U.S. War with China Not Likely but Steps Needed to Keep the Peace

For Release

October 10, 2011

To avoid direct military conflict with China, the United States should adopt a parallel strategy that strengthens the defense capabilities of China's neighbors while inviting China into cooperative security endeavors that benefit the interests of both nations, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

Researchers find that any military conflict between the United States and China would be disastrous for both sides. Fortunately, a Chinese-American military conflict is not likely to happen so long as the United States retains the capacity to deter behavior that could lead to a clash.

The study examines six scenarios involving North Korea, Taiwan, cyberspace, the South China Sea, Japan and India that could result in a conflict between the United States and China.

While researchers emphasize a China-U.S. military conflict is improbable as long as the United States continues to take appropriate measures for defense and deterrence, they find that China will gradually achieve local military superiority.

"If it chose to do so, China could become a more capable opponent than either the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany at their peak," said James Dobbins, the study's lead author and a senior fellow at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "However, China is not seeking to expand its territory or hold ideological sway over its neighbors. Nor is it seeking to match U.S. defense spending."

The study finds that North Korea poses the greatest source for conflict in the region. Whether by a failed economy, a contested power transition or a defeat in a war with South Korea, the situation in North Korea would quickly become chaotic and confusing. The immediate operational concerns for the United States and South Korea would be to secure ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, as well as to neutralize North Korean artillery within range of Seoul.

"For these missions, special operations forces, forced entry and airlift capabilities would be at a premium," Dobbins said. South Korea would provide sizable forces for these missions, but they would not be adequate to deal with the situation by themselves. A North Korean collapse could require a very large multinational stabilization force.

China would likely respond by mobilizing the Shenyang Military Region forces and could send forces into North Korea to control refugee flow.

"The likelihood of confrontations, whether intentional or accidental, between United States and Chinese forces would be high, with a significant potential for escalation," Dobbins said. On the other hand, it is equally possible that a North Korean collapse could engender a cooperative U.S. and Chinese response, with both countries joining others in seeking to stabilize the situation.

While relations between Taiwan and China are improving, the chance of conflict across the Taiwan Strait will remain so long as the fundamental disagreement about the island's status as an independent nation or as part of a "reunified" China remains.

The authors find that should a cross-Strait conflict erupt—such as a Chinese blockade of Taiwanese ports or an outright invasion—the U.S. would aim to prevent Chinese coercion or conquest of Taiwan and limit the damage to Taiwan's military, economy and society.

To do so would require preventing China from gaining air and sea dominance, and limiting the impact of Beijing's land-attack missiles. This could include the possibility of U.S. strikes on mainland targets associated with the offensive against Taiwan, but such strikes would carry with them the risk of further escalation. China may preempt such actions with attacks of its own against U.S. assets in the region.

"As China's military modernization progresses, the United States' ability to confidently accomplish these missions is eroding," Dobbins said.

China already has demonstrated the capacity for cyberwarfare by conducting repeated intrusions into U.S. networks to steal sensitive data, without U.S. reprisal. Cyberwar between the two nations, researchers say, would not produce a "winner" as both countries would experience substantial economic harm. Such a conflict also would create tension that could negatively influence cooperative efforts involving Iran and the Korean peninsula.

With additional potential conflicts in the South China Sea, Japan and India, researchers say the United States needs a wide range of advanced military capabilities to deter a conflict or prevail should one erupt. As Chinese power grows, the direct defense of American interests in East Asia will become progressively more difficult, beginning with Taiwan and spreading outward. Defense and deterrence will increasingly depend upon strengthened indigenous capabilities and the threat of escalation. Such escalation could be either geographic or into other domains such as space, cyber or economic, all areas of considerable American vulnerability.

The study says any military conflict with China would have serious economic consequences for both sides. This interdependence is a powerful source of deterrence, operating in effect as a form of "mutual assured economic destruction." The United States needs to maintain the strength of its economy, lest it find itself even more deterred than is China by the prospect of such economic damage.

The study, "Conflict with China: Prospects, Consequences, and Strategies for Deterrence," can be found at www.rand.org. Other authors are David C. Gompert, David A. Shlapak and Andrew Scobell.

The study was prepared by the RAND Arroyo Center, which provides objective analytic research on major policy concerns to leadership of the U.S. Army, with an emphasis on mid- to long-term policy issues intended to improve effectiveness and efficiency. The center also provides the Army with short-term assistance on urgent problems and acts as a catalyst for needed change.

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