In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Hal Brands, Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and author of the new book, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China, about China’s economic, political and demographic trajectory and the percolating risk of conflict with Beijing in the coming years. Brands explains why he believes China, rather than being on the rise, is peaking as a global power and as a result may engage in more destabilizing behavior. Brands and Morell explore how certain external tailwinds – which once propelled China’s rise – have become headwinds, and may be driving President Xi Jinping’s tightening grip on political power. They also discuss the effect of Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, different scenarios and timelines for a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, as well as how the conflict in Ukraine may – or may not – affect Xi’s calculus.
ON CHINA AS A PEAKING POWER:
“There is prevailing wisdom out there that China is the next global superpower, that it’s going to effortlessly zip past the United States, that it’ll be the world’s greatest economy and so on and so forth. And we think that’s wrong. And we think that China is best considered as a peaking power rather than a rising power. Yes, it’s got more military power now than it ever has in the past, and that trend will continue. But China’s best days are behind it; economically, they’re behind it, demographically, they’re behind it, politically and in a variety of other ways as well. And this is actually what makes China so dangerous.”
ON THE UNKNOWNS OF CHINA’S MILITARY CAPABILITY:
“What we don’t know, and what Chinese leaders do not know, is how well the PLA would perform under wartime stress. The last time China fought a major foreign war was in 1979 against Vietnam. It did not go particularly well. And so I think there are questions about how well this military will function when it’s forced to operate under wartime conditions.”
ON POTENTIAL LESSONS BEING DRAWN FROM THE UKRAINE CONFLICT:
“I don’t think the lesson we should take away is that the Russians have had a bad time of it in Ukraine, thus the Chinese would have a bad time of it in Taiwan or that they would simply not try it. I think it’s also plausible to suggest, for instance, that the lesson Xi Jinping may have learned from Ukraine is, “Go in, go fast, go brutal from the outset.” That Putin’s mistake wasn’t so much the invasion of Ukraine, it was doing it in a way that was not decisive within the opening days and thus left open the possibility of Ukrainian resistance and Western support for Ukraine. I think it’s also plausible that Xi Jinping might draw the lesson that nuclear coercion works, that the United States and NATO’s might be militarily involved in Ukraine if not for the Russian nuclear deterrent, and that the Chinese nuclear deterrent might prevent the United States and its allies from intervening in a Taiwan conflict.” Download, rate and subscribe here: iTunes, Spotify and Stitcher.
INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – HAL BRANDS
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZISINTELLIGENCE MATTERS – HAL BRANDS
MICHAEL MORELL: Hal, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you on the show again.
HAL BRANDS: Thanks for having me, Michael. It’s always a pleasure to be here.
MICHAEL MORELL: Hal, we’re going to talk about your new book, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China, which will, correct me if I’m wrong, Hal, hit the bookshelves on August 16th.
HAL BRANDS: That’s right.
MICHAEL MORELL: I just want to say that I read the book cover to cover and that I think this is a very important manuscript. And as such, I think this is a very important episode of Intelligence Matters. I think it’s one of the more important episodes that we’ve done.
Hal, I want to start by noting that you are not the only author of the book, you have a co-author, and I’m certain that you would want to say something about him since he’s not on the show with us.
HAL BRANDS: Yes. My co-author is both a good friend and a great scholar named Mike Beckley, who teaches at Tufts University and is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute as well. And he’s one of the best political scientists out there. And it was just a heck of a lot of fun to work with him on this project.
MICHAEL MORELL: Great book. So the book, one might not know it by the title, but this is a contrarian book. It’s a book that takes a view different from the conventional wisdom.
So walk us through why that’s the case from from a high level, and then we’ll dig into the details.
HAL BRANDS: Sure. So, Mike and I like to joke that this is a counter-conventional twist on the “Let’s go hyperventilate about China” genre of books. And we argue that the threat from China is actually quite severe. It’s actually quite acute. And the danger of a no-kidding military confrontation between the United States and China in this decade is quite high, but it’s actually because China is weaker and in more trouble than we often think.
