The Nightmare Scenario: A U.S.-China War: Part V


Read Part I   Part II   Part III and Part IV

One of the more poignant moments in the epic film Gladiator takes place during the opening battle between Roman legions and German tribesmen. The Roman general Maximus and his lieutenant, Quintus, are debating whether their outmatched foe will fight or submit. Quintus opines that “People should know when they are conquered,” whereupon Maximus replies: “Would you, Quintus? Would I?” That’s a Hollywood restatement of Clausewitz’s proverb that “even the ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.”

It seems fitting to close out this series the way it started, with some thoughts from the Prussian theorist. It’s one thing to carry the day on the battlefield, or even to win a war. Translating battlefield success into a durable postwar order is another thing entirely. As Maximus implies, and as Clausewitz declares outright, the victor needs the consent of the vanquished to make the military result permanent. If the vanquished reject the outcome, they set the stage for new rounds of struggle. Should it lose a war along its maritime periphery, China could renew the fight later, assuming the military trendlines go its way, or try to overturn the result through coercive diplomacy. So could the United States and its allies.

Who would hold the edge in a protracted struggle? It depends on what’s at stake in a particular controversy, on the belligerents’ resolve to get their way, and on the resources they command. A passage from Clausewitz we pound home over and over in our seminars spells out the rational calculus of war. “Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration.” How much importance each belligerent attaches to its goals, that is, determines how many lives and resources it is prepared to expend to reach those goals, and for how long.

But there’s a corollary: “Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.” Once the enterprise starts costing more than it’s worth, statesmen should strike the best peace deal they can and exit the conflict. Whatever sunk costs the nation has incurred are just that—sunk, and written off.

Or at least they should be. Cutting one’s losses is easier said than done, in large part because Clausewitz’s value-of-the-object equation is hard to balance. What figures do you assign the variables? Quantifying magnitude and duration is reasonably straightforward. Simply tally up manpower, assets deployed and lost in combat, fuel and rounds expended, and other indices of physical strength. Time is, well, time. But what units of measurement describe the value of a political object? What is the objective value of Taiwan, the Senkakus/Diaoyus, the Spratlys and Paracels, and other disputed objects to the contending parties?

There’s no single answer. The worth of such things is subjective. Intangibles like fear, spite, and the thirst for honor and renown color perceptions of the political stakes. Passions tend to drive up the perceived value of the object. If one antagonist assigns its war aims inordinate value, it will expend substantial resources on those aims’ behalf for a long time. If both antagonists judge the stakes vital, escalation is likely. And if allies evaluate their mutual objectives differently, they may find it hard to reach consensus on strategy.

So a fictional Roman general was right. People often don’t know when they’re beaten, or refuse to admit it. They may postpone a final reckoning rather than accept defeat. U.S. and allied leaders must think ahead to the immediate objective, how to end various contingencies with China on favorable terms. But they also need to consider what will come next. China isn’t going anywhere—and so managing the peace in Asia demands the long view.

August 14, 2013 at 14:13

I would definitely disagree with a couple of points. first there would only be a lack in US support for the war if it was further US expansionism but if it was the US defending say Taiwan or Japan then support would be much greater than the case in Vietnam or the Middle East. and economically speaking China's economy would collapse which would collapse it's manufacturing sector as well because it would lose all it's high trading partners because they're all US allies. that's not as true for the US because it still has trading that can occur. also the time difference in a switch to military production would not be that long for the US if at all longer then that of China, WWI and WWII for example. let's take for example that a war breaks out over the Senaku Islands and China attacks Japan. China doesn't really stand a conventional chance. A) it would not be hard to get support from India because they'd love to get their hands on some land on the Chinese borser. B) US has massive technological superiority. Air supremacy would be easy the only potential problem would be establishing naval supremacy. the US could establish a blockade easily however shore supremacy would be much more of a problem but the US technology and anti-missile inteceptors used should be apt at taking care of the ASBMs used by China. and the US has far better and more assets to deploy and that Naval supremacy would easily counter any Chinese offensives and bombers from Okinawa and Guam could bomb Chinese forces into the next century. the real danger to the US is Chinese escalation to a nuclear exchange because any nuclear weapon used by china would precipitate in a massive retaliation using the full strength of the US nuclear arsenal which would completely destroy any remminence of China but would also be devestating to the US if China used it's 50 or so nuclear weapons capable of reaching the continental US. it was states well above. in a conventional war China loses, in a nuclear war the world loses but China will lose the most.

