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LIFE MATTERS: A Superpower Responds – Reality Check on China and the Specter of Global Conflict 

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Last part of 3 Parts

By Dr. Dencio Acop

Given China’s challenge, what is the United States doing and willing to do? With everything that is unfolding, will the ongoing rivalry make the world a better place? Or worse? But before such can be discussed, there is much to be gained from history for a better understanding of the present and future. Both the United States and China have lessons learned from their past histories. This is both comforting as well as worrying. It is comforting in the sense that both protagonists do have some credible ideas on how their mutually destructive confrontation will play out and so will refrain from it as much as possible. It is also worrying in the sense that both powers, given their overconfidence in their own strengths while underestimating the other’s, and glossing over their own weaknesses while hyping up the other’s, now erroneously think one can still win over the other even in the age of mutually assured destruction. The wars of the past have been won by civilizations with superior firepower and greater resources. For more than half a century, the United States has been the global power that it is because it has been the largest economy and the mightiest army. Now China is challenging the U.S. because it has a larger economy and a People’s Liberation Army that can match the U.S. military. The only real question is when. And history tells us that a rising state usually challenges a reigning state when its power is almost at par with the leading state and its window of opportunity to challenge is about to close. With everything it may lose otherwise, the Chinese Communist Party may be feeling confident that by leading the era of artificial intelligence and quantum computing, it can be at par or even defeat the United States.     

It is argued, however, that militarily rising states are economically and politically declining states too. One reason gives rise to the other. And history teaches us that once powerful states beginning to feel their decline looked to other lands to conquer in order to fill in their lack at home. Used up resources that caused the domestic population to feel hunger engendered public resentment and ushered in the unpopularity of the king or leader. In such situations, patriotism suddenly becomes the leader’s political campaign motto and new foreign policy in order to defend against a hostile neighbor. But in truth, the domestic situation has become a mutually coercive motivation between the led and the leader which has now expanded into foreign territory to acquire resources much needed for domestic survival. Other psychological reasons may come into play but they are usually encouraged especially by the leader to promote need into action. They may include resurrecting an old grudge against a previous power which humiliated the local country in the past. Being called the ‘sick man of Asia’ for instance, recalling the ‘rape of Nanking’, or still feeling the massive counter-productiveness of an opium-addicted China which led to the Opium Wars with the West. There are those who say the foregoing led to the establishment of an autocracy which is the only entity capable of effectively ruling China.   

What formidable lessons can the past teach us today? Lessons that can be used to deduce the future? What does China really want today? What would a world ruled by China look like? Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley (2022) is another excellent material that credibly assesses the current situation with China providing a not-to-be ignored account of things to come in the near future. First, it identifies what China hopes to achieve that it still hasn’t. Second, the book argues that China has in fact already peaked economically and has recently become more aggressive because the only way it can sustain its current sufficiency is through foreign acquisitions. Third, China must act before it is too late and its window of opportunity closes. Fourth, what does the past tell us? And fifth, what does the future hold based upon this past and what is unfolding?

 According to Brands and Beckley (p.5), the following are indispensable aims of China. First, the 90 million-member Chinese Communist Party will do everything it can to perpetually remain in power.  Second, “the CCP wants to make China whole again by regaining territories lost in earlier eras of internal upheaval and foreign aggression”. China has already recovered Macau from Portugal and Hongkong from England. Now, it has its undistracted eyes on Taiwan. Accordingly, China does not entertain any ambition towards becoming the global hegemon. It only wants a world wherein it is allowed to flourish on its own without undue interference. Unfortunately, though, the world does not operate in a vacuum and reunification with now ‘independent’ Taiwan would involve the Free World. 

