The Gathering Storm

The Chinese H-6K bomber took off from an airfield on the mainland, with two advanced fighter jets as escorts. It flew east, between Taiwan and the Philippines, en route to the open Pacific. When it came within range of its target, it released a precision-guided missile that ripped into Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, triggering massive explosions and ravaging the central hub for U.S. airpower in the western Pacific. The attack was a devastating salvo in the long-feared Sino-American war.

Fortunately, the incident was only a video simulation, released by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in September 2020 to show off its improving skills and capabilities. In the best tradition of Chinese intellectual property theft, the PLAAF even spliced in footage from the Hollywood films Transformers and The Rock. But the video—call it “Wolf-Warrior cinematography”—was just the latest warning about a scary shift in Chinese strategy.

Future historians will say we should have seen it coming. Xi Jinping has been telegraphing a Chinese turn to the dark side since he took power in 2012. His internal speeches on national security have consistently stressed two themes: First, China faces worsening threats. Second, the CCP must preemptively crush those threats before they destroy its rule and derail its grand plans for the future. The primary threats Xi worries about are the ones we’ve described—slowing growth and foreign hostility—and the response he advocates resembles that of past peaking powers: a surge of mercantilism, repression, and revanchism.

What will this look like? China probably won’t expand on all fronts in a mad frenzy or impose North Korea–style lockdowns on its population. Xi and his cronies are too smart for that. They know what happened when Germany and Japan tried to run the table in Eurasia, and they saw how rigid totalitarianism and autarky doomed the Soviet Union. But China’s leaders also know that surrendering to a “new normal” of sluggish growth and strategic encirclement would expose them to foreign predation and domestic unrest. So the CCP will engage in calculated coercion and expansion to keep rivals at bay and secure the Chinese dream. Xi has already started to implement key elements of this strategy—and it’s not a pretty sight.

For starters, China will redouble its efforts to forge an economic empire across Eurasia and Africa. Awash in excess production capacity at home and confronted by rising foreign protectionism, China is intensifying a massive campaign to carve out exclusive economic zones where its firms will enjoy privileged access to markets and raw materials. At the same time, China is racing to claim technological primacy and spread its digital influence around the world. These efforts are meant, in Xi’s words, to make China “invincible”—to give Beijing leverage to lord over enemies and vassals.1 Collectively, China’s actions threaten to balkanize the global economy and fuel a new Cold War.

An insecure China will also more zealously roll back the frontiers of freedom. The CCP won’t export a specific “China model,” but it will try to protect its regime by shifting the global balance between autocracy and democracy. Beijing is quickly becoming a potent anti-democratic force, armed with more advanced tools of surveillance and punishment than Mao Zedong ever could have imagined. And it is working hard to prop up dictators and destabilize liberal societies just as the democratic world is suffering its greatest crisis since the 1930s.

Finally, China is gearing up for war. Its ongoing military buildup is unlike any since World War II. Although China’s neighbors and the United States are belatedly beefing up their militaries, many of their new weapons systems won’t be operational for years. In the meantime, China will have a chance to seize contested territory in East Asia and blast through the chain of U.S. alliances along its maritime flank.

In each of these areas, China is trying to sprint through near-term windows of opportunity before they close and longer-term windows of vulnerability open. In so doing, China is walking a familiar path of ambition, desperation, and aggression. Whereas a rising China could afford to tolerate some dissent, forgo some opportunities for expansion, and de-escalate crises—confident that its wealth, power, and status were rising—a peaking China will be more desperate to score geopolitical wins and primed to overreact to slights and setbacks. Having spent decades building up its military and developing powerful tools of economic influence, China now looks ready to cash in on those capabilities while it has the chance. The results could be disastrous for the world.


In 2014, China produced a formal national security strategy for the first time and established a new National Security Commission to orchestrate it.2 Xi left no doubt about why. In a series of speeches, he said that China faced “the most complicated internal and external factors in its history”3 and “confronted increasing threats and challenges.” 4 To underscore the peril, Xi quoted from the Book of Changes, a classic text from the Warring States period (500–200 BC) in which China collapsed into internecine strife: “One should be mindful of possible danger in times of peace, downfall in times of survival, and chaos in times of stability.”5

Foreign observers might dismiss Xi’s warning as paranoia or a ploy to justify strongman rule. But China’s leaders saw this dark period coming years ago. In 2002, the official mantra, coined by then-president Jiang Zemin, was that China would enjoy a two-decade “period of strategic opportunity” marked by peaceful international relations and steady economic development. Now those twenty years are up, and the CCP’s new catchphrase is that China is witnessing “profound changes unseen in 100 years,” a slogan that connotes both tantalizing opportunity and grave threats.6 A century ago, the global balance was in flux, as old empires crumbled and rising powers emerged. Yet those rising powers were eventually destroyed in a global war. Moreover, China spent part of the 1920s mired in its so-called Warlord Era—a period every bit as bad as it sounds—which erupted after foreign powers and Western-educated Chinese revolutionaries brought down the Qing Dynasty.

Today, CCP leaders know that their nation again faces big problems, in the form of slowing growth and foreign encirclement. China’s new national security strategy is designed to address those threats in two ways.

First, the strategy “integrates security into every domain and every process of national development.”7 Whereas regime security used to be one of many government priorities (albeit the most important), now it is the priority.8 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. Whereas previous Chinese administrations espoused a doctrine of “stability maintenance,” 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 and Islamism, are infectious diseases against which China’s population must be immunized. As Sheena Chestnut Greitens has shown, these medical metaphors justify targeting and “treating” people long before they display threatening symptoms.9 The clearest illustration is in Xinjiang, where China has extrajudicially locked up more than 1 million Uighurs in concentration camps.10 But China is applying preventive logic in foreign affairs, too, in ways that previous peaking powers would find familiar.


