Book Review: The China Nightmare

This monograph on the China threat is a must-read for anyone interested in the defining challenge of the 21st century.

The rise of a militarily and economically aggressive China and its impact on global politics is the biggest issue in all of international relations. This impacts the United States significantly, as China is a clear and present challenge to American global hegemony and the liberal world order that was cemented after the Cold War. Dan Blumenthal’s book The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State is an excellent primer on the China challenge, delving into the history of Chinese imperialism, the political theories of Chinese Communists, and the impacts of those ideas and events on the policies and actions embraced and promulgated by the Chinese government today. It is a fantastic overview of the problem and how America should respond, and – while quite detailed – it still retains an accessibility that other modern policy books can lack.

The China Nightmare deals with nearly every strategic and ideological aspect of the US-China issue and focuses on explaining how history and ideology inform the Chinese understanding of their vital interests. These interests are, according to Blumenthal, directly contrary to American interests globally and in the crucial Asia-Pacific region; I happen to have agreed with this assessment before reading the book, but came away from my reading with a deeper understanding of how intractable and fundamental these differences are. Historically, China has seen itself at the center of regional and global politics, and Blumenthal does a great job of delineating how this idea has been put into practice through economic and military imperialism, especially under the most recent leaders of China – Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao. The book touches on the most obvious manifestations of this imperial expansionism, from the repression in China’s hinterlands to the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. It also dives into China’s actions in the South China Sea, its border disputes with nearly all neighbors, and its rapid military growth focused on countering American strategy.

Perhaps the key takeaway from Blumenthal’s excellent monograph is that China is not a traditional rising power and in fact is facing many key headwinds that both make it weaker and simultaneously more dangerous. Chairman Xi’s focus on technological totalitarianism, his centralization of power in his person, and his political crackdowns under the guise of anti-corruption work all have made the Chinese state weaker and more susceptible to long-term failures. The serious population issues stemming from the immoral and ill-advised One Child Policy, including the demographic problem of mass aging and the mismatch of the sexes, are a ticking time bomb that limit the ability for China to continue its growth into the future; they also shorten China’s time horizons for military moves like a potential invasion of Taiwan. Economically, China also has significant problems, from the increasing level of direct state control of the economy and specific business sectors to the lack of homegrown innovation and dynamism. None of these issues are going to stop China’s push for hegemony; they will only make that push more aggressive and threatening to other nations.

Overall, The China Nightmare is a truly worthwhile overview of the China problem facing the US in the 21st century. It discusses almost all critical aspects of the dilemma in a way that is rational, fact-based, and does not require subject-matter expertise. It came out in 2020, but feels very current, as the issues it discusses are ever-present in the politics of 2022. The book also has an Afterword on the Covid-19 pandemic and how it fits into the discussion of China’s dangerous rise, one which two years later is even more accurate. For a book that could easily be read in an afternoon or on a long flight, it is chock-full of detail and useful information. Even the maps and charts are well-explained and play an integral role in bolstering the book’s thesis. If you care about American foreign policy, the threat of an assertive China, or are just looking for a good political read, check out The China Nightmare. You’ll be glad you did.

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