There is prevailing wisdom out there that China is the next global superpower, that it’s going to effortlessly zip past the United States, that it’ll be the world’s greatest economy and so on and so forth. And we think that’s wrong. And we think that China is best considered as a peaking power rather than a rising power.
Yes, it’s got more military power now than it ever has in the past, and that trend will continue. But China’s best days are behind it; economically, they’re behind it, demographically, they’re behind it, politically and in a variety of other ways as well. And this is actually what makes China so dangerous.
When you think about revisionist powers – so that’s just a fancy political science word for countries that want to change the way the world works; they’re dissatisfied with the existing order. They tend to become most aggressive, most rash, not when they are very confident about the future, when they think that things will be better a decade from now than they are now, but when they worry that their window to change the system is closing. That, either because their economy has stalled or they’re becoming encircled by their enemies, or sometimes both, that they have a closing window of opportunity to achieve their objectives.
And when that is the case, they become more prone to use coercion, to use violence, to use force to get what they want while they can still grab it. That’s been the case historically in a variety of instances, from ancient times up to the 20th century. And it’s the trap that we worry that China may be falling into today.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Hal, that’s great. Now let’s dig into the details. So walk through the argument for why China is a peak power or a peaking power today. Why is it not likely to gain anymore in power relative to the U.S. and the broader West? What’s that argument?
HAL BRANDS: So the easiest way of saying it is that a lot of the tailwinds that propelled China to where it is today have now become headwinds. Assets have become liabilities, so to speak.
And so the miraculous Chinese growth that we saw over about a 30 year period beginning in 1978 didn’t just happen. It was the product of a confluence of happy circumstances for the PRC. You had a population that demographically was primed for productivity because you had a lot of workers without a lot of elderly parents or young kids to care for. You had a world that was welcoming of China’s rise, first, during the Cold War and then during the era of U.S. and Democratic engagement of China.
After the Cold War, you had a country that was relatively self-sufficient and had a lot of the resources that it needed. You had a country that was guided by a deeply authoritarian, but nonetheless a fairly technocratic elite that prioritized economic reform and opening. And when you put all of those things together, it positioned China for just truly explosive economic growth and all of the incremental power that came with it.
The trouble is that none of those conditions really obtain anymore. And so China is on the verge of a demographic implosion. The question is only how severe it’s going to be. The population is aging rapidly as a result of the legacy of the One Child policy and so China is going to have far more senior citizens to take care of in the coming decades and far fewer productive workers to help take care of them.
The political system has become increasingly neo-totalitarian and brittle, as Xi Jinping exerts more and more total control of that system. The economic reform program has been stalled for about a decade now. Countries around the world, most notably the United States, have become increasingly hostile to China’s rise. And as partially as a result of this, Chinese economic growth has actually been slowing. It’s been stagnating for over a decade.
And so China’s growth rate prior to the financial crisis of 2008-2009 was around 13 to 15%. Going into COVID, it was down to about 6%. And that’s the official rate, which probably overstates how high levels of growth are. Productivity is slumping. China is basically headed into a long period of relative economic stagnation from which there is no easy escape.
And so this is not to say that China’s on the verge of collapse, that there’s about to be a revolution, or that the Communist Party is about to be overthrown. But we’re going to be dealing with a much more economically sluggish China in the years ahead.
MICHAEL MORELL: So is there a possibility that China will get its policy act together and deal with the issues that you talked about? You know, will re-embrace economic reform, will take the steps necessary to deal with the demographic problems and the other problems they’ve had. Is that a possibility here or not?
HAL BRANDS: It’s a possibility, but it would require, at this point, about a 180-degree change in the trends of Chinese politics. And so Chinese economic policy is always determined with an eye to what will help keep the CCP in power. And for 30 years after 1978, the answer to that was the fastest possible growth will help keep the CCP in power.
It’s changed since then, in part because what the CCP realized in the first years of this century was that to continue down the path of liberalizing economic reforms was at some point going to require liberalizing the political system, as well as going to require attacking state-owned enterprises in a much more fundamental way, for instance.
