Conflict with China: What It Would Look Like, How to Avoid It
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Conflict with China: What It Would Look Like, How to Avoid It


Since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, China has become America’s default adversary, the power against which the United States measures itself militarily, at least when there is no more proximate enemy in sight. With America’s war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, President Obama has announced yet another American pivot to Asia, with China as the main preoccupation. This raises the question of how likely conflict with China is, what it would look like, and how it can be avoided.

Over the next 20 years, China’s GDP and defense budget could grow to exceed those of the U.S., allowing it to become a true peer competitor. Despite this potential, China’s security interests and military capabilities will likely remain focused on its immediate periphery. Possible conflicts might arise there involving Korea, Taiwan, one or more countries of Southeast Asia, or India, more or less in that descending order of probability. A U.S.-China conflict might also start in—and perhaps be entirely confined to—cyber-space. Armed conflict between the United States and China is not probable in any of these instances, but that judgment is based on an assessment that the United States will retain the capacity to deter the type of behavior that would lead to such a clash.

While China’s overall military capabilities will not equal those of the United States anytime soon, it will more quickly achieve local superiority in its immediate neighborhood, first in and around Taiwan and then at somewhat greater distances. In consequence, the direct defense of contested assets in that region will become progressively more difficult, eventually approaching impossible. The United States will therefore become increasingly dependent on escalatory options for defense and retaliatory capabilities for deterrence. American nuclear superiority is not likely to be much help in this regard, both because China will retain a second-strike capability and because the issues at stake in most potential crises are not of vital consequence to the United States. Conflict is likely to escalate into the cyber and economic realms. In both cases, U.S. vulnerabilities are such as to make this unattractively costly. Conventional strikes on mainland Chinese military targets may be the best escalatory option, but there is little reason to be confident that conflict could be so confined.

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 should not be—or be seen—as a U.S. attempt to encircle or align the region against China, lest it produce greater Chinese hostility. Indeed, a parallel effort should be made to draw China into cooperative security endeavors, 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.

The economic consequences of a Sino-American conflict could be historically unparalleled, even if both sides avoid economic warfare. This is a powerful mutual deterrent, one marginally in the American favor at present. Strengthening the U.S. economy is the best way of ensuring that the balance of interdependence and of the associated deterrence does not shift dangerously against the United States over the next several decades.

While the risk of conflict with China cannot be ignored, neither should it be exaggerated. Any numbers of other conflicts are more likely. These more likely conflicts will be with opponents quite different from China and will call for capabilities quite dissimilar from those required to deal with a real peer competitor. Individually, these contingencies will be less consequential than a conflict with China, but collectively they will shape the international environment in which both countries interact and fundamentally influence Chinese perceptions of U.S. power and determination.

James Dobbins directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. This article is adapted from the RAND study “Conflict with China: Prospects, Consequences and Strategies for Deterrence” by James Dobbins, David C. Gompert, David A. Shlapak and Andrew Scobell.

January 3, 2014 at 02:34

Mdesyeticamat Mat • 6 minutes ago −
History has proven that the world’s Zionist warmonger, slaughterer and murderer of the most arrogant, boastful and bully regime of the U.S.; without any hesitation and wasting any time, by hook or by crook, could simply, easily and immediately take on any, militarily; weak, hapless and defenceless adversary or nation or country, anytime and anywhere across the globe.

But instead, it is not and definitely pause when it comes to such the great nation of powerful military of IRAN. Both the U.S., along with its life term master of the Zionist Regime of Israel( for Israel, the U.S. is its life term slave ) have been emptily ‘ BARKINGs ‘ and ‘ beating the empty drums of war ‘ of attacking IRAN for such 34 and 23 long wasting years since the Islamic Revolution back in 1979 respectively.

According to the famous former U.S. CIA Middle East Specialist Agent, Robert Baer, as which has been briefly analysed, described, stated and written not long ago in the latest issue of his book titled, ‘ The Devil We Know: Dealing with the new Iranian superpower,’ IRAN is a new regional superpower with which, militarily( any nuclear weapon is not included here ); comprehensively, automatically, makes the nation as the most powerful in the whole region of the Middle East. That’s IRAN.

By thinking twice and wise before taking on or messing completely with the rising global power of the superpower of mighty CHINA’s, ‘ The Dragon of the East, ‘ why not the U.S., without using any single nuclear weapon( just to be fair enough ), for the very first of all, try IRAN for a test, and if succeed, may proceed for the next tougher test on a nuclear armed state of North Korea and see what will it be and if it is done, well, the mighty CHINA( the closest ally of RUSSIA )will just be ready with all its fingers on the triggers round the clock.