China’s main challenge isn’t the Thucydides Trap; it’s what Vladimir Lenin called imperialism, a process he predicted would lead to economic ruin and war.11 Lenin defined imperialism as a capitalist country’s attempt to secure new markets and resources abroad when its home economy becomes oversaturated with production capacity.12 Unless the country finds new markets, Lenin theorized, it would suffer economic stagnation. Growth would cease, jobs would vanish, and domestic unrest would spike. To avoid this fate, a country must carve out an exclusive economic zone abroad—aka, an empire—where its firms will have easy access to consumers and cheap raw materials. The late nineteenth century “scramble for Africa” in which European powers colonized 90 percent of the continent in thirty years was exhibit A for Lenin’s theory.

In a twist of fate, “Communist” China now looks primed for capitalist imperialism. Its economy is glutted with excess capacity generated by decades of subprime lending. The main markets where it used to dump its products—North America, Europe, and Japan—are increasingly unwilling to absorb an endless flood of Chinese goods. Since 2008, China has responded to these trends with a two-step plan. First, lend more than a trillion dollars to foreigners so they buy enough Chinese goods and services to keep CCP Inc. in business.13 Second, use the proceeds to become a technological powerhouse by pumping investment into R&D, buying and stealing foreign technology, and using subsidies and trade barriers to protect Chinese firms from foreign competition. The resulting surge of innovation, Beijing hopes, will reinvigorate China’s economy and boost its power.

As Lenin predicted, however, expanding abroad while practicing protectionism at home tends to incite foreign opposition. When a great power dumps products overseas while keeping its market relatively closed, it antagonizes trade partners. The result is vicious competition—sometimes military conflict—over markets, resources, and status. In addition, when an imperial power saddles developing nations with debt and coerces them to buy its products, nationalist movements rise up to resist. The CCP is experiencing these dynamics today, as rich countries rethink economic engagement with China while poor countries demand better terms for their BRI contracts or quit the initiative entirely. But China is trapped: It cannot abandon economic imperialism or truly reform its economy without endangering the crony capitalism that sustains its political system.14 If it gives up on creating spheres of influence, it will be strategically naked before its rivals. So Beijing is doubling down on a quest for empire.

Part of this quest will involve old-fashioned tools. As resistance to China’s neocolonial development projects grows, Beijing may feel compelled to use heavier-handed methods—even military intervention—to protect its informal empire. As China worries more about the availability of resources and the security of long supply lines, it could strive harder to build additional military bases, deploy a global navy, and plunder contested areas such as the South China Sea. As China becomes more dependent on its empire, in other words, it will become more likely to defend that empire through rough methods that invite international conflict.15 That’s a worrying possibility—but just as worrying is the reality posed by a new form of Chinese imperialism, symbolized by a policy called “dual circulation.”

“Dual circulation” is an innocuous sounding program with portentous implications. The basic goal is to enhance China’s economic self-reliance (the “great internal circulation”) and then pry open foreign markets and extract foreign technology and resources from a position of strength (the “great international circulation”).16 By producing more of what it needs at home, and by dominating the production of linchpin technologies and resources, China can dictate terms economically and geopolitically. China already has a record of exploiting pockets of economic leverage to turn the screws on foreign countries and companies.17 Now it is gearing up to wield economic coercion on a massive scale by becoming the supplier of vital products and services. China must “successfully fight tough battles for the key core technologies,” Xi declared in 2020. In another speech, he said that Beijing must “enhance our superiority across the entire production chain.”18

Like much of China’s statecraft, dual circulation sits at the intersection of opportunity and vulnerability. During the 2010s, China bolted out to a lead in areas such as 5G telecommunications by using heavy state subsidies to help Huawei and other firms develop key products and gobble up global market share. “We were asleep at the switch,” admitted Mike Brown, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit.19 While the United States was gradually realizing the strategic implications of technologies such as artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, and while the U.S. government had a frosty relationship with major tech firms, Beijing was starting a major, state-backed push—Made in China 2025—to zoom ahead in key areas of competition.20

But these initial gains haven’t yet allowed China to overcome its deep dependence on foreign technology and resources. In today’s hostile geopolitical climate, that dependence could prove fatal. Washington and its allies are trying to “decapitate” Huawei by blocking its access to high-end computer chips.21 China’s aviation industry is being grounded by U.S. and allied restrictions on jet engines and avionics.22 American tariffs have crimped China’s exports: Trump’s “trade protectionism and economic hegemony,” Xi admitted, were “having a great impact.”23 And there remain many more pressure points for China’s rivals to squeeze: China imports roughly 70–80 percent of its oil, computer chips, high-end sensors, and advanced medical devices as well as 90 percent of its advanced manufacturing equipment.24 This dependence, People’s Daily has written, is China’s “Achilles’ Heel.”25

“Dual circulation,” then, is more than a buzzword. It is an effort to wring maximum strategic advantage out of China’s initial technological advances before foreign rivals smother Beijing’s rise. Confronted with growing global animosity, China’s only option is to become less dependent on foreigners—and to make them more dependent on China.

The first step, according to government documents, is to dominate production of “choke-point” technologies and fill “empty spots” that could cause Chinese supply chains to break “during crucial times.”26 China’s latest five-year plan, made public in March 2021, mandates 7 percent annual increases in R&D spending, a rate of growth faster than what is planned for the military budget. China’s banks have set aside tens of billions of dollars to lend to more than 1,000 Chinese firms in strategic industries, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, semiconductors, advanced robotics, and synthetic biology.27 The objective is for China to produce 70 percent of key components in strategic industries by the end of the decade. To meet that goal, Beijing is pressing private tech firms into national service, tapping their data, and obliging them to develop new technologies and hand them over to the government—part of another innocuous-sounding doctrine called “civil-military fusion.”28

China’s attempt to hoard global data is particularly telling. In 2013, shortly after coming to power, Xi declared: “The vast ocean of data, just like oil resources during industrialization, contains immense productive power and opportunities. Whoever controls big data technologies will control the resources for development and have the upper hand.”29 Since then, Beijing has become the world’s most powerful data broker by walling Chinese data off from the world while buying and stealing other countries’ data. A web of new laws requires all firms operating in China to store their data locally and grant full access and control to the CCP. Foreign firms can’t even send a memo about data from China to their home headquarters without Beijing’s blessing. As a result, Apple, Tesla, and other major tech firms are rushing to build dedicated Chinese data centers. Meanwhile, China is sucking up data from abroad by hacking multinational corporate databases and buying foreign companies. It is a nakedly mercantilist strategy to dominate the most important resource in the world.