The second point argued by the authors is the fact that “China has been experiencing, and concealing, a sharp economic slowdown. It confronts growing political pathologies, worsening resource shortfalls, and an epic demographic catastrophe.” China’s capital-output ratio “has tripled since 2007”, has become the “world’s largest importer of agricultural products” in 2011, imports “75 percent of its oil and 45 percent of its natural gas”, with Xinhua reporting in 2014 that “China’s arable land was suffering degradation from overuse” and “20 percent” of it destroyed from pollution. (Brands & Beckley, 2022, pp.36-38). “China’s official gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate dropped from 15 percent in 2007 to 6 percent in 2019”. (Brands & Beckley, 2022, p.43). This was even made worse by the ill-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The unreliability of China’s current ‘official’ economic performance is due in large part to the CCP’s ‘dictating’ of numbers and “pumping capital through the economy”. In reality, it is more likely that the Chinese economy has ceased to grow. China too is now suffering from the ill-effects of its drastic “one child policy” which condemns the country to a dwindled workforce in its prime while looking to care for a larger elderly population. Chinese demography also lacks a significant child-bearing feminine population due to the traditional preference for boys relative to the one-child policy. (Brands & Beckley, 2022, pp.35-36).  

Thirdly, the authors argue that China is in fact now trying to act before it is too late and its window of opportunity closes. ‘Rejuvenation’ literally is what Xi Jinping has set out to do during his reign in power. From the ascension to power of the communists in 1949 until China became a U.S. ‘ally’ thanks to the Cold War with the USSR, the CCP was on a ‘strategic defensive’ largely being isolationist under Mao Zedong which did not work towards advancing China in the world. Then, from President Nixon’s 1972 visit with Mao in China in 1972 through Clinton’s 1990s Globalization inclusive of China and up to Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, it can be said that the Party went on a ‘strategic stalemate’ mode with the U.S. This was the period when China really developed but ‘hid its capabilities and bided its time’ so as not to attract undue attention from the West while it got itself stronger. Seeing the Soviet Party’s weakened adherence to unflinching strength, Deng Xiaoping did much to make the CCP view partnership with the West a growing threat even as China greatly benefited from its economic partnership with it. The world events discussed earlier convinced the CCP that it was on a non-reversible trajectory towards its destiny for survival and prove to the world that socialism has as much a right as democracy to exist in the world. 

The rise of Xi Jinping in 2012 signals the point in history when the CCP decided it was time to march on the ‘strategic offensive’ to claim China’s destiny. China has already fully developed and plateaued economically. Even this is not enough as China has more than a billion mouths to feed. With dwindling resources, China has to look to other places to source fresh resources and safeguard the supply chain. A ‘renegade province’ has significant technological resources. The South China Sea is a wealth of resources that includes marine, oil, gas, and mineral deposits. But much of the sea is foreign territory governed by international law through the UNCLOS. The only way China can get its way to access resources in areas governed by international law is by force. And China has in fact done so. With its economic might, China has developed the PLA into a world-class military safeguarding the passage of Chinese supply chains through essential trade routes with the construction of military bases in BRI countries. A great power whose domestic survival is on the decline but has great military power can use that power for the continued survival of its people and to defend its way of life. When it sees its antagonists weakened by decay and turmoil, that great power will feel compelled to act before that rare window of opportunity pitting its optimal strength against its enemy’s optimal weakness is gone forever. By all evidence, China is now on the ‘strategic offensive’ (expansion) phase of its grand strategy.    

Fourth, what does the learning curve of the past tell us about the fate of great powers? The past tells us that great powers are either rising or falling. But truth is that this rising or falling can also occur at the same time. And they did. In 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia worried that the German Empire (1871-1914) was being threatened by Russia in the east and France in the west. His chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, urged him to “strike to defeat the enemy while we still stand a chance of victory even if that meant provoking a war in the near future”. (Brands & Beckley, 2022, p.80). Rising power Athens threatened established power Sparta in the Great Peloponnesian War from 431 to 405 BC. Thucydides chronicled the war and became the “father of the international relations canon”. His enduring “power transition theory holds that war is likely when a rising country threatens to overtake an established country. As the challenger grows stronger, it destabilizes the existing system. It provokes tests of strength with the reigning power. The outcome is a spiral of hostility.” A political scientist wrote that “war is most likely during the periods when the power capabilities of a rising and dissatisfied challenger begin to approach those of the leading state”. In 2015, Harvard’s Graham Allison argued that “throughout history, power transitions have led to war”. This assessment is particularly acute because China will soon be “the biggest player in the history of the world”. The “Thucydides Trap” has in fact been cited by Xi Jinping “in calling on America to accept Chinese primacy in Asia and beyond”. (Brands & Beckley, 2022, p.82). Asian power Japan was relatively democratic in the early 20th century until it became totalitarian leading up to its aggression in World War II due to economic depression and domestic troubles. “Tokyo’s answer was fascism at home and violence abroad. It outlawed dissent, jailed critics, and built a police state.” Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and from there proceeded to grab swaths of China. It sought to create a “New Order” in Asia where “all roads led to Tokyo”. (Brands & Beckley, 2022, pp.96-99). When we are reminded of the past, we suddenly remember how easily it can be the future again. But only with different players this time. 

