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Conflict with China: Prospects, Consequences, and Strategies for Deterrence

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Occasional paper

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Over the next twenty years, China s gross domestic product GDP and defense budget could grow to exceed those of the United States, allowing it to become a true peer competitor. Despite this potential, we believe China s security interests and military capabilities will remain focused on its immediate periphery. Possible conflicts might arise there involving Korea, Taiwan, one or more countries of Southeast Asia, or India, more or less in that descending order of probability. A U.S.-China conflict might also start in and perhaps be entirely confined to cyberspace. We do not assess armed conflict between the United States and China as probable in any of these instances, but that judgment is based on an assessment that the United States will retain the capacity to deter behavior that would lead to such a clash. American ground forces will be essential for the most likely East Asia contingency, that arising from a Democratic People s Republic of Korea DPRK collapse, but less so for the others. 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. In consequence, the direct defense of contested assets in that region will become progressively more difficult, eventually approaching impossible. The United States will therefore become increasingly dependent on escalatory options for defense and retaliatory capabilities for deterrence. American nuclear superiority is not likely to be much help in this regard, both because China will retain a second-strike capability and because the issues at stake in most potential crises are not of vital consequence to the United States. Conflict is likely to escalate into the cyber and economic realms. In both cases, U.S. vulnerabilities are such as to make this unattractively costly.

Subject Categories:

  • Government and Political Science
  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics

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