War with China
Thinking Through the Unthinkable
Premeditated war between the United States and China is very unlikely, but the danger that a mishandled crisis could trigger hostilities cannot be ignored. Thus, while neither state wants war, both states’ militaries have plans to fight one. As Chinese anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) capabilities improve, the United States can no longer be so certain that war would follow its plan and lead to decisive victory. This analysis illuminates various paths a war with China could take and their possible consequences.
Technological advances in the ability to target opposing forces are creating conditions of conventional counterforce, whereby each side has the means to strike and degrade the other’s forces and, therefore, an incentive to do so promptly, if not first. This implies fierce early exchanges, with steep military losses on both sides, until one gains control. At present, Chinese losses would greatly exceed U.S. losses, and the gap would only grow as fighting persisted. But, by 2025, that gap could be much smaller. Even then, however, China could not be confident of gaining military advantage, which suggests the possibility of a prolonged and destructive, yet inconclusive, war. In that event, nonmilitary factors — economic costs, internal political effects, and international reactions — could become more important.
Political leaders on both sides could limit the severity of war by ordering their respective militaries to refrain from swift and massive conventional counterforce attacks [note the analysis does not overtly include nukes]. The resulting restricted, sporadic fighting could substantially reduce military losses and economic harm. This possibility underscores the importance of firm civilian control over wartime decisionmaking and of communication between capitals. At the same time, the United States can prepare for a long and severe war by reducing its vulnerability to Chinese A2AD forces and developing plans to ensure that economic and international consequences would work to its advantage.
Unless Both U.S. and Chinese Political Leaders Decline to Carry Out Counterforce Strategies, the Ability of Either State to Control the Ensuing Conflict Would Be Greatly Impaired
– Both sides would suffer large military losses in a severe conflict. In 2015, U.S. losses could be a relatively small fraction of forces committed, but still significant; Chinese losses could be much heavier than U.S. losses and a substantial fraction of forces committed.
– This gap in losses will shrink as Chinese A2AD improves. By 2025, U.S. losses could range from significant to heavy; Chinese losses, while still very heavy, could be somewhat less than in 2015, owing to increased degradation of U.S. strike capabilities [see links at start of the post].
– China’s A2AD will make it increasingly difficult for the United States to gain military-operational dominance and victory, even in a long war [emphasis added].
Conflict Could Be Decided by Domestic Political, International, and Economic Factors, All of Which Would Favor the United States in a Long, Severe War
– Although a war would harm both economies, damage to China’s would be far worse.
– Because much of the Western Pacific would become a war zone, China’s trade with the region and the rest of the world would decline substantially.
– China’s loss of seaborne energy supplies would be especially damaging.
– A long conflict could expose China to internal political divisions.
– Japan’s increased military activity in the region could have a considerable influence on military operations [see “Rising Sun’s Yen for Defence Spending, Part 2“].
– U.S. and Chinese political leaders alike should have military options other than immediate strikes to destroy opposing forces.
– U.S. leaders should have the means to confer with Chinese leaders and contain a conflict before it gets out of hand.
– The United States should guard against automaticity in implementing immediate attacks on Chinese A2AD and have plans and means to prevent hostilities from becoming severe. Establishing “fail safe” arrangements will guarantee definitive, informed political approval for military operations.
– The United States should reduce the effect of Chinese A2AD by investing in more-survivable force platforms (e.g., submarines [i.e. carriers at increasing risk) and in counter-A2AD (e.g., theater missiles).
– The United States should conduct contingency planning with key allies, especially Japan.
– The United States should ensure that the Chinese are specifically aware of the potential for catastrophic results even if a war is not lost militarily.
– The United States should improve its ability to sustain intense military operations.
– U.S. leaders should develop options to deny China access to war-critical commodities and technologies in the event of war.
– The United States should undertake measures to mitigate the interruption of critical products from China.
– Additionally, the U.S. Army should invest in land-based A2AD capabilities, encourage and enable East Asian partners to mount strong defense, improve interoperability with partners (especially Japan), and contribute to the expansion and deepening of Sino-U.S. military-to-military understanding and cooperation to reduce dangers of misperception and miscalculation.