'Danger Zone' author warns of growing tension between China and the U.S.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. In 1941, millions of Americans were shocked when Japanese forces attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Our guest today, Michael Beckley, begins his new book with co-author Hal Brands by positing the notion that the Chinese military could take advantage of a disputed election result in the United States in 2025 to attack Taiwan and, in the process, hit a U.S. aircraft carrier with a ballistic missile, provoking a war between China and the United States.
Beckley and Brands' book argues that China is making increasingly aggressive moves against its neighbors in Asia and defining its future in terms of a strategic battle with the United States for influence in a changing world. Beckley writes that, in recent years, China has embarked on a military buildup unlike any since World War II. The book argues that China today fits the profile of a dangerous adversary, a rising power that has reached a point where its growth seems to have peaked and its leaders become increasingly reckless in striking out against rivals allying against them.
Michael Beckley is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University who's written widely on China. He's a former fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School and is currently a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His co-author, Hal Brands, is a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Their new book is "Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China."
Well, Michael Beckley, welcome to FRESH AIR. I wanted to begin with a recent controversy. You know, your opening anecdote is about, you know, an imagined attack by China on Taiwan, which draws the U.S. into the conflict. And, you know, recently, U.S. - United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, and there was reporting that said that President Biden's national security team thought this was a bad idea. Some thought it was reckless and provocative. Others said, good that she's standing up for democracy in the authoritarian Chinese state. What's your take? Was this a good idea for her to make this trip?
MICHAEL BECKLEY: I understand the logic. I mean, for the past year and a half, China has carried out the most provocative and sustained show of force in the Taiwan Strait in more than a generation, sending warships and combat aircraft across the median line towards Taiwan. I also understand Nancy Pelosi's logic, just wanting to cement her legacy as someone who has always stood up for human rights and has been tough on China. But from a strategic perspective, I think that this was almost an example of what not to do.
And I think it's important to note that the Chinese looked at this visit in the context of what they view as a slippery slope of the United States changing its Taiwan policy. There has been massive arms sales to Taiwan in recent years. There's been a steady stream of high-ranking officials, Cabinet secretaries, congressional delegations. President Biden has said three times that the United States will defend Taiwan and that it's a commitment that the United States has made. That would be a sort of new interpretation of the Taiwan Relations Act. And there's legislation pending on Capitol Hill that would upgrade America's relationship with Taiwan or upgrade Taiwan's international status.
So for the Chinese, this was a very provocative maneuver, and I'm just not sure there's really much strategic payoff in poking a dragon before you've had the time to really get the military weapons and other - and your strategy together to back up your claims.
DAVIES: It's interesting that in the book, you know, when you have this chilling opening anecdote where China attacks Taiwan and then the United States is simply not yet in a position to mount a meaningful military response - it doesn't have the kind of assets it would need nearby to resist - and having already had one of its ships attacked, it must - then considers a tactical nuclear weapon. I mean, this is a pretty chilling notion. Is this realistic? Could this happen in three years?
BECKLEY: I think - so a major war is always unlikely, but I think the likelihood of war in the Taiwan Strait is higher than it's been certainly in a generation. I mean, every - you know, it's important to note that every Chinese leader has said Taiwan is going to be reabsorbed; it's just a matter of when and how. I think up until about 2016, China's approach, with some glaring exceptions, was relatively peaceful. They basically tried to buy reunification by forging deep economic links with Taiwan.
But what's changed is that strategy has clearly not worked. Taiwan's people have become more and more determined to maintain their de facto independence. And so as these peaceful reunification options have disappeared, China has started turning to military options. And we fear that China right now has a window of opportunity because it's coming off of about a 10-year period of just churning out ammunition, churning out warships at a rate we haven't seen from any country since World War II. And at the same time, the United States and Taiwan have been slow to respond to China's modernization, to spread out their forces, to harden them.
And so there is this possibility of China carrying out a Pearl Harbor-style strike on - not just on Taiwan's bases but on the two American bases on Okinawa, which are the only American bases within 500 miles of Taiwan, as a way to cripple the United States in route to taking Taiwan.
