American opinion has moved away from its once-benign view of China. That older view, still favored by many business people, held that a prosperous China would threaten its neighbors less than a poor China, and anyway would offer the United States great economic advantages. Accordingly, this view recommended that the West engage China in a friendly way and accommodate Beijing as much as possible. The newer view has responded to overwhelming evidence that Chinese development is far from benign, that China flaunts common trade practices, steals technological secrets on a huge scale and spies outrageously. Moreover, this new view contends that Beijing acts aggressively in Asia, seems to have set itself on a thinly-veiled imperialist project that it calls the “Belt and Road,” and shows no regard for human rights in Hong Kong and—still more outrageously—in its Xinjiang region. This new view frequently paints China as a dangerous economic, military, and diplomatic juggernaut, so unstoppable, in fact, that the United States, short of a disastrous military confrontation, has little choice but to engage China in disarming ways and accommodate it where it can.
While this new perspective strangely lands on pretty much the same advice as the older more benign businessman’s take, it would be a mistake to view China in this way. To be sure, it is duplicitous and aggressive, and it presents a formidable economic, military, and diplomatic challenge. But it is far from irresistible, as some seem to believe. On the contrary, China suffers from a number of economic vulnerabilities and weaknesses that will impede its ambitions. The country, for one, has little chance of returning to its former, stellar rates of economic growth. Especially in light of the trade war with the United States, China’s dependence on exports no longer looks like the winning strategy it once did. Worse, Beijing’s top-down approach to economic management will become increasingly ineffective now that China has passed onto a more advanced stage of development. Moreover, failure in Hong Kong will further limit the country’s economic potential by choking off the conduit for much of its investment capital, while over the longer run, China’s aging demographics will constrain growth and cause financial strains. One need not forecast economic collapse, which in any case is unlikely, to see that China is far from the irresistible dragon described frequently by the Western media.