Finally, what kind of future can we expect from the current rivalry between China and the United States? As Brands and Beckley pointed out, “the rupture in U.S.-China relations came only in 2017” when “Donald Trump shattered the engagement paradigm and ushered in full-spectrum competition”. In December of that year, the U.S. “National Security Strategy described China as an international outlaw that was reshaping the world in ways antithetical to U.S. Values and interests”. The Secretary of State “called for a global alliance of democracies to keep China in its proper place”. It was the “most dramatic change in U.S.-China relations since Nixon visited Beijing”. Policy actions followed. “A significant bump in defense spending allowed the Pentagon to initiate its largest naval and missile expansion in a generation.” Other actions against included punitive tariffs, investment and technological restrictions seeking to cripple Huawei “and turn the world away from Chinese 5G providers, creation of the International Development Finance Corporation, a $60 billion answer to BRI (and AIIB), while the FBI was unleashed to go after China’s pervasive espionage and influence campaigns.” (Brands & Beckley, 2022, pp.63-64). Counteractions spread to all other areas of the American bureaucracy. Sanctions were imposed on CCP officials responsible for the destruction of Hong Kong’s political freedoms in 2019-2020. “The State Department declared that China’s program of mass incarceration, forced sterilization, and systematic abuse of the Uighur population amounted to genocide. The U.S. Navy ramped up its freedom of navigation operations (along with western allies) to challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea; arms sales and military support to vulnerable states increased.” (Brands & Beckley, 2022, p.64). 

Under Biden, the U.S. has continued the containment of China with even more pointed urgency across all fronts. “The Pentagon formed an emergency China task force charged with sprinting toward better solutions for countering the PLA’s buildup, as U.S. officials sought to rally allies for a potential defense of Taiwan.” (Brands & Beckley, 2022, p.65). Biden upheld most of Trump’s “sanctions on China, while proposing a $50 billion effort to boost the American semiconductor industry; he began kicking Chinese firms with ties to the PLA and CCP intelligence organs out of U.S. capital markets.” (Brands & Beckley, 2022, p.66). Washington cut Beijing out of key scientific research supply chains. “Biden also threw down the ideological gauntlet, declaring that an epochal struggle between democracy and authoritarianism was under way. Washington must link arms with fellow democracies – on tech, trade, defense, and other issues – to defeat Beijing’s repressive model.” (Brands & Beckley, p.66). As one observer put it, “it seems that a whole-of-government and whole-of-society campaign is being waged to bring China down”. (Brands & Beckley, p.66). 

China is of course aware of Washington’s displeasure and counteractions. CCP officials themselves admitted that “the CCP had made itself the primary target of a global superpower” and that “a united front has formed in the United States”. (Brands & Beckley, 2022, p.66). “And just as the U.S. turn toward China opened so many doors from the 1970s onward, the U.S. turn away from China has helped to close them. Countries that have benefited from the American world order are starting to understand the risks of a system run by Beijing. Almost everywhere China is pushing for advantage, a growing cast of rivals is pushing back.” (Brands & Beckley, p.66). This cast (and counting) now include Taiwan of course, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Australia, South Korea, Malaysia, and other countries who are either claimants of disputed territories in the South China Sea or trading countries opposed to China’s unilaterally imposed Ten-Dash Line over international freedom of navigation in the high seas.  

