How likely is China to start a war? This may be the single-most important question in international affairs today. If China uses military force against Taiwan or another target in the Western Pacific, the result could be war with the United States—a fight between two nuclear-armed giants brawling for hegemony in that region and the wider world. If China attacked amid ongoing wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, the world would be consumed by interlocking conflicts across Eurasia’s key regions, a global conflagration unlike anything since World War II.
How worried should we be?
Notwithstanding the recent flurry of high-level diplomacy between Washington and Beijing, the warning signs are certainly there. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing is amassing ships, planes, and missiles as part of the largest military buildup by any country in decades. Notwithstanding some recent efforts to lure back skittish foreign investment, China is stockpiling fuel and food and trying to reduce the vulnerability of its economy to sanctions—steps one might take as conflict nears. Xi has said China must prepare for “worst-case and extreme scenarios” and be ready to withstand “high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms.” All of this comes as Beijing has become increasingly coercive (and occasionally violent) in dealings with its neighbors, including the Philippines, Japan, and India—and as it periodically advertises its ability to batter, blockade, and perhaps invade Taiwan.
Many U.S. officials believe the risk of war is rising. CIA Director William Burns has said Xi seeks the capability to take Taiwan by 2027. And as China’s economy struggles, some observers—including, reportedly, U.S. intelligence analysts—are looking for signs that a peaking China might turn aggressive in order to distract attention from internal problems or to lock in gains while it still can.
Other analysts think the risk of Chinese aggression is overblown. Some scholars say the danger likely can be managed provided Washington doesn’t provoke Beijing—an echo of a longer-standing argument that China won’t upend a status quo that has served it well. Others point out that China has not started a war since its invasion of Vietnam in 1979. Still others dismiss the prospect that China might fight in response to a slowing economy and other domestic problems, claiming that the country has no history of diversionary war. What links these arguments is a belief in the basic continuity of Chinese conduct: the idea that a country that hasn’t launched a disastrous war in more than four decades is unlikely to do so now.
We believe this confidence is dangerously misplaced. A country’s behavior is profoundly shaped by its circumstances, no less than its strategic tradition, and China’s circumstances are changing in explosive ways. Political scientists and historians have identified a range of factors that make great powers more or less inclined to fight. When one considers four such factors, it becomes clear that many of the conditions that once enabled a peaceful rise may now be encouraging a violent descent.
First, the territorial disputes and other issues China is contesting are becoming less susceptible to compromise or peaceful resolution than they once were, making foreign policy a zero-sum game. Second, the military balance in Asia is shifting in ways that could make Beijing perilously optimistic about the outcome of war. Third, as China’s short-term military prospects improve, its long-term strategic and economic outlook is darkening—a combination that has often made revisionist powers more violent in the past. Fourth, Xi has turned China into a personalist dictatorship of the sort especially prone to disastrous miscalculations and costly wars.
This isn’t to say China will invade Taiwan in a particular week, month, or year. It is impossible to predict when, exactly, a conflict might occur because the trigger is often an unforeseen crisis. We now know that Europe was primed for war in 1914, but World War I would likely not have happened then had the driver of the car carrying Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand not taken one of history’s most fateful wrong turns. Wars are more like earthquakes: We can’t know precisely when they will happen, but we can recognize factors that lead to higher or lower degrees of risk. Today, China’s risk indicators are blinking red.
The possibility of a U.S.-China war might seem remote at first glance. Beijing has not fought a major war in 44 years, and its military hasn’t killed large numbers of foreigners since 1988, when Chinese frigates machine-gunned 64 Vietnamese sailors in a skirmish over the Spratly Islands. The so-called Asian peace—the lack of interstate wars in East Asia since 1979—has rested on a Chinese peace.
The absence of war has hardly meant the absence of aggression: Beijing has used military and paramilitary capabilities to enlarge its writ in the South and East China seas. In recent years, China has also engaged in bloody scraps with India. Nonetheless, the fact that Beijing has abstained from major wars—while the United States has fought several of them—has allowed Chinese officials to claim that their country is following a uniquely peaceful path to global power. And it compels those who worry about war to explain why China, which has experienced record-breaking growth enabled by two generations of peace, would change course so dramatically.
