It is January 18, 2025, and a war is about to start. The U.S. presidential inauguration is only two days away, but the election results remain contested. Both the Democratic and Republican candidates are claiming victory and preparing to take the oath of office while millions of their supporters clash in the streets. It is America’s second straight disputed election, this time accompanied by a crisis on the other side of the world.

China is conducting massive naval exercises in the Taiwan Strait. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has also positioned a menacing medley of forces—airborne and amphibious assault troops, strike aircraft, thousands of ballistic missiles—opposite Taiwan. Such shows of strength have become a regular occurrence over the past half-decade, as China flexes its muscles vis-à-vis an island it considers a renegade province. Xi Jinping, now in his thirteenth year atop the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has repeatedly warned Taiwan that it must submit to Beijing’s authority—and told the United States to mind its own business. Anyone who tries to slow China’s progress, he likes to say, will have their “heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel.”1 In the same spirit, CCP propaganda organs have taken to releasing video simulations of Taiwanese and American forces being slaughtered in a PLA attack.2 The PLA has even threatened to vaporize Japanese cities with nuclear weapons if Tokyo gets in the way.3

High above the western Pacific, U.S. spy satellites watch the military preparations. America’s world-class signals intelligence capabilities detect China’s mobilization. But U.S. analysts assume that this is just another case of Xi’s habitual saber-rattling—a feint designed to unnerve Taiwan’s population and overstretch its military.

They are wrong.

At 10:01 pm EST (the next morning in Beijing and Taipei), Chinese forces unleash hell. Short- and medium-range missiles pound airfields, government buildings, and military installations all over Taiwan, as well as America’s key regional air bases on Okinawa and Guam. The USS Ronald Reagan, the Pentagon’s sole aircraft carrier in the region, suffers a direct hit from an anti-ship ballistic missile. Chinese special forces, secretly infiltrated into Taiwan beforehand, sabotage infrastructure, try to decapitate the government by killing its top leaders, and sow panic among the population. China’s cyber warriors take down Taiwan’s power grid, plunging the island into blackness, and spoof U.S. satellites. Meanwhile, Beijing unleashes a global disinformation campaign blaming the crisis on Taiwan and roiling a chaotic political scene in the United States.

All this is preparation for the main event. The Chinese fleet conducting “exercises” now pivots to launch an amphibious landing on Taiwan’s most accessible western beach. Chinese commercial car ferries plying the strait suddenly disgorge small, amphibious landing craft. On the mainland, airborne forces prepare to seize Taiwanese airfields and ports, paving the way for the main assault of hundreds of thousands of troops. The long-feared Chinese invasion of Taiwan has begun, as has a multi-vector attack on America’s ability to respond.

In Taipei, the situation soon borders on irretrievable. In Washington, the news is also grim. Aides inform an ailing President Biden that he has little time and no good options.

America cannot abandon Taiwan without betraying 25 million democratic citizens and shredding the credibility of its alliances with the Philippines and Japan. A Chinese-controlled Taiwan could be a stepping-stone to expansion throughout East Asia and beyond. But America cannot stop the assault without risking a war that could be bigger and costlier than anything since World War II.

In the White House Situation Room, the secretary of defense tells Biden that the bloodied U.S. forces in the western Pacific are unable to repel the Chinese invasion. Additional U.S. aircraft, warships, and submarines scattered everywhere from Hawaii to the Persian Gulf can try to fight their way toward the Taiwan Strait through a gauntlet of Chinese missiles, mines, and air defenses. But this will take days if not weeks and result in heavy losses with no guarantee of success. Alternatively, the U.S. Navy can blockade China’s energy imports and food supplies, but that strangulation strategy will take months—time that Taiwan doesn’t have.

That leaves one sure way to stop the invasion: Strike Chinese forces with low-yield nuclear weapons as they load in mainland ports and airfields. America is still the stronger power, Biden’s advisers tell him; it can win a big war if it throws everything it has into the fight. But such a conflict might end up destroying Taiwan in order to save it—and prove disastrous for America and China alike.


How did the United States and China come to the brink of World War III?

At the time, most analysts assumed that Xi’s decision to attack was the inevitable outcome of China’s growing strength and confidence. In the years leading up to 2025, Beijing had built the world’s largest navy, air defense system, and missile force. It had put new warships to sea at a rate no country had managed since World War II; it had stunned the Pentagon by leaping forward in hypersonic weapons and other advanced capabilities.4 China was simultaneously racing for supremacy in key technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing; through its Digital Silk Road initiative, it was building a twenty-first century sphere of influence. Xi Jinping had consolidated power and made himself the world’s mightiest dictator since Joseph Stalin, while America’s politics continued to be a tribal, polarized mess—and America’s attention was diverted by other crises and conflicts around the globe. Never before had the People’s Republic of China (PRC) possessed such military strength and economic influence vis-à-vis its rivals. By outward appearances, Xi’s “Chinese Dream”—his ambition to make China dominant in Asia and around the globe—was on the verge of becoming a reality.

