After China’s Decline: 3 Futures for the National-Security State
What will the national security state do with itself if it becomes evident that China is in long-term relative decline?
I think about this question more than is probably healthy, but Raja Menon posed it in a good, triggering way on Twitter:
Why the media has jumped on the narrative of China decline is a little puzzling, because China’s very real economic troubles have been simmering since the late ‘90s. The accumulation of bad debt, chronic low consumption, overcapacity in key sectors, and a giant real estate bubble are not new problems—they’re just more acute than usual at the moment.
To know this is to know that adaptation/managing through the “crisis” is more likely than total implosion, and that China as a high-growth engine was always going to taper off. The smarter political economy folks I track expected the end of the growth miracle would’ve started a decade ago.
So Chinese decline—relative to its past growth trajectory—has been inevitable. And decline relative to the US—which is also in a long-term relative decline—is more than plausible too.
Why does this matter? Because it takes a sledgehammer to the very foundation of Washington’s claims about China threatening to take over the world. A declining power is not in a position to become global hegemon.
So I just want to point out two things, one concise and one more elaborate.
First, regardless whether China declines or keeps rising, it can’t supplant the US position in the world system as it exists, as I recently explained. Straight up.
Second, we can see three most-likely paths for the national security state once the evidence of a no-longer-rising-China becomes impossible to refute. They’re all horrific for the rest of us…unless “we” can populate the national security state’s imagination with alternative visions or win enough political power to bridle it.
Future 1: Declining power = increasing danger = status quo militarism
The scenario: A declining revanchist China might be aggressive, and therefore still dangerous.
What it means for the national security state: From the perspective of a US foreign policy community that would prefer to retain primacy and avoid change, the only thing that matters is whether China can be seen as threatening to others. In a decline-is-dangerous narrative, China can still be thought of as a military danger.
And that means the national security state can keep on doing exactly what it’s doing now—military superiority, strategic competition, red-baiting at home and wasting political capital abroad to create an economic order that hurts everybody.
Why it’s plausible: It’s already a prominent form of disaster-commentary, sometimes by reputable (non-crazy) people, and sometimes by very crazy people.
But it’s also worth noting that, assuming we do nothing differently in our approach to the world, it’s not implausible that a declining China could be more aggressive than a rising one.
When I worked on North Korea issues in the Obama administration, some of us applied a prospect-theory lens to explain North Korean behavior. If Kim Jong Un was engaging in provocative actions, it could be because he was in a “domain of losses.” (in prospect theory, risk-taking is not purely rational but rather conditioned by a framing effect—whether you’re in a “domain of gains” or “domain of losses”—because we value the prospect of losing something more than we value the prospect of equal gain)
Extending prospect theory to China, if Xi Jinping sees the walls closing in and the empire crumbling (a “domain of losses”), then he’s more apt to lash out with military gambles.
More importantly, we can reach this same conclusion without prospect theory. In my “theory” of China, ethnonationalism—which is jingoistic by its nature—is the CCP’s only alternative source of legitimacy other than economic growth. When the growth stops, the ethnonationalism (and therefore jingoism) surges.
Future 2: MAGA-Border Imperialism
The scenario: With the China threat in decline, US politics—especially on the right—shifts toward a new global vision: restraint-coded arguments globally that insists on a brutalist primacy closer to home, in the Western Hemisphere.
What it means for the national security state: A more intense, geographically concentrated version of the War on Terror—“emergency” troop deployments, occupations, special forces operations, and drone warfare to dominate the Western Hemisphere. The “future of war” is not about long-range stealth and AI; it’s about technology to enable absolute control.
And the part of the War on Terror that most middle-class folks have memory-holed—the surveillance and repression of Muslims in America—would surge back with a vengeance. This is dystopian police-state stuff, and the way the presidential candidates talked about it during the recent presidential debate, a war on cartels and weaker neighbors will also become a war on non-existent “communists” (which is ultimately anyone they disagree with).
This entire scenario amounts to a slow implosion of the United States as we know it.
Why it’s plausible: This is Vivek Ramaswamy’s whole deal—“new Monroe Doctrine.” But he didn’t start that idea, and it’s shared by everyone on the MAGA right who embraces “nationalist militarism” and sees Russia as a white-nationalist friend.
If fully half of American politics supports a new kind of paranoia-based imperialism toward Latin America that involves the occasional splendid little war, the national security state will adapt accordingly. And the fact that the rhetoric of restraint at a global level could ease America into this means it could end up with a bipartisan sheen.
Future 3: Frontier-Zone Imperialism
The scenario: The military follows the economy. Without a grand China threat, the next most obvious purpose-giver is ensuring control over “vital” choke points in global capitalism.
What it means for the national security state: This still justifies high-end, apocalyptic war planning to fight China, but the sites of contestation shift away from expecting Chinese conquest in its ongoing territorial disputes as stepping stones toward world domination (which is the current real-world assumption in Washington).
The imagined clash animating the national security state instead involves deploying forces to “secure access” to crucial minerals, factory production, or shipping lanes. Any point of production deemed necessary for the global economy to function or to ensure the “resilience” of supply chains connected to US markets becomes a frontier where US forces can facilitate US/friendly firms extracting resources from nations who will be denied meaningful nationhood.
Why it’s plausible: There’s a way in which this is already happening, but it flies under the radar because we don’t have a name for it and it garners far fewer headlines than scary-China shit.
Geopolitical economy is precisely what US economic statecraft has been under Biden (and more haphazardly under Trump). Even normal policy wonks are steeped in the ideology of concepts like “supply-chain resilience,” which have the effect of imbuing with strategic (national security) significance select sites of global production.
In the logic of the national security state, where there are commercial interests there are national interests. And where there are national interests, the US military must be able to kill and control. That’s the template going back to the 19th century.
It’s also worth remembering that, prior to China popping as the next great rivalry, there was actually a fleeting push during the later War-on-Terror years to orient the national security state toward “missions without purpose.” In the language of planning, it was about the various things we would want to do with the military to ensure (by force) that global capital could move about unfettered.
There are probably more futures than this that are also plausible.
But given the balance of political forces in Washington, the structure of the world system at this moment, and the balance of class forces in society, we’re on a grim trajectory regardless whether China rises or declines. The crucial point is that, for the national security state, all this China shit is not actually about China; it’s about us.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
We can choose to make the national security state more accountable and less powerful. We can choose to shift the valence of international relations itself. We can choose to prioritize genuine global threats (the climate crisis, nuclear war, and the global far right). We can choose to find purpose in building a democracy worthy of the name rather than deferring it indefinitely as we deal with perpetual crises of good and evil in geopolitics.