It wouldn’t be the first time a seemingly peaceful rising power broke bad. Prior to 1914, Germany hadn’t fought a major war for more than 40 years. In the 1920s, Japan looked to many foreign observers like a responsible stakeholder as it signed treaties pledging to limit its navy, share power in Asia, and respect China’s territorial integrity. In the early 2000s, Russian President Vladimir Putin mused about joining NATO and linking Russia closer to the West. That each of these nations nonetheless launched barbaric wars of conquest underscores a basic truth: Things change. The same country can behave differently, perhaps radically so, depending on the circumstances.
One such circumstance involves territorial disputes. Most wars are fights about who owns what strip of the Earth; roughly 85 percent of international conflicts waged since 1945 have revolved around territorial claims. Territory is hard to share because it often has symbolic or strategic significance. Even when nations agree to divide an area, they often end up fighting over the most valuable parts, such as cities, oil reserves, holy sites, waterways, or strategic high ground. In addition, securing territory requires physical presence in the form of fences, soldiers, or settlers. Thus, when nations claim the same turf, they come into frequent and unwelcome contact. Territorial disputes are especially likely to escalate when one side fears its claims are eroding precipitously. The belief that hallowed ground is slipping away or that the nation could be dismembered by its enemies can trigger aggression that a country more secure in its borders would avoid.
A second cause of war is a shifting military balance. Wars are waged over various issues but all share a fundamental cause: false optimism. They happen when both sides believe they can use force to achieve objectives—in other words, when both sides think they can win. Of course, few wars are truly win-win affairs, meaning at least one side—and very often both sides—disastrously underestimated the enemy’s strength. In short, competitive or ambiguous military balances cause wars; therefore, anything that makes a given balance more competitive or ambiguous, such as the introduction of new technologies or a massive military buildup by the weaker side, increases the risk of war.
Even the mightiest countries can spiral into violent insecurity when beset by economic stagnation, strategic encirclement, or other protracted trends that threaten their international position.
Third, great powers become belligerent when they fear future decline. Geopolitical competition is fierce and unforgiving, so nations nervously guard their relative wealth and power. Even the mightiest countries can spiral into violent insecurity when beset by economic stagnation, strategic encirclement, or other protracted trends that threaten their international position and expose them to predation by their foes. Heavily armed but increasingly anxious, a great power on the precipice of decline will be eager, even desperate, to beat back unfavorable trends by any means necessary. For imperial Germany, imperial Japan, and Putin’s Russia, that ultimately meant war.
Finally, a country’s conduct is shaped by its regime. Personalist dictatorships are more than twice as likely to start wars as democracies or autocracies in which power is held in many hands. Dictators initiate more wars because they are less exposed to the costs of conflict: Over the past 100 years, dictators who lost wars fell from power only 30 percent of the time, whereas other types of leaders who lost wars were voted out or otherwise removed from office nearly 100 percent of the time. Dictators veer into extremism because they are surrounded by sycophants who go all out to meet the dear leader’s demands. Dictators also cultivate real and imagined enemies abroad because blood-and-soil nationalism helps them justify oppressive rule at home. So whereas leaders of limited governments typically rule modestly and fade into obscurity, dictators—including Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, China’s Mao Zedong, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Russia’s Putin—often butcher their way into the history books.
These four factors—insecure borders, a competitive military balance, negative expectations, and dictatorship—help explain China’s historical use of force, and they have ominous implications today.
A Chinese propaganda poster shows soldiers holding guns with Chinese characters on a red panel underneath.
The People’s Republic of China was born fighting. After enduring a century of foreign imperialism, China bore the brunt of World War II in Asia after Japan invaded in 1937. At least 14 million Chinese died. Then, from 1945 to 1949, the Chinese Civil War reached its bloody climax, killing at least 2 million more as the Communists fought their way to power.
Forged amid these conflicts, China emerged as a hyper-belligerent state. For several decades, it was one of the world’s most embattled countries, fighting five wars and becoming a chief enemy of both Cold War superpowers. This violent record is unsurprising because China displayed all the risk factors for war.