And so the CCP made its choice. It chose to prioritize political control over breakneck economic growth. And Xi Jinping has simply taken that to the next level. If you look at the strictures he’s imposed on the tech sector, for instance, he’s made clear that his number one, number two and number three priorities are increasing CCP political control of the economy and increasing his own personal control of the economy. As long as that’s the priority, it’s hard for me to see China making a major economic turnaround.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Hal, what are you guys assuming about the direction of the United States politically and economically? Because it takes two to tango, so to speak, when we’re talking about relative power.
HAL BRANDS: That’s an excellent point. And I think we are making two very explicit assumptions about the future of the United States. The first is that the United States does not destroy its own democratic political system, which in many ways is the wellspring of American power in world politics.
The second is that the United States does not destroy its alliance system, because when you start adding up measures of global power – be they military, economic, diplomatic or any other – it’s really when you combine the United States with its allies in the Asia-Pacific and then also with its allies in Europe, that it becomes clear how dominant the American position remains.
No, the United States is not nearly as dominant as it was in, say, 1994, 2004, at the height of the unipolar moment. But just in terms of military spending, in terms of share of global GDP, what you might think of as the Democratic coalition still outweighs all comers.
Now, I think it’s also fair to add that while I think these assumptions will be borne out in the end, they are not as sure bets as they might have been a decade or two decades ago. I think that’s clear to anybody who looks at the trajectory of U.S. politics and U.S. foreign policy today. So we have some some work ahead of us to make sure that the power trajectory remains favorable for the United States.
MICHAEL MORELL: The argument that China is peaking really resonates with me. And the reasons that you outline in the book – from the systemic issues they’ve had, from the stepping back from market-oriented reforms to the world finally standing up and challenging China in a way that it didn’t, right.
All those resonate with me. And my sense is that many people have seen the different pieces here that you guys talk about, but that nobody’s really put them together until now, in your book. Is that your sense as well?
HAL BRANDS: I think that’s right. I think that there have been indications of building problems within the Chinese system, domestic and foreign, for a long time. And what we’ve tried to do is fit them into a larger analytical framework that helps people make sense of China’s overall trajectory and then how it might influence Chinese choices and some fairly perverse ways in
MICHAEL MORELL: So here’s the one part of the argument that I struggle with, right, for China to become more dangerous in the way that you talked about. They have to realize that they are a peak power or a peaking power. And it seems to me the evidence for that is less than the evidence for the fact that they are indeed peaking.
So I’m wondering what the evidence is that they understand where they are strategically, and where they might be going strategically, and to what extent they may not fully understand that yet.
HAL BRANDS: So this is a tough one methodologically, because the Chinese political system has always been fairly opaque and it is far more opaque today than it was even a decade or 15 years ago. We just have less insight into what the highest level leaders of China think now than we have really at any time since the Mao Zedong era. And so that’s a useful caveat to put out there. And so we’re very explicit in saying that it’s difficult to get inside the minds of Chinese leaders.
But I think there are two or three things that I would point to to indicate that within parts of the Chinese political system, there is a growing awareness that China has a window of opportunity, but one that won’t last forever. You can see this, for instance, in the commentary of some pretty hawkish officials within kind of the Chinese security and foreign policy ecosystem, including some who are willing to criticize Xi Jinping either obliquely or fairly directly by saying that, Yes, China may be stronger now than it ever has been in the past, but it’s also provoking the enmity of a coalition that’s stronger than any that China has ever faced in the past.
And so China has to be very careful because a decade from now, when that coalition really solidifies, it’ll be bad news for the CCP. You can certainly find indications of serious concern about the Chinese economy in official Chinese statements, whether they come from leaders on the economic side, leaders on the political side. You can find Xi Jinping himself giving warnings about the danger of a collapse of the Chinese political system. This has been one of his consistent messages since he took power.
And I think you can even interpret some of the moves that China has made over the past decade as being in response to some of the dynamics that we talk about in the book. One of the motives for the Belt and Road Initiative, for instance, was clearly an effort to stimulate greater Chinese growth by getting rid of overcapacity in certain sectors, basically exporting it to other countries.
