China 2050: How the U.S. Should Prepare for an Ascendant China

For Release

July 24, 2020

The United States should prepare for a triumphant or ascending People's Republic of China (PRC)—scenarios that not only align with current PRC national development trends but also represent the most challenging future scenarios for the U.S. military, according to a new RAND Corporation report that examines China's grand strategy out to 2050.

The authors make the case that the kind of country China becomes, and the way that its military evolves, is neither foreordained nor completely beyond the influence of the United States or U.S. military. However, Beijing's intense preoccupation with internal security and deep suspicions regarding U.S. intentions toward China may frustrate attempts by Washington to improve bilateral relations and encourage more liberal domestic policies.

“The experience of COVID-19 is a prime example,” said Andrew Scobell, the study's lead author and a senior political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. “Beijing's secretive approach to the pandemic has exacerbated tensions with a wide array of other countries, including the United States, and contributed to economic dislocation (aka 'decoupling') between China and some of its key trading partners. While Beijing seems to have been effective in dealing with the pandemic at home, this has been accomplished through draconian and repressive measures.”

To map out potential future scenarios—What will China, and its military, look like in 2050? What will U.S.-China relations look like in 2050?—researchers studied trends in the management of politics and society and analyzed the specific national-level strategies and plans that China's Communist Party rulers have put in place to further their vision of a China that is well governed, socially stable, economically prosperous, technologically advanced, and militarily powerful by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the PRC.

The report describes four possible scenarios for China at mid-century—triumphant, ascendant, stagnant and imploding—with the middle two most likely. If China proves ascendant, the U.S. military should anticipate increased risk to already threatened forward-based forces in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, as well as a loss of the ability to operate routinely in the air and sea space above and in the Western Pacific.

The report recommends that the U.S Army be prepared for a China whose role on the Asia-Pacific and global stages grows steadily. To prepare for military conflict in such circumstances, the U.S. Army should optimize its abilities to deter hostilities, get troops and equipment to hotspots quickly, operate from forward bases, and work with allied forces.

The United States could field more robust cyber and network attack capabilities and other means to counter China's unmanned aircraft systems, the authors assert. The capacity to respond quickly and effectively to China's burgeoning reconnaissance-strike system will play an important role in determining the extent to which China's leadership remains risk averse when considering military options to resolve regional disputes.

The report, conducted for the U.S. Army, is based on a review of Chinese and Western literature on the PRC's long-term strategic development and security plans and objectives, official statements by high-level Chinese officials and institutions, speeches by paramount leaders, white papers published by the Ministry of National Defense and other PRC government agencies, authoritative People's Liberation Army (PLA) texts, as well as Western and other non-Chinese analyses of these documents.

Other authors of the study, “China's Grand Strategy: Trends, Trajectories, and Long-Term Competition,” are Edmund J. Burke, Cortez A. Cooper III, Sale Lilly, Chad J. R. Ohlandt, Eric Warner, and J.D. Williams.

Research for the study was conducted within RAND Arroyo Center's Strategy, Doctrine and Resources ProgramRAND Arroyo Center is a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the United States Army.

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.