For starters, China was led by Mao, the apotheosis of one-man rule. He routinely purged his colleagues and made decisions unilaterally, often half-asleep in the middle of night, based on inscrutable and shifting rationales. He also displayed a shocking disregard for human life. Roughly 45 million people were starved, beaten, or shot to death during the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s ill-conceived plan to transform China into a superpower within his lifetime. Partly to rally the nation behind this disastrous campaign, Mao instigated an international crisis in 1958 by shelling islands held by the Nationalist government on Taiwan.
Mao may have been sadistic, but even a less ruthless leader would have struggled to keep such a shattered nation at peace. After winning the civil war, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had to reimpose central government authority village by village and painstakingly eradicate resistance by ethnic minorities, warlords, and Nationalist sympathizers. To make matters worse, the fall of the Japanese and European empires left China partly surrounded by new countries that were hostile, unstable, or both. Most of China’s borders were contested to some degree; by the 1960s, the boundary with the Soviet Union was the most militarized in the world. Taiwan was the base of a rival Chinese government, backed by the United States, with overt plans to reconquer the mainland. India hosted a Tibetan government in exile and claimed swaths of Chinese territory; and China’s heartland was wedged between two Cold War hot spots, Indochina and the Korean Peninsula.
China considered itself constantly at risk of being torn apart, a historical trauma exacerbated by the economic catastrophes and political upheaval Mao wrought. Yet Beijing always had a viable strategy against each of its land neighbors because China’s huge population enabled it to swallow opponents through what Beijing called “people’s war,” a combination of human wave attacks and guerrilla raids. All told, it was a combustible combination: a brutal dictatorship embroiled in territorial disputes and armed with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of manpower.
China thus went from conflict to conflict, getting violent when it felt especially vulnerable or feared an impending decline in its position.
China thus went from conflict to conflict, getting violent when it felt especially vulnerable or feared an impending decline in its position. In 1950, China mauled U.S. forces that had advanced deep into North Korea, risking nuclear retaliation. Later that decade, China nearly started two additional wars by shelling Nationalist garrisons on offshore islands in the Taiwan Strait. In 1962, Beijing attacked Indian forces after they had built outposts in Chinese-claimed territory in the Himalayas. During the Vietnam War, China sent tens of thousands of troops to fight U.S. forces. In 1969, Beijing again risked nuclear war by ambushing Moscow’s forces along the Ussuri River, following a significant Soviet buildup there. Ten years later, China attacked Vietnam after the latter started hosting Soviet forces and invaded Cambodia, one of Beijing’s only close partners.
After that, China’s guns largely fell silent. There would be exceptions, most notably in 1995 and 1996, when China lobbed missiles near Taiwan. But generally speaking, Beijing became less prickly and aggressive from 1980 to the mid-2000s as its circumstances dramatically changed.
First, the regime mellowed. In 1976, Mao died and was eventually replaced by Deng Xiaoping, who had been purged by Mao and understood the dangers of one-man rule. Under Deng’s guidance, term limits for senior leaders were established. The National People’s Congress and the CCP’s Central Committee began meeting regularly. A professionalized bureaucracy began to take shape. These institutions were far from perfect, but they created checks on power that had been utterly lacking under Mao.
Second, China’s geopolitical position improved, and threats to its territorial integrity diminished. After the U.S. opening to China during the 1970s, the rival government on Taiwan lost most of its diplomatic recognition and its military alliance with the United States. To corner the Soviet Union, the United States formed a quasi-alliance with China and transferred advanced technology to Chinese firms. Taiwan, the Soviet Union, India, and Vietnam could no longer encroach on Chinese territory without potentially triggering a U.S. response. And when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the major threats to China’s land borders disappeared almost entirely. Without Russia’s support, India, Vietnam, and the newly formed states of Central Asia were in no position to contest China’s borders. Instead, they moved to normalize relations with Beijing.
