Standoff with the Dragon: The Danger Zone Strategy

Review of Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley (New York, NY: Norton and Company, 2022).

America must take decisive action in the coming decade to remain the dominant global power. As China seeks to establish itself as a global hegemon bent on undermining the American-led order, the West must harden its resolve to counter Chinese provocations. Only by seizing the initiative by fortifying its defenses around China’s periphery, strengthening its alliances in the Far East, and rallying the American people around the values of freedom, independence, and human rights can the United States prepare for a crisis with China.

In their book Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China, Hal Brands and Michael Beckley challenge the contemporary assumptions toward the United States’s geopolitical rivalry with China by examining China’s declining population, geopolitical isolation, decaying political institutions, dwindling resources, and a dawning economic crisis. As these vulnerabilities multiply, the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) insecurities about its decline will increase, resulting in an aggressive push to assert its dominance by challenging American primacy in its region and around the world. Nevertheless, the authors misconstrue the decline of historical regimes as the leading cause of aggression in order to justify China’s behaviors. This argument deploys a historical analogy that generalizes the conduct of declining regimes in a way that is inconsistent with the primary sources.

The authors argue that China’s recent aggressive streak is a direct result of the CCP’s grand strategy, which seeks to strengthen the party’s power at home while disrupting the American-led international order. Brands and Beckley break the CCP’s grand strategy down into four points. First, the CCP wants “to maintain its iron grip on power” through its sophisticated surveillance state and heavy-handed regulatory regime. [1] Second, it covets territories lost during the “earlier eras of internal upheaval and foreign aggression,” and desires to reincorporate the nominally in- dependent city of Hong Kong and coerce the island of Taiwan into union with the mainland. [2] Third, it wants to expel American influence from the continent and establish regional hegemony that allows “the people of Asia [to] run the affairs of Asia.” [3] Fourth, it seeks to disrupt the international rules-based order by establishing a multi-polar world with the eventual hope of global primacy. While China seems primed for geopolitical success, the reality is less optimistic.

Beneath the surface, China is struggling. In the mid 2030s, the country will confront acute social, environmental, economic, and political crises, hampering its expansionist dreams. With China’s large population declining, it faces an impending demographic crisis detrimental to its economic growth in the coming decades. [4] China’s inefficient usage of resources has left most of its rivers and groundwater undrinkable while devastating its agricultural land. [5] These growing issues have led the Chinese government to harshly regulate its economy. Instead of focusing on generating economic growth, Chinese leaders have prioritized crushing dissent by adopting inflexible controls on the Internet and technology-related sectors of the economy, resulting in “tight political control — and economic stagnation.” [6] These autocratic policies have cut China off from the foreign investment and markets that made its economic rise possible. Brands and Beckley surmise that “a peaking China will be more desperate to score geopolitical wins and primed to overreact to slights and setbacks.” [7] While sprinting for success in the near-term, China has displayed little regard for international stability like other historical regimes.

Like many great historical powers, China is both rising and falling. As Brands and Beckley explain, “states we look back on as ‘rising powers’ often experienced economic slowdowns and strategic encirclement by hostile actors.” [8] This principle leads the authors to conclude that China’s fear of decline leads it to engage in “risky, belligerent behavior.” [9] This conclusion is informed by the old adage from Thucydides that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that it instilled into Sparta” that caused the Second Peloponnesian War. [10] In short, the authors build off of Graham Allison’s argument that when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, the most likely outcome is war. [11] This phenomenon is called the “Peaking Powers Trap” by Brands and Beckley.

The Peaking Powers Trap is a useful tool when analyzing the general patterns in great power rivalries, but it can under-emphasize the role of particular assessments in the overall causation of conflict. The authors fail to recognize that the most dangerous moment in great power relations is when one side believes conflict is inevitable. Thucydides suggests that the Athenians believed conflict with Sparta was inevitable well before the Second Peloponnesian War. He says that the Athenian statesman Pericles declared to the assembly that “it was clear that Sparta entertained designs against us.” [12] Once one concedes this point, historian Paul Rahe explains, the rational next step is to ensure the terms of battle are favorable to a decisive victory for Athens. [13] The belief in inevitability is an essential element to understanding the origin of conflict. States that see conflict as unavoidable will maneuver to secure the best odds of victory. 

Despite the limits of their historical analogy on the causes of Chinese aggression, Brands and Beckley offer a strong solution. To succeed in the coming conflict with China, the United States must harden its will to make the critical decisions necessary to halt China’s advance. They argue that the United States must prioritize military mobilization and alliance formation, escalate the pace of business in Washington, seize the strategic initiative, and “get to the long game.” [14] The authors are correct that China and the United States are in a danger zone; the 2020s are the critical window for the Chinese to make the most gains. U.S. policymakers must now make the case to the American people of the cost of indecision and the necessity to resist China.

If the United States fails to act, China will not only achieve an economic monopoly on critical technologies, but also splinter democratic coalitions and undermine the norms-based international order. The loss of Taiwan, in particular, would cost the United States access to vital semiconductor chips used in military equipment, cell phones, automobiles, computers, and other high-tech items. [15] U.S. policymakers must clearly explain to the public that if Taiwan is lost, it will affect the price of consumer goods, leading to a shortage of iPhones and other critical technologies. Chinese aggression would also fracture regional alliances with Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and India. These alliances are essential to the security framework in the Asia-Pacific and ability to blunt Chinese aggression in the future. Beyond all of this, if China succeeds in unseating the United States as the dominant power, then it will normalize its vision of autocratic despotism. Look at how the CCP treats its own people: a sophisticated social credit system that weeds out dissent; a pandemic response that singled out individuals and entire neighborhoods without evidence; and “re-education” camps that crack down on minority groups. China’s despotism towards its population paints an uninspiring picture of how they might act as the premier global power. The United States must fight back by ensuring the independence of its democratic allies and continue to promote the value of freedom and human rights. Americans must remain optimistic to prepare for the looming conflict with China.

Josh Hypes ’24 serves as the Vice President of the AHS chapter at Hillsdale College, where he is majoring in Politics and minoring in Journalism.


[1] Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China (New York, NY: Norton and Company, 2022), 4. 

[2] Brands and Beckley, 5.

[3] Brands and Beckley, 6.

[4] Nicholas Eberstadt, “The China Challenge: A Demographic Predicament Will Plague the Mainland for Decades,” Discourse, 9 June 2021,

[5] Brands and Beckley, 37. 

[6] Brands and Beckley, 40.

[7] Brands and Beckley, 107. 

[8] Brands and Beckley, 80.

[9] Brands and Beckley, 80. 

[10] Thucydides, ed. Robert Strassler, trans. Richard Crawley, History of the Peloponnesian War (New York, NY: Free Press, 1996), 1.23.6.

[11] Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 29. 

[12] Thucydides, 1.44.2.

[13] Paul Anthony Rahe, Sparta’s Second Attic War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 446-418 B.C. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020), 70.

[14] Brands and Beckley, 161-162.

[15] Brands and Beckley, 129.

Image: “Navy Army Air Force fight the enemy poster,” by Unknown Author, retrieved from my_poster.jpg. This image is now in the public domain because its term of copyright has expired.

Related Posts