China’s efforts to harness data are part of a broader push for primacy in artificial intelligence (AI). AI is “one of the most important things humanity is working on,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in 2018. “It is more profound than . . . electricity or fire.”30 Hyperbole aside, experts generally agree that AI will create vast increases in economic productivity, perhaps doubling growth rates in the next twenty years. It could change how countries fight, by allowing the most advanced militaries to better understand the battlefield, enhance their speed of decision, and coordinate complex operations. Whoever harnesses AI could “have a decisive advantage . . . for years to come,” warned Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in 2020.31 AI will enable new, paradigm-shifting forms of espionage and disinformation; it is already being integrated into new mechanisms of social control.

No wonder Xi seeks to make China the world leader in AI by 2030.32 Beijing is betting that AI dominance will give it great geopolitical leverage and freedom of action—perhaps allowing it simply to leapfrog countries blocking its advance.

The second step in China’s economic strategy is to wire the world by installing 5G networks, fiber-optic cables, and satellite systems in dozens of countries worldwide, as part of its Digital Silk Road.33 By laying down vital communications networks, Beijing will be able to track and store the data that passes through them, reaping enormous espionage opportunities, both corporate and strategic, and opportunities to coerce countries by threatening to manipulate or shut down their networks. When the United Kingdom was considering letting Huawei build its 5G network, for example, the Trump administration warned that America wouldn’t share sensitive intelligence with a country whose communications were so susceptible to being compromised.34 For Beijing, that was presumably the point: How can countries help America contain China if they have become dependent on technologies provided by companies in thrall to the CCP?

China is well on its way to dominating global networks. It is the world’s largest provider of telecommunications technology. It has already become a landing point or supplier for 12 percent of the world’s submarine cables, which carry 95 percent of international data. Huawei claims to have cloud computing contracts with 140 countries; another Chinese company, Hengtong Group, has installed 15 percent of the world’s fiber optics.35 China’s BeiDou satellite network has been adopted by dozens of countries and provides greater coverage over 165 of the world’s capital cities than does the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS).36 China’s gains in global networks could be long-lasting, because telecom and satellite infrastructures are extremely expensive to replace. Once a country adopts China’s systems, it is basically locked in.

Think of this as a counter-encirclement strategy: If China can draw countries throughout Eurasia and beyond into its technological grasp, it can escape the economic and geopolitical trap in which it has become ensnared.

Finally, China is racing to set international technical standards for next-generation technology such as advanced microchips, the internet of things, cloud computing, big data, 5G, intelligent health care, and AI.37 In most of these industries, there will be only one set of global standards, and the country that sets them will likely rule the market because its products will already meet the required specifications. The Chinese recognize this advantage and have a saying: third-tier companies make products, second-tier companies make technology, top-tier companies set standards. The CCP also has a plan, China Standards 2035, dedicated to dictating international technical standards. As of 2021, Beijing led four of the fifteen science- and technology-related agencies of the United Nations (compared to one led by the United States) and submitted more standard-setting proposals to international bodies than any other country. “Global technical standards are still in the process of being formed,” said Dai Hong, a member of China’s National Standardization Management Committee, in 2018. “This gives China’s industry and standards the opportunity to surpass the world.”38

The boldness here is remarkable: If this modern-day imperialism succeeds, China will rule over a new “sinosphere,” in which global networks of trade and innovation once dominated by the West will cluster around Beijing. This scenario keeps many American strategists up at night. But another scenario that could be just as troubling is if Beijing’s efforts succeed only partially, leaving China strong enough to scare and pressure many countries, but not strong enough to feel secure about its long-term prospects. The world would then face a more muscular but still distressed China, a combustible combination.

China’s leaders know this partial-success scenario is a distinct possibility: The international backlash against Huawei threatens their scheme to install the guts of global telecommunications. Nor can the CCP have much confidence in its new innovation initiative, given that Beijing spent a decade and tens of billions of dollars on a domestic microchip industry, yet still relies on imports for 80 percent of the country’s computing needs.39 China also spent tens of billions of dollars on biotech, yet its COVID-19 vaccines were lapped in quality by the wonder drugs produced in America and other democratic countries.40 And while Beijing has made great progress in a relatively narrow swath of AI applications, such as surveillance, it still lags significantly behind the United States across a wider array of AI subfields and uses.41 Given the obstacles China faces in breaking free of Lenin’s trap, the CCP is hedging its bets by honing other tools of influence, including powerful ideological weapons.


At the darkest moment of World War II, there were perhaps a dozen democracies in the world.42 As late as 1989, there were twice as many autocratic governments as democracies. Twenty years later, however, democracies outnumbered autocracies 100 to 78, and the share of the world’s population living under autocracy had fallen by half. From a U.S. perspective, democracy’s global advance was one of the most hopeful developments of the postwar era. From the perspective of China’s leaders, it was a clear sign that the liberal world order was rigged against their form of government and needed to be changed before it destroyed their regime.