And so, again, there’s not sort of a smoking gun where Xi Jinping says we are a peaking power, and so we have to begin acting more aggressively because we’re running out of time. But you can piece together a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that this narrative is at least starting to seep into the minds of Chinese leaders.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Hal, you talked about why a peaking power is actually more dangerous than a rising power. What are some of the possible manifestations of the danger that you’re concerned about?
HAL BRANDS: So our concern is that as China begins to peak, it will look for near-term moves that have the potential to reshape the longer-term balance of power – basically things that China can do now to improve its long-term trajectory or lock in gains before it is too late. And there are a couple areas that we talk about in detail in the book.
And so one of them is the effort to build an authoritarian techno-bloc, basically a technological sphere of influence that would give China significant economic, technological, informational, perhaps political and military leverage over countries within that bloc. You can see the effort by Huawei to dominate the world’s 5G telecommunications networks. As part of that, you can see Beijing’s efforts to position itself at the forefront of the development of a variety of technologies that will be central to economic growth and military power in this century as as part of that.
And so we see Beijing making a lot of investments there, as they’re already doing, and they will continue to do in hopes of creating a geopolitical preserve in which Chinese power will be secure.
The other one, which is in the news right now, is perhaps China will be tempted to use military force to reorder the Western Pacific to its liking. Xi Jinping has been pretty clear about what China wants in the Western Pacific. It wants sovereignty over the South China Sea and large parts of the East China Sea. It has territorial disputes with a number of its neighbors that it would like to resolve on its own terms. And of course, it would like very much to bring Taiwan back into the fold.
Chinese leaders used to say that they could wait a hundred years for the Taiwan issue to be resolved. Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that the Taiwan question cannot be passed down from generation to generation, which is often interpreted as meaning, it cannot be passed down to the next generation of Chinese leaders. In other words, it needs to be resolved on Xi’s watch.
And so the real concern that we have focuses on the Taiwan Strait, because this is where China is going to have its best window of military opportunity this decade. The PLA reforms that were undertaken in large part with an eye to allowing it to conquer Taiwan and to deter or defeat American intervention will be nearly complete.
U.S. military power is about to dip as we get into the latter part of this decade because we’re going to be retiring lots of ships and planes that were built during the Reagan era. And so if Xi Jinping is looking out at 2030, 2035 and beyond and saying, “Hey, things are starting to look kind of ugly for China, but I’ve got this great window of opportunity during this decade to resolve the Taiwan question on my terms” – might he become more willing to use force?
MICHAEL MORELL: So now let’s keep the conversation on Taiwan going. Do you see the current tensions, not just the tensions over the Speaker’s visit, but the tensions we’ve seen over the last several years – do you see those within the context of the peak power argument?
HAL BRANDS: Yes. Yes. And I think there’s two things going on here at the same time. The first is that the Chinese, Xi Jinping in particular, are more and more conscious of the fact that they possess coercive options vis-a-vis Taiwan that they did not possess in the past. The last time we had a major Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995, 1996, there was no real Chinese threat to invade and conquer Taiwan. China could certainly give Taiwan some bad days, but the joke at the time was that it would take a million-man swim for the PLA to reach Taiwan. They just didn’t have the power projection capabilities.
That has changed dramatically and it is changing rapidly right now. And so when China perceives a challenge to its position in the Taiwan Strait, it is able to react more forcefully if it so chooses. The other thing that’s happening, though, is that China, frankly, is becoming more and more insecure over the Taiwan issue because all of the political and diplomatic trends are running in the wrong direction.
On Taiwan, support for peaceful unification with China has dropped to virtual insignificance, in large part because the Taiwanese population has seen what happened in Hong Kong when the CCP exerted its will in a big way. There is a more and more distinct Taiwanese national identity every year. And in the diplomatic space, the United States, Japan and other democratic countries are expanding their relationships with Taiwan. In some ways, they’re treating it almost as an independent country in all but name.
And so I think when Xi Jinping looks at the situation, he sees some very threatening trends. He sees that Taiwan has greater relationships with countries that seem to be more and more opposed to China’s ambitions. It seems that forces of independence, or at least from maintaining the status quo in Taiwan, are becoming stronger. But he also feels that he has an opportunity to exert increased coercive pressure on Taiwan. And so it fits well with the framework that we’re talking about. I think this is what’s driving a lot of tensions in the strait right now.