Moira G Gallaga
April 11, 2013 at 19:41

China isn’t going anywhere—and so managing the peace in Asia demands the long view."

j freeman
April 11, 2013 at 09:28

Unless the U.S. Navy has impeccable anti sub and anti missile defenses, deploying U.S. carriers against China and putting them within range of subs and ship killer missiles would be a colossal blunder, comparable to putting the Prince of Wales and Repulse within range of Japanese carrier, and ground based planes in WWII.

 The U.S. Navy must eliminate the Chinese subs as an opening move.  China needs oil and trade.  With it's subs eliminated, it should be possible for the  U.S. Navy to cut off China's imports and exports without coming within range of most, if not all of  ground based systems.  Ground based systems which fire upon the U.S. and its allies in the area could be taken out by counter fire from ground based systems ringing China, IF the U.S. moves to establish the right defensive relationships and bases.  

The major Asian nations and the U.S. should make up their minds NOW as to whether they are players and partners for dominance in the Western and Southwestern Pacific or not.  The major Asian nations would profit greatly if we ceased importing from China's lowest producer economy, and began importing from them at an increased rate.  This would allow them to make meaningful, not "token" increases to their local and regional forces.  The U.S. argument that they cannot allow its potential Asian partners to be well armed with class I tech is fallacious. As a matter of fact arming our allies with nearly the very best weaponry  particularly anti-missile and anti-=sub tech makes them more effective allies, and helps decrease the unit cost of the advanced systems,  A combination of  Australia Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, the southeast states of Vietnam, and Malaysia, and the Philippines along with the U.S. should have sufficient economic and productive strength to outproduce and out tech the Chinese. All the foregoing countries and the previously listed Asian countries should stop exporting jobs, tech and capital to China where ever possible.  India should also be enlisted as a much more useful and powerful ally should it choose to be than the forever deceitful and treacherous Pakistanis.   Let the Chinese inherit the Pakistanis.

There is no NEED to go to war with China.  Which is not to say that the governments of China and the U.S. could not manufacture a plausible reason to WANT to have a war.  Both countries manage to hold their citizens in a state of abject fear, both have troubled economies, both have what amounts to a hereditary ruling class at this point.

There is no REASON why the above listed Asian nations and Australia cannot comprehend two simple truths:  They are potentially endangered by an expansionistic and economically dominant China, and if they wish to be protected by the U.S. then they must participate with blood and treasure to defend themselves, just as the NATO nations ( at least to some extent) have done since WWII.  And just as NATO planners have contingency plans that were continuously updated and agreed upon politically PRIOR to a rush across the Fulda Gap by the Russian tank and mechanized armies,  it would be possible, for the Asian nations and the U.S. to arrive at similar plans.  However this cannot be done, if the partners, including the U.S. are going to fold if China threatens nuclear war.  The response must be:  We are partners.  An attack on one is an attack on all.  If you wish to fight a conventional war you will lose.  If you wish to fight a nuclear war, the world will lose, but China will lose the most.      

In retrospect, Nixon and Kissinger playing "the China card" may have been a serious blunder.  However, it need not remain so.  Particularly if one considers that the U.S. and Western Europe are probably more natural allies of Russia than the Chinese will ever be.

In terms of Chinese sabotage in the U.S. it is always possible.  However, this argument led to the internment of the Japanese citizens of this country in WWII.  If there is a real possibility that Chinese sabotage could occur in this country because of an alleged "generational loyalty" to China, then deport the Chinese in this country now and save the cost of feeding them in camps.  

