Armed conflict between the US and China during the next 20 years is improbable, provided Washington retains the capacity to deter behavior that would lead to such a clash, a US think tank says in a new report.
In an occasional paper titled Conflict with China: Prospects, Consequences and Strategies for Deterrence prepared by RAND Corp for the US Army, the authors say China’s security interests and military capabilities for the next two decades are expected to remain focused on its immediate periphery, with conflict likeliest to occur over Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, one or more countries in Southeast Asia or India.
“China is seeking neither territorial aggrandizement nor ideological sway over its neighbors,” the report says. “It shows no interest in matching US military expenditures, achieving a comparable global reach or assuming defense commitments beyond its immediate periphery.”
While such intentions could change, the US would probably receive considerable warning of such a shift, given the lead time needed to develop the capabilities needed for a new strategy that would seek to alter China’s current emphasis on regional contingencies.
“While China’s overall military capabilities will not equal those of the United States anytime soon, it will more quickly achieve local superiority in its immediate neighborhood, first in and around Taiwan and then at somewhat greater distances,” the paper says. “In consequence, the direct defense of contested assets in that region will become progressively more difficult, eventually approaching impossible.”
Given this, the US will become increasingly dependent on “escalatory options for defense and retaliatory capabilities for deterrence,” it says.
“Conventional strikes on mainland Chinese military targets may be the best escalatory option, but there is little reason to be confident that conflict could be so confined,” the authors say.
Regarding Taiwan, the authors say while relations between Beijing and Taipei have improved, “no meaningful progress has been made on the key issue between the two states, which is if, when, and how the island’s ultimate status — as an independent polity or as part of a ‘reunified’ China — will be determined.”
“The chance of conflict across the Taiwan Strait will remain so long as this fundamental disagreement persists,” they write.
Core missions for the US, it says, would include “preventing China from gaining air and sea dominance, and limiting the impact of Beijing’s land-attack missiles” through “flexible combinations of active and passive defense and offensive action.”
Those include the possibility of US strikes against targets in China associated with the offensive against Taiwan.
“As China’s military modernization progresses, the US ability to confidently accomplish these missions is eroding,” it says. “Absent an unlikely reversal in the ongoing rebalancing of military power in the area ... a direct defense of Taiwan has already become a challenge and is likely to become increasingly difficult in coming years.”
The best option for planners in Washington to reduce the risk of escalation before a conflict turned hot is to “enable the [military] capabilities” and buttress the resolve of China’s neighbors in a way that does not signal to Beijing that Washington is attempting to encircle China.