According to Beijing’s narrative, the problem started at the beginning of the postwar period, when the United States exploited its dominant position to inject radical liberal ideas into international institutions. For example, the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights was modeled on the U.S. Bill of Rights. It states that all humans are born free and have the right to overthrow governments that fail to respect that freedom. In later decades, America helped foster democratic institutions in numerous countries, including some of China’s neighbors: Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. The expanding global posse of democracies subsequently used military force, economic sanctions, and an array of media and human rights organizations to undermine dozens of autocracies—not just tin-pot dictators, but also the Soviet Union and nearly China itself in 1989. “Capitalist forces will always use subversion to exterminate socialist countries and the socialist system,” CCP officials wrote.43

Although PRC leaders long chafed at this ideological pressure, it was bearable so long as China enjoyed a booming economy and a stable periphery. With a GDP growing three times faster than the democratic average in the 1990s and 2000s, it was easy for Beijing to persuade people at home and abroad that authoritarianism was best for China, if not for other countries.44

But now, with a slowing economy and brewing international hostility, autocracy is no longer an easy sell. China’s citizens were willing to forgo political rights when their bank accounts and their country’s international status were swelling, but it’s an open question whether they would do so under harsher conditions. That question is especially pressing with regard to China’s millennials, who have known nothing but upward economic and international mobility. When that cohort was being born in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping warned that opening the “window” to breathe the “fresh air” of Western commerce would also allow in “flies” in the form of seductive ideas and corrupting influences.45 What he did not say, but knew very well, was that rapid growth and engagement with the West could also change the Chinese people, raising their expectations in ways that the regime might one day struggle to satisfy.

China’s rulers also have long understood what political scientists have proven empirically: Autocracies often fall in waves, as revolutionary activity in one country inspires popular uprisings in others.46 A democratic domino effect brought down Communist regimes across Eastern Europe in 1989. A fruit vendor who immolated himself in Tunisia in 2011 set much of the Middle East aflame in revolt. The lesson is that revolution anywhere can be a threat to autocracy everywhere—even to regimes that seemed stable weeks or even days before.47

This lurking threat is why the CCP has become so much more repressive in the past decade—why it has worked proactively to jail dissidents, mobilize security forces, censor information, and preempt popular unrest. Yet China is now strong enough that it has options besides hunkering down against foreign pressure. Xi believes that the CCP’s domestic power will be enhanced if authoritarianism is prevalent and democracies are dysfunctional, because fellow despots won’t punish China for human rights abuses, and the Chinese people won’t want to emulate chaotic liberal systems. He thinks that preventing anti-authoritarian revolts in other countries will reduce the possibility that they might erupt in China. And he believes that silencing critics abroad will limit the challenges the CCP faces at home. So Xi is moving to secure his regime by rolling back democracy overseas.

China has gone on the ideological offensive in recent years and taken its repression global. 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.48 Whereas China once worried about insulating itself from foreign popular unrest, it now aims to prevent that unrest from breaking out in the first place.49 The CCP provides fellow autocracies with guns, money, and protection from UN sanctions. Chinese officials offer their authoritarian brethren riot-control gear and pointers in how to build a surveillance state. Beijing also runs interference for authoritarian regimes by using a vast array of global media to tout the accomplishments of illiberal rule, argue that democracy is a neocolonial imposition, and highlight hyper-partisanship in the United States.

It might be tempting to dismiss China’s democracy prevention efforts as “world politics as usual.” After all, autocrats have been colluding to hold liberalism at bay ever since Russia, Austria, and Prussia helped crush the French Revolution. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is pursuing a similar agenda in the former Soviet Union and beyond. But China’s ideological assault is more profound, for three reasons.

First, it capitalizes on a disturbing recent trend. The long arc of history may have bended, since World War II, toward greater freedom. But according to the statistics compiled by Freedom House, authoritarianism has been spreading, and democracy receding, every year since 2006.50 The causes of democratic backsliding remain disputed, but it didn’t help that leading democracies spent the first two decades of the new millennium waging an ugly war on terror and reeling from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The resulting “democratic recession” has given China a window of ideological opportunity. The anti-liberal critique Beijing offers has become more persuasive to disillusioned democrats, and more useful to aspiring autocrats, the world over.51 China’s iron fist is knocking on an open door.

Second, China’s global reach is more pervasive than that of any prior illiberal power. Beijing’s success in taking leadership positions in major international organizations now allows it to turn organs of the liberal order into tools of anti-democratic influence. A case in point: When Belarus flagrantly violated international norms by forcing down an airliner that was carrying a wanted dissident in 2021, guess which country headed the International Civil Aviation Organization and helped protect that brutal regime from censure?52 In addition, Beijing’s 1.4 billion consumers give it an ability—which the Soviets never had—to export its repressive practices to the world.

In 2020, for example, Beijing retaliated against Australia—which had committed the affront of asking for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19—not just by imposing sanctions on its economy but also by demanding that Canberra gut its democracy by silencing critical newspapers and think tanks. Likewise, when China applies sanctions against European politicians and analysts who condemn the repression in Xinjiang, when it compels Marriott to fire an American employee who likes a tweet referring to Tibet, or when it passes a law that threatens to punish anyone, anywhere in the world, who supports political freedom in Hong Kong, it is using its market power to attack free speech—the very foundation of democracy—in some of the most advanced societies in the world.53

The third and most important factor supercharging China’s efforts is the ongoing digital revolution.54 Think of the data-collection and messaging power of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Now imagine that in the hands of the CCP. By combining AI, big data, and cyber, biometric, and speech- and facial-recognition technologies, the Chinese government is pioneering a system that will allow dictators to know everything about their subjects—what people are saying and viewing; whom they hang out with; what they like and dislike; and where they are located at any given time. That system will allow regimes to discipline citizens instantly by restricting their access to credit, education, employment, medical care, telecommunications, and travel—as well as to hunt people down for more medieval forms of punishment.

