What Are the Chances of the U.S. and China Going to War?

As Tillerson arrives in Asia, China’s aggressive expansionism continues.

By David C. Gompert On 3/14/17 at 4:05 PM

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.

Related: The ‘inevitable war’ between the U.S. and China

A recent study issued by the Rand Corp. 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.

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).

Although China’s military disadvantage is shrinking, it would suffer immense harm—more than the U.S.—in the event of a war. Although the collapse of bilateral trade would damage both economies, virtually all of China’s trade, being seaborne, would be disrupted by a war in the Western Pacific.

While U.S. gross domestic product could fall by 5 to 10 percent in the first year of a war, China’s could fall by 25 percent or more. Because the Chinese regime’s legitimacy depends on strong economic performance, political unrest could follow hardship.

What should American policy-makers do about this? Simply letting China gain de facto control over the South China Sea is unacceptable because of the vital importance of those waters, through which some 40 percent of world seaborne trade passes. Also, U.S. allies and others across the region would lose confidence in the U.S. if it fails to stand up to China.

Nor can the U.S. spend its way out of this predicament. An arms race in the Western Pacific would favor China because of its ability to concentrate investment both in the region and in capabilities that can target U.S. strike forces.

But there are steps U.S. leaders could take to reduce the danger. The Pentagon could develop, produce and deploy less vulnerable forces, such as submarines and drone carriers. Of course, it will take years to transform U.S. forces in the Western Pacific.

Meanwhile, given how perilous a Sino-U.S. crisis could be, U.S. leaders could also engage with their Chinese counterparts in search of a way to satisfy the interests of both powers, and others, in the South China Sea. This would be hard, take time and not necessarily succeed, given that China insists that most of this sea belongs to it.

What could be done now is to ensure that Washington and Beijing have a direct and active channel between the two defense ministers to defuse a crisis before the logic of striking first kicks in. This channel should remain open not only in a crisis but to prevent escalation if hostilities were to erupt.

Lastly, American and Chinese leaders should insist that their military commanders have options other than early and escalating strikes in the event of a war.

David Gompert is a fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corp. and a former senior official of the U.S. intelligence community, the State Department and the National Security Council during a number of administrations of both parties.

Source: Newsweek “What Are the Chances of the U.S. and China Going to War?”

Note: This is Newsweek’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.


4 Comments on “What Are the Chances of the U.S. and China Going to War?”

  1. Mad Max says:

    “What should American policy-makers do about this? Simply letting China gain de facto control over the South China Sea is unacceptable because of the vital importance of those waters, through which some 40 percent of world seaborne trade passes.”

    Of course what this statement implies is that Amerika HAS de facto control over the South China Sea and is loathe to lose it.

    Mr Xi and Beijing has already gentlemanly asked you to respect China’s natural sphere of influence and that means the South China Sea and the East China Sea. If you refuse, then moves will be taken to fortify it and oust your presence from here by force if necessary.

    The Chinese island building and strenghtening of its defences there in the South China Sea is a step in that direction. Whether you like it or not. The South China Sea is China’s high ground to secure the mainland from aggressive attacks by you. Your vociferous demands, threats, shouting, yelling, and shrieking won’t make any difference. You will NOT use the South China Sea and the East Sea to surround, threaten and attack us. When war begins, we will ensure you will NOT pass.

    You Amerikan and European and Japanese powers have caused enough destruction, damage and chaos in China since the Ching dynasty era and Sun Yat-Sen and your corrupt vassal and puppet the “mass murder” Chiang Kai-Shek time, for 200 years, and the response from China and Chinese is, “No More!”. As Napoleon Bonaparte has rightly observed, China, the Eastern dragon, WILL arise one day. That day is here now.

    You can either have an agreeable major power relationship to co-exist peacefully or you can have war.

    Beijing WILL ensure you Amerikans leave East Asia and stop the world from being blown up. You may continue your “huff and puff” and your “hustle and bluster” and your “threats” to the brink, but use your common sense. China is unlikely to yield. Why? Because this is our home and land. You have your own “homeland” which you will defend with your life, no?

    So, go home, little wolf. This “house” here will keep adding bricks and steel and stone to strengthen it. Not so easy for you to “blow down”.


  2. Steve says:

    One certainty, there won’t be a trade war of words on currency manipulation. The S & P Global Ratings has thrown cold water on President Trump’s claim of Chinese currency manipulation. Old head Trumpy maybe shocked (with one eye closed) if he checkout (which he probably did) on his allies Sth Korea and de facto partner Taiwan as currency manipulators.


  3. Simon says:

    Trump does’nt even have the control of its own borders, he will not have control of the armed forces. Gompert is obviously anti Chinese, he mephises America position to oppose Chinea in the SCS is “rightly so” when in fact during postwar treaty and terms historians will tell you Japan surrendered the Paracels and the Sprately islands to China because they took it from China or took it from colonial rulers who took it from China and longer had any claims to the regionincluding those islands. While China benefit from a strong economy Gombert misses the fact that China can and have survived poverty and crises for many decades and will do so again in awar with America. Once several if not all Ameriucan carriers get sunk Washington will lose its status as world hegemon. China can start again and many there will be happy to. Can America start again? I don’t think so.


  4. Fre Okin says:

    Under Trump, very low probability. Trump is in the entertainment business and he know how to hype things up to scare a lot of people. More than any other POTUS, Trump have a Big Family as can be seen in his inaugural address. He is not going to risk them all over the silly disputes over rocks. China not going to interfere with legitimate FON, so while there will be uneasy peace, there won’t be any war.

    In fact, Trump as president is good as it allow China to have four more years to develop her military technology. If they mature fast enough and have enough firepower, the next POTUS if it is not Trump will be more scared to start a war with China.

    The world is lucky to have Trump as POTUS instead of Hillary as WWIII can be averted. As long as nobody attack US bases first, Trump will not be forced to react violently.