It is sad to say that if a nation, militarily; merely fully rely or depend on its nuclear weapon, it is actually not as strong as it is being alleged. The bombardments( atomic bombs ) of Hiroshima and Nagasaki of Japan during the 2nd World War in 1945 is a very good example which clearly show the weaknesses of the Allied Forces of the world led by the world’s most popular criminal of the U.S.( the sole nation on earth that ever used the world’s most lethal ‘ WMD ‘ on other nation in the name of simple victory )and indeed, it is an act of a ‘ COWARD.’ What a big shame!

Another sad thing is what on earth such a great nation like Japan that has been made fool and used as a tool and scapegoat just for the sake of the U.S. and Israel’s interests and benefits in the region is still in term of unconscious or deep sleep? Wake up! Currently, the overall U.S.’s debt to the mighty CHINA alone worth $1.3 trillion or $1300 billions in the forms of bills, bonds and notes. From ‘ the Great Wall of CHINA ‘ to ‘ the Great Wallet of CHINA.’ That’s CHINA

It is well said that the U.S. is on its way to the brinks of bankruptcy, collapse and possibly, death in the near future, and a war with the mighty CHINA will only quicken the downfall of the declining United Satans of America( U.S.A.). Therefore, with the total downfall which is likely to happen, the mighty CHINA; politically, economically and the most of all, militarily, will definitely take over the lead as the world’s leading superpower which will probably followed by RUSSIA and IRAN. Anything is possible

It’s all from my own personal point of view.

February 16, 2013 at 06:34

If India engages in a conflict with China it will be kinda good for the Indina people since they will finally be relived of the corrupt politicians they have ruling them. They will be bestowed with the better leaders of China and Indians can forget their race and become a subrace of teh Chinese. It will be awesome for the Chinese, since every Chinese person man or woman can now keep an Indian slave each. loll. Indians will deserve such a fate because of the many yeasr of corrupt politicians and ineffective governance they have brought into power. All our ineffectve methods need to end in some way or the other. And I will disown India if such a thing happens. I will discalim to be an Indian :)). Lol Indians as sub race of Chinese, has a nice ring to it !! :))

Jai Hind (Dont know for how long )

Cameron Ghaffari
January 7, 2013 at 16:28

At the end of the day it will just end in MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Face it, where not in the older gunpowder age. Technology is so advanced and the two most powerful nations, consider the fact that Russia has better ties with China than the US. But besides that if the United States and China ever were to get in a conflict/war both countries will take devistating amounts of damage. At this point I honestly think with my own opinion that wars between two superpowers wont  be fought with weapons since we both have such powerful nukes and  so much at stake, but instead be fought economicaly. Whichever country can get so powerful economicaly that it becomes so rich and their money becomes so valuable. (CHINA) and others are in recessions and bailouts (EUROPEAN UNION, USA).

Oro Invictus
August 16, 2012 at 15:36

The nature of total war between authoritarian governments and representative or quasi-representative governments is the difference between having a stone dropped on one’s head or a bomb; whereas authoritarian governments direct the actions of their citizenry against another, representative governments channel the threat brought against it to the citizenry, resulting in the citizens of a representative governmental system gaining a unique personal stake in any conflict. In authoritarian systems, the citizens are told to fight for the state, but they feel no threat to themselves beyond their part in the machinery of the state itself, serving as “passive” resources in war time whose personal stake in the conflict is minimal. In representative systems, the citizenry has a direct hand in the formation and actions of the government, leading to some degree of self-identification with the government itself, such that any threat great enough to truly threaten the government will lead to the citizens themselves feeling threatened and responding in kind; thus, acting by much more of their own volition than those under authoritarian systems, they become “active” resources, their power projection being multiplicative instead of direct (as is the case of those under authoritarian governments).
Given the above, it should come as no surprise that the productive output (industrial, resource-utilization, technological development) tend to be much higher under representative systems than authoritarian ones. War-weariness, a long cited weakness of representative systems, while definitely still higher for representative systems than authoritarian ones no matter the context, becomes far less of a factor during total war. Consider the US actions against Germany in the second world war and the losses it took; the most clear example of US ability to accept and absorb losses is that of tank warfare, where the Americans would lose approximately four or more Sherman tanks for every German Tiger tank destroyed. The same impetus which drives citizens under representative governments to become more active in large-scale conflict than their authoritarian counterparts similarly compels them to be more willing to accept losses in the race to achieve victory.
While it is difficult to quantify how great the multiplicative effects generally are for representative systems’ force projection during major conflict, events like the Greek-Persian wars and the World Wars seem to indicate the degree of power multiplication is several times over or even more.  Simply put, just as in peace-time, the survivability of representative systems is consummately greater than authoritarian ones.