This technological revolution threatens to upend the global balance between democracy and authoritarianism by making repression more affordable and effective than ever before.55 Instead of relying on expensive (and potentially rebellious) armies to brutalize and brainwash a resentful population, an autocrat will now have cheaper and more insidious means of control. Millions of spies can be replaced with hundreds of millions of unblinking cameras. Facial-recognition and artificial intelligence technologies can rapidly sort through video feeds and identify troublemakers. Bots can deliver propaganda tailored to specific groups or individuals. Malware can be installed on computers through seemingly innocuous apps or links, and then government hackers can crash the computer networks of dissidents or gather data on their operations. That information, in turn, can be used to coopt resistance movements by bribing their leaders or meeting their more innocuous demands. Alternatively, authorities can print out an AI-assembled list of alleged activists and kill everyone on it.

The evil genius of this “digital authoritarianism” is that most people will be seemingly free to go about their daily lives. In reality, the state will censor everything they see and track everything they do. With old-school authoritarianism, one at least knew where the oppression was coming from. But now people can be nudged and cajoled by invisible algorithms delivering personalized content through social media. In past eras, autocrats had to make tough choices between funding death squads or delivering economic growth. Today, however, repression is not only affordable, it may be profitable, because the same “smart-city” technologies that facilitate strict social control can also be used to improve infrastructure, diagnose diseases, and make the trains run on time.

Needless to say, these technologies are a tyrant’s dream. “Dictators may not want China’s ideology,” says U.S. under secretary of defense for policy Colin Kahl, “but they do want its methodology.” Recognizing this demand, Chinese companies were already selling and operating surveillance systems in more than 80 countries, as of 2020.56 As the CCP feels increasingly threatened at home and abroad, there is every reason to expect Beijing to export digital authoritarianism farther and wider. Many countries already want it, and China has powerful tools to compel those that don’t. Want access to China’s market? Let Huawei install the core components of your 5G network. Want a Chinese loan? Accept Chinese surveillance technology in your capital.

As more governments partner with Beijing, the reach of China’s global surveillance-state will grow.57 Existing autocracies will become more totalitarian, and some democracies will drift into the authoritarian camp. The liberal belief, so common in the 1990s, that democracy would inevitably spread around the world will be upended.

So will the comforting myth that humanity has evolved past the point of mass atrocities. Digital authoritarianism is not a substitute for gulags and genocide; it is an enabler. Political scientists have shown that when dictatorships ramp up digital repression, they also engage in more torture and murder.58 The reason is simple: With machines handling day-to-day bookkeeping and surveillance, foot soldiers are free to focus on the physical aspects of authoritarian rule, such as ethnic cleansing and beating dissidents into submission.

Just look at Xinjiang, where smart cities exist side-by-side with concentration camps.59 Chinese security officers man the camps and handle the “reeducation” and forced sterilization, while cameras, biometric scanners, and mandatory cell-phone apps feed data into computers that keep tabs on everything that happens in the province. Algorithms match camera footage with snapshots, blood samples, and DNA swabs taken by police at “health checks.” When Uighurs reach the edge of their neighborhood, their cell phones automatically alert authorities. When they pump gas, the system checks whether they are the car’s owner. If they try to flee the province, police are dispatched to the doorsteps of their family and friends. If they somehow make it abroad, they aren’t guaranteed an escape: China’s authoritarian allies, even those in Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt, are starting to use Chinese surveillance technology to track down and deport Uighurs back into Beijing’s clutches.

Some experts still cling to the belief that China doesn’t actually pose a major threat to democracy, because it doesn’t really care—as the Soviet Union did—whether other countries are ruled by Communists.60 Or they argue that rich and consolidated democracies such as the United States will endure as islands of liberty, even if some weak, partial democracies disappear behind a digital iron curtain.

This couldn’t be more wrong. 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. That is especially true in the tribal political climate that prevails in many democracies today. Across the liberal world, partisan divisions have surged to historic highs, public trust in democratic institutions has sunk to lows not seen since the 1930s, and major parties are openly advocating anti-democratic laws.61 The political soil is ripe for elements of authoritarianism to take root, and China and Russia are fertilizing it with digital disinformation, churned out by bots and mainlined into the Facebook feeds of millions around the world.62 As the intensity of the U.S.-China rivalry spikes, so will Beijing’s incentive to use AI-enabled deep fakes and other forms of disinformation to weaken and undermine its adversary.

Even if America and other leading democracies don’t fall prey to this ideological offensive, their power and security would be diminished in a more authoritarian world. It is no coincidence that the strongest links in the strategic chain America is trying to wrap around China are democracies. Nor is it a coincidence that Beijing counts tyrannies such as Russia and Iran among its closest friends—and indeed, Chinese and Russian efforts to disrupt and degrade the world’s democracies go hand-in-hand. Democracies all need an international environment conducive to preserving their liberal institutions. Authoritarians all need a world that protects them from the subversive forces of freedom. Different versions of domestic order produce different visions of international order.63 If China succeeds in pulling more countries into the authoritarian camp, it will shift the strategic balance and weaken the coalition mobilizing against it.

Most fundamentally, autocracies have a vested interest in demonizing democracies. Dictators don’t want their people admiring democratic institutions and demanding freedom. The best way to rally citizens around an authoritarian regime is to inspire hatred of leading democracies, and that requires a steady stream of ideological conflict. It’s entirely predictable that the world’s most notorious strongmen—Xi, Putin, Khamenei, Kim, Assad, Erdogan, Orbán, Lukashenko—portray themselves as defenders of tradition, hierarchy, and order against a decadent democratic West. As China enlarges the ranks of authoritarians, the world will become a shabbier place for the United States and its democratic allies.64 International conflicts will proliferate, and not just at the level of ideas, but also in the military realm, because blood-and-soil nationalism goes hand-in-hand with violent revanchism. That dynamic, worryingly, is already playing out.


Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shocked the world, by reminding leaders everywhere that geopolitical competition can all-too-easily turn into outright military conflict on an epic scale. But Russia isn’t the only revisionist state—or even the most powerful one—capable of catastrophic aggression. China will also feel the urge to strike as this decade goes on.

There is no mystery about what the CCP wants geopolitically, because it has wanted the same things for decades: to make China whole again, turn the East China and South China Seas into Chinese lakes, and grab regional primacy as a springboard to global power. These goals are fixed: The question is how China will pursue them.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Beijing’s approach was mostly peaceful and patient. Confident in a growing economy, and wary of prematurely picking a fight with the West, China pursued its aims primarily through nonconfrontational means. By flaunting its vast market, China wrested territory from foreign rivals without firing a shot. The British handed back Hong Kong in 1997. Portugal gave up Macao in 1999. Half a dozen countries settled their territorial disputes with China between 1991 and 2019, and two dozen other countries cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan to secure relations with Beijing. China carried out a “peaceful rise” strategy, and it worked well.65

Those days are over. Other countries are becoming less enthralled by the money to be made in China and more concerned about Beijing’s predation. Globally, the mood has shifted from cautiously welcoming China’s rise to fearing and opposing it, and that has raised a pivotal question for Xi: If the peaceful route to reclaiming territory and expanding influence is closing, is it time to start flexing the military muscle China has spent $3 trillion building over the past three decades?

That’s what past peaking powers did, and China’s history suggests it will follow in their footsteps. Numerous studies have analyzed when and why the PRC uses force, and they all reach the same conclusion: China fights, not when it is rising, but when its security is deteriorating and its bargaining strength is declining.66 In other words, the CCP typically uses force to exploit a closing window of opportunity or avoid an opening window of vulnerability. 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 fact, China often starts wars against superior foes with little expectation of winning the biggest battles. The goal may simply be making an enemy back off by fighting hard and demonstrating a willingness to inflict—and suffer—enormous casualties. That message is usually directed as much to rivals standing on the sidelines as it is to the enemy tangling with China in the ring.

Just look at any of the PRC’s wars. 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. By attacking India, China “killed a chicken to scare the monkeys,” as the old Chinese saying goes, coercing several enemies by making an example out of one.

The Soviets didn’t get the message and continued to mass forces on China’s borders while asserting their right to use military force to beat back “counterrevolution” in any socialist state, as they did in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Fearing invasion, China ambushed Soviet forces on their shared border in 1969. Ten years later, Beijing again went to war, this time to “teach Vietnam a lesson,” as Deng said, after it signed a defense agreement with Moscow and conquered Cambodia, one of China’s only allies. In addition to these wars, China has launched artillery or missile barrages at or near Taiwanese territory on three occasions (1954–1955, 1958, and 1995–1996), each time hoping to prevent Taipei from tightening its relationship with the United States or edging toward independence. The record is clear: When China feels vulnerable, it gets violent.

Today, there are plenty of chickens to kill and teachable moments to exploit. The PLA already brawled with India in the Himalayas in 2020, seeking—unsuccessfully—to drive a wedge between Washington and New Delhi. It might try again as India draws closer to the United States. But if the CCP really wants to roll back the emerging anti-China coalition, it must break the ring of U.S. alliances and partnerships off its coast.

An obvious target would be Japan. Tokyo is a hated historical enemy that currently administers the Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu Islands. The U.S.-Japan alliance is the linchpin of America’s containment strategy in East Asia. Taking Japan down a peg while straining its alliance with Washington might appeal to an encircled PRC.

China already sends armed coast guard cutters into the territorial waters around the Senkakus to contest Japan’s control. China’s next move up the escalation ladder could be to land soldiers on the islands; declare a fifty-mile exclusion zone around them; and wrap them with swarms of ships, submarines, warplanes, and drones—backed by missiles based on the Chinese mainland. Japan then would either have to acquiesce to China’s annexation or go to war with a nuclear power over a few tiny rocks covered in bird droppings. America would face the same dilemma. Would it respond with economic sanctions and feeble diplomatic protests? Or would it honor the pledges made, in 2014 and again in 2021, to help Japan defend the Senkakus? The former response might wreck the U.S.-Japan alliance. The latter approach, according to wargames conducted by U.S. think-tanks, could end in World War III.67

If China isn’t ready to rumble with a regional power such as Japan, it could instead muscle one of its weaker maritime neighbors in the South China Sea. Although Beijing would surely like to knock Vietnam down, an even juicier target would be the Philippines, which meets all the criteria of a perfect enemy.

Militarily weak? Check. The Philippines may be slowly turning against China, but for now its capabilities are pathetic, and Beijing could wipe out the Filipino navy and air force in a single skirmish. Symbolically important? Check. In 2016, Manila took Beijing to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (aka, the World Court) and won, with the tribunal ruling that China’s South China Sea claims were null and void. China responded by declaring that it would not be bound by the rulings of a “puppet” court half a world away. Ejecting Filipino forces from their isolated, indefensible South China Sea outposts or simply building military bases on rocks and reefs that Beijing has already seized but not yet developed would be a great way for China to back up that declaration.

Strategically important? Check. The U.S.-Philippines alliance is critical to regional security but has often been shaky since the Cold War. 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 2016.68 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. alliance commitments in Asia.


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.69 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.

Taiwan is Beijing’s most inviting target for other reasons, as well. The geographic asymmetry is severe: The defense of Taiwan would require U.S. forces to fight less than 100 miles off China’s coast and travel hundreds or even thousands of miles from a few fragile bases and aircraft carriers. With many of its forces stationed in other regions, America would be fighting with one hand tied behind its back. China, by contrast, could throw most of its military into the war and use its homeland as a giant base. Chinese forces would have secure, land-based lines of communications and resupply. They could shoot, scoot, and reload from countless mainland sanctuaries; the entire nation could support the war effort by housing, feeding, supplying, and transporting Chinese troops.