But Xi was tormented by the nightmare of Chinese decline. For years, the pressures on the CCP regime had been mounting. Once-torrid economic growth had slowed to a crawl. The legacy of the One-Child policy was demographic disaster—an impending loss of nearly 200 million working-age individuals in China by mid-century. The regime had become more repressive as it grew ever more petrified of dissent. And in response to Chinese belligerence during the COVID-19 pandemic and for years thereafter, the democratic world had gradually been closing ranks to check Beijing’s rise. Taiwan was finally starting to shore up its inadequate military defenses, as its population rejected any suggestion of reunification with China. The United States—a country with a unique talent for slaying autocratic rivals—was waging a tech and tariff war against China’s economy while retooling its military to take on the PLA.

On the eve of war, the world still saw China as a rising power. Yet Xi saw a future of stagnation, strategic encirclement, and decay. So he gambled, with catastrophic consequences for the region and the world, because he knew his moment of opportunity wouldn’t last long.


The “rise of China” may be the most read-about news story of the twenty-first century.5 The prevailing consensus, in Washington and abroad, is that an ascendant Beijing is threatening to overtake a slumping America.6 “If we don’t get moving,” said President Biden in 2021, “they’re going to eat our lunch.”7 Countries in every region, a veteran Asian diplomat reports, are “making preparations for a world” in which China will be “number one.”8

China is certainly acting like it wants to run the show. The CCP is laying plans to create a Sino-centric Asia and reclaim what it sees as China’s rightful place atop the global hierarchy. Beijing is using an impressive array of military, economic, diplomatic, technological, and ideological tools to protect the power and project the influence of a brutal authoritarian regime. The United States, for its part, is trying to defend a liberal international order it has anchored for generations and prevent Beijing from making the twenty-first century an age of autocratic ascendancy. America and China are thus locked in a fierce global struggle. It has become conventional wisdom in Washington—a rare point of agreement in a bitterly divided capital—that the two countries are running a “superpower marathon” that may last a century.9

Our core argument in this book is that the conventional wisdom is wrong on both points. Americans urgently need to start seeing the Sino-American rivalry less as a 100-year marathon and more as a blistering, decade-long sprint. That’s because China will be a falling power far sooner than most people think.


To be sure, the contest between China and the United States won’t be settled anytime soon: It is driven by clashing ideologies and strategic interests. Yet the intensity of even the longest rivalries can wax and wane over time. Both history and China’s current trajectory suggest that the Sino-American competition will hit its moment of maximum danger during this decade, the 2020s.

The reason for this is China has reached the most treacherous stage in the life cycle of a rising power—the point where it is strong enough to aggressively disrupt the existing order but is losing confidence that time is on its side.

In one sense, China’s economic power and military might have skyrocketed since the Cold War, fueling Xi’s seemingly limitless ambitions. In crucial areas, from the Taiwan Strait to the U.S.-China tech rivalry, tantalizing opportunities have opened up as the balance of power has shifted in Beijing’s favor. Until recently, the democratic nations were lethargic and unfocused in their response. Even today, Xi surveys a world that was laid low by a made-in-China pandemic and a superpower rival that often seems to be tearing itself apart. China, as Xi has put it, is now striving for a future in which it will “have the dominant position.”10

But Beijing had better hurry, because in other ways, that future looks quite ugly. China’s miraculous, multi-decade rise was aided by strong tailwinds that have now become headwinds.

For more than a decade, China has been concealing a serious economic slowdown that existentially threatens the ruling regime. Within a few years, a slow-motion demographic catastrophe will create severe economic and political strains. Through its “wolf-warrior” diplomacy and its confrontational behavior in hot spots from the Himalayas to the South China Sea, China has sprung a strategic trap on itself, scaring—and beginning to unite—potential rivals throughout Eurasia. Not least, the CCP has now violated the first rule of global politics for the past century: Don’t make an enemy of the United States.

We live in an age of “peak China,” not a forever rising China. Beijing is a revisionist power that wants to reorder the world, but its time to do so is already running out.

Historically, this blend of opportunity and anxiety has made a deadly cocktail. From ancient times to the present, once-rising powers have often become most aggressive when their fortunes fade, their enemies multiply, and they realize that they must reach for glory now or miss their moment forever. Fast-growing countries that slip into long economic slumps have responded with fits of expansion. Countries that fear they are being encircled by rivals make desperate bids to break the ring. Some of the bloodiest wars in history have been started not by rising, self-assured powers, but by countries—such as Germany in 1914 or Japan in 1941—that had peaked and begun to decline. Vladimir Putin’s recent wars in the former Soviet Union fit this same mold. Xi’s regime is tracing a fraught but familiar arc in international affairs—an exhilarating rise followed by the prospect of a hard fall.

China’s predicament offers good news and bad news for America. The good news is that, over the long run, the Chinese challenge may prove more manageable than many pessimists now believe. An unhealthy, totalitarian China won’t effortlessly surge past America as the world’s leading power. We may one day look back on China as we now view the Soviet Union—as a formidable foe whose evident strengths obscured fatal vulnerabilities. The bad news is that getting to the long run won’t be easy. During the 2020s, the pace of rivalry will be torrid, and the prospect of war will be frighteningly real.