Finally, I would counsel my country, the U.S. to consider whether it intends to defend Taiwan or not.  If not, then openly tell the Chinese they can have it and have done.  If so, then sell the Taiwanese enough heavy weaponry to forestall, at least temporarily,  an invasion.  The current state of ambiguity is an invitation for a miscalculation.  

Several authors, Tom Clancy, and Charles Taylor have the ability to write wonderfully detailed fictional scenarios of a face off between major nations such as the U.S. and Russia.  Im surprised one of them hasn't done so for a U.S. China faceoff.




April 8, 2013 at 11:54

The probability of a war with China is very low. Here's why I think so:


1. China can't simply dump the US debt. Writing off those US debts mean they lose trillions of dollars in a blinking of an eye. That will destroy their current economy. One public official engineered the largest scam on earth and stole about 3 Trillion dollars out of Chinese government money in 2010. That alone has caused the Chinese government enough trouble. That effect will be felt in 2013. Imagine if they write off that US debt, they won't be able to finance the war on a long term.

2. China is dependent on exports. 65% of their GDP is exports. Take that out and the economy simply goes back 20 years. The communist party is in a very nice situation where money flows in and life is so good. Why would they want to lose that benefit? If they wanted to do something foolish, they already did. But what's stopping them? China's dependency on exports.

3. Before wars could even be fought, the mere existence of the Communist Party will be questioned by the people. If you remember WW2, ROC under Sun Yat Sen is going through difficult times. They have gone corrupt having too much gap between the rich and the poor. That started the revolution lead by Mao from the West. There are sleeper organizations in China that are campaigning against the communist regime. You don't see them because they're hidden and is waiting for the right time to strike, just like what Mao did when he launched the people's revolution. If the communist party won the country by revolution, they can well lose the country by revolutino as well. Right now, there are so many capitalist Chinese in China who are just waiting for the right moment to strike. The Chinese government knows this, that's why they budgeted more money to internal security than their national defense budget.

4. China's GDP is second to US. GDP is the measurement for a country's economy, but the problem is that, the quality is not really measured. You can increase your GDP by constructing buildings, roadways, and many more. If you look at the per capita income of China, it's 10 times smaller than Japan. So, we can really say that China, despite it's economic prowess is vulnerable. The foundations of its economy is not that strong. This is precisely the reason why China's economy has to be maintained because if this country loses its current status, the country can close its doors again and go back to the old "ruthless communism".


1. The Chinese Communist Party is not as strong as we all percieve. The party is no longer strong compared to the times of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. The country rebranded itself during Deng Shaoping's regime, retaining the symbol of communism while practicing capitalism. Deng simply thought that after long years of closed-door policy, the country will only suffer another revolution. The only way to delay this is to open up the country. But that model can't be sustained for longer periods of time. Xi Jinpin keeps on saying that Gorbachev made a stupid mistake. It wasn't really a mistake, it was the question of making a choice between committing a suicide by taking the country to absolute chaos, or "live today and fight for tomorrow." China will also be taken to that junction where it will need to make a difficult decision. Let's hope they make the right one.

2. Corruption in the government is a lot far more than what we think. You can say that 90% of the government is corrupt and the 10% is honest and good communist. People in the western region sees this while they suffer. The eastern part of China is currently in a dream, that's why you don't see a lot of complains from the general public. But if that dream is to disappear, you will see chaos and anarchy.

3. Chinese people are not suicidal like most people think. They are the same people like us. They care for their family. They want to live a nice life. They don't want war. And above all, they want to be treated fairly just like us. Chinese people are much more educated now compared to times when Mao launched his revolution, where educated people were deprived from their rights. Majority of the Chinese do not approve war. The reason you see "Nationalistic" riots and all sorts, is because of the Communist Party's clandestine propaganda. Some factions in the Politburo finance riots in order to switch the attention of the masses externally so that the public will forget the grave internal problems they're facing. Those fishing trawlers seen having confrontation with their neighbors are not really civilian ships. They are spy ships sent from time to time masquerading as fishing trawlers with primary mission of testing their neighbors security responses. The Russians know this very well as it is part of their intelligence gathering doctrine, that's why they shoot them down and sink them.