MICHAEL MORELL: There seems to be a debate in Washington over the possible timing of a Chinese military move against Taiwan. You’ve got the DNI, Avril Haines, and you’ve got the director of CIA, Bill Burns, saying, later this decade is is more worrisome than now.
We just had a New York Times piece that talked about the current concern in the White House that it may be sooner rather than later. What’s your sense on timing? And I know that circumstances matter, but what’s your concern about timing?
HAL BRANDS: Well, so, on the first page of the book, we give our answer to that question. I think we say January 2025. That’s partly for illustrative purposes. But what it illustrates is that the debate on this in Washington has changed dramatically over the course of the last two years. Prior to the end of 2020, most people you asked in D.C., even at the Department of Defense, thought of a Taiwan crisis or a Taiwan contingency as something that might happen in the 2032, 2035 timeframe.
It was in early 2021 that U.S. military officials started saying, “Well, maybe it’s more in the 5 to 6 year timeframe, around 2027 instead. We had interesting testimony from the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, saying that she assessed that – or the intelligence community assessed, rather, that the threat to Taiwan would remain acute through this decade.
And then just recently, you have reports which you referenced indicating that U.S. officials – I think the reference was to DOD at this point – were saying they could see a major Chinese move against Taiwan, whether that is an invasion or some coercive option short of an invasion within the next 18 months.
The reality, of course, is that everybody is guessing when it comes to the actual timing of this, that the question, the meaningful analytical question is, “Is this something that could plausibly happen within, say, the next five years, or is it more of a next 15 years sort of thing?”
I align firmly in the next five years camp for reasons that we have talked about. But the reason that this is so important is that it has huge implications for the defense choices that the United States and other countries make.
Right now, we have a serious defense reform and investment program that’s geared toward meeting the Chinese threat in the Western Pacific. The only problem is that it’s really going to start bearing fruit in the early 2030s, which may be too late. Taiwan is in the same boat. There’s a lot of good stuff happening and the U.S. and Japan and Australia and Taiwan and other countries to shore up the balance of power in the Western Pacific. It’s just not happening quickly enough.
MICHAEL MORELL: Hal, is the Chinese military ready to go? Are there things that they still need to do to prepare?
HAL BRANDS: This is a huge question mark. The Chinese military has come a long, long way in terms of the quality of the capabilities they possess, though the number of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft, for instance, the sophistication of air defenses and anti-ship missiles, in terms of the scenarios that they train for and in terms of efforts to shift the PLA from sort of a manpower heavy force to one that’s more capable of engaging in air and sea operations against a rival great power – in this case, the United States.
What we don’t know, and what Chinese leaders do not know, is how well the PLA would perform under wartime stress. The last time China fought a major foreign war was in 1979 against Vietnam. It did not go particularly well. And so I think there are questions about how well this military will function when it’s forced to operate under wartime conditions.
There are still weaknesses within the PLA. There are still relatively high levels of corruption. There’s still a lot of politicization within the ranks. There are a lot of the problems that have sometimes made autocratic militaries less effective in the past. We know that the Chinese understand these problems. They’ve been trying to solve them through a series of reforms over the past decade in particular. But we won’t have a conclusive answer until if and when Xi Jinping decides to use force.
MICHAEL MORELL: Okay. Let’s talk about the situation today. And I should say that we’re taping this one day after Speaker Pelosi visited Taiwan. And as of today, the Chinese have announced a four-day closure area for a live fire exercise. What do you expect the Chinese to do in response to the Speaker’s visit?
HAL BRANDS: I expect that there will be extensive shows of force combined with other coercive measures, such as economic sanctions, over an extended period. I don’t think this is going to be a three or four day effort to demonstrate to Taiwan and to the United States that China’s unhappy with our behavior. It’s going to be something that unfolds more as a campaign.
And so there will be the immediate response to Speaker Pelosi’s visit, which is what we’re seeing now with live fire drills on both sides of Taiwan, which is important to flag. And then there will be the longer-term series of measures that unfolds over weeks or perhaps months after the Speaker’s trip is over.
