How scary is China? America must understand its weaknesses as well as its strengths

Personalized rule is bad for China — and perilous for the world. Lacking sound advice, President Xi Jinping might miscalculate, as Vladimir Putin did on Ukraine.



November 9, 2023 - 4:41 PM

Giant panda Xiao Qi Ji plays at his enclosure at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, Sept. 28. Early Wednesday morning the giant pandas Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub Xiao Qi Ji were shipped to Chengdu, China, marking the end of more than 50 years of Chinese pandas being housed at the zoo. China used the pandas as a source of diplomacy between our two countries. Zoo staff call it a “hiatus” in the wildly popular panda program; Chinese officials have yet to say whether it will continue. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

When Joe Biden meets Xi Jinping in San Francisco next week, the stakes will be high. Fighting in the Middle East threatens to become another theatre for great-power rivalry, with America backing Israel, and China (along with Russia) deepening links to Iran. In the South China Sea, China is harassing Philippine ships and flying its planes dangerously close to American ones. Next year will test Sino-American relations even more. In January a candidate despised by Beijing may win Taiwan’s presidential election. For most of the year, the race for the White House will be a cacophony of China-bashing.

America’s anti-China fervor is partly an overcorrection for its previous complacency about the economic, military and ideological threat the autocratic giant poses. The danger from China is real, and there are many areas where Mr. Biden’s administration should stand up to its Communist rulers. But there is also a risk that America’s view of Chinese power slides into caricature, triggering confrontations and, at worst, an avoidable conflict. Even without war, that rush would incur huge economic costs, split America from its allies and undermine the values that make it strong. Instead, America needs a sober assessment not just of China’s strengths, but also of its weaknesses.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in October in Beijing. Like Putin, China’s president has become an absolute ruler. (Sergei Savostyanov/Pool/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

What are those weaknesses? Among the least understood are the shortcomings of its military, the People’s Liberation Army. After decades of modernization, it is formidable — terrifying, even. With 2 million personnel and an annual budget of $225 billion, it has the world’s biggest army and navy and a vast missile force. By 2030 it could have 1,000 nuclear warheads. Mr. Xi has ordered it to be capable of invading Taiwan by 2027, say America’s spies. And the PLA projects force more widely, too. It intimidates China’s neighbors in the South China Sea and skirmishes with India. It has a base in Africa and is seeking one in the Middle East.

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