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Research Questions

  1. What are the prospects for war between the United States and China?
  2. In the event of a war, what are the theaters of conflict?

Although armed conflict between the United States and China is not likely, the possibility is real enough to require prudent policies and effective deterrent measures. In the past six years, the range and capabilities of Chinese air and sea defenses have continued to grow, making U.S. forward basing more vulnerable and the direct defense of U.S. interests in the East Asia region potentially more costly. As these trends continue, the United States will find itself gradually pushed more toward the threat of horizontal or vertical escalation for deterrence, with the attendant risks of counterescalation. Neither the United States nor China is likely to employ nuclear weapons, but even an initially localized conflict could quickly spread into the economic, cyber, and space realms, doing considerable damage to both sides. One means of improving the prospects for direct defense and reducing the risk of escalation is for the United States to continue to enable the capabilities and buttress the resolve of China's neighbors. And a parallel effort should be made to draw China into cooperative security endeavors, not only to avoid the appearance of an anti-China coalition but also to obtain greater contributions to international security from the world's second strongest power.

Key Findings

The United States Will Likely Find Itself Forced to Shift From Deterrence by Denial, Based on Direct Defense of Its Interests and Allies in the Western Pacific, to Deterrence by Punishment, Based on the Threat of Escalation

  • The United States may be able to reduce or delay reliance on escalatory responses by shifting to less vulnerable platforms: longer-range precision strike drones and vessels to carry longer-range drones and submarines, along with the further dispersal of bases and force flows.
  • The United States can encourage and assist allies and partners in the region to increase the range and capabilities of their own air and sea defenses.
  • Barring unforeseen technological developments, it will not be possible for the United States to confidently and indefinitely rely on the direct defense of its regional interests.

Recommendations

  • The United States should focus on deescalating localized clashes in East Asia.
  • The United States should move sooner rather than later — before its power position in the region diminishes further — to constructively engage China across a range of potential flash points, such as conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea, cross-Strait relations, issues on the Korean Peninsula.
  • The United States should maintain a dense network of diplomatic relationships with China while strengthening channels for crisis communications, including regular leader-to-leader, military-to-military contacts.

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This Perspective was sponsored by the United States Army and produced within the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program, part of the RAND Arroyo Center.

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