There is a stronger possibility of an accidental shooting that sparks a war between the United States and China than most Americans believe, according to a new report by the Rand Corporation, a global think tank that specializes in military issues.
The nonprofit institution’s report, titled War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable, details why the chances of such a conflict continue to grow.
“While neither state wants war, both states’ militaries have plans to fight one,” the report says. “As Chinese anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) capabilities improve, the United States can no longer be so certain that war would follow its plan and lead to decisive victory.”
China’s anti-access strategy aims to prevent countries, such as the United States, from operating militarily from a fixed land base, while its anti-denial strategy seeks to make the sea so dangerous that the US military won’t enter.
The Rand Corporation is not part of the government, although it is regarded as a major generator of thought for the US military, Reuters Global Affairs commentator Peter Apps noted. Rand is, though, partially funded by the government.
Both sides, the report says, “would suffer large military losses in a severe conflict.”
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“In 2015, U.S. losses could be a relatively small fraction of forces committed, but still significant; Chinese losses could be much heavier than U.S. losses and a substantial fraction of forces committed,” the report said. “This gap in losses will shrink as Chinese A2AD improves. By 2025, U.S. losses could range from significant to heavy; Chinese losses, while still very heavy, could be somewhat less than in 2015, owing to increased degradation of U.S. strike capabilities.”
China’s anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) capabilities will “make it increasingly difficult for the United States to gain military-operational dominance and victory,” the report says.
The report lists several ways a conflict between the two countries could start:
- China could try to “intimidate its neighbors below the threshold of U.S. intervention, yet misjudge where that threshold is.”
- China could “underestimate U.S. willingness to back Japan militarily in a crisis over disputed territory in the East China Sea.”
- China’s claim of sovereignty in the South China Sea and the United States’ insistence that the waters are international “could bring forces into close and hazardous proximity if either side opts to enforce its stance.”
The report notes that China has “been building artificial islands, airstrips, and other militarily useful infrastructure” in the South China Sea — and claiming the areas are China’s alone.
“The United States will not accept this because it runs afoul of several U.S. interests: the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes, the principle of freedom of the seas, the fact that some 40 percent of world trade passes through the South China Sea, and the expectations of the Philippines and other U.S. friends that the United States will not condone Chinese unilateral action,” the report says.
As “horrific” as a China-US war could be, the report says, “it cannot be considered implausible.”