U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says he has a plan to counter burgeoning Chinese power in Asia and beyond, and President Joe Biden is carrying out the biggest piece of that plan — in Europe.

The key to Austin's strategy is to use an American strength against China's most exploitable weakness: America is good at making friends while China has been adept lately at losing them.

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Austin said his plan will "improve the department's ability to revitalize our network of allies and partners."

The one thing China is not equipped to face is a coalition of powers leveraging economic might to counter aggression. China has become the world's factory, but having an economy dependent entirely on exports means China is the most sensitive nation on the planet to the pressure of sanctions and embargoes.

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One thing American policymakers shouldn't forget is what China really appears to be trying to accomplish with all of its recent saber rattling.

China is raising trouble about Taiwan, pressuring the Philippines and Vietnam, building friends in Africa and taking an aggressive stance against rivals in Europe and North America to keep peace at home.

China's population of 1.4 billion has become restless recently as more of its residents have been allowed to travel the globe and sample what freedom feels like abroad.

The Chinese Communist Party has also never truly addressed the unrest of minority groups that feel oppressed not only by the bureaucrats in Beijing, but by the majority Han ethnic group that holds government power there.

From troubles with its Islamic minority in western China to a continued cry for democracy in Hong Kong, leaders in Beijing need something to unify the nation.

So they dusted off some old favorites.

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From Chairman Mao forward, leaders of modern China have ramped up or eased tension with Taiwan and other neighbors any time they need to make their way out of domestic trouble.

Some of the highest tensions between China and Taiwan came in 1958 as Mao starved millions of his people amid the "Great Leap Forward."

Some of the lowest tensions between the two came in the wake of the Tiananmen uprising, when China's leaders eased their stance on Taiwan in a bid to calm internal unrest.

In addition to having to fight back demands for freedom, China has some massive structural issues to face these days. The average Chinese citizen in 1970 was 19 years old. In five decades, the Chinese population's average age has doubled thanks to the government's one-child policy.

The problem China faces is similar to one that's already causing havoc in other parts of Asia and Europe, where a comparatively small younger generation is saddled with taxes to pay for an outsized group of retirees.

That means young people in China now and into the future will need to dedicate an ever-growing percentage of their paychecks to taxes, thanks to ill-conceived government policies.

Dictators across the globe have long looked to solve internal angst by getting their people focused on outside threats.

Valdimir Putin didn't invade Ukraine in 2014 because everything was going well at home. Saddam Hussein used his 1991 invasion of Kuwait to get his people's mind off their brutal government and a decade of disastrous war with Iran.

In China, state-run media has trumpeted rising tension with Taiwan in recent days.

For leaders in Beijing, that sure beats headlines about a historically sluggish economy, explaining human rights abuses ahead of the 2022 Olympics or tales of its new censorship measures in Hong Kong.

For the Pentagon, building friends around the globe is the best way to capitalize on China's missteps.

But military leaders shouldn't expect a sudden easing of tension with China. The Beijing government is using global drama as a handy soap opera to keep its public occupied in the absence of real reforms.

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

City Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's City Editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom has covered the military at home and overseas and has covered statehouses in Denver and Olympia, Wash. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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