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

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RAND Corporation Santa Monica United States

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Six years ago, the RAND Corporation reviewed the prospects for war between the United States and China. Possible theaters of conflict were the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, Japan, the South China Sea, cyberspace, and India. We concluded that, while armed conflict between the two countries was not likely, the possibility was real enough to require prudent policies and effective deterrent measures. We also cautioned that those measures would become more demanding as Chinese capabilities grew. For the United States, this would mean assuming greater risks in the future to achieve the same objectives as in the past. Events since have confirmed these judgments. The range and capabilities of Chinese air and sea defenses have continued to grow, making U.S. forward-basing more vulnerable and the direct defense of U.S. interests in the region potentially more costly. As these trends continue, the United States will find itself gradually pushed more toward the threat of horizontal or vertical escalation for deterrence, with the attendant risks of counter-escalation. Neither the United States nor China is likely to employ nuclear weapons, but even an initially localized conflict could quickly spread into the economic, cyber, and space realms, doing considerable damage to both sides. The United States may be able to reduce or delay such reliance on escalatory responses by shifting to less vulnerable platforms longer-range precision-strike drones and vessels to carry longer-range drones and submarines, along with the further dispersal of bases and force flows. The United States can also encourage and help allies and partners in the region to increase the range and capabilities of their own air and sea defenses. Barring unforeseen technological developments, however, it will not be possible for the United States to rely indefinitely on the direct defense of its regional interests.

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Technical Report



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Approved For Public Release;

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