1. US is outnumbered compared to the strength of Chinese PLA. During the last Korean war, so many publicity surrounding the tremendous losses of the coalition forces against the Chinese. Chinese forces have been reported to have been outnumbered and outgunned the UN forces. But what's not well publicized is the "near-annihilation" of the Chinese forces in North Korea. President Truman knew very well, that if you put a dog in a corner, it will bite you. If China was put in a very difficult situation, China (at that time) can use the nukes, and what's even worse, the Soviets can come in and join the party. That's what Truman was trying to avoid. China's loses during the Korean war was simply overwhelming. Why would China complain against US' growing presence in the Pacific if it were not so scared of its presence? The truth is, China is scared of the US because they know what US can do and what it's capable of.

2. The armaments of China is still inferior to that of the US. Chinese propaganda structures it in a way that the international audience would view China as a force to recon with. They simply want recognition and respect. Why? Why would you publicize your military might and your secret weapons if you intend to use it against your enemies? Simple – you have no intention of using it. It's like saying, I have a gun so don't trespass on my property. But, is the gun really a guarantee that any trespasser would be annihialated? No. It's just the psychological effect of having that weapon.

3. China appears to have very strong relationship with Russia. Is it really true? Russians are not stupid. They are exceptionally smart people. Russia has learned its lesson with bitter tears. They signed a non-agression pact with Hitler. What did Hitler do? Hitler ignored the pact and invaded the Soviet Union anyways. The Russians never sold weapons and armaments to China that can be used against them. Most of the planes sold to them are very inferior to what the Russians have currently deployed. In the event that China wages a war with Russia, which is not totally impossible, Russia still retains the advantage. This is the reason why China is trying to develop its own weapons so that they can arm themselves properly and take themselves to the same level as Russia. But China is truly far from being capable at this point. Their most advanced planes keep on crashing due to mechanical failures. Almost every 2 weeks, a Chinese plane crashes.

4.  Chinese Aircraft Carrier – When China publicized its first aircraft carrier, the entire world was totally scared. The aircraft carrier Liao Ning is a test carrier and is simply there for future purposes where future Chinese naval and air military doctrines would be based upon. Landing an aircraft on a carrier is not easy. It requires honing of skills. Watch those videos and notice that there's only 1 single plane taking off and landing on that carrier. Why? It's for publicity. Try to recall the battle of midway when 3 Japanese carriers tried to destroy the US fleet. Japanese fighters have serious technical inferiority against US technology. Zero fighters dropped a bomb on USS Yorktown and thought it had destroyed it. USS Yorktown was able to save the ship because of its engineering design making it difficult to sink. Now, when Yorktown launched a counter attack, all it took the US fighter planes was to drop a single bomb that totally destroyed their carrier. Why? the carrier exploded together with their bombs and fuel. The Japanese carrier was designed to inflict lethal damage but was never designed to protect itself. It wasn't stupidity at all. It was mass production and the cheapest way is to design weapons to inflict massive damage and really not to sustain damage. The same can be said about Chinese ships and this famous Liao Ning aircraft carrier. It's even refurbished from a cold-war era aircraft carrier. It simply does not have the same technology as the US or British aircraft carriers. The Chinese know this quite well.