Compare those home-field advantages to what China would face in a war in the East China or South China Seas. Chinese air and naval forces would have to travel hundreds of miles between the battlefield and the mainland to refuel and reload, a commute that would slash PLA combat power on the front lines and force Chinese units to rely on vulnerable communications satellites. Chinese forces would also have to run a gauntlet every time they pass by Taiwan on their way to and from the combat theater, giving the PLA’s foes copious chances for harassment and attrition.

Finally, Taiwan is where China faces its most rapidly closing window of opportunity. The possibility of peaceful reunification is disappearing fast: Fewer and fewer Taiwanese want to be part of mainland China, and the United States is strengthening its military and diplomatic ties with Taipei. In response, China is considering military options.

In September 2020, the PLA began carrying out the most aggressive show of force in the Taiwan Strait in a quarter century. Incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone skyrocketed. Chinese military task forces, some involving more than thirty combat aircraft and a half-dozen naval ships, roamed the strait roughly every other day. Many of them breached the median line between Taiwan and China, a boundary that both sides had respected for decades. Several of these patrols simulated attacks on U.S. aircraft carriers and destroyers sailing between the Philippines and Taiwan. By crushing the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong in 2020, China also suggested that the days of peaceful persuasion vis-à-vis Taiwan are finished.

Could a military attack succeed? Until recently, the answer was no. In the 1990s, Taiwan’s geographic and technological advantages over China made it virtually unconquerable. The Taiwan Strait is perilous—typhoons and twenty-foot waves are common—and the island is a natural fortress. Its east coast consists of steep cliffs, and its west coast is dominated by mud flats that extend miles out to sea and are buffeted by severe tides. There are only a dozen beaches on Taiwan where an invading force could even land—and U.S. and Taiwanese fighter aircraft and naval armadas could have made sure that China’s army never got close.70

Since then, however, China has outspent Taiwan 25-to-1 on defense. It has churned out new warships, combat aircraft, and missiles, along with amphibious craft that can ferry thousands of troops. China’s military is now ten times larger than Taiwan’s. China’s long-range air-defense systems can shoot down aircraft over Taiwan. China’s land-based missiles and combat aircraft could potentially wipe out Taiwan’s air force and navy and destroy U.S. bases in East Asia. China’s cyber and anti-satellite capabilities threaten to render U.S. forces deaf, blind, and dumb by crippling their vital sensors and satellites. Chinese anti-ship missiles can make the western Pacific a very dangerous place for any large U.S. surface combatant. For a quarter-century, the PLA has focused relentlessly on preparing to conquer Taiwan.

The U.S. military, by contrast, spent most of this period fighting terrorists in the Middle East. More recently, it has funneled troops and weapons into Europe to shore up NATO’s eastern flank. The Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations all hoped to pivot U.S. forces to Asia to counter China. But those plans were overtaken by events in other regions, including the rise of ISIS and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As a global power, the United States hasn’t had the luxury of preparing for a single military contingency. Consequently, its air force and navy haven’t kept pace with China’s military modernization.

America’s armed forces in Asia still consist predominantly of small numbers of large warships and short-range combat aircraft operating from exposed bases—precisely the kind of forces China could destroy in a surprise missile attack. The United States only has two air bases within 500 miles of Taiwan—the maximum distance unrefueled fighter aircraft can fly before they run out of gas. If China disables those bases, U.S. forces would have to operate from aircraft carriers and from Guam, located 1,800 miles from Taiwan. The extra distance and midair refueling would cut the number of U.S. air sorties in half, giving China an opportunity to dominate the skies over Taiwan. Worse, China now has bombers and ballistic missiles that can strike Guam and potentially hit moving aircraft carriers more than 1,000 miles from the mainland. If these “Guam-killer” and “carrier-killer” missiles work as advertised, China could cripple U.S. military power in East Asia.71

Taiwan isn’t ready to pick up the slack.72 As part of its transition from a conscript army to a more professional all-volunteer military, Taiwan has cut its active-duty force from 275,000 to 175,000 troops and reduced the length of conscription from one year to four months. Recruits receive only a few weeks of basic training, and training for reservists is infrequent and inadequate. Taiwan also has gutted its logistics force, which now routinely fails to resupply combat units or perform basic maintenance. Consequently, soldiers avoid training with their weapons for fear of accidents or wasting precious ammunition; Taiwan’s pilots fly for less than ten hours per month. More than half of Taiwan’s tanks and attack helicopters are dysfunctional, and many Taiwanese soldiers suffer low morale.

The bottom line is that China, like Germany in 1914 or Japan in 1941, has a favorable but finite military window. It could, Taiwan’s own government has assessed, “paralyze” the island’s defenses.73 As we detailed in chapter 3, Taiwan and the United States have awoken to the threat, identified the key problems they must solve, and started retooling their militaries accordingly. But between now and the early 2030s—when U.S. and Taiwanese defense reforms will begin to make a major impact—China has its chance.

In fact, the cross-strait military balance will temporarily shift further in China’s favor in the mid-2020s, when many U.S. cruisers, guided-missile submarines, and long-range bombers will be retired.74 In many ways, the U.S. military is still the force that Ronald Reagan built. U.S. Navy and Air Force modernization, in particular, has been postponed for decades. Now the problem is acute.75 Many of the Pentagon’s workhorse ships and combat aircraft are literally falling apart or bursting into flames. Their aging hulls and airframes can’t withstand another upgrade, let alone accommodate the modern engines, sensors, and munitions they would need to compete with China’s new forces. These U.S. capabilities have to be retired. And when they are, the U.S. military will have hundreds fewer vertical-launch missile tubes—the sine qua non of modern naval firepower—floating around East Asia. Meanwhile, China will bring online hundreds of additional anti-ship and land-attack missiles, dozens of long-range bombers and amphibious ships, and a rocket launcher system that can hit most or all of Taiwan from mainland China.

