A People's Liberation Army Air Force J-10 fighter jet attached to a Southern Theater Command aviation brigade fires a volley of rockets during a live-fire flight training exercise. Wang Guoyun/China Ministry of Defense
Photo Caption & Credits

Editorial: China Syndrome 

Aug. 31, 2023

Today’s National Defense Strategy, like the Cold War strategy that drove strategic thinking from the 1950s through the 1980s, is dominated by one threat actor—China—which both informs and enables all of the other major threats on the horizon—Russia, Iran, and North Korea. 

As in the Cold War era, we are now engaged in a competition with our lone rival, one that extends past politics, economics, and technological achievement. We are also in a modern-day arms race, in some cases playing catch-up, and we are competing to win friends and influence nations worldwide. 

In those Cold War years, the goal was to contain the spread of communism and the Soviet sphere. The Iron Curtain that fell across Europe after World War II worked both ways: While the Soviets used it to keep their people trapped in a broken system, the West was aided by a system that made it hard to do business with the East. 

That worked to America’s advantage. 

The U.S. and China relationship is much more complicated because the world’s two largest economies are closely intertwined. American businesses have deep ties in China, and Chinese companies are pervasive here, too. China’s TikTok is the most popular social media channel in the U.S. today, and it’s a foreign enterprise. 

China’s recent decline raises new uncertainties—and dangers.

Today’s challenge has its roots in 1989. That year the Berlin Wall came down and one communist regime after another fell, ending Soviet domination in East Europe as Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia embraced democracy. By 1992, the Soviet Union was dissolved. 

China, meanwhile, suffered its own struggles. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre preceded the collapse of communism in Europe by nearly six months. For a time, it looked like the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power might fail. But as student protests spread from Beijing to some 400 cities across China, the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army flooded onto Beijing’s streets, killing hundreds if not thousands. 

By 1991, it was hard to see two national trajectories more different than those of the United States and China. America was victorious, and after the Gulf War, clearly dominant, a singular global power broker. China, by contrast, was little more than the world’s biggest “Third World” country. 

How quickly fortunes change. America cashed in its “peace dividend” and broke up its military like a losing baseball team at the trade deadline. Weapons systems were retired, programs were canceled and delayed, and troops were paid to quit. On the plus side, interest rates declined and the economy grew. Hard as it is to imagine in this age of $1.5 trillion annual budget deficits, we were looking at surpluses by the turn of the century. Not only was “the era of big government over,” as President Bill Clinton said, but when George W. Bush succeeded him as President, the nation was so flush that it looked like our entire debt would be retired by the end of the decade. 

It was not to be. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the decisions and choices that followed changed everything. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was especially tragic, taxing America’s international alliances and squandering our moral high ground. As on 9/11, our intelligence agencies saw shadows but missed the facts. Rather than discover weapons of mass destruction, as retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula says, “America entered an era of mass distraction.” It became consumed with counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan to the exclusion of the peer threat of China that was looming on the horizon.

China took advantage, modernizing every aspect of its military in the years that followed. It has amassed counterspace weapons and long-range missiles designed to counter U.S. advantages in space, in the air, and on the surface. It has made itself a formidable cyber power and developed (or stolen) stealth technology that now appears in its fighter jets. China continues to rapidly iterate designs and to focus on home-grown design and manufacturing. 

Many saw what was coming. Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley fought a losing battle to ensure the Air Force would have the aircraft and weapons in place to counter China’s rise. Instead of recognition, however, Moseley’s stiff-necked insistence that the Air Force must prepare for “the high-end fight” cost him his job. 

Now the China threat is established wisdom. “It’s become the oxygen we live and breathe in the Department of Defense,” says Mara Karlin, the acting Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon. It’s the context for every new weapons program, every new initiative, almost every military exercise. 

In the Soviet era, there was some level of security about knowing who our enemy was, what was at stake, how the game was played. That is not the case today. Instead, we are entering a dangerous new era of dynamic and increased risk. 

Because China is in decline, we now see added uncertainty. Just as 9/11 threw the United States off its stride, COVID-19 fomented greater uncertainty in China. Unlike the United States, which rebounded quickly, China has discovered systemic cracks in its economic engine. Its population is on the decline. Its housing stock is overbuilt. Too much money is owed to foreign investors. Youth unemployment is approaching 20 percent. 

From the start, China lied about COVID. Its official statistics, promulgated from China to the World Health Organization, acknowledge less than 121,000 deaths out of some 99 million COVID-19 cases since the outbreak began four years ago. By contrast, a new study published in the Journal of  the American Medical Association exposes the reality. Ph.D. Researchers Hong Xiao and Joseph Unger analyzed mortality data published by Chinese universities and captured on the internet. Their peer-reviewed paper, published in August, asserts China suffered some 1.87 million excess deaths between December 2022 and January 2023, the months that followed China’s reopening of society following its extended COVID-19 lockdown. 

China’s decline raises new uncertainty and risk. For all its size and power, China has proven to be brittle, and very possibly at the end of its juggernaut growth period. Its long-planned rise may never be achieved. This is what makes China more dangerous today. Just as Russia’s kleptocracy drove its post-Soviet growth into an inevitable decline, leading to its misguided invasion of Ukraine, China’s shaky future may prompt President Xi Jinping to take unwise risks in Taiwan or elsewhere. 

Vigilance now is every bit as essential as it was in 1980. Today, as then, America is only slightly removed from two long and unsuccessful foreign wars. Our long-delayed revamping of our strategic military assets is only now gaining traction. Our military is only beginning to regain strength and confidence. The right strategic choices now will pay dividends in the future. 

China has thought for years that the American century is over, and that China’s rise is inevitable. America can—and must—prove them wrong.