5. DF-21 Anti Ship Ballistic Missile – It has been publicized to be the first land-based anti-ship ballistic missile on the planet. Well, what makes it so different from any other missile? None! It is completely the same as any other mobile rocket launcher that can pinpoint targets using satellite technology or laser targeting technology. Given the current state of technology, destroyers and ships do not need to be stationary in order to fire its weapons. These weapons are guided by radar fire controls to ensure accuracy even during movement. This means war ships can be constantly mobile and still fire their weapons, and the ASBM can lose track of the ship, rendering the ASBM useless. The Chinese tested this missile in the middle of a desert using a stationary target. The only thing that it can target is an aircraft carrier. However, given the current defense technology of US aircraft carriers, it has defense mechanisms that allow to project a fake location of the carrier. Not only that, planes can now land or take off from a moving carrier. Naval aviators are trained to do so even on a bad weather. So, all in all, this DF-21 missile is not too different from a cruise missile. It has the capability to change its target while airborne but it doesn't have any seeking capability. It is just publicized to have that technology as propaganda. Pentagon knows this, that's why Pentagon is really not afraid of this.

In the end, it is not in the interest of China to wage a war against US/UK. US has more incentive to wage a war against China than the opposite.

January 13, 2014 at 23:51

you have no idea what your talking about.

big sam
April 8, 2013 at 00:21

i totaly a war between the us and china chinas economy will collapse as the world will cease to trade with china, america will refuse to repay all debts to china ,china will be blockaded so trade will not be possible .all of chinas infra structure, industry and satellite, military and nuclear forces would be targeted in a massive air strike by cruise missiles and asats from submarines and stealths.i can imagine chinas long list of enemies ,india,mongolia,vietnam,philipines,taiwan,south korea will make moves aginst china.and dont doubt american peoples will if they believe china is out to kill them 250 million people with technology weapons money a host of willing allies and natural resources and know how and the most advanced weapons known to man is more than a match for china.remember iraq with the 5th largest army in the world combat experienced and equiped with modern weapons? decimated and destroyed within days.

Lauren Garza
April 8, 2013 at 00:11

Is it China or the ruling leadership that we would be fighting? Because the Chinese rulers would be fighting not only the United States and the ring of allies surrounding the region but to retain power.

And lest we forget, alliances with Russia are a sometimes thing. As are their oil exports. 

And another point. Like Nelson's navy in the years leading up to Trafalger the English fleet had been at sea without a break, while the Spanish and French had been sailing for a couple of weeks. The Chinese navy doesn't have enough salt in its blood. And most of China's oil comes from overseas. The longer any conflict is in duration the more it exposes the belligerents weaknesses.

teh skyman
April 4, 2013 at 10:20

America cannot possibly win a war against China Why?

1. Public Support: As in the case of the War in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam public support for the war starts falling dramatically if results are not achived in a short amount of time. Now imagine an even larger scale war with men possibly being conscripted for the war. If China were to hold off the American Armed fources and inflict enough casualties, well then it would be like vietnam all over again. Also China can deal with public support much better as being an authoritarian state it can easily control what information does get transmitted to the public.

2.The economy: If America were to attack china then its economy and the worlds economy would go under. Now China being an authoritarian state can deal with this better than america. China would still suffer heavily due to dropped demand in Chinese goods. However China could inflict economic warfare at this point and drop american Bonds. This would cause the dollar to go through massive inflation rivalling that of pre WW2 germany. Also Americas economy is already in deep finacial states. It has to deal with alot of un employment and massive amounts of debt much of which is owned by China

3. Manufactoring: Americas manufactoring sector is in tatters while china has a very healthy manufactoring sector. Now Chinas manufactoring sector is devoted to western goods atm it could switch to war production quite easily with a few state decrees here and there. While America would have to go through debate and congress etc etc in order to switch to war production

4. Man power: This is fairly important in warfare considering that china can afford to lose say 1mil men (which is about 1/3% of chinas eligible pop.) though america cannot even contemplate losing such a high amount of troops. This feeds back into morale. Also China can produce more tanks and more guns against america because of its man power. China also has many expatriots present in america and these could be used against them.

However America does have Greater technological prowess: This being said, china and the rest of the world arent stagnant either. They are trying to usurp america from its throne. Also many of americas war tools ( tanks, ships planes) can still be dystroyed using cheaper and simpler technologies such as missles or rpgs or bombs. 

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