War with China: How It Could Happen

The RAND Corporation examines the prospect of war and lays out a strategy for deterrence.

Chinese sailors man the rails aboard the destroyer Qingdao as they arrive in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, September 6, 2006
Chinese sailors man the rails aboard the destroyer Qingdao as they arrive in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, September 6, 2006 (US Navy)

A rising China is natural competitor for the United States in the Pacific. Although the prospects for war are limited, they are real and may prove difficult to minimize.

In a recent study (PDF), the RAND Corporation, a public policy thinktank, examines not so much the likelihood of a direct confrontation with China rather how and where a crisis can develop that could escalate into war.

If it chose, RAND observes, China could become a more formidable threat to the United States than Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were at the height of their power. China doesn’t appear to seek territorial expansion nor ideological aggrandizement at the expense of other countries and the United States are likely to remain militarily superior but in its immediate neighborhood, China could achieve hegemony. “In consequence, the direct defense of contested assets in that region will become progressively more difficult, eventually approaching impossible,” according to the RAND Corporation.

The Korean Peninsula is one such contested asset. A crisis could emanate from an economic collapse there, a contested power transition after the death of Kim Jong-il, or defeat in a war with the South. Whatever the scenario, the immediate operational concern for South Korea and the United States would be to secure ballistic missile launch and nuclear sites as well long range artillery that could threaten the capital of Seoul.

A Western insertion north of the demilitarized zone would be regarded warily in Beijing which could move its own forces in to contain the disorder, stem a probable refugee tide and preempt a South Korean takeover of Pyongyang which China regards as a buffer against American encroachment on the peninsula.

The likelihood of confrontations, accidental or otherwise, between US and Chinese forces is high, with significant potential for escalation. Beyond the pressures to intervene and deal with the immediate consequences of a failed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the United States will be forced to confront the thorny issue of the desired end state: unification (the preferred outcome of our ally, the Republic of Korea) or the continued division of Korea (China’s strong preference).

A second hotspot is Taiwan. Although relations between Taiwan and the mainland have improved in recent years, RAND points out that no meaningful progress has been made on the key issue separating the two states, “which is if, when and how the island’s ultimate status — as an independent polity or as part of a “reunified” China — will be determined.”

A cross-Strait conlict could take many forms, from a Chinese blockade of Taiwanese ports, to varied levels of bombardment of targets on Taiwan, to an outright invasion attempt. Should the United States engage directly in any such contingency, its goals would be to prevent Chinese coercion or conquest of Taiwan and limit to the extent possible the damage inflicted on Taiwan’s military, economy and society.

Core missions for the United States would include denying China air and sea dominance and decreasing the threat posed by its ballistic missiles. The difficulty of achieving those objectives is compounded by Chinese military modernization efforts which increasingly tilt the cross-Strait balance in Beijing’s favor.

There are numerous potential flash points in the South China Sea region. “China’s assertion of some degree of sovereignty over virtually the entire area rubs up against the rival claims of numerous other states.”

Depending on the nature and severity of a conflict, US objectives could range from enforcing freedom of navigation against a Chinese effort to control maritime activities in the South China Sea, to helping the Philippines defend itself from an air and maritime attack, to supporting Vietnam and shielding Thailand — another treaty ally — in the event of a land war in Southeast Asia.

China’s ability to project substantial power into the South China Sea area is currently limited but will increase if it builds an aircraft carrier fleet and improves its air refueling capabilities.

Conflicts involving India and Japan may be less likely but would pose challenges. In the event of another Sino-Indian war, Washington will likely try to remain neutral even if it quietly backs New Delhi with intelligence and military equipment. A Chinese attack on Japan should trigger American involvement even if it bears escalatory risks in the form of strikes against the Chinese homeland.

Wherever conflict erupts, American forward operating survivability is set to decline in the decades ahead so RAND believes that strike range must increase.

US military-operational emphasis in the Western Pacific will thus shift from geographically limited direct defense to more escalatory responses and eventually, when even these will not suffice, from deterrence based on denial to deterrence based on the threat of punishment, with the speed of the shift varying from, first of all, Taiwan, then Northeast Asia, then Southeast Asia at a somewhat later date.

America’s nuclear superiority may not be of particular help in this regard as China will retain a second strike capacity and because the issues at stake in most potential crises are not of vital consequence to the United States. Washington won’t risk a Chinese nuclear attack against the continental United States for the sake of defending the Philippines or Taiwan.

Conventional strikes against mainland China may be the best escalatory option along with attacks that disable Chinese communication and computer networks, including satellites. Chinese retaliation could prove costly however, given American reliance on these domains for military and intelligence missions and for its economic health.

One means of improving the prospects for direct defense and reducing the risk of escalation is for the United States to enable the capabilities and buttress the resolve of China’s neighbors. Such a strategy could be interpreted in Beijing as an attempt to encircle China or align the region against it — a fear that is already prevalent there. To prevent actually producing Chinese hostility, the United States should make a parallel effort to draw China into cooperative security structures, “not only to avoid the appearance of an anti-China coalition but also to obtain greater contributions to international security from the world’s second strongest power.”

This has, in fact, been the aim of President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic reassurance” which does not appear to have significantly impacted Chinese strategy. It was the aim of the Bush Administration which hoped to make China a “responsible stakeholder” in the global consensus. It has proven very difficult however to implement a strategy of deterrence that hinges on limiting China’s ability to dominate East Asia when the Chinese strategy is grounded in managing or exploiting external tensions, especially with great powers, in order to maintain an environment that is conducive to China’s growth.

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