World on the Brink: How America Can Beat China in the Race for the Twenty-First Century

Image of World on the Brink: How America Can Beat China in the Race for the Twenty-First Century
Release Date: 
April 30, 2024
Reviewed by: 

an important contribution to the current debate on the best way for the United States to maintain its global leadership while avoiding war with its primary challenger.”

Dmitri Alperovitch, an immigrant from Vladimir Putin’s Russia who co-founded a cybersecurity company, chairs a national security think tank and previously served as a consultant with the Defense Department, has written (with journalist Garrett Graff’s help) a well-reasoned, compellingly argued book on what he characterizes as “Cold War II” between the United States and China. Alperovitch’s book is an important contribution to the current debate on the best way for the United States to maintain its global leadership while avoiding war with its primary challenger.

Alperovitch divides World on the Brink into an analysis of the current state of relations between the U.S. and China, and policy advice for America’s leaders to effectively combat China’s challenge to the U.S.-led world order. Throughout the book, he provides a fusion of geopolitical and geoeconomic factors to assess the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the 21st century’s two superpowers. It is a book that combines a large dose of foreign policy realism with a touch of hopefulness for a peaceful outcome to this increasingly perilous conflict.

At the outset of the book and in its conclusion, Alperovitch makes clear that he believes Taiwan is the center of gravity in Cold War II. China’s communist leadership views control of the island as the unfinished business of the Chinese Civil War in which the Communists defeated the Nationalists, who then fled to Taiwan and developed independently from the mainland. The United States, Alperovitch notes, sees Taiwan as General Douglas MacArthur saw it in the 1950s: as an unsinkable aircraft carrier whose alliance with the United States enables us to prevent China from challenging U.S. command of the Pacific Ocean.

But Taiwan today is geopolitically and geoeconomically important for other reasons, Alperovitch notes. First, it is by far the world’s leading producer of semi-conductor chips that enable the functioning of the modern world. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is to the high-tech and computer world what the Persian Gulf is to the energy world, only more so. Should China seize Taiwan, Alperovitch writes, it would make the rest of the world, including the United States, dependent on it for those chips, which are now so crucial to our way of life.

Second, Taiwan is to Cold War II what West Berlin was to Cold War I: an island of freedom and liberality whose very existence is a challenge to the oppressive communist system. Taiwan’s political evolution from an authoritarian to a thriving democratic society undermines the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which today rests on the Faustian bargain of economic prosperity for totalitarian rule.

Third, should Taiwan fall under CCP control, the other nations of the Indo-Pacfic region will likely seek to accommodate the consequent revised balance of power in China’s favor. It would be the beginning of the end of the U.S.-led world order.

Alperovitch also discusses how we got here. It began, he writes, with President Woodrow Wilson’s “betrayal” of China after World War I, when he forced upon China territorial concessions to Japan. Not long after that betrayal, the Chinese Communist Party held its first national congress. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, China’s Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek fought for power against the communists and other warlords, then China suffered invasion by Japanese forces and became an important U.S. ally when Japan attacked America in December 1941.

After the war, the Truman administration failed to prevent the communists from seizing power in China; our wartime Nationalist allies fled to Taiwan; and twice in the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration threatened war to prevent the communists from invading Taiwan. U.S.-China hostility continued until the Nixon administration entered a geopolitical marriage of convenience with the CCP to counter the Soviet Union. President Carter, quite unnecessarily, formally ended our security relationship with Taiwan, but Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act to continue to provide assistance to Taiwan.

When Cold War I ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reason for our engagement with the CCP ended, too, but beginning with the George H. W. Bush administration engagement continued and intensified under the Clinton administration. Alperovitch blames Clinton for facilitating China’s economic rise and effectively assisting China’s massive military modernization. That engagement approach lasted until the final two years of the Trump presidency. Alperovitch praises Trump for his more realistic and confrontational approach to China, which he claims the Biden administration has mostly continued.

What is to be done to save Taiwan and avoid war? Alperovitch believes that China has certain demographic, economic, and political weaknesses that U.S. policy can exploit to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In what he calls a “game plan for victory,” Alperovitch proposes technological innovations, tough export control policies aimed at denying China the wherewithal to overcome its weaknesses, strengthening our alliances in the region, encouraging Taiwan to provide more for its own defense, and, perhaps most important, avoid geopolitical distractions.

Alperovitch recognizes that the Ukraine war, the conflict in the Middle East, and periodic Iranian and North Korean disturbances are distractions from America’s focus on the main enemy—China. He recommends continuing and increasing our assistance to Ukraine, while simultaneously seeking to engage Russia in an effort to separate it from China, and accepting the inevitability of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons power.

In the end, Alperovitch’s strategy for Cold War II essentially replicates George Kennan’s strategy for Cold War I: containment. But what if it wasn’t containment that won Cold War I, but instead Ronald Reagan’s policy of “liberation” that finally undermined Soviet power? Is China as vulnerable to politically subversive warfare today as Russia was in the 1980s? These are questions Alperovitch doesn’t answer.