DAVIES: Let's talk about some of the book's broader thesis, that you can see China - apart just from just Taiwan, that you can see China becoming aggressive on a whole number of fronts. One of them you've already mentioned - this huge military buildup, shipbuilding on a huge scale. Another thing is they've been building islands in the South China Sea. A lot of people probably don't realize you can build an island. I guess they build on existing coral reefs or whatever. What are they doing? What's the significance of that?
BECKLEY: So, you know, China has built up at least seven artificial islands in the South China Sea and has militarized them - put, you know, guns and airstrips and ports for naval ships on them. And I think this reflects part of China's response to its peaking power, which is to carve out a territorial empire. I mean, according to the Chinese narrative, there are lost Chinese territories that need to be taken back, and that includes roughly 80% of the South China Sea.
And I think there are - you know, from China's perspective, they see it as legitimate security concerns because they are critically and chronically dependent on foreign markets and resources. Roughly 40% of their economy is wrapped up in international trade versus for the U.S., it's something like 20%. And China imports 80% of its oil, computer chips, advanced manufacturing equipment, advanced medical devices. It's the largest food importer in the world. And 90-plus percent of that trade flows through the South China Sea.
DAVIES: And it's interesting when you describe them needing to preserve their access to foreign markets and foreign resources, it reminds you a lot of Japan in the 1930s, when they had this big industrial economy, and that led it to increasingly provocative moves, you know, annexing Manchuria, then attacking China. I mean, part of your thesis here is that China is at a point kind of like Japan in the '30s. Are there other examples of this in history that you see where, you know, kind of growing imperial powers or powerful nations reach a point where they're - where they feel stuck and threatened and then become more reckless?
BECKLEY: Yeah, so we've - we looked at every case over the last 200 years where you had a peaking power, one - you know, one that has been rising for a long time, growing like gangbusters, growing in international power and prestige. But then either because its economy slows down or other countries start to encircle it or both, their power - they worry - they have to worry that their power is going to decline. And they're the most dangerous kind of country because, on the one hand, this era of a rapid rise has equipped them with the money and the muscle to shake up the world. But then this fear of future decline gives them the motive to move aggressively in the short term.
And we've seen this throughout history. These peaking powers don't mellow out and dial back their ambitions; they crack down at home to secure their regime, and then they expand abroad to secure their economic lifelines, to beat back rivals - basically, to try to rekindle their rise or just grab what they can before it's too late. You mentioned that Japanese example. We also highlight Germany, you know, starts World War I in large part because it thinks it's about to get crushed in a Russian and French vise with an assist from Britain. So they had to beat back that ring of fire that was going around them.
You know, we even look at Putin's Russia today. I mean, Russia was a resurgent power in the 2000s, banging out 8% economic growth rates annually and largely because of high oil prices. Then when the oil prices collapsed after 2009, it drags down Russia's economy and Putin's popularity with it. He tries to revive Russia's fortunes by pressuring former Soviet states to join a Russian customs union, basically trying to treat them as economic vassals of Russia. Ukraine says, basically, thanks, but no thanks. We'd rather sign a big trade deal with the EU, and we know how that turned out. So this pattern has played out over and over again. It's the rise, followed by the fear of a coming fall. And now it looks like China is walking down this very ugly path.
DAVIES: You know, we'll talk about some more of the evidence on - about this argument. But it strikes me that, you know, I see this as accurately describing some of the nations or imperial powers in history. But I wonder - you know, it isn't true of all of them. I mean, look at the British Empire. I mean, it certainly, you know, had - it ruled much of the world, you know, a couple of hundred years ago and then went into decline. And, you know, it didn't get reckless and invade France. I mean, there is the prospect that enlightened leadership can find other ways to manage decline and, you know, without becoming so reckless. Do you think - I don't know. Can you be sure this fits?
BECKLEY: Yeah, absolutely. So there's lots of other cases that are not nearly as extreme as, say, Imperial Germany or Imperial Japan. I would point out, though, that none of these peaking powers just kind of sat back. They all went out abroad. It's just that some didn't necessarily need to batter their way through a ring of encirclement. The two main factors that can lead to a more peaceful outcome are, first of all, if the peaking power has good trade prospects. So if, like, international markets are open, it can rely more on free trade rather than economic empire building to kind of rekindle its economic growth. And the second is actually the regime type. We found that authoritarian regimes tend to be more aggressive because you have these tight links between big business there that want to expand abroad in an imperial fashion, that kind of push the regime into much more aggressive policies. They also worry much more about their legitimacy.
