What Are the Chances of the U.S. and China Going to War? (excerpt)
(Source: Rand Corp.; issued March 14, 2017)
By David C. Gompert
China is building military installations to cement its claims to most of the South China Sea and to back those claims if need be. Because the Trump administration, like its predecessor, rightly opposes this development, the chance of a military confrontation or incident is growing.

Meanwhile, Sino-American relations in general have soured over trade, possibly impairing the ability of leaders on both sides to manage such a crisis. Still, actual war between the two powers seems far-fetched: The stakes are not high enough, and the disputes not severe enough, to prompt leaders of either country to start a conflict outright.

Yet there is danger in complacency about the risk of war between the U.S. and China, owing to the growing likelihood of crises along with advances in military technology on both sides that can cause “crisis instability.”

With improved long-range sensors and weapon accuracy, the conventional forces of each are increasingly able to target and strike those of the other. In a crisis, the inhibition toward war could give way to the impulse to gain advantage by striking first, even pre-emptively, before being struck. Thus, the test is not whether barriers against war are strong enough in peacetime but whether they would hold in time of crisis.

Of course, Chinese and American leaders could instantly intervene to stop a conflict before it got out of hand. But here, too, complacency would be a mistake. Because both sides have increasingly potent but vulnerable strike forces, there is an incentive to “use 'em or lose 'em” once hostilities began. A conflict could escalate swiftly and become even harder to stop.

A recent study issued by the RAND Corporation indicates that a significant fraction of U.S. surface-naval forces involved, including aircraft carriers, and an even greater fraction of Chinese forces could be destroyed early in a spiraling armed conflict.

The military balance in the Western Pacific still favors the U.S., but this is shifting.

Although the military balance in the Western Pacific still favors the U.S., this is shifting as China invests a major share of its growing military budget into “anti-access/area-denial” capabilities, like anti-ship missiles, designed to strike U.S. forces in the region.

Moreover, although the U.S. spends about three times what China does on military capabilities, China can concentrate on the Western Pacific, whereas the U.S. faces threats elsewhere, such as Russia, Iran and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). (end of excerpt)

Click here for the full story, on the Rand Corp. website.


prev next

Official reports See all