The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why China will become ever more dangerous as its baby bust worsens

Children hold Chinese flags as they pose for a photo at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 2021. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

On Jan. 10, 1980, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then in the first of his four terms, delivered a Senate speech pertinent to today’s foremost U.S. foreign policy challenge: China. Casting a cold eye on the Soviet Union 17 days after its Christmas Eve invasion of Afghanistan, Moynihan criticized the preceding decade’s excessive emphasis on detente (citing Samuel Johnson: “the triumph of hope over experience”). He added that increased Soviet stridency and aggressiveness suggested the behavior of “a wounded bear.” He had recently said “the defining event” of the 1980s “might well be the breakup of the Soviet Empire.” And it also could be “the defining danger.”

Forty-two years later, China becomes more dangerous as its decline becomes more predictable. Writing in the Spectator, Rana Mitter, a British historian and political scientist, cites a U.N. report that China’s population growth has declined 94 percent, from 8 million in 2011 to 480,000 last year. The projection of China’s 15- to 64-year-old population in 2100 has been revised from 579 million to 378 million.

“Today,” Mitter writes, “every 100 working-age Chinese need to support 20 retirees. If trends continue, by the turn of the next century, every 100 workers will have to support 120 retirees.”

The 10.6 million Chinese babies born in 2021 were 1.4 million fewer than in 2020. “This,” Mitter says, “was a lower birth rate than in the great famine of the 1950s.” Four years ago, Chinese media encouraged women looking for “Mr Right” to settle for “Mr OK.” A newspaper editorial explained that “marriage is a process of tolerating each other.”

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All this might mean, Mitter says, that “China’s ambition to become the world’s largest economy is slipping out of reach.” The Soviet Union in the 1980s became more truculent as it became more anxious about its waning vitality compared with that of the West and the “Asian Tigers” — e.g., Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan. As China becomes increasingly fixated on its demographic destiny, it, too, might become more dangerous. If intractable population trends indicate that China is at its geopolitical apogee, it might attempt to leap at Taiwan through a closing window of opportunity.

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If so, deterrence requires urgency in turning the island into the much-discussed “porcupine,” so well-armed and trained (for mountain and urban warfare) that it is too prickly to swallow. John R. Bolton, presidential national security adviser from 2018-2019, suggests in National Review “home-porting U.S. naval vessels and stationing meaningful U.S. military forces in Taiwan. Troop deployments will be necessary in any case to train and assist Taiwanese troops to handle the new weapons systems and necessary joint military exercises.”

This will take years. Passing the Taiwan Policy Act can be done immediately.

The act would, inter alia, designate Taiwan as a “major non-NATO ally,” authorize $6.5 billion over four years in security assistance to prepare for various threats (invasion, blockade, cyberattacks), authorize a War Reserve Stockpile (prepositioned munitions and other vital supplies), prevent restrictions on bilateral relations between U.S. officials and their Taiwan counterparts, and elevate Taiwan’s status in international institutions.

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The TPA also would mandate changing the U.S. government’s vocabulary pertaining to Taiwan, changes that might seem trivial to Americans, but would not seem so to Beijing: ending the practice of referring to Taiwan’s government as the “Taiwan authorities,” changing the language used to describe Taiwan’s diplomatic presence in Washington from “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” to “Taiwan Representative Office.”

These would be small increments in treating Taiwan — a vibrant democracy of 24 million — as what it manifestly is: a nation-state. Small increments can have a large cumulative effect, which is why, for example, Beijing, since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, has been trying to establish a new normal by increasing the intensity of its military operations in the air and sea around the island.

When asked on Aug. 8 whether the Defense Department had changed its assessment that China will not attempt a military conquest of Taiwan in the next two years, Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, was admirably terse: “No.”

Assessments can, of course, be mistaken — Pearl Harbor, Chinese intervention in the Korean War, the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, etc. The Defense Department’s assessment of the likelihood of a near-term invasion had better be right. Reports vary concerning the number of simulations there have been in recent years of U.S.-China military conflict over Taiwan. Whatever the number is, it appears to be almost the number in which China prevailed.

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