In the spirit of being intellectually honest, it makes sense to start by at least articulating the “elephant in the room” in terms of scenario-related questions: will there be a military confrontation between the United States and China? And to remain in the realm of honesty, there can be only one such answer: we just don’t know.
Is a military confrontation between the United States and China possible?
Definitely. In fact, we have dedicated an entire article to the Thucydides trap dimension, more specifically Harvard professor Graham Allison’s observation that historically and statistically speaking, a confrontation between an emerging power (China, in our case) and the dominant one (the United States, in our case) is not just possible but downright likely, having occurred in 75% of such cases throughout history.
However, we have argued that as we come closer to the present, Graham Allison’s approach may very well stop making as much sense because new variables emerge, more specifically the “Mutually Assured Destruction” concept (the idea that in a nuclear war, there can be no winners, only losers) which acted as the number one deterrent when it comes to let’s say direct military confrontation between the US and USSR.
Fast-forward to the present and here at ChinaFund.com, we have coined the term “Mutually Assured Economic Destruction” given the deeply interconnected nature of today’s worldwide economy or if you will, the idea that peace represents the way to go, if only for financial reasons (to conveniently modify a Woody Allen quote).
In a nutshell, these two questions and answers tend to describe the attitude of the ChinaFund.com team with respect to the military confrontation scenario. We consider it quite likely that the US and China can remain adversarial in many respects without there being a need for direct military confrontation and on the contrary, with them even collaborating in certain key instances, when doing so makes sense for both parties involved.
That being stated, we owe it to our readers to at least take the possibility seriously and as such, have also analyzed the military dimension of Sino-American relations by dedicating an entire article to China’s military sector on the one hand and on the other hand, dedicating one to China’s military capabilities. As both articles allude to, despite the fact that impressive progress has been made in China (just like with most other sectors), a hypothetical military confrontation would be rather clearly in “asymmetric warfare” territory for the simple reason that there is a severe difference between the two players when it comes to anything from military capabilities to overall strategies.
Yes, it is true that China:
- Is now the worldwide leader in terms of total artillery
- Occupies position two in terms of aircraft fighters, self-propelled artillery, aircraft attack, armored fighting vehicles and combat tanks
- Occupies position three in terms of total aircraft strength, total helicopter strength and attack helicopters as well as rocket projectors
- Has the infrastructure dimension going for it, anything from roughly 4 million kilometres in terms of roadway coverage and 86,000 kilometres in terms of railway coverage to 16 major ports and over 500 airports
However, there is more to the military equation than the quantitative dimension and as we move on to the qualitative one (anything from cutting edge technology to geopolitical influence), the US is still in a more than comfortable enough lead for us to state that, again, a hypothetical military confrontation between the two entities would be firmly in “asymmetric warfare” territory.
As such, China’s attitude cannot help but be rather similar to Russia’s in terms of approaches, an attitude that revolves more so around hybrid warfare (conducting cyber attacks, defending itself against cyber attacks, launching informational warfare campaigns such as fake news distribution, basic online propaganda and the list could go on and on) than around a direct military confrontation.
While it is true that both China and Russia are already engaging in various more or less subtle forms of hybrid warfare, it would be a stretch to conclude that one entity or the other is “at war” (hot war, that is) with the United States. At best, a “Cold War 2.0” narrative would make more sense and not because adversarial tendencies are nowhere to be found (on the contrary) but rather due to a combination between geopolitical realism (China as well as Russia realizing that they are nowhere near parity with the United States militarily speaking), Mutually Assured Destruction as well as Mutually Assured Economic Destruction.
This hybrid warfare dynamic once again makes it clear that potential conflicts between the United States and either China or Russia (perhaps both) need to be seen through an asymmetric warfare lens. Even with the impressive progress of China on pretty much all fronts correlated with the fact that the United States has arguably made several steps back on the international scene on the one hand and has its share of endogenous problems on the other (anything from unemployment issues to social unrest), it would be nothing short of ludicrous to paint the picture of parity when comparing the US and China.
As a conclusion, for the reasons outlines throughout this article and many more, the asymmetry between the United States and China tends to be far more pronounced than headline statistics indicate. As such, “asymmetric warfare” is the name of the game when analyzing various scenarios, with the important remark that just like during the Cold War, Thucydides Trap-related arguments may very well once again be invalidated (we certainly hope so, in light of the fact that large-scale conflicts between combatants such as these two entities cannot possibly end well for humanity as a whole, realistically speaking) for reasons pertaining to Mutually Assured Destruction as well as Mutually Assured Economic Destruction.