Perspectives

Chaos in the new Middle Ages

Published: Jul 2024
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Tensions between China and the US are likely to increase rather than decrease and could turn into a decades-long struggle. Political analyst Andy Langenkamp explains that even if Biden wins the US election, chaotic and strained China US relations and wider geopolitical and societal trends reminiscent of the Middle Ages, will continue.

Close up of Newton's cradle in swing

“The most important characteristic of the world is, in a word, ‘chaos,’ and this trend appears likely to continue,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in early 2021. This observation is in line with a recent report by the US think tank Rand, which describes the current situation in the world as neomedieval on the basis of five trends that have strong similarities to the Middle Ages:

  • Weakening states: governments struggle to maintain legitimacy as they struggle to maintain levels of prosperity, services, security and opportunities for their citizens.

  • Fragmenting societies: national unity is generally undermined by polarisation, discontent and culture wars.

  • Unbalanced economies: growth will increasingly be concentrated in a few sectors, and this will exacerbate problems of entrenched inequality and stagnant social mobility.

  • Ubiquitous threats: the proliferation of risks – such as natural disasters, pandemics and violent non-state actors and war – creates a sense of permanent threat.

  • Informalisation of warfare: armed forces increasingly consist of professional troops supplemented by private security companies, mercenaries and armed militias. Older combat methods are being revived, as we have seen in the trench warfare in Ukraine.

So, once powerful governments are struggling to hold the reins; politics is more polarised, attitudes have hardened and willingness to compromise is seen as a sign of weakness. Inequality, social unrest and divisions have increased.

Inequality is also rising in China and economic growth is slowing. Leaders increasingly rely on repression to maintain order and authority. China’s internal security budget has exceeded its defence budget for more than a decade.

Because of this state of affairs, China and the US do not seem to be in a position to engage in full battle with each other any time soon. The weaknesses of the two states and the internal challenges they face make it too risky to enter into a direct conflict; also because rulers cannot assume that citizens will rally behind a war effort that requires real and sustained sacrifices. In the process, other threats – a possible next pandemic, climate change, political unrest – will compete for attention and resources.

The result is likely to be a (very) protracted, low-intensity conflict, rather than an all-out war. This is not to say that we will not see intense escalation. For example, a Chinese blockade of Taiwan is a possible scenario. In all likelihood, however, the battle between China and the US will be fought in a grey area of, for example cyberspace and economic arenas.

Peak China?

Some analysts are convinced that China is already at or past its peak. This is too premature a conclusion. And even if China stagnates, it is still an immense power that will shape the course of the world in the coming decades; especially if America is terminally ill, as Xi Jinping and others in the Chinese elite seem to believe.

Supporters of the Peak-China theory base their conclusion on weakening economic growth, the ongoing crisis in the property sector, outbound capital flows and unrest within the defence establishment.

The above problems are indeed serious, but certainly do not mean that the situation will only get worse for Beijing from now on. First of all, economic power does not equal geopolitical power. So even if China were to continue to struggle economically, this would not necessarily mean that its role on the world stage is waning. In any case, Xi will show no sign of taking a step back. In 2021, he said China is closer to the spotlight of the world stage than it has ever been and is in the process of its rebirth. China’s intelligence chief added “the East is rising and the West is waning.”

Moreover, the supposed signs of weakness do not even have to mean vulnerability. Xi has increasingly made himself and the CCP the centre of politics, the economy and society and has neutralised potential competing forces. And the ease with which Xi sidelined his confidants in China’s defence and foreign affairs departments may be a sign of strength rather than vulnerability.

Also, the economic weakening seems to be partly a conscious choice by Xi. The old growth boosters – property, infrastructure and processing trade – will only make China more vulnerable if it continues to rely too much on these elements. Beijing therefore chooses to shift its focus to green energy, EVs and batteries and accepts that this means it must initially suffer some pain. As Evan S. Medeiros writes in Foreign Affairs, “Xi has embraced austerity and tried to revive the spirit of sacrifice, self-reliance, and egalitarianism that characterised earlier eras of Maoist rule.”

It should not be forgotten that while China may be swallowing some bitter pills, it is a superpower in many fields and whose advance is not yet over:

  • China is the world’s largest exporter and creditor.

  • It leads the way in industries that will be essential in the coming decades, such as EVs and batteries.

  • It is (by far) the leading player in the market for rare earths and other essential commodities.

  • It has one of the largest and most advanced armies in the world, and it conducts joint exercises with more and more countries and provides training to a growing number of states.

  • It has more embassies and consulates than America.

  • CNN’s Chinese counterpart has twice as many foreign bureaus as CNN, and China’s news agency Xinhua has 180 offices worldwide.

  • China is anchoring itself ever more firmly on the international diplomatic, economic and military world stage through the Belt & Road (2013), Global Development (2021), Global Security (2022) and Global Civilization Initiatives (2023).

  • The BRI is firmly embedded in UN structures and roughly 150 countries have joined it. For example, Huawei supplies 70% of all 4G technology in Africa.

  • The GDI targets development in a broad sense (poverty, climate policy, healthcare, food security) with now over 50 projects and support from over 70 countries.

  • According to Beijing, the GSI aims to prevent a Cold War mentality, bloc formation and unilateralism and, at least in words, has the support of more than 100 countries and international organisations.

  • The GCI has been the least successful so far. This initiative argues that different cultures and varying levels of prosperity also call for a variety of political and economic models.

Head-on collision?

In the US, many are getting restless in the neomedieval climate, with an immensely strong China despite all its difficulties. China is therefore one of the few dossiers on which Democrats and Republicans can still regularly find common ground. However, this only goes so far. Within the GOP, there are also quite a few voices claiming that despite a fairly hard China line, the Biden administration is still far too soft on Beijing. Matt Pottinger (who served on the National Security Council under Trump) and Mike Gallagher (Representative from 2017-2024) write: “The Biden team’s policy of ‘managing competition’ with Beijing risks…bilateral stability at the expense of global security, and diplomatic initiatives that aim for cooperation but generate only complacency. The United States shouldn’t manage the competition with China; it should win it.” According to Pottinger, Gallagher and the like, Beijing is still able to gain ground far too easily on the global chessboard via support for Russia, cooperation with North Korea and Iran, (disguised) support for Hamas.

Hardliners argue that America must first ramp up tensions by taking a harder line against Beijing in order to bring about more stability and calm in the longer term. This includes sharply increasing defence spending, restoring US primacy in Asia and more American troops within firing range of China. But it also includes removing China’s permanent normal trade relations status so that an even more protectionist policy can be pursued towards China. Also, US society as a whole should wake up to the fact that China is an enemy, which would prompt Americans to stop using TikTok altogether, for example.

Given the above, tensions between China and the US are likely to increase rather than decrease (and they will likely turn into a decades-long struggle). And not just if Trump wins the election and Republicans take over (for the most part) in Congress. Biden recently said: “We don’t let tyrants win; we oppose them. We don’t merely watch global events unfold; we shape them. That’s what it means to be the…indispensable nation. That’s what it means to be the world’s superpower and the world’s leading democracy.” Such statements leave little room for China.

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