Potentially, victory could cement the US-led alliance system, making the containment of China considerably less expensive. Assuming that the war began with an assertive Chinese move in the East or South China Sea, the United States could plausibly paint China as the aggressor, and establish itself as the focal point for balancing behavior in the region. Chinese aggression might also spur regional allies (especially Japan) to increase their defense expenditures.
A war could invigorate US government and society around the long-term project of containing China. The US could respond by redoubling its efforts to outpace the Chinese military, although this would provoke an arms race that could prove devastating to both sides. However, given the lack of ideological or territorial threats to the United States, this might be a tough sell.
Finally, the United States could respond by effectively removing itself from the East Asian political scene, at least in a military sense. This option would be hard for many in the US to swallow, given that generations of American foreign policy-makers have harbored hegemonic ambitions.
The window for war between the United States and China will, in all likelihood, last for a long time. Preventing war will require tremendous skill and acumen from diplomats and policymakers. Similarly, the demands of positioning either side for victory will continue to tax diplomatic, military, and technological resources for the foreseeable future. At the moment, however, we shouldn’t forget that China and the United States constitute the heart of one of the most productive economic regions the world has ever seen. That’s something to protect, and to build on.
Robert Farley is a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter: @drfarls.
This first appeared in 2014.