So there are cases that ended up somewhat more peaceful. So the United States at the end of the 19th century, you know, after the Civil War, there was, like, this big economic boom. But then in the 1880s, there are a series of major depressions. And people start to freak out that because the Americans had expanded across the continent, they were running out of investment opportunities. There was excess capacity. And this creates a surge of American imperialism, where it starts to pump exports and investment into Latin America and Asia, then build a big, powerful navy to defend those investments, then annex territory in order to defend those. And so, you know, it didn't lead to a world war, but it certainly wasn't peaceful.
You could look more recently - so, for example, France in the post-war era, you know, after World War II, it has this economic boom. That peters out in the 1970s. And the French respond by basically trying to reconstitute their old sphere of influence in Africa. They deploy 14,000 troops there to their former colonies. They undertake a dozen military interventions. So these weren't catastrophic wars. But, you know, when times get tough, these peaking powers tend to get moving in various ways. And it can drag them into conflicts that even they have no interest in being in, but they just end up involving themselves in just trying to save their own trajectory.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Michael Beckley. He's an associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His new book with Johns Hopkins professor Hal Brands is "Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China." We'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Tufts University associate professor and China specialist Michael Beckley. His new book with Johns Hopkins professor Hal Brands argues that China is beset by internal problems and international challenges, and its leaders are increasingly aggressive toward its neighbors in Asia and the United States. Their new book is "Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China."
So there's plenty of signs that China is building up militarily and becoming more aggressive in trying to influence its neighbors and others around the world. Let's talk about some of the ways that you argue that this is actually born in part of weakness in China, concerns about that the future won't be as bright as the recent past. One of the things is economic stagnation. The Chinese claim that their economic growth rate is about 6%, which would make most economists happy in most places. What's the real story?
BECKLEY: So there's been a number of systematic studies that essentially conclude the real growth rate is somewhere around half of what is normally reported. These are studies that use objectively measurable indicators. Like, you can see how much electricity is being used at night, you know, and that can be used as a proxy. Or you can use combinations of different industrial indexes to compile sort of a basic thing. In fact, China's No. 2 official in charge, Li Keqiang, invented his own index because he himself could not rely on China's doctored GDP numbers. They call it the Li Keqiang index. So I think you have to take China's growth statistics with a grain of salt.
I think the more troubling problem for China, though, is just that the quality of its economic growth has deteriorated significantly over the last 10 years. Productivity, you know, making more output for every unit of input, that's what you need to really grow your wealth. That's actually been declining for a decade now in China. So China's spending more and more to produce less and less. And they've essentially kept their growth rates up by force-feeding capital through the system, just round after round of massive stimulus spending. And the obvious result of that is a huge increase in debt. China's debt load is three times bigger than the size of its entire economy and rising quickly and just a lot of wasted assets - bridges to nowhere, ghost cities.
DAVIES: Yeah. You're - this is astonishing to read that they've built 50 ghost cities, essentially these empty apartment buildings and malls and airports that are standing there. I mean, how does that happen? I mean, did they anticipate people moving in and it didn't happen?
BECKLEY: Yeah. I mean, you have to separate the interests of Chinese state-owned enterprises that just want contracts to build stuff. I mean, they'd be happy to dig a hole and fill it back up if they're making money on it. But the problem is that this investment-driven economy - and we've seen this in so many other cases - is going to be extremely wasteful. You're going to build a lot of assets that don't really generate economic value. And the problem is the people that are building the stuff, they make out like - you know, like bandits, but the nation, as a whole, has its wealth drained on wasting assets. You can look at videos online right now of them bulldozing buildings that aren't even finished yet. So that, I think, just illustrates the type of problem that they're dealing with.
DAVIES: And you say this has generated a huge debt for China. Who is the money owed to?
BECKLEY: Well, the vast majority is to China itself. So, you know, Chinese people - there are tight controls on what you can do with your money if you're a Chinese citizen. You basically have to put it in a state-owned bank where you are paid either - the interest you're paid, it doesn't keep track with inflation, so the value of your savings actually declines. And that just gives the regime, you know, a huge pile of cash to do all sorts of - this is why the Chinese government has so much money.
