PRC 2023: The Now or Never Moment on Taiwan

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In January 2011, the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC) concluded a summit following a year marked by growing apprehension over the nature of the latter's dramatic rise. Numerous matters tested the US-PRC relationship in 2010 (North Korea, the Yellow Sea, disputes with Japan over territory) and President Hu Jintao grasped the summit as an opportunity to assuage concerns. On January 20, speaking to the U.S.-China Business Council President Hu declared "[China] will remain committed to the path of peaceful development. We do not engage in an arms race, we are not a military threat to any country. China will never seek to dominate or pursue an expansionist policy." Declarations aside, the question remains whether the PRC's certain to grow capabilities will lead future leadership to revisit their presently stated benign intentions. Moreover, as Mr. Ely Ratner of RAND succinctly pointed out in the Winter 2011 issue of Washington Quarterly, strategies articulated by the leadership will inevitably be influenced by prevailing constraints as well as a rapidly evolving and uncertain future security environment. Demography may not necessarily be destiny, but in the 2023-2032 time frame, the PRC leadership may conclude a now or never moment faces the country on a key priority -- reunification with Taiwan -- as a surplus of young males will coincide with the onset of the general population's aging.

When Priorities Clash With Realities

A 2009 RAND report summarized the three priorities of contemporary PRC foreign policy: promoting economic development, protecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and generating international respect and status. While seemingly benign, these three priorities (particularly the latter two) are premised on the following historical experiences: the "century of humiliations" endured in the 1800s, the recurrent exploitation of internal weaknesses by foreign powers, and the recent "reclamation" of major power status on the regional and world stage.

Critical to this reclamation is sustaining momentum while minimizing perceptions of a "China threat". Complicating this effort is the PRC's attempt to undermine the legitimacy of an independent Taiwan with an eye toward eventual reunification. In practice, however, "China’s approach to the Taiwan question, which can be inflexible and aggressive at times, undermines its ability to appear moderate and benign."

In the case of China, the firm statement of intentions and rational expectations they inspire will inevitably come up against extraordinary circumstances. As the aforementioned Mr. Ratner submitted: “Beijing is undoubtedly amassing the means to exert influence in international politics, but regardless of its strategic intentions today, its rapidly evolving threat environment will play a decisive role in determining how China brings these resources to bear. … [its] capabilities will likely be employed in contingencies and ways that Chinese strategists are neither aspiring to, nor necessarily even considering, today.”

In the case of Chinese demography, though, an anxious international community can anticipate an environment more foreseeable than others.

Coinciding Demographic Challenges for China

According to U.S. Census Bureau data on the Chinese population, the PRC will contend with the confluence of two major demographic challenges beginning in 2023.

First, the aging of China. Even as the PRC attained the ranking of world’s second largest economy in 2010, numerous scholars (Nicholas Eberstadt, Neil Howe, Richard Jackson) have amply demonstrated how China will likely become old before it becomes rich. As China has modernized, two familiar consequences have followed -- a declining fertility rate coupled with rising longevity. However, in the PRC, the government compounded the impact by encouraging couples to limit family size, eventually introducing the “one child policy” with a system of birth permits, targets, and penalties to enforce it.

Accordingly, in one generation China will grow old to a degree it took Europe to age between 1930 and 2030. Unfortunately, the PRC will not have accrued the national wealth or established commensurate social insurance systems to cope with the eventual number of seniors. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the elderly population aged 60-64 will increase from 72.8 million to 112.8 million between 2023 and 2032, while the younger population aged 35-39 will decrease from 109.6 million to 94.6 million during the same period. More dauntingly, Chinese seniors will have far less family members to rely on and will have few employment options not entailing rigorous physical labor.

CHART 1

Second, the growing surplus of males in China. Scholars Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer have been exploring the potentially fearsome consequences of sex selection practices in Asian countries since 2002. In the PRC, the pursuit of the “one-child” policy has inadvertently permitted the preference for male heirs to result in unhealthy male-to-female ratios. Ironically, this societal preference for males will produce a sizable subclass of young males unable to find a wife and start a family; these men are currently known as guang gun-er or "bare branches." Hudson and den Boer cite the work of sociologists demonstrating that young adult men with no stake in society are much more prone to attempt to improve their situation through violent and criminal behavior in a strategy of coalitional aggression with other bare branches. The responses available to governments can be problematic -- between socially re-engineering and repression, the former is too costly while the latter would shatter the veneer of a "peaceful rise" carefully crafted by the leadership. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the surplus male population in the PRC will total more than 24.8 million in 2023 and remain above that level for the next decade before beginning to decline again.

