Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What Would War With China Look Like?

Updated December 2016

While Russia seems to be the focus of Washington's attention, at least publicly, China's growing presence as a global superpower is not to be ignored.  A recent study by Rand Corporation looks at the danger of a war with China, a possibility that is more than remote as a result of the ongoing South China Sea territorial dispute.  Here are some of the highlights of the Rand analysis.  

The authors of the study open by noting that while neither China nor the United States desire to actually fight a war, both sides have the capability to wage war and recent developments in the South China Sea have brought their forces into close proximity.  As China's anti-access and area-denial or A2AD capabilities improve thanks to technological advances in their military forces, America's conviction that it can win any conflict with China decisively are waining.   In their model, the authors make the assumptions that the war is fought somewhere during the time period up to 2025, is confined to the East Asia/Western Pacific region and would be conventionally fought using surface ships, submarines, aircraft, missiles, satellites and cyberspace.   The authors also assume that China would not be able to attack the United States mainland except by attacks on U.S. cyberspace.   The authors looked at four cases with varying conflict lengths (from days to a year or more) and severity (either mild or severe);

1.) a brief and severe conflict

2.) a long and severe conflict

3.) a brief and mild conflict

4.) a long and mild conflict

Here is a matrix which provides a description of all four conflict types:

The main factor that determines whether a war is mild or severe from the outset is whether the political leadership in both countries allows their military to use counterforce attacks.  The length of the conflict, particularly in the United States, will be determined (at least in part) by the public's opinion of the conflict.   

Here is an interesting graphic showing how the military capabilities of both nations will decline over time if a severe conflict were to erupt between China and the United States:

To this point in time, China's military planners have favoured and planned for a brief and severe conflict because they believe that it is the only way that they can win.  That said, the situation evolves significantly over time; as the years pass out to 2025, China's enhanced A2AD abilities will shrink the current technological gap between the Peoples Liberation Army and the United States military forces.  This means that over the next decade, a military victory by the United States over China would be less likely and would most likely result in a severe, lengthy and inconclusive war which would leave both nations susceptible to outside threats (i.e. Russia if they were not already involved in the conflict).  Both nations have ample inventory of frontline military equipment and are materially capable of waging a protracted war.

Here is a table showing the estimated military losses in a severe conflict as it would have been in 2015:

Here is a table showing the estimated military losses in a severe conflict as it would be in 2025 with China's enhanced military capabilities:

Improved Chinese military capabilities would likely result in a situation where there is no clear winner, making both sides more inclined to continue hostilities which would result in a protracted conflict.

While the authors of the study felt that there was little chance that a Sino-American war would be nuclear because of mutual deterrence, there are several circumstances in which China's leadership may approve the use of its nuclear force as follows:

1.)    Chinese forces are at risk of being totally destroyed.

2.)  The Chinese homeland has been rendered defenseless against U.S. conventional attacks; such attacks are extensive and go beyond military targets, perhaps to include political leadership.

3.)  Domestic economic and political conditions are growing so dire that the state itself could collapse.

4.)  U.S. conventional strikes include or are perceived to include capabilities that are critical to China’s strategic deterrent—notably intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBMs), ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), strategic C2—which the Chinese interpret as preparation for a U.S. first strike or intended to leave China vulnerable to U.S. nuclear coercion.

Generally, wars start from the smallest "seed".  With U.S. and Chinese forces coming into regular contact in the South China Sea over the recent past, all it would take to start a conflict between two of the world's superpowers is a mistake by one side or the other.   The additional complications of Taiwan and North Korea are adding further fuel to the possibility of hostilities exploding in the West Pacific region.  In any case, the world's best hope is that Donald Trump is reluctant to put his hand on the "hot button" that controls the U.S. military presence in the West Pacific.  


  1. Blah...Blah The US will win any war with China .However although China aint in the same league with the US military,it aint the old SU/Iraq/Nv or even Japan ww2 which could use kamikaze tactics to hit US ships.The destruction it could pose to US forces is not to be sneered at.
    The thing is in any war with China,US planes cannot be expected to roam free at will to attack their targets.Since ww2,US warships could loiter near the enemies' coast to launch attacks.Not anymore.I believe if US forces launch attacks on China ,whether conventional/nuclear,will result in USac being sunk and the Pacific fleet wiped off if China were to be defeated.
    If the US were intent on regime change in Beijing,get set for ww3. The US public better make sure their elected officials don't hide while PLA missiles streak towards them

  2. The war scenario always envision war is conducted at China homeland.Does any military strategist ever think thta China will allow its homeland to be a battlefield.China will bring the war to US if war really broke out.Chian has the capability to bring the war to US homeland.As for the other small countries such as Japan,Korea its better to stay out or else they will be the first to be annihilated.

  3. Currently the US is constantly provoking China with fon.This is bs. It is to antagonize the PLA and dare the latter to shoot at the US warships.Seems like a replay of the Tonkin of Gulf 1964.NV shore batteries fired on the US warships.According to the Freedom of Info US warships had deliberately goaded the NV.That was how the US president conned Congress into to authorizing war against NV and 58000 were sacrificed.
    In a war with China,the Chinese could be defeated and China wiped off the map.But it aint as easy as it looks on paper. The PLA will ensure the big cities of the US will be destroyed as the price. Hence the thaad on SK
    It wont give the US 100% immunity.The PLA will ensure they will have a secure and invulnerable 2nd strike to make sure the US hawks understand the price to be paid.