Third, China’s view of the future brightened. After rapprochement with the United States and other democracies, China gained easy access to the global economy and a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. From the late 1970s to the early 2000s, its economy grew at a breakneck pace. Country after country curried favor with Beijing to access its booming market. Britain handed back Hong Kong. Portugal gave up Macau. The United States fast-tracked China into the World Trade Organization. With China’s economy going gangbusters and the world’s most powerful nations welcoming its rise, Beijing had little incentive to upset a status quo that seemed to be getting better by the day.
Finally, China had little opportunity for conquest. Whereas its economic and diplomatic clout was surging, China’s military was clearly incapable of taking territories still under dispute, most of which were at sea. With a pathetic air force and navy prior to the 2000s, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would have amounted to a “million-man swim,” and a naval clash with Japan’s advanced forces might have been over in a matter of hours. Most importantly, the United States could be expected to crush Chinese aggression in maritime Asia. Having watched U.S. forces decimate the Iraqi military in the Gulf War, Chinese leaders were inclined to embrace Deng’s maxim to hide their light and bide their time.
Today’s China is done hiding and biding. Instead, it is churning out warships and missiles faster than any country since World War II. Chinese planes and warships simulate attacks on Taiwanese and U.S. targets. Asian sea lanes are dotted with Chinese military outposts and brimming with Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels that brazenly shove neighbors out of areas claimed by Beijing. Meanwhile, China is abetting Russia’s brutalization of Ukraine and massing forces on the Sino-Indian border.
One reason China has become more combative is because it can. China’s inflation-adjusted military budget expanded tenfold between 1990 and 2020. Beijing now outspends every other country in Asia combined. It wields the world’s largest ballistic missile force and navy. By the end of this decade, its nuclear arsenal could rival Washington’s. With conventional missiles capable of pulverizing U.S. bases on Okinawa—the only ones within 500 miles of Taiwan—it is no longer clear that the Pentagon could immediately respond to, let alone defeat, a Chinese assault on Taiwan. Historically, the United States has fallen back on its manufacturing prowess to outproduce adversaries in protracted wars. But now that China is the workshop of the world, Beijing might believe—correctly or not—that the military balance would shift further in its favor the longer a war continues.
China also has growing motives for war as territorial disputes intensify. For starters, peaceful means of reunifying Taiwan are disappearing fast. In 1995, more Taiwanese citizens considered themselves exclusively Chinese than Taiwanese, and more favored moving toward unification with China than toward independence. Today, nearly two-thirds of the population considers itself exclusively Taiwanese, versus only 4 percent that identifies as exclusively Chinese. While most Taiwanese support maintaining the status quo for now, 49 percent of the population prefers eventual independence over an indefinite continuation of the status quo (27 percent) or unification (12 percent). Meanwhile, the United States has tightened its relationship with Taiwan, with U.S. President Joe Biden declaring at least four times that the United States would defend the island from a Chinese attack. As Washington and Taipei overhaul their militaries for a potential conflict with China, Beijing is growing more alarmed about the fate of the territory it covets most.
In the South China Sea, China’s military presence has greatly expanded, but its diplomatic position is eroding. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea were null and void. Since 2022, the Philippines—the country that brought the case—has been reasserting its maritime rights and allowing U.S. access to additional military bases on its territory to help defend them. Japan is forming a quasi-alliance with Manila, and a growing cast of nations, including Britain, France, and Germany, are sending warships through the South China Sea in defiance of Beijing’s claims. In response, China has gotten physically aggressive. Last year, for example, Chinese coast guard ships blasted Philippine supply boats with water cannons, preventing them from delivering food to military personnel stationed on the Second Thomas Shoal.
As China’s military power has grown, its larger geopolitical outlook has darkened. China’s economy has lately been stagnating and shrinking relative to that of the United States. Productivity is down, and debt has exploded. Upwards of 20 percent of young adults were unemployed as of mid-2023—when Beijing temporarily stopped releasing statistics on the problem—and that number almost certainly understates the severity of the problem. Droves of wealthy and well-educated Chinese are trying to get their money and children out of the country. Those problems will worsen as China suffers the worst aging crisis in world history: Over the next 10 years, China will lose 70 million working-age adults while gaining 130 million senior citizens.