And, you know, my Chinese friends have told me, you know, the Chinese government is rich, but the people are poor 'cause their only options are to invest in real estate, which were seen as a giant bubble, or to play around on China's stock market, which most people think is rigged and not very safe for your average Joe. You know, this is through what they call a process of financial repression. You know, you're able to just extract the wealth from the people and then use it for national purposes. The problem is this opens up the floodgates to corruption because you have high-level officials being able to work with people's money, and they're just not accountable to those people.
DAVIES: All right. So if you have slower growth in the system, which basically transfers assets, money from the people to the government and state-owned enterprises, this is not good for a population that has become used to growing wages and increased opportunity. What does that create for the regime?
BECKLEY: It creates a big legitimacy problem because for decades, the Chinese Communist Party said, look, we may not give you political and civil rights, but we are going to make your bank accounts grow every year. You will be better off than your parents and certainly much better off than your grandparents. So - and it's just much easier - anyone in government will tell you it's just easier to govern when growth is high because the gravy train of patronage is humming. You know, you can pay off opponents, you can bribe your cronies, and you can keep the people happy.
But without that machine moving, the regime has to find another source of legitimacy. It has to explain why it deserves the right to rule in perpetuity in China. And that means going back to the pre-1978 forms of legitimacy, which was largely aggression and internal repression and delivering beatings and detention to the Chinese people, and dialing up nationalism, saying, look, we may not be growing as fast, but we are still going to make China great. We're surrounded by enemies, and so we need to rally together as a nation. I mean, we've just - again, we've seen this historically, that when the economic times get hard, the regime usually dials up nationalism as a way to rally the people around the regime.
DAVIES: You know, there's one other problem that you note that China is going to face increasingly in coming years. And this is, basically, the demographics of its - the aging of its population. And this is due to its, you know, one-child policy of years back. And explain what happened here and what it's going to mean for China.
BECKLEY: So China is about to have probably the most severe aging crunch we've ever seen, and it has a lot to do with its peculiar population history. So basically, in the 1950s and '60s, the government incentivized Chinese families to have lots of children to boost the population, which had been decimated by decades of war and famine. And Chinese families obliged. The population surges 80% in 30 years.
But then in the late 1970s, the government starts worried about overcrowding and implements the infamous one-child policy. And so for the past three decades, you've had this massive baby boom generation in the prime of their working lives with few elderly parents to care for because so many had died in the wars and famines, and they had few children to care for 'cause they weren't allowed to have them. And so this population was primed for productivity. Demographers think this alone explains at least a quarter of China's rapid growth over the last 30 years. China had anywhere between 10 to 15 workers for every retiree in its population. That's two to three times the global average. It's five times what the United States currently has. And so it grew extremely quickly.
But now, that is all flipping. Essentially, you know, China is running out of people. That baby boom generation is retiring and falling onto the backs of a tiny one-child generation. Just between now and the early 2030s, China's going to lose 70 million working-age adults. It's going to gain 130 million senior citizens. That's like taking an entire France of workers and consumers and taxpayers out of your economy and then adding an entire Japan of elderly pensioners. And this is going to happen in just over ten years from now. That 10 to 1 ratio I mentioned is going to collapse to 2 to 1 - two workers to support every retiree by the late 2030. So it's really a very dire situation.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Michael Beckley. He's an associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His new book with Johns Hopkins professor Hal Brands is "Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China." We'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Tufts University associate professor and China specialist Michael Beckley. His new book with Johns Hopkins professor Hal Brands argues that China is becoming increasingly aggressive towards its neighbors in Asia and increasingly hostile toward the United States. They say China is particularly dangerous now because it's beset by internal problems and international opposition that could make its leaders more reckless. The book is "Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China."
You know, you write that there's a geographic reality which distinguishes China and increases the likelihood that it will be aggressive and reckless. So you say that, you know, the United States is lucky in that it is surrounded by friends and fish. That is to say its immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico - it - are not a threat. And then the other - and then are oceans. China, by contrast, is surrounded by 20 nations - not all friendly, some quite populous and powerful. How does this fit into the picture?
BECKLEY: Yeah. So China is in an extremely rough neighborhood. It's surrounded by 19 countries, most of which are very powerful, or they're unstable or some combination of those two things. I mean, if you've ever played Risk, you know that holding Eurasia is almost impossible. And that's basically what China has to do every single day.
