The Buzz

How America Would Try and Smash China in a War (More Like World War III)

The best way to get good at anything is too actually go out and do it— and do it a lot. The challenge for China is that you can wargame all you want but unless you have experienced actual combat there will always be a learning curve.  And the curve for China is steep: Beijing has not not fought a major war since its roughly one month skirmish with Vietnam in 1979.

Now, while knowledge from a conflict thirty-five years ago might not translate into success against America in a war, having little to no combat experience could pose some challenges for China. Washington going into any conflict with Beijing would certainly have a decisive advantage when it comes to war fighting. While the conflicts America has fought over the last twenty-five years were not A2/AD battle royals, the last few decades has offered the U.S. military the capability to test out new systems and tactics, fix things that aren’t working when it comes to combat operations, and make important adjustments for future scenarios. For example, the U.S. did not need to send F-22s into Syria, however, the opportunity to learn on the battlefield and gain experience is of vital importance and likely the main reason for doing so. And it is one area that would have to be considered a major advantage in a battle against China. 

Let’s not mince words: a U.S.-China war would be hell on earthIt would likely start World War III. Millions— maybe billions— of people would die if nuclear weapons were ever used in such a conflict. The global economy would likely face ruin— that’s what happens when the world’s biggest economic powers start shooting at each other. Thankfully the chances are remote it will ever happen. Yet, the threat of such a conflict remains thanks to the many different pressure points in the U.S.-China relationship. Forget the challenge of ISIS, Ukraine, Syria or whatever the flavor of the moment is. The U.S.-China relationship— and whether it remains peaceful or not— is the most important challenge of our time. Period.

Recently in these digital pages (full disclosure: the piece was first posted in 2015 and was reprinted thanks to reader interest) I examined in a short piece on these digital pages how China could do great damage to U.S. and allied military forces in a war. Thanks to over twenty years of large scale investments, the PRC has gone from being a third-rate military that could project very little offensive punch to arguably the second most powerful military machine on the planet. And with an emphasis on weapons systems that embrace anti-access/area-denial military doctrine (A2/AD), China seems to be developing the tools it needs if war with America did ever come to pass. Beijing’s motto these days: be prepared.

This article examines the challenges China would face against the U.S. in a conflict--but in a very broad, top-down, and practical sort of way. This time I will avoid the fun but sometimes easy to pick apart scenario-style type of analysis. While Beijing certainly has the tools to get the job done when it comes to a war with Washington, the challenges China would face in such a conflict would be immense— and many of them could be quite basic. The PRC would be going to war against the premier military power on the planet— some would argue the most lethal fighting machine of all time. In this essay we will review some of the important foundational reasons why many argue, quite convincingly, that the U.S. would very well defeat China in a war.

A Great Mystery: Just How Good Is China’s Military Anyway?

Yes, Beijing keeps cranking out those whizz-bang high-tech weapons of war like sausages. China has those shiny, new carrier-killer missiles that everyone is always fretting about (including yours truly.) Its building aircraft carriers, 5th generation fighters, multiple types of cruise missiles, nuclear and ultra quiet diesel submarines, drones, mines and so on.

It all looks really good— at least on paper.

When it comes to a war with the U.S. how well would Beijing be able to use all that stuff? The real question seems pretty simple: yes, China is certainly developing all the military and technology goodies to field a potent force. However, how well can it operate all that equipment in the pressure filled situation of a war? Sure, Beijing is certainly developing a world-class military, but can its soldiers operate all that equipment competently? Just how well trained are they? You can have the best military in the world but if you don’t know how to use it, well, you get the idea.

Opinions are mixed on this for sure. Ian Easton from Project 2049, in a piece for The Diplomat, reminds us of the possible capabilities, nature, and mission of the PLA— and its certainly not all about America:

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