Finally, China faces an increasingly hostile strategic environment. The world’s wealthiest countries are choking off its access to high-end semiconductors—the lifeblood of economic and military innovation—and slapping new trade and investment restrictions on Beijing every year. Anti-China pacts, such as AUKUS, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral agreement, are proliferating. China’s only great-power ally, Russia, has thrown its military into a meat grinder in Ukraine and turned public opinion in many European countries against Beijing.
China is ruled by a dictator, who has already shown he’s willing to sacrifice the well-being of the Chinese people to achieve his grandiose objectives.
If China were ruled by a committee of technocrats, it might respond to these pressures with diplomatic compromise and economic reform. But China is ruled by a dictator, who has already shown he’s willing to sacrifice the well-being of the Chinese people to achieve his grandiose objectives.
Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has appointed himself chairman for life, inserted his governing philosophy into the constitution, and purged thousands of potential rivals. He has taken uncompromising positions on China’s vast territorial claims. “We cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors,” he warned U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in 2018. Xi has attached his legitimacy to making China a superpower: State media now declares that under Mao, China stood up; under Deng, China grew rich; and under Xi, China will become mighty. In recent years, Xi has given internal speeches instructing the Chinese military to be ready for war and the Chinese people to prepare for “extreme scenarios.”
Perhaps this rhetoric is just bluster. But many of Xi’s actions—the brutal zero-COVID lockdowns, the concentration camps in Xinjiang, the crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms—betray ruthlessness. Combined with the other changes China is undergoing, these forms of internal aggression should make us very nervous about the external aggression that may lie ahead.
An illustration shows Chinese President Xi Jinping inside a globe projection with a gathering storm spinning over one eye.
Of course, countries don’t choose war or peace in a vacuum; they also take cues from the larger state of the world. In the 1930s, cascading international chaos demoralized defenders of the existing order and emboldened those tempted to attack it. So how might the current disorder—punctuated by Europe’s largest war since World War II and a spreading conflict in the Middle East—shape China’s choices?
One view is that Russia’s war in Ukraine makes other wars of aggression less likely by showing how badly they can backfire. In this telling—favored by Biden administration officials and some academic experts—China is learning sobering lessons from Putin’s misbegotten land grab. Beijing is learning how difficult conquest can be against a committed defender, how badly autocratic militaries can underperform in combat, how adept U.S. intelligence is at detecting plans for predation, and how harshly the democratic world can penalize countries that defy the liberal order’s norms. It is closely scrutinizing the Chinese military for the sort of corruption that has undermined the Russian military and has discovered that the rot is much deeper than it seemed. U.S. officials are surely hoping China is interpreting recent events in a similar light.
But we should scrutinize this interpretation carefully. For one thing, it’s incredibly hard to know what China’s view of the Ukraine war is. After all, the lessons that matter aren’t those published by senior colonels in the People’s Liberation Army or think tankers in Beijing. The lessons that matter are drawn by a cosseted dictator whose perception of the world may be colored by all the normal pathologies of personalist regimes. From what Xi has said publicly, there is little evidence the conflict has tempered his ambitions or fundamentally moderated Chinese statecraft. When Xi visited Moscow in March 2023, he told Putin, “Right now, there are changes—the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years—and we are the ones driving those changes together.”
It’s dangerous to assume that Xi is learning precisely those lessons Americans would like him to learn—rather than another, less reassuring set of lessons that could be reinforcing China’s incentives to fight.
Moreover, Xi may not see Ukraine and Taiwan as remotely comparable. Putin’s forces struggled in Ukraine in part because this wasn’t the war for which they had been prepared and indoctrinated. That wouldn’t be a problem for China, given that it has been preparing for a war over Taiwan for decades—and relentlessly instructs its soldiers that unification is central to the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Moreover, if Xi considers Taiwan less capable than Ukraine of mounting an all-of-society resistance, he wouldn’t be alone. Many U.S. officials and independent analysts have voiced the same concern.