CHART 2

The prospect of failing to attain the level of economic development before its elderly population places an unbearable strain on the country’s economy while simultaneously coping with tens of millions of idle and alienated young men may present the vaunted PRC technocracy with a challenge beyond its capabilities. As Hudson and den Boer ominously warn, “At some point, governments [will] consider how they can export their problem, either by encouraging emigration of young adult men or harnessing their energies in martial adventures abroad.”

The Precedent

Since 1989, the population’s continuing acceptance of the nation’s authoritarian leadership is apparently premised solely on the leadership’s ability to sustain high rates of economic growth. Fatefully, however, the leadership has sought to augment its legitimacy by simultaneously appealing to nationalism. If the leadership fails to achieve the necessary economic growth to assure the future of surplus males or the security of an aging population, it will face a grave threat to its legitimacy and may turn to overtly aggressive nationalism as a corrective.

The present governing elite act is extremely anxious and monitors all nationalist outpourings very closely to ensure public anger does not rage out of control. However, in the 2023-2032 period, PRC leadership may conclude whipping up nationalist fervor would be a reasonable gamble. Instead of dealing with the prospect of an aged population foiling economic plans and disaffected bare branches disrupting the peace, the leadership may ultimately decide to rally the nation -- validate the Middle Kingdom’s reclamation of great power status or forgo reunification for another century -- and make a bid to reclaim Taiwan by force.

A fantastic scenario, but consider the decision by Imperial Japan in 1941 to declare war against the United States despite the overwhelming industrial and military strength of the latter. Seemingly another example of the irrational Shinto nationalism with which Japanese militarist leaders were enthralled, the decision, in retrospect, reflected more rational calculations than originally concluded.

In a masterful examination of Japan’s decision for war in 1941, Dr. Jeffrey Record demonstrates how the U.S.-Japanese war in the Pacific resulted from miscalculations on both sides. Dr. Record readily acknowledges Japanese aggression in East Asia was the root cause of the war, but asserts the specific decision to wage war in 1941 “was dictated by Japanese pride and the threatened economic destruction of Japan by the United States.”

Dr. Record explains how differing cultures cannot share a common standard of rationality, especially in bilateral relationships marred by cultural ignorance and racial overtones. In the case of America vis-à-vis Japan, expectations for rationally grounded deterrence blinded decision-makers to the provocations inherent in their acts. The oil embargo didn’t deter the Japanese as much as it provoked them. The Japanese leadership concluded acceding to U.S. demands were unacceptable as yielding would essentially entail renouncing great power status, which Dr. Record notes no self-respecting government would ever do. However, to stand still and do nothing as well would mean collapse. Faced with such alternatives, national self-respect will always trump concerns as to winnability. Dr. Record aptly states: “War—even a lost war—was clearly preferable to humiliation and starvation.”

Around the year 2023, PRC leadership may similarly assert similar alternatives facing the nation.

Challenge for the United States

While entirely speculative, the exercise actually underscores the shortcomings of various approaches espoused by those with varying expectations for the future of US-PRC relations.

Forecasters of an adversarial PRC recommend bolstering military capabilities to counter expected anti-access strategems. Specifically, skeptics would augment and accelerate air and naval asset acquisition to ensure an advantage over the PRC. The recommendation is premised on the expectation the PRC would refrain given its disadvantage. However, as Dr. Record points out, in 1941 Japan correctly projected how existing naval and air armament programs would never approximate future U.S. force structure and concluded Japan's relative position would only worsen if a preventive attack was not undertaken. Instead of dissuading Japan, the advantage convinced its leadership to act immediately -- as a preventive measure.

Proponents of a responsible, if not friendly, PRC point to the deep economic interdependence between the United States and China. Principally, optimists assert the mutual benefit arising from the deepening US-PRC economic relationship will preclude conflict. Conceding that hostility cannot be completely ruled out, optimists deflect concerns over US indebtedness to the PRC by citing John Maynard Keynes -- ““If I owe you a pound, I have a problem; but if I owe you a million, the problem is yours.” If push came to shove, the U.S. could simply threaten to devalue PRC debt holding. The caveat is again identified by Dr. Record; the Roosevelt Administration enacted the oil embargo as a punitive measure short of military action. Unfortunately, President Roosevelt and his team failed to understand such a debilitating sanction was tantamount to an act of war. Indeed, the embargo highlighted the nation’s vulnerability arising from the economic relationship and persuaded them military action was imperative.

Given the potential for even divergent courses of action to result in war, the outlook would appear bleak. Fortunately, one of Dr. Record’s observations is eminently relevant -- “there is no substitute for knowledge of a potential adversary’s history and culture.” In that bolstering capabilities and banking on interdependence is dependent on the perspective of the other party, Dr. Record’s observation (one echoed by many other respected scholars and commentators) can be addressed unilaterally and improve US foreign policy universally.

If this deficiency is not remedied and the above scenario were to come true, then a modicum of responsibility for such a conflict could be assigned to the United States.