist communism could not survive because its weaknesses ended the USSR before capitalism experienced a single hiccup of an ending. Graham Allison's theory suffers from a similar defect. All the projections of China's unstoppable march have come crashing down, with an outright recession likely destroying it internally. And this is not a short-term blimp; the ghosts of Mao haunt China.

China's Demographic Crisis: A Looming Challenge.

The China Century has hit the wall of reality before ever asserting itself. China's real enemy at the moment is a devastating demographic crisis. The fruit of the central planners of China's communist party has come home to roost. Decades of "one-child policy" has wrecked China's population, giving them their first population decline since the famines of the 20th century.

A declining population means several things: shrinking economic prosperity and a smaller possible military-aged population are first on the list. India has already surpassed China as the largest country. Next, China has an increasing incapacity to change these dynamics because China emphasized the birth of males instead of females, combined with a gendercide against girls in general.

By the end of this century, China is projected to have a population collapse from more than 1.4 billion to around 800 million. In comparison, the United States expects steady growth over that time, increasing its economic power and military strength.

The Decline of China's Population and its Implications.

The real threat from China isn't that of a rising power challenging the current ruling authority in the United States but that of a superpower rapidly losing its position and scrambling to respond. If China wants to take back something like Taiwan, the time is now, not later. Graham Allison, Henry Kissinger, and others have long claimed that China plays the "long game," seeking to move slowly to avoid grand mistakes.

The Chinese Communist Party has littered Chinese history over the last hundred years with non-stop mistakes. And now, the communists have left their country with the same blooming fruits of the Soviet Union's collapse. With the Soviets, we witnessed their collapse, followed by a shift into an authoritarian police state. There are essential lessons to try and avoid a similar outcome with the Chinese.

Responding to China's Perceived Weakness.

That leaves the threat to the United States. America isn't in the position of having to worry about a rising power. Our primary concern is dealing with a shrinking China that believes it has a limited time to accomplish long-term international relations goals. Cornered countries can, and often do, act irrationally. Look no further than Vladimir Putin launching a war in Ukraine, despite holding a weak hand, for proof.

America is left in a lurch in this situation. How do we respond to a nation perceiving itself as weakening and losing influence? China may also look at India and see a country taking its place in crucial ways, with no way of responding demographically.

We likely won't learn the answers to that for a little while. But one thing is certain: China's demographic crisis will bring more issues to the world than anything the Thucydides trap could present.

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