And, you know, for most of modern Chinese history, this vise has absolutely crushed China. So for more than 100 years, from the first Opium War in 1839 until the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the country just gets ripped apart by imperialist powers. It collapses into two of the worst civil wars in history. And then even after the Chinese Communist Party unifies the country in 1949, it immediately becomes America's No. 1 enemy. And then in 1960, China's alliance with the Soviet Union falls apart. And China was the chief enemy of both Cold War superpowers.
So it's not until the 1970s that China has gotten some reprieve from this vise. But now things are changing because, you know, for a variety of reasons - COVID, China's own aggressive behavior - negative views of China around the world have soared to highs we haven't seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Even countries that used to lean towards China and depend on it economically, like South Korea - you know, South Koreans now dislike China more than they dislike Japan, which is remarkable given the brutality that Japan inflicted on South Korea in their history. And this anti-China sentiment now is starting to congeal into concrete pushback. So it's bringing back that specter of a tightening vise around China.
You're seeing for - militarily, a sort of double-layered military barrier emerging. So the inside layer are China's immediate neighbors. You know, Japan is doubling its defense spending. Taiwan is revamping its military. Vietnam is stocking up on mobile missile launchers and mines. And they're all basically just trying to turn themselves into prickly porcupines that can push China away from their coastlines. And at the same time, you have this outside layer of democratic powers - obviously the United States, but also Australia, the United Kingdom, India - that are providing aid and arms to China's neighbors, you know, building them up and sailing their warships through waters that China says are - is Chinese territory.
So you just see this new - this strategic encirclement starting to build. And what we've seen in the past - I mean, we mentioned the Germany pre-World War I sort of nightmare example. You know, great powers tend to react quite negatively. They try to batter their way and break the ring of encirclement before it tightens and crushes their expansionist objectives.
DAVIES: You've argued that the - China now has an opportunity to move militarily against Taiwan. And you say that there are writings by retired Chinese military leaders advocating this and that polling indicates support for this is rising among the Chinese population.
BECKLEY: Yeah. I mean, according to state media, anyway, something like 70% of people in China support moving on Taiwan, not just in the long term, but, like, within this decade because they just feel like enough is enough. And, you know, I think the fact that China crushed Hong Kong recently is an ominous sign because China used to tread lightly on Hong Kong because the - what they called the one country, two systems offer that they were making to Hong Kong was the same one they were making to the Taiwanese, namely, look, you are part of China. You have to come back to the motherland. But we will grant you a substantial amount of local autonomy. So we'll have two different systems. You know, in Taiwan's case, we won't put our military on your territory. You'll have a local government there that - you can't have your own foreign policy. But for the day-to-day kind of stuff, you can still run, and we'll lay off some of your more liberal institutions.
The fact that China has ended that charade in Hong Kong, you know, decades before it was technically allowed to based on the agreement it signed with Britain during the handover in '97 - it was supposed to wait until 2047 before it made big moves on Hong Kong - that is very ominous 'cause now it just shows - they recognize that there's not going be a willing embrace of China by these breakaway regions, that now, you know, they're not going to use carrots anymore. They're going to start using sticks.
DAVIES: You argue that China has a military advantage now. What should the United States be doing?
BECKLEY: It's actually relatively simple. In fact, defense analysts have been coming up with a strategy for more than a decade now where Taiwan, first of all, would turn itself into a prickly porcupine - you know, one that can beat back a bigger aggressor by stocking up on mobile missile launchers and armed drones and mines and building up its armies so that it can surge troops to any beach very quickly and then have a big reserve force that's essentially trained to fight guerrilla-style in Taiwan cities and jungles and have this big - you know, stockpiles and shelters for the population and just hoping that showing these preparations would scare China and just make it clear that this would be a hard slog for China, basically show that they can fight like Ukrainians, you know, against the Russians and not allow a decisive victory. And for the United States - the U.S. would disperse and harden its base infrastructure. And the goal is just by setting this up that you make it look impossible, that - make conquests look impossible, and hopefully China won't opt for it.