This is the geopolitical equivalent of a ticking time bomb. In the mid to late 2020s, China will never have a better chance to defeat its enemies and satisfy its revisionist appetites. It is during this period that America risks—as one former Pentagon official has said—getting “its ass handed to it” in a Taiwan fight.76

Seeing these trends, a chorus of retired Chinese military officers and state-run news outlets is urging the CCP to invade Taiwan immediately. The Chinese public seems to be aboard: According to a 2020 survey by the state-run Global Times, 70 percent of mainlanders strongly support using force to unify Taiwan with the mainland, and 37 percent think it would be best if the war occurred by 2025.77 Behind closed doors, Chinese officials have told Western analysts that calls for an invasion are proliferating within the CCP, and that Xi is surrounded by hawks and yes-men who tell him that the PLA could pull it off.78 Perhaps for that reason, Xi has staked his legitimacy on liberating Taiwan. In 2017, he announced that reunification is “an inevitable requirement for realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”79 In 2020, the CCP moved up the date at which it plans to field a “modernized” military from 2034 to 2027.80 In March 2021, Admiral Philip Davidson, then the commander of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, warned that China could invade Taiwan within the next six years.81

The Chinese have several options for squeezing Taiwan and trying to make it surrender: Seizing one of the exposed offshore islands controlled by Taipei but located just miles from the Chinese coast, enacting a naval and air blockade, or simply pummeling Taiwan with guided missiles. But these options would give the United States and Taiwan time to react, something the Chinese have no intention of granting. They saw how Saddam Hussein’s forces got massacred in the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf War when the Pentagon had weeks to assemble an iron mountain of weapons nearby and rally a giant international coalition. They know their best chance of winning is to hit Taiwanese and U.S. forces hard and early, before they can fight back. That’s why China’s military doctrine calls for disarming opponents quickly through Pearl Harbor–style attacks.82 And that’s why we should worry about a truly dire scenario.

In the most likely contingency, the war would start with thousands of ground- and air-launched Chinese missiles raining down on Taiwan, American military bases on Okinawa and Guam, and the U.S. carrier strike group that has its home port in Japan. All over Taiwan, undercover Chinese special forces and intelligence operatives would emerge, detonating bombs at military facilities and assassinating Taiwanese leaders. Chinese cyberattacks would cripple Taiwan’s critical infrastructure. The PLA would also use cyberattacks and, potentially, ground-launched missiles to destroy the satellites that allow U.S. forces to communicate with each other and with Washington—thereby rendering America unable to respond or even reliably know what is happening for days or weeks.83 The PLA’s cyber units would simultaneously stir up trouble on the American home front, unleashing disinformation campaigns to sow confusion and exacerbate political disputes in the United States.

Meanwhile, a Chinese flotilla previously engaged in military exercises in the Taiwan Strait would dash for Taiwan’s beaches while hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops on the mainland start piling into ships and helicopters in preparation for the main assault. Small amphibious assault craft could emerge from civilian ferries in the strait and try to seize a key port or beach before Taiwanese forces can respond. The United States, having lost many of its forward-deployed forces in China’s surprise attack, would have to surge aircraft and warships from thousands of miles away and fight through a hail of missiles, smart mines, and electromagnetic interference to get anywhere close to Taiwan. Summoning those assets, moreover, might require wrenching them away from other important priorities, such as protecting NATO’s Eastern flank from an aggressive Russia. The United States might find itself facing dire security challenges against two-nuclear armed great powers—with a military resourced to cope only with one.84

America would confront agonizing global trade-offs, and U.S. forces in the Pacific would incur losses unlike anything since the Vietnam War or possibly World War II. American leaders might even find themselves up against an awful dilemma—whether to accept a humiliating military setback or threaten to use nuclear weapons if China doesn’t stand down. The United States, a blue-ribbon commission of defense experts concluded in 2018, could suffer “a decisive military defeat” unless it resorts to strategies that risk nuclear apocalypse.85 Geopolitics doesn’t get any more dangerous than this.

The “terrible 2020s” will be a nasty decade because China has reached a nasty geopolitical juncture—the point at which it can and must act boldly to avoid decline.86 A peaking revisionist typically looks for chances to act while it still has some prospect of success. And China, thanks to several near-term windows of opportunity, sees tantalizing possibilities.

Boldness isn’t the same thing as insanity. The fact that China’s power has plateaued doesn’t mean that it will lash out violently in all directions. It does mean that China will become more coercive and aggressive, particularly in areas where it thinks risk-taking now will create a better long-term reality. If China grabs Taiwan, then the First Island Chain is broken, and Beijing’s strategic geography improves enormously. If China creates a high-tech empire, it might stave off economic stagnation and foreign encirclement. If the CCP rolls back democracy, it can entrench its regime and reduce its international isolation. Perhaps, China’s leaders tell themselves, a bit of audacity can rescue them from a grimmer fate.

That’s one possibility. Another is that these gambits will end in tragedy. Chinese neo-imperialism could fuel conflicts around the world. Aggression in the western Pacific could cause cataclysmic escalation. Peaking powers don’t lose their ability to reason: Most Japanese leaders in 1941 understood that Tokyo was likely to lose. But their behavior usually becomes more erratic, because they are willing to accept higher risks to avert a terrifying future.

Washington thus has its work cut out for it. America needs a long-term strategy for dealing with an assertive, authoritarian China for a generation or more. But it also needs a shorter-term strategy for navigating a period of high tension during the current decade. If the United States is to win the twilight struggle peacefully, it must first traverse the danger zone. Here again, history can be instructive.

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