China’s National Security Strategy is telling at the very least. First, the Strategy “integrates security into every domain and every process of national development. All other issues – economic development, technological innovation, environmental policy – are adjuncts to the prime directive of keeping the party in power. As a result, every issue is a matter of national security. A trade war is no longer just an economic disagreement; it is an assault on China’s comprehensive national power and a possible prelude to a shooting war. This securitization of policy-making is dangerous, because it elevates every concern to the level of a vital national interest and justifies extreme responses. If a competing power tries to hurt China’s economy, for example, all options are on the table, including military retaliation. Second, China’s strategy embraces preventive solutions. The new policy focuses on ‘preventing and controlling’ threats before they metastasize. Chinese documents compare national security threats to cancerous tumors that need to be cut out quickly before they spread to vital organs of the state. Rival ideologies, such as liberalism, (Christianity), and Islamism, are infectious diseases against which China’s population must be immunized. The clearest illustration is in Xinjiang, where China has extrajudicially locked up more than 1 million Uighurs in (present-day) concentration camps.” (Brands & Beckley, 2022, pp.108-109). 

China’s democracy prevention involves under-handed strategy and tactics designed to undermine the prevailing order to advance authoritarianism. “Beijing now spends billions of dollars annually on an ‘anti-democratic toolkit’ of NGOs, media outlets, diplomats, advisers, hackers, and bribes all designed to prop up autocrats and sow discord in democracies.” (Brands & Beckley, 2022, p.119).” “Beijing’s success in taking leadership positions in major international organizations (like the United Nations) now allows it to turn organs of the liberal order into tools of anti-democratic influence.” (Brands & Beckley, p.120). China is embarking to make AI and quantum computing effective tools of authoritarianism particularly in efficiently controlling their populations. Just imagine what the CCP can do with the “data-collection and messaging power of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter” when these are combined with “big data, and cyber, biometric, and speech- and facial-recognition technologies that will allow dictators to know everything about their subjects.” (Brands & Beckley, p.121). “Needless to say, these technologies are a tyrant’s dream. Chinese companies were already selling and operating surveillance systems in more than 80 countries as of 2020. As the CCP feels increasingly threatened at home and abroad, there is every reason to expect Beijing to export digital authoritarianism farther and wider. Digital authoritarianism is creeping into the heart of the liberal world. The use of digital tools to manipulate public opinion, demonize opponents, and mobilize violent mobs of supporters is just as alluring for someone seeking power in a democracy as it is for a dictator.” (Brands & Beckley, pp.123-124).

To those of us who think that China has not been capable of actual external aggression throughout its history, the following contradicts that. “When cornered by rivals, China does not wait to be attacked. Instead, it usually shoots first to gain tactical advantage before its strategic situation gets even worse. In late 1950, waves of Chinese soldiers attacked U.S. forces in Korea for fear that the Americans would conquer North Korea and build military bases there. China suffered almost a million casualties but to this day celebrates its defense of North Korea as a glorious victory. In 1962, the PLA attacked Indian forces, ostensibly because they built outposts in Chinese-claimed territory in the Himalayas, but really because China felt it was being encircled by the Indians, Americans, Soviets, and Chinese Nationalists. Fearing invasion, China ambushed Soviet forces on their shared border in 1969.” (Brands & Beckley, 2022, pp.126-127). China attacked Soviet-allied Vietnam over Cambodia in 1979. It had another shooting incident with India in the Himalayas in 2020. China eyes Japan, its historical enemy, over the Senkaku Islands and other issues. 

China sees the Philippines as a ‘juicy’ target which “meets all the criteria of a perfect enemy”. The Philippines is militarily weak. Although it won its case over China with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, China declared that it cannot be bound “by the rulings of a ‘puppet’ court half a world away”. (Brands & Beckley, 2022, p.128). By building right within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, China has backed up this declaration with defiant action. It really did so more for the country’s strategic value to Chinese imperial ambition. Now, China has access to resource-rich West Philippine Sea as well as bases to cover its BRI trade routes and soon project its expanded power unimpeded. “And while Washington has pledged to defend Filipino possessions in the South China Sea, Beijing might not believe it. ‘Would you go to war over Scarborough Shoals?’ the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was overheard saying in 2016. Still, “if China bludgeoned Filipino forces, it would force the United States into a very tough choice: defend an ambivalent ally over its territorial claims or stand aside as China makes a mockery of international law, expands its control of the South China Sea, and wrecks the credibility of U.S. allied commitments in Asia.” (Brands & Beckley, p.129).  

