Making a US-Sino War ‘Thinkable’?


A recently published study of four ways that the U.S. and China may engage in war seems at first to warn against the high human and economic costs of all four kinds of engagement. The study by RAND Corporation, sponsored by the U.S. Army, does state that it “reinforce[s] the widely held view that a Sino-U.S. war would be so harmful that both states should place a very high priority on avoiding one.” And it does repeatedly warn that various prevailing conditions are pressuring both sides to rush and strike first, fearing that if it delays initiating war, they would lose much of their capacity to strike, a highly destabilizing configuration.

A reading of the study, however, is likely to leave readers with the sense that the U.S. will fare much better than China in whatever form the war takes. This observation, which runs throughout the report, is likely to embolden those in the U.S. who believe that a Sino-U.S. war is inevitable, and hence call for more preparations for such a confrontation, and – in some cases – for the U.S. to strike first. This side effect is deeply regrettable, given that this favorable (at least for Americans) assessment of the results of the war, as we shall see shortly, is based on rather dubious assumptions.

The study compares four kinds of war:

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  1. A Brief but Severe war would last “a week or so” and would involve selective U.S. strikes on China. In this scenario, military-operational exigencies necessitate a fast-paced, intense conflict. Such a conflict would asymmetrically harm China, because China’s economy would be severely disrupted, with significant aftershocks, and U.S. counterforce capabilities would steadily degrade China’s anti-access, area denial (A2AD) capabilities, while U.S. losses would drop off as China’s A2AD suffered.
  2. A Long and Severe war, the authors estimate that the conflict would last “a year or so,” and it would likely involve Japan and other U.S. allies. In this war, the losses suffered by both sides make compromises harder than in the brief war. They add that the mounting military losses would weaken the legitimacy of the Chinese state and China’s economy would be harmed “disproportionately and badly.” The authors hence conclude that “the economic, domestic, and international effects of a long, severe conflict work against China.”
  3. In a Brief and Mild conflict, hostilities might be triggered by a miscalculation or an incident involving a third party, but political leaders would withhold authorization for major attacks on opposing forces. The authors conclude that the conflict could be ended before causing major damage, and that there would be only minor losses on each side. A critical distinction between the “Intense” and “Mild” scenarios is that the former involves U.S. strikes on Chinese soil, whereas the latter does not.
  4. In a Long but Mild conflict, the leaders of each country might agree to contain the fighting, but not to end the conflict. If the losses remained low on each side, the conflict could drag on for a year or so, as each side’s leaders decide that the conflict is “politically sustainable” and don’t want to lose domestic legitimacy by conceding. The authors believe that “even with fighting limited, economic losses would grow, especially for China.” Separatist movements within China might try to exploit the ongoing interstate conflict to advance their aims.

In all four scenarios the report assumes that because China has next to no capabilities to strike the U.S. homeland, and because the war is assumed to be confined to the Western Pacific and to conventional forces, that China will suffer much more from the war than the U.S. The authors add:

“In sum, the economic harm caused by a Sino-U.S. war, unless brief or mild, would be substantially greater to China than to the United States, an asymmetry likely to persist if not grow by 2025.”

The authors explicitly state that they have not included the effects of a possible nuclear war in their analysis [p.29]. They argue that China is unlikely to resort to use of its nuclear arms, even if it will be losing what the RAND authors call a long and severe war, and they describe the possibility of the U.S. initiating a nuclear conflict as “far-fetched” [p.31]. The probability of this kind of escalation may indeed be small, but it is certainly not nil, and the disutility is so immense that it merits greater consideration than it is given in this report. One further notes as both sides are developing very high yield conventional explosives and low yield nuclear ones, the line between these two kinds of arms is blurring and the danger that it will crossed is increasing.

Moreover, as someone who has been to war, I join the many who observe that all assumptions and scenarios about how a war will unfold, hold only until the first missile is lobbed.

Nor can one take for granted that the domestic political cost of war will be much higher for China than for the United States. Americans are very war weary, less willing to make sacrifices, and more able to effectively express their opposition to another war in a faraway country than the Chinese people.

The authors’ title for the paper has echoes that may well not have been intended. They argue that one must think more about what kind of war to fight with China, in order to avoid the worst kind. The title though evokes Herman Kahn’s notorious book Thinking about the Unthinkable, which sought to make an all-out nuclear war more acceptable – to Americans. The RAND report’s unintended effect may well make war more likely, given its assumptions that China will be unable to lay a glove on the U.S. homeland , while China would suffer greatly in military, economic, and political terms.

The report does not include even a hint as to what such a war will accomplish, what it will lead to: the U.S. occupying China and “rebuilding it”? Introduce a regime change that will end with a government more favorable to the U.S.? Given America’s recent nation-building experiences in much smaller states in the Middle East, one cannot but wonder. One may well say, this was not what RAND asked the authors to study. However one cannot assess a war, or compare one kind to another, without discussing what kind of China we will have to contend with once we win (assuming we do). If the expected end state is akin to what we now have in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, one may well conclude that we should avoid any and all the wars RAND has laid out.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. His book, Foreign Policy: Thinking Outside the Box, was recently published by Routledge for Chatham House’s series “Insights.”

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