Or perhaps Xi has concluded that the United States won’t fight any war against a nuclear-armed great power—because Biden said as much in explaining why Washington wouldn’t confront Moscow head-on. Perhaps he thinks Western sanctions aren’t really so punishing: Two years into the war, Russia controls 20 percent of Ukraine’s territory, its oil and other exports have found new markets, its factories are churning out armaments, and its economy is not in danger of imminent collapse. And perhaps he sees the recent trajectory of the war—in which Russia has weathered Ukrainian counterattacks while U.S. politicians bicker about sending Kyiv more money and weapons—as evidence that autocracies can summon more strength and resilience than their democratic foes.
To be clear, we do not know what Xi really thinks. But it’s dangerous to assume that he is learning precisely those lessons Americans would like him to learn—rather than another, less reassuring set of lessons that could be reinforcing China’s incentives to fight.
China may ultimately attack Taiwan—or India, Japan, the Philippines, or another country—in 2025, 2027, 2029, or never. We can’t predict with any certainty when, or even whether, Beijing will use force because that decision will hinge on many contingent factors. But we can assess whether countries are more or less prone to war and whether their internal features and external conditions put them at higher or lower risk of lashing out. Today, much of what historians and political scientists know about the causes of war suggests China is primed for violence.
Unfortunately, Washington can’t affect some of the factors pushing Beijing down this perilous path. The United States can’t fix China’s demographic crisis, solve its structural economic problems, or stop Xi’s consolidation of one-man rule. It could, perhaps, change China’s negative expectations about the future—by easing Beijing’s access to high-end technology or abandoning efforts to build stronger coalitions in the Indo-Pacific, for instance, although doing so might fatally weaken Washington’s position. The United States must try to prevail in competition and, at the same time, avoid an awful conflict. Within that context, it should aim to temper China’s optimism about how a war in Asia might turn out and prevent Beijing from concluding that it must fight to avoid a humiliating defeat.
Washington and its friends are not moving with the speed, resources, or urgency needed to outpace a rapidly maturing Chinese military threat.
The requirements of denying China optimism about the outcome of war are fairly straightforward—even if they are not easily satisfied. They include a Taiwan bristling with anti-ship missiles, sea mines, mobile air defenses, and other cheap but lethal capabilities; a U.S. military that can use drones, submarines, stealthy aircraft, and prodigious quantities of long-range strike capabilities to bring decisive firepower to bear in the Western Pacific; agreements with allies and partners that give U.S. forces access to more bases in the region and threaten to bring additional countries into the fight against Beijing; a global coalition of countries that can batter China’s economy with sanctions and choke off its oceangoing trade; and a revitalized industrial base that can keep the democratic countries fighting until their economic and financial superiority proves decisive in the end. Washington and its friends are already pursuing every one of these initiatives. But they’re not moving with the speed, resources, or urgency needed to outpace a rapidly maturing Chinese military threat.
The second task involves pairing deterrence with reassurance—to limit the degree to which inaction might, in Xi’s eyes, condemn China to dismemberment and humiliation. Chinese officials genuinely fear that U.S. policy and Taiwanese politics are putting the island on a path toward independence or some other form of permanent separation, even as they fail to recognize that their own actions are largely responsible for that trend. So the United States must tread carefully regarding Taiwan.
Washington should avoid showy spectacles—such as then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in August 2022—that do nothing to strengthen the island’s defenses and much to stoke China’s anxiety and ire. The United States should reject the idea—proposed by former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among others—of ditching the “One China” policy and formally recognizing Taiwan. It should push back against pro-independence declarations or actions by Taiwanese leaders. In short, the United States must wield a credible ability to defend Taiwan and, at the same time, offer a credible pledge that it aims to prevent either side from unilaterally changing the status quo.
This approach is so challenging because of its many contradictions. Beefing up U.S. alliances may decrease China’s military optimism but also increase its sense of foreboding. The urgency needed to bolster deterrence may be hard to square with the prudence that cross-strait diplomacy requires—especially as China policy gets drawn into the U.S. presidential election campaign. A powerful but troubled China is heading in a bad direction. It will take all the strength and sobriety the United States and its friends can muster to prevent a slide into war.