In our scenario China avoids hitting Guam, under the rationale that striking American territory would be an unnecessary escalation. Not attacking Guam, our Chinese planners reason, might allow the United States to sue for peace while saving face.
Now that Japanese and American air and naval forces have been dealt a serious blow, the blockade begins. PLAN surface task forces set out to form a barrier between Japan and the rest of the world. Lacking significant, effective long-range reconnaissance forces, Chinese forces at sea patrol aggressively but are at a disadvantage.
China continues its blitz of cruise and ballistic missiles, shifting their focus. Energy, food and transportation assets are struck, designed to quickly whittle down the quality of life of the average Japanese civilian. The race is on to break the Japanese government’s will to resist before China runs out of missiles and American reinforcements arrive. China strenuously denies it is hitting non-military targets.
Now comes China’s ace-in-the-hole: the DF-21D. China has avoided using its so-called carrier killer missiles, for fear of exposing the network of ocean-monitoring sensors making up the DF-21’s “kill chain.” China has even resisted using them on Japanese helicopter carriers hunting down Chinese submarines. China warns America that any aircraft carriers nearing Japan would be destroyed, as will the 5,000 Americans on board.
Meanwhile, Japanese and American forces in the region are licking their wounds, reorganizing defenses and absorbing reinforcements. Japanese and American forces that have escaped damage, particularly submarines at sea, will soon be on the offensive.
The above scenario represents the best possible outcome of a Chinese attack on Japan, given the current status of forces on both sides.
There are many unknowns riddling this exercise, and it assumes—for the sake of argument —that Chinese capabilities are good enough to inspire confidence. Without these assumptions, the Chinese war plan falls apart.
We know very little about Chinese cyber capability, for example, other than they have a prodigious number of hackers. Some experts argue China’s cyber capability is relatively primitive compared to Western capabilities. Chinese ASAT capability is also an unknown, and the sensors making up the DF-21D kill chain largely theoretical.
This thought exercise is not an endorsement of war between China and Japan, or even a suggestion war is likely. Rather, it is a reminder the possibility exists of a war that would affect nearly two billion people. The time to avoid it is now.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and The Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch.