To the rest of the world, China may seem like a strong nation, but in reality, domestic insecurity drives a large portion of its posturing abroad. Specifically, and as outlined by Tufts’ own Professor Michael Beckley, Chinese demographics and resource scarcity make it so that if China does not capitalize on potential gains from aggression overseas now, its economy would suffer greatly, and it would no longer have the capacity to realize some long-term strategic goals.
These demographic issues have been driven by China’s aging population, a result of the failed one-child policy of the post-Mao era. With a smaller working population, a whole host of economic issues follow, including extreme pressure to take care of parents as social care prices rise. Chinese workers, needing to increase their individual productivity to keep up with a larger aging population, have to work “996” — that is, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 6 days a week more often than not — just to feed themselves and keep the economy stagnant. Additionally, Chinese housing and land distribution policy exacerbates the already present strains, which resulted from the current generation taking care of an aging population. Local governments often rely on land sales and construction to achieve GDP growth goals, leasing the land of the government to corporations at driven-up prices to maintain cash flow to municipalities. This drives the cost of housing up to about 50 times the annual incomes of average workers, further straining individual and overall economic well-being. These high housing prices combined with the increasing cost of education creates extreme costs of living, leading more and more people to decide against having kids, since they can barely afford to take care of themselves. The Chinese middle class is now confronting the reality that it may have become more similar to the American middle class than it had hoped, with upward social mobility becoming increasingly unlikely, instead overshadowed by an increased risk of downward social mobility.
How are these demographic changes relevant to Chinese aggression overseas? With Chinese demographics heading in the wrong direction with extreme decreases in childbirths, the country is trending towards an almost certain demographic crisis. If reports continue to reflect trends of recent years, the Chinese government will need to derive popular economic legitimacy from a source other than domestic labor forces. Almost always, this encourages the Chinese government's foreign policy to become more aggressive so that it can retain support, and also so it can capitalize on China’s still-high ability to project itself globally and attain influence using its current workforce.
In the long term, these domestic realities are likely to constrain Chinese geopolitical ambitions to deal with economic crises at home, but in the short term, the opposite is likely to happen. The flames are fanned for a more risky and assertive foreign policy to finally achieve Chinese aims of securing Taiwan and other geopolitical goals before their perceived window closes. In light of this information, the United States should take more logical steps in its political confrontation with China to avoid a worst-case scenario resulting from misunderstanding the economic situation. Ultimately, the U.S. should aim to focus on a strategy of deterrence which would encourage China to resolve its domestic issues by turning inwards rather than resorting to outward aggression.