DAVIES: That's essentially a military strategy for resisting China. Let me ask the contrarian question here, you know? I mean, great powers often have spheres of influence near their own shores. I mean, the United States, you know, going back to the Monroe Doctrine said, you know, we're going to want to hold sway in our neighborhood of the world. I mean, Taiwan is right off the shore of China. And there's a question of whether it's really wise for the United States to commit to the territorial - the defense of this region on the other side of the world. And, you know, remember its origins. I mean, you know, the government of Taiwan was formed after the Chinese Civil War of the 1940s, which the Communist side prevailed in. And the losing side, the Kuomintang run by Chiang Kai-Shek, established the government on Taiwan. But, you know, that was certainly an anti-Communist government, but not exactly democratic. It was very repressive in its early decades.
And I just wonder, I mean, should the United States be making that commitment so far from its shores? And how different is that from, you know, the United States putting a half a million troops into Vietnam in the 1960s and the '70s in a losing effort to back one side in a civil war?
BECKLEY: I think you can understand the Chinese logic that this is a great affront and a massive overextension of U.S. influence while also, simultaneously, if you're on the American side, wanting to resist China because, you know, Taiwan, I think, pound for pound, is probably the most strategically important place in the world. Aside from just being a flourishing democracy with 23 million citizens on it, and most of whom absolutely don't want to go back with China - just from a strategic perspective, strategists often call it the unsinkable aircraft carrier.
And if you look at where it's located, it's smack dab in the middle of the crossroads of the East and South China Seas, which are the crossroads between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Something like 40% of world trade flows through these waters. And if China was able to consolidate its control over Taiwan, it would then have a launching pad for further aggression. I mean, this is why the Japanese recently declared that a Chinese conquest of Taiwan or an attack on Taiwan, Japan would view that as a dire threat to its vital interests because Japan has islands that are very close, within a few hundred miles of Taiwan. And they would be the next obvious target.
So if you think that revanchist, revisionist powers don't necessarily get satisfied, just - if you lop off one little piece of a region and give it to them and that they're just going to keep wanting to eat and just get more emboldened and powerful, then it's important to make a stand where you can. And Taiwan, despite the fact that China has modernized its military, still has a number of geographic and technological advantages that make deterring China still possible so that hopefully you don't have to face the choice, in the first place, of having to join a war with a nuclear-armed great power fighting over what it views as its territory.
DAVIES: Apart from the military calculus, what else do we have to consider here?
BECKLEY: Well, you know, the United States is also trying to undergird a global system of alliances that have turned zones of the world into areas of peace. So just - you know, the U.S.-Japan alliance, NATO, those alliances, the credibility of those alliances, I think, would be shattered if China were to assault Taiwan and the United States didn't lift a finger. I think also just the balance between democracy and autocracy around the world would be thrown into the advantage of autocracies if you see the CCP just crush the only Chinese democracy in the world and the world's most powerful democracy just sits by and does nothing. So there are also diplomatic and moral factors as well as the military strategic factor here.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you once more. We are speaking with Michael Beckley, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His new book with Johns Hopkins professor Hal Brands is "Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China." We'll be back after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Tufts University associate professor and China specialist Michael Beckley. His new book with Johns Hopkins professor Hal Brands argues that China is beset by internal problems and international challenges and is becoming increasingly aggressive toward its neighbors in Asia and the United States. The new book is called "Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China." You know, Michael Beckley, I know that your grandparents were interned during World War II when Japanese citizens were forced into these camps. Tell us what you know about that experience and the impact it had on you.
BECKLEY: So I'm biracial. My Japanese grandparents, they were American citizens living in Seattle, but they were interned first for several months at the Washington State Fairground, which was sort of this dystopian landscape of internment camps next to an amusement park - I think they called it Camp Harmony - and then for pretty much the rest of the war, out in the middle of nowhere in Idaho. And they were in their early 20s. They had to sell their greenhouse, their livelihood, for 10 cents on the dollar. And they got married before so that they wouldn't be - so that they would be sent to the same camp. My grandma had three younger brothers. They all volunteered to serve in the 442nd Infantry, which, I believe, remains the most decorated military unit in American history. Their...
DAVIES: Wow. Her sons were fighting in the war, and they were going through this?
BECKLEY: Yeah, so - well, just - so my grandma's younger brothers were fighting.
DAVIES: They were her brothers (ph). Brothers, yeah.
