The Ultimate Nightmare: Are the U.S. and China Destined for War?

Will the eagle and the dragon meet on the battlefield?

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There is no geo-strategic relationship of more importance than that of the U.S. and China. Yet, tensions between Washington and Beijing over the last few years have been building. Over the last few weeks I have been exploring on these pages some of the pathways the unthinkable could happen: a U.S.-China war. We have also been exploring the various paths to victory both sides could utilize. While all of this is important, it is also important to take a step back and look at the U.S.-China relationship from another viewpoint of equal and possibly even greater value—a dilemma in the relationship that is creating its own set of tensions: the budding high-tech security dilemma pitting Washington and Beijing against one another.

While both sides have benefitted from decades of fruitful economic, cultural, and diplomatic ties since the restoration of formal relations in the 1970s, the dynamic of this important relationship is becoming increasingly competitive. Due to a host of factors such as the loss of a common foe (the Soviet Union), existing Asia-Pacific alliance dynamics, economic competition, territorial claims and counterclaims in the East and South China Sea and the rapid deployment of advanced conventional weapons platforms on both sides Washington and Beijing find themselves in an increasingly dangerous security dilemma.

While there have been various security dilemmas sprinkled throughout the pages of history, the U.S.-Sino security dilemma introduces a dangerous twist—a reliance on sophisticated types of military technology that rewards the side who strikes first and the hardest across all possible domains of conflict.

For example, as China develops increasingly effective methods for keeping outside powers out of the region (a good example is the DF-21D anti-ship missile), the U.S. seeks ways to maintain access to the region along with maintaining vital power projection capabilities. A good example is Washington relying on nuclear powered attack submarines armed with tomahawk land attack cruise missiles (TLAMS) to attack Chinese command and control nodes and “break the kill chain.” Such a move has pushed China to begin the deployment of sonar nets in the East, South, and South China Seas.

Such a budding security dynamic presents a clear and self-reinforcing challenge: when one side introduces a weapons platform or system this then induces the other side to match or surpass it through increasingly sophisticated technology. Such a dilemma pits the world’s two largest economies—armed with nuclear weapons—on a dangerous path that must be avoided.

The motivations on both sides of this budding security dilemma are important—specifically how their signature efforts to combat each others militaries—on the Chinese side anti-access/area denial, and for the American side what was known as the Air-Sea Battle Concept now known as JAM-GC—are likely feeding such a security dilemma.

Chinese motivations for the utilization of anti-access/area-denial or what many call A2/AD have roots across Chinese philosophy, history and careful study of the recent past. Looking back at U.S. military campaigns over the last several decades, American strategy has largely involved building force levels in mass close to a theater of operations before striking—almost always uninterrupted—allowing tremendous strategic advantage. Utilizing an A2/AD military strategy, Beijing would attempt to eliminate such strategic advantage.