“As bad as those scenarios are, they pale in comparison to what is likely to be the main event of a Chinese revanchist campaign: the conquest of Taiwan. Grabbing Taiwan is China’s top foreign policy goal, and preparations to reclaim the island reportedly consume roughly one-third of the PLA’s budget. If China subdued Taiwan, it would gain access to its world-class semiconductor industry and free up dozens of ships, hundreds of missile launchers and combat aircraft, and billions of defense dollars to wreak havoc farther afield. China could use Taiwan as an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ to project power into the Pacific, blockade Japan and the Philippines, and fracture U.S. alliances in East Asia. Not least, successful aggression would eliminate the world’s only Chinese democracy, removing a persistent threat to the CCP’s legitimacy. Taiwan is the center of gravity in East Asia – and the epitome of a place where China’s leaders might think that near-term aggression could radically improve their country’s long-term trajectory vis-à-vis the United States.” (Brands & Beckley, 2022, pp.129-130).   

“To close China’s near-term window of opportunity, the United States and Taiwan will have to move rapidly. First, the Pentagon can dramatically raise the costs of a Chinese invasion by turning the international waters of the Taiwan Strait into a death trap for attacking forces using hordes of missile launchers, armed drones, electronic jammers, smart mines, and sensors at sea and on allied territory near the strait. Second, America cannot win the fight unless it stays in the fight, and that means rapidly dispersing and hardening America’s bases, communications, and logistics networks in East Asia. Third, Washington needs to help Taiwan help itself. Fourth, the United States needs to reduce its geographic disadvantage – and buy time for these other measures to take effect – by boosting its military presence near, and even on, Taiwan. Fifth, America should develop the ability to disrupt China’s military communications systems. Finally, the United States needs to make China realize that a Taiwan war could go big as well as long (which can drag on for months or years). The more allies and partners America can bring into the fight, the less appetizing that fight will look to Beijing. (Brands & Beckley, 2022, pp.178- 183).   


This paper has argued that China is no longer the sleeping giant of Asia. China may have struggled economically following the ascension of the Communist Party since 1949. But it has since 1972 gradually risen to become the most dominant economic power today thanks to the United States, the same superpower it now rivals and tries to dethrone. There is no room for doubt as to the global ambitions of China. At least half of the world may just as well begin getting used to an alternate global order ruled by China which has become the undisputed leader of the authoritarian world. Those countries which do not align with the emerging alternate world order will have to cast their lot with the reigning liberal order championed by the United States. There could be war in the near future if resulting clashes between these two powerful orders are not contained. Already, it seems an impossibility to see two world orders existing side by side. The onset of radical technologies interconnecting all spheres of life on the planet has practically dissipated all possibilities of isolation. 

But before any shooting war can occur, there is still much that can be done by the United States to prevent direct military confrontation with China which could provoke World War III. Rush Doshi has proposed that “an asymmetric approach can be quite effective in blunting a rival’s hegemonic ambitions – and this approach will be even more effective when wielded by a still quite powerful United States. Building order is extremely difficult, and frustrating the effort to build is far less challenging. The logic of such an approach is relatively straightforward: to undermine China’s hegemonic ambitions at a lower cost than what China incurs in trying to advance them. Similarly, with respect to building, the goal is to rebuild US order – including its forms of control over China.” (Doshi, 2021, pp.315-316). As China blunted, built, and expanded at the expense of the U.S. across all spheres, Doshi wrote that the U.S. can now do the same to China. For their part, Brands and Beckley add that the U.S. and liberal powers must check China’s imperialism in the digital age; “safeguard democratic systems by actively weakening an opponent’s ability to damage them”; prepare for a long war with China; nurture U.S.-NATO relations; save Taiwan; and smartly play the danger zone strategy to avoid and not provoke war as much as possible.” (Brands & Beckley, 2022, pp.162-191). Time to accomplish all these in order for one to be on top of the other is now apparently of the essence. The superpower race is essentially on and political analysts assess the decade of the 2020s to be critical.                                                 


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Dencio Severo Acop served in the Armed Forces of the Philippines for close to 30 years. A member of West Point’s Class of 1983, he is a decorated soldier-scholar winning the Distinguished Conduct and Service Stars and the Presidential Medal of Merit. Colonel Acop is among the pioneers of the elite ranger battalion, the Special Action Force. Highly educated, he sat in the Cabinet Cluster E (Defense and Security) of President Fidel Ramos as a young officer. The author is a certified protection professional, volunteer leader, published author, seasoned academic, and public servant. 

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