BECKLEY: And then, she actually had a cousin who was in a special ops unit called Merrill's Marauders that - I mean, they were the most hardcore. They went - they were sent to the Pacific theater 'cause he was fluent in Japanese. And he would sneak behind Japanese lines to listen in on them. And then, his special ops team would just, you know, tear them apart, basically. And he actually was inducted into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame for that service. And, you know, my grandma's brothers - you know, one is killed in action. Another took a bunch of shrapnel to the face and received a Purple Heart. Their unit's motto was go for broke. And, you know, they did. They fought like hell in some of the worst campaigns of the war.
And then, meanwhile, on the homefront, my grandma's cousin was a man named Gordon Hirabayashi, who was one of the main conscientious objectors to the internment. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court where he lost on a unanimous decision. And they actually made him hitchhike to prison in Arizona 'cause I guess the government wouldn't pay for his transportation. But 40 years later, in the 1980s, he got a call from a political science professor who had uncovered documents showing the government had withheld information. And the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his criminal conviction.
DAVIES: Wow. Did you talk to your grandparents about this experience?
BECKLEY: You know, I didn't talk to them. So my grandfather died before I was alive. But, you know, I - but I was very close to my grandma. And we didn't talk a lot about it, but I think - but I was very aware of all of these stories. And I think it just - just knowing that made international relations more personal for me. Like great power politics isn't some abstraction 'cause it flipped part of my family's life upside down. And I think that personal connection probably, you know, helped give me more energy to spend so many waking hours studying this stuff. I think it also just - it gave me a little bit more perspective because I was coming of age in the 1990s at the peak of post-Cold War triumphalism, and so as a kid, I only knew a world where democracy and free trade were spreading, and, you know, it just seemed like major war was unthinkable.
I remember - you know, the Cold War didn't just end; it ends with David Hasselhoff, you know, singing above a soon-to-be-crumbling Berlin Wall wearing a piano-key necktie. You know, so without my family's history, I might have thought that that was the norm, but, you know, I only had to hang out with my grandma to be sort of subtly reminded that peace and prosperity and democracy don't just happen; they're historically rare and have to be reaffirmed. Her cousin, Gordon Hirabayashi, you know, said the Constitution is just a scrap of paper if the will of the people isn't behind it. And I've always just thought, you know, the international order is kind of the same. It's just a mirage if powerful countries don't support it.
DAVIES: Yeah. You know, it's interesting that a lot of the steps that we've been talking about involve military responses. I mean, you can sound kind of hawkish when we talk about dropping mines into the strait of Taiwan. And, you know, your grandparents' experience shows also that even democratic nations, when they go to war, you know, can violate people's rights and be abusive. I don't know. Any reflection on that?
BECKLEY: I think it's just shown me that, you know, war is hell. War is hell. And great power wars, they tend to get bigger and messier. They tend to last. We're not all going to be home by Christmas. You know, if there's a war between the United States and China, it's going to, at minimum, cause a global depression and, at maximum, could escalate, you know, into a global conflagration, possibly involving nuclear weapons. And I should say that I used to be much more dovish on China.
Like, my first book and a lot of my earlier research was on the U.S.-China power balance, and I basically tried to show that China was still lagging pretty far behind. And a lot of international relations theory says, well, as countries, you know, don't catch up, they tend to get more mellow. You know, they don't become as ambitious. But it's when I started studying what happens to these peaking powers and then matching that with what I was watching from China - I just think we're at a point where there aren't great options now. And you kind of have to shore up deterrence as much as you can. There's not a lot of convincing Xi Jinping that he should leave Taiwan alone. You just have to show that a conquest would be more costly than it's worth for him. And right now time is of the essence there.
So even - I've been - I'm sort of a reluctant hawk, but I just think we're in a fundamentally new era and one that actually bears more similarity to what my grandparents were dealing with than what I experienced as a kid in the 1990s.
DAVIES: Well, Michael Beckley, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BECKLEY: Thank you so much. You know, I listen to the show every day, so to be a guest is really a tremendous honor.
DAVIES: Michael Beckley is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His new book with Johns Hopkins professor Hal Brands is "Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a reissue of an album from 1970 that showcases the songwriting talent of Roger Miller. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JASON MORAN'S "BIG STUFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.