In particular, China will do what previous peaking powers have done: It will try to rush through near-term windows of opportunity before a longer-term window of vulnerability opens wide. Beijing will push hard to create an economic empire that will allow it to squeeze concessions from countries around the world. It will try to weaken the democratic community by strengthening techno-authoritarianism at home and abroad. Most alarming, China will have strong incentives to use force against its neighbors—perhaps to teach Japan, India, or the Philippines a lesson, perhaps to bring a democratic Taiwan to heel—even at risk of war with the United States. In each of these areas, the CCP can exploit a head-start built over many years, when America and other countries were slow to meet a growing threat, and hope that bold moves can save China from its impending decline.

If the United States can successfully blunt this surge of Chinese expansion and aggression, it can win a protracted competition against Beijing. If the United States fails, then China could upend the balance of power or drag the world into conflict and tragedy. Time is on America’s side in a long twilight struggle. But the defining challenge of this decade will be crossing the danger zone.


Why write a book that warns about a coming conflict with China during a year in which Russia started a major war in Europe? The simple answer is that Russian aggression in Ukraine has made the successful containment of China all the more imperative.

If China were to follow in Russia’s footsteps and expand violently in its region, Eurasia would be engulfed in conflict. The United States would again face the prospect of a two-front war, only this time against nuclear-armed aggressors fighting “back to back” along their shared border. America’s military would be overstretched and, likely, overwhelmed; America’s alliance system might come under unbearable strain. The postwar international order could collapse as countries across Eurasia scramble to defend themselves and cope with the knock-on effects of major-power war, including economic crises and mass refugee flows. A world already shaken by Russian aggression could be shattered by a Chinese offensive.

Another reason we focus on China is that it is especially dangerous. China’s economy is ten times larger than Russia’s, and Beijing’s military budget is quadruple the size of Moscow’s. Whereas Russia is essentially a two-dimensional great power that draws influence from its military and energy resources, China possesses a wider spectrum of coercive tools and can challenge the United States and its allies in almost any domain of geopolitical competition.

Xi Jinping presides over the largest military and economy (measured by purchasing power parity) on the planet. Chinese officials occupy leadership positions in many of the world’s major international institutions. More than half of the world’s countries already trade more with China than with the United States; and China has recently become the world’s largest overseas lender, doling out more credit than the World Bank, the IMF, or all twenty-two of the Paris Club governments (a group of the world’s major lending nations) combined.11 Beijing’s economic power may be peaking, but no other country is so capable of challenging America globally.

As malevolent as an autocratic Russia is, the competition between Washington and Beijing is likely to be the defining geopolitical contest of our era. Failure to prevail in this struggle against a troubled but uniquely potent rival would have world-historical consequences.


This book offers a contrarian take on China by explaining why that country is in more trouble than most analysts think, why that trend makes the coming years so perilous, and how America can prepare for the storm that is about to strike.12 We also challenge the received wisdom about the origins of major war and the rise and fall of great powers.

Academics have long studied these subjects, but their work commonly rests on faulty premises: Countries must either be rising or falling; those on the upswing advance while those on the downswing retreat. Massive, system-shaking wars are likeliest during a “power transition”—when a surging challenger overtakes an exhausted hegemon. These ideas date back to Thucydides, who wrote that it was the rise of Athens at the expense of Sparta that caused the Peloponnesian War; they have featured in international best sellers warning that the probability of conflict will increase dramatically as a turbo-charged China leaves a four-cylinder America in its dust.13 Yet many of these notions are misleading or wrong.

States can rise and fall simultaneously: They may seize territory or arm themselves rapidly even as their economies wheeze and stumble. The anxiety caused by relative decline, not the confidence that comes from rising strength, can make ambitious powers erratic and violent. Finally, apocalyptic wars can occur even when power transitions do not: Once-rising challengers have gone down fighting when they realized that they had provoked rivals they wouldn’t otherwise catch. Understanding this deadly pattern from the past—call it the “peaking power trap”—is critical to preparing for a dark future that is unfolding faster than you might think.

The stakes are hardly academic. “The history of failure in war,” General Douglas MacArthur explained in 1940, “can almost be summed up in two words: too late. Too late in comprehending the deadly purpose of a potential enemy; too late in preparedness; too late in uniting all possible forces for resistance; too late in standing with one’s friends.” It would be “the greatest strategical mistake in all history,” he added, if America failed to grasp “the vital moment.”14

MacArthur’s words were prophetic: His unprepared forces in the Philippines, and American forces throughout the Pacific, were routed in the first stage of the subsequent war with Japan.

So it was noteworthy in 2021 when the head of U.S. military intelligence for the Indo-Pacific used the same words to describe a new totalitarian threat from China. “They are on the march,” he explained. “It’s only a matter of time.”15

A matter of time, indeed. The United States is entering the crucial phase of competition with China, when the risk of war is highest and decisions made or not made will shape world politics for decades. Another “vital moment” is upon us, and America must get ready before it is, once again, too late.



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