Oro Invictus
August 15, 2012 at 21:22

I will post a more complete analysis in time, it is simply that I am using a tablet right now and lack a settled area to use the keyboard I have for it; once I get the chance, I'll type up an analysis (I did not due so originally as I am trying to be less verbose, instead providing info as asked), either once I can clean up my lab bench a bit or otherwise I'll use my laptop once my work is finished.

Oro Invictus
August 15, 2012 at 21:15

@Leonard R. & ACT
Actually, if you follow the link at the bottom of the article it speaks quite a bit about specifics and the like; this article can best be viewed as an abstract for their paper, a summation of the most important info. Granted, perhaps they should have placed the link to the paper first, but the info is still there, readily accessible. 

August 15, 2012 at 17:49

it's somewhat simple; as some have said, the concept with a war between the US and China is something of a Voldemort to the US military's Wizarding Community: they dare not speak of it, lest it actually happen. This is something that becomes more and more likely as the PRC expands its capablities and its regional-hegemonic ambitions, and continues to bolster the capabilites and ambitions of its regional allies; i think that this lack of a strategy–at least it seems like a lack of strategy–is extremely dangerous; PLA white papers as early as the mid 1990's have already outlined PRC strategy and tactics for fighting a war against the US over regional interests such as Taiwan, with a focus on causing so much damage as to force the US to retreat from combat. Clearly they know that at one point or another, their ambitions will force them into combat with the United States….and our best military minds seem to casually ignore this.

August 15, 2012 at 17:32

please do post in more detail; The Good Ambassador's article is sort of an introduction, but he doesn't really go into any detailed discussion about the means, timelines, and potential consequences of such a conflict. I think there needs to be that sort of article, with projections, potential damage reports, everything. the more belligerent posters on here, such as Vic, John Chan, Leonard and myself need to know precisely what the conseqeunces are in a war of this type.

Oro Invictus
August 15, 2012 at 15:14

@ applesauce
“Armchair Generals” specifically are those individuals who lack experience and/or expertise in military matters, instead spouting out nonsense without having made a study of the topic; as such, an individual who actually made a well-thought-out and constructive comment about such matters would not qualify as an “Armchair General”.

Leonard R.
August 15, 2012 at 12:42

With all due respect, this article tells us nothing. 
Ah…but it comes from a former ambassador who works at RAND. No wonder. 
How much is the US Government paying RAND for intellectual mush like this? 

Drive by
August 15, 2012 at 06:07

Well, China will build up her nuke force to match America's. That is basically the end of the fantasy of Sino-American war.

August 15, 2012 at 04:11

at least the arm chair generals give an opion and perhaps their own analysis, which, if well thought out, would add to the article in a positive way, what have you contributed?

August 15, 2012 at 04:01

It's strange that many American armchair generals have predicted and wanted a war with China. But no body has supplies an answer to this question: over what?, what for?  What bone does US and China have to fight over?

August 15, 2012 at 03:16

We know that Authoritarian States can live with huge losses in manpower (i.e. Vietnam War and Korean War) in
opposite of Representative Government wherein the death toll equates with war weariness. Though, other factors 
are hard to analyze since China is very Nationalist and Nationalism can help especially during the war vis a vis
Japan in WWII. 

Though, we cannot discount also Representative Government in case of Industrial Prowess just like how the
United States was able to outbuild Japan and Germany vis a vis War Materials. Though, this is hard to quantify
since China has a large population and has many factories to compete in a military build up in war time. 

The only question that I would really want to know is that whether the Tibetas, Uighurs, Mongols, and Manchus 
would side with China in an even of war or would it only be the Hans. With Representative Governments, it is 
much better since racial plurality is never a problem during the war vis a vis United States. Even with Colored, 
segregation from WWII til Vietnam War.

August 14, 2012 at 22:24

It is easy to avoid conflict with China.  As Hugh White, the Australian specialist in defense matters, says that it is preferrable the US shares power with China; this will spare the world the conflict that will arise if US does not share 'primacy' in Asia with an Asian power.  It is not viable that America can lord it over in Asia, those days are gone.  

Errol T
August 14, 2012 at 20:20

No one will post about militarty tactics and strategies unless someone else does so first and takes the title of armchair general.

Oro Invictus
August 14, 2012 at 17:23

@ Arm Chair General
I must admit, I chuckled in spite of myself at that.   

Arm Chair General
August 14, 2012 at 15:41


Oro Invictus
August 14, 2012 at 15:03

Aaaaaaaand here come the armchair generals, ready to throw in their two cents, or perhaps fifty cents (forgive me, I couldn’t resist), on such a conflict.
Still… Perhaps I should post a little on the more wide-ranging nature of such a conflict, specifically that of the dynamics of total war between representative governments and authoritarian ones; if anyone would like to talk about that, I’d be more than willing.

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