And so I would expect to see continued military exercises that then may have the effect – as some of the military exercises that are underway right now do – of showing that China has the capability to seriously interfere with air and maritime traffic into Taiwan, effectively to put the island under blockade if it so chooses, as well as efforts to squeeze the Taiwanese economy, rattle the stock market and demonstrate how deep Taiwanese dependence is on the goodwill of Beijing.
MICHAEL MORELL: And risk of escalation beyond what they’d like and beyond what we would like?
HAL BRANDS: I think it is non-trivial. I don’t think that this is the climactic crisis over Taiwan. I don’t think that the timing is quite right from the Chinese perspective. I think that Xi Jinping would probably prefer to get the Party Congress out of the way before he makes more serious moves on Taiwan. But I do think that there is some danger of escalation nonetheless.
And the scenario that worries me a little bit runs a little bit like this. The Chinese coercive campaign and military exercises drag on for days, weeks, months. And at that point, the question becomes, “Well, what is the United States going to do to show greater support for Taiwan” – and to combat the perception that the United States, in a somewhat ham-handed way, provoked this crisis and then left Taiwan to clean up the mess, basically, to deal with the resulting pressure from Beijing.
And so you could see moves to beef up the U.S. military posture in the Western Pacific. Perhaps the stationing of air and naval assets near the Chinese coast – when I say ‘near,’ I’m saying a few hundred miles away or the Taiwan Strait.
And as that goes on, there’s always the possibility of some sort of run-in between U.S. and Chinese military forces: a midair collision of the sort that we had back in 2001 with the EP-3 incident or something else.
And I still think that we are dealing with a relatively low likelihood of escalation to outright war because neither side wants it at this point. But the longer the crisis goes on, the more complex the dynamics will become.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Hal, you said something really important a few minutes ago .You talked about Chinese exercises on both sides of Taiwan – so not only the western side, but also the eastern side. Why is that important?
HAL BRANDS: Well, it’s meant to demonstrate effectively that China can take away Taiwan’s strategic depth; that it can deny Taiwan easy access not simply to the ports on the western side of the island, which is where most of the best ports are, but on the eastern side of the island as well.
And the reason that is so important is those are presumably some of the areas through which the United States or other members of a friendly coalition of nations would try to resupply Taiwan in a war or in a major crisis. And so it’s a way of demonstrating that the PLA can exert a bit of a stranglehold over Taiwan’s lifelines to the outside world.
Now, in a real crisis, in a real military conflict, there are things that the Taiwanese and the United States could do to try to mitigate that pressure, to try to run the blockade and make it more difficult for China to project air power over the island and beyond, for instance. But this is certainly the message, I think, that the Chinese are sending right now.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Hal, let’s assume that the argument you make in your book is correct, that China is a peaking power. They realize that to some degree, even if they can’t articulate it, and they’ll increasingly realize it. U.S. policy: what’s the right response?
HAL BRANDS: I think the right response is to be careful about provoking crises with China prematurely. I think this is one of the reasons why the current crisis seems like such an ‘own goal’ from America’s perspective, because it’s not clear how it actually benefits us or Taiwan, while also racing to improve our capabilities in the most important areas.
And the one I’ll focus on just for a minute, because we’ve been talking about Taiwan, is really in the U.S. ability to defend Taiwan from a major Chinese attack, indeed from a Chinese invasion. Because an invasion – while there are many scenarios in which China could exert pressure on Taiwan – an invasion is the only one that, if successful, guarantees Chinese control over Taiwan. A blockade doesn’t do that. An air and missile campaign doesn’t do that.
And so that’s the scenario for which we should be preparing – also, because it’s the most demanding scenario.
And there are a variety of things that the United States can be doing and in some ways is doing it to make that more difficult. The thing we have to keep in mind is that even though Taiwan is located relatively close to China, a major Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be a massive undertaking, according to some estimates. It would make D-Day, the allied invasion of Normandy look minor by comparison. The terrain of Taiwan is favorable to the defense. The Taiwan Strait is choppy and difficult to cross. There are a limited number of beaches that one can land on and so on and so forth.
