Cover: The Return of Great Power War

The Return of Great Power War

Scenarios of Systemic Conflict Between the United States and China

Published Aug 10, 2022

by Timothy R. Heath, Kristen Gunness, Tristan Finazzo

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Research Questions

  1. How might China's security goals change if it were to engage in systemic conflict with the United States?
  2. How might the People's Liberation Army (PLA) operate and modernize its forces in such a situation?
  3. Where and how might conflict involving Chinese and U.S. forces unfold?
  4. What distinctive features of the Chinese military might enable or impede its ability to fight a systemic war with U.S. forces?

Through a careful synthesis of current and historical data on relevant factors, anticipated trends, and research-grounded speculation, the authors analyze several scenarios of systemic U.S.-China conflict under hypothetical conditions in which China has neared the point of global primacy. Drawing on academic and research findings regarding the potential trajectory of international security and warfare in coming years, China's approach to future warfare, relevant experiences of preceding great powers, and patterns in interstate wars, the authors explore the possibility of a U.S.-China war of power transition.

The authors develop two scenarios of systemic U.S.-China conflict. The first scenario features a low-intensity conflict that unfolds across much of the world, across many domains, and over many years. The second features a high-intensity war that evolves out of the low-intensity war. The high-intensity war scenario envisions aggressive actions by both countries to destroy the warfighting capability of the adversary and carries an extremely high risk of escalation to the most destructive levels. Both scenarios occur within the context of a deeply fragmented international situation in which the U.S. and Chinese militaries experience immense strain from sustaining the war effort while grappling with an array of nontraditional threats and responding to demands for aid from embattled partners. Although their analysis concerns a hypothetical conflict situation in which China has neared global primacy, the authors' findings could inform defense planning for potential contingencies even today.

Key Findings

  • Systemic U.S.-China conflict would likely extend across the globe and to all domains, including cyberspace and outer space. Such a conflict would take a chronic, systemic form that persists, possibly for years. The conflict would end only when one side or the other concedes the fight and acknowledges its subordination to the other.
  • The U.S. and Chinese militaries could find themselves under immense strain in a systemic conflict owing to the competing demands to sustain the war effort, respond to a broad array of acute transnational threats, and help partner nations cope with their own security challenges.
  • Low-intensity war could feature extensive fighting conducted primarily through partner nations and nonstate groups. The escalation risk would remain high because either side might tire of the inconclusive nature of such fighting and seek more aggressive actions to bring the war to a conclusion.
  • To fight U.S. forces in a high-intensity war, the PLA might favor operations that rely on lower-cost, lower-risk weapons and on such methods as long-range precision strike, cyber operations, and support for irregular forces.
  • Although such a war might begin with more modest war aims in mind, the temptation to escalate would be difficult to resist, owing to the underlying drive to dominate the other side. Fighting could feature extensive Chinese missile strikes throughout the Indo-Pacific region aimed at shattering U.S. military power.

Recommendations

  • Planners should consider a broader range of contingencies for low- or high-intensity war with China, which could carry out combat options beyond such flashpoints as Taiwan.
  • Planners should consider the prospect of U.S.-China conflict less as a single battle or clash over a specific flashpoint than as a series of sequentially related, geographically dispersed clashes between U.S.- and Chinese-aligned forces that span many domains. Such conflict could last for years and severely stress a U.S. military already addressing competing demands for security assistance from allies and partners and potentially tackling severe transnational threats as well.
  • The United States should consider bolstering its ability to wage low-intensity war, which is a more likely scenario for U.S.-China conflict than a high-intensity war.
  • Planners should ensure U.S. ability to defend and secure vital choke points in the Middle East and along the Indian Ocean.
  • Planners should focus on alliance building and on weapons and platforms that help gain the information advantage and mitigate long-range strike capabilities.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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