And so if the United States and Taiwan go all in on a defense that is meant to make a PLA crossing of the strait as prohibitively costly as possible, I think there’s a reasonable chance they can be effective in deterring that assault. That basically requires flooding the region with shooters and sensors, most of which are available today or nearly available today, that can essentially turn the Taiwan Strait into a shooting gallery.
We’re talking about anti-ship missiles, sea mines, basically relatively low-cost capabilities that we can field in large numbers that would allow us to deny a Chinese assault on Taiwan.
We can be working more closely with partners to turn a Chinese assault on Taiwan into a larger regional war, which I think would have a larger deterrent effect on China. It’s one thing if China has to take on the United States and Taiwan, another thing if China has to take along the United States, Taiwan, Japan, Australia and so on and so forth.
And those are the sorts of things that, if we move out smartly on them now, I think there’s still time to have an impact on Chinese calculus and make an invasion of Taiwan seem too risky, even for an increasingly risk-prone Xi Jinping. But that window on our side is closing rapidly.
MICHAEL MORELL: So how big is the gap, Hal, between all-in, right, and the kind of things you’re talking about – moving out smartly on all the things you’re talking about – and where we actually are. How big is that gap that needs to be filled?
HAL BRANDS: I think it depends on which dimension of the problem we’re talking about. In some areas I think the gap is closing and just not closing rapidly enough. And so I think there has been remarkable progress over the last two years, for instance. So just from what I read in the newspapers, on U.S.-Japanese cooperation and contingency planning for how the two countries might work together in a crisis over Taiwan.
I think that’s terrific. And that’s an area where the trends are very much in our favor.
I think there is a much bigger gap when it comes to near-term posture and capability improvements in the Western Pacific. This administration has struggled to find even a few billion dollars for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which is a congressional initiative that is meant to close some of the gaps that we are talking about.
As we talked about, the U.S. defense modernization program is still oriented more towards the early 2030s than the mid-2020s. And so those are areas where I think the the gap is bigger.
MICHAEL MORELL: Does Russia, Ukraine fit into this story in any way?
HAL BRANDS: I think it does. I think, one, it reminds us that aggression hasn’t gone out of style to the extent that we might hope that it had.
I think it does have some good news. I think it demonstrates that conquest is difficult when you’re dealing with a committed population that is committed to defending itself. It demonstrates that power projection can be very difficult. I think it shows that U.S. intelligence capabilities are unmatched and we would probably have some advance warning of a major Chinese move on Taiwan.
But I don’t think the lesson we should take away is that the Russians have had a bad time of it in Ukraine, thus the Chinese would have a bad time of it in Taiwan or that they would simply not try it.
I think it’s also plausible to suggest, for instance, that the lesson Xi Jinping may have learned from Ukraine is, “Go in, go fast, go brutal from the outset.” That Putin’s mistake wasn’t so much the invasion of Ukraine, it was doing it in a way that was not decisive within the opening days and thus left open the possibility of Ukrainian resistance and Western support for Ukraine.
I think it’s also plausible that Xi Jinping might draw the lesson that nuclear coercion works, that the United States and NATO’s might be militarily involved in Ukraine if not for the Russian nuclear deterrent, and that the Chinese nuclear deterrent might prevent the United States and its allies from intervening in a Taiwan conflict.
I think that would be a misreading of what has happened in Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean that Xi Jinping wouldn’t draw that lesson.
MICHAEL MORELL: And certainly how Russia, Ukraine ultimately ends matters here significantly, doesn’t it?
HAL BRANDS: Yes. And countries throughout the Asia-Pacific recognize this very much, that the reason that the United States has been able to rally a coalition that’s bigger than just the usual trans-Atlantic suspects in punishing Russia over Ukraine is that countries like Japan and Australia recognize that if naked aggression succeeds in Europe, it will make naked aggression more likely in the Western Pacific. And so they are very eager to avert that scenario.
MICHAEL MORELL: Hal, as always, deeply insightful. Thank you. The book is, Danger Zone The Coming Conflict with China. The authors are Hal Brands and Michael Beckley. Hal, thank you so much for joining us.
HAL BRANDS: Thank you, Michael.