World War III: What a U.S. vs. China War Would Look Like (Who Wins?)

Published 2/10/2023 – What a War Between the U.S. and China Would Look Like: How does the unthinkable happen? The United States and China are inextricably locked into the Pacific Rim’s international trade system. Some argue that this makes war impossible, but wars that people have believed to be impossible have nevertheless broken out.

China Carrier-Killer Missile Tests

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China Carrier-Killer Missile Tests

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This article updates an argument made eight years ago, concentrating less on the operational and tactical details of a US-China war and more on the strategic objectives of the major combatants before, during, and after the conflict. A war between the United States and China would transform the geopolitics of East Asia, but could also leave many crucial elements unchanged. Tragically, a conflict between China and the US might be remembered only as “The First Sino-American War.”

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America vs. China: How the War Would Start

Taiwan has become the most likely trigger for war between China and the United States. The continued assertiveness of the PRC with respect to Taiwan, combined with the decision of the Biden administration to make its commitment to the defense of the island more explicit, has made it hard to imagine an alternative source of conflict.

How the war begins depends on how Beijing measures the global political situation. From a purely military point of view, launching direct attacks against US military assets in the theater of operations would be the best way of achieving operational surprise and inflicting maximum damage on the Americans before they could respond. However, China may see some political advantage in provoking a US response rather than attacking pre-emptively. In this case, China would begin military operations against Taiwan and await a US response, hoping to generate global sympathy and perhaps a disruptive political debate within the US itself.

However, as this would allow the United States to mobilize and stage its forces unmolested, it is more likely that the war will begin with a Chinese attack on American forces at the end of an escalating series of crises. Despite the growth of Chinese military power over the last two decades, the PLA would prefer not to face the full fury of a mobilized American military response, politics be damned. As such, U.S. forces must prepare to accept and withstand an opening Chinese blow designed to incapacitate their response and allow a rapid capture of Taiwan.

How Would the Allies Respond

Over the last eight years, the U.S. alliance system in the Western Pacific has tightened considerably. Japan has fully recognized the threat that China poses, and has begun the process of re-militarization. The U.S. has engaged Australia and the United Kingdom in a high-level technology and security deal that would seem to confirm the military support of both countries. The U.S. has also pushed Europe to disentangle itself from Chinese technology supply chains. Finally, U.S.-Indian security relations have steadily improved as tensions between Delhi and Beijing have worsened, and as Indian dependence upon Russia approaches a dead end.

The recent CSIS wargame assumed Japanese participation from the beginning of the conflict, an assessment that primarily accords with analytical thinking across the region. However, the degree of Japanese support probably depends on how the war begins. The U.S. can probably depend on some level of British and Australian intervention. Europe (and by Europe, we really mean France) will probably sit on the sideline militarily but will help shape the economic and financial conditions of the war. The allied response would also affect the waging of the economic and financial aspects of the war. The US-China trade relationship represents an enormous chunk of the global economy, and tearing that relationship apart would have dreadful costs before the dropping of the first bomb. India and South Korea are both huge wild cards; both prefer the US to China but would be taking enormous risks by intervening directly.

China also has friends, albeit not very many. Nevertheless, both Russia and North Korea could play consequential roles in any conflict. Pyongyang’s contribution would probably be ensuring that Seoul and to a lesser extent Tokyo remain distracted from challenging China’s main effort. Russia could play a destabilizing role, contributing to China’s defense industrial needs while threatening disruptive action across a range of fronts. Of course, much would depend on whether Russia remained engaged in Ukraine.

The “Hold Your Breath” Moments

The first “hold your breath” moment will come when the PLA makes an overt attack against a US aircraft carrier, representing the most significant possible escalation against the United States short of a nuclear attack. If China decides to attack a US carrier, the war no longer involves posturing and message sending, but rather a full-scale commitment of capabilities designed to defeat and destroy enemy military forces. The most dangerous form of attack would involve a ballistic missile volley against a carrier, not simply because these missiles are difficult to intercept but also because they could carry nuclear warheads. Much will depend on the outcome of this first fusillade.

The next scary moment will come when the first U.S. missiles strike targets on the Chinese mainland, possibly hours or even minutes after an attack on an American carrier. Given the nuclear advantage that the United States holds over China, the first wave of US attacks will prove intensely stressful to the PRCs military and civilian leadership.

At some point, China will need to sortie the greater portion of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). This will lead to two additional “hold your breath” moments. The first will involve the destruction of a major Chinese warship, including an aircraft carrier or big amphib. U.S. forces will regard this as a major objective, and China’s reaction will reveal much about Beijing’s commitment to the war. The next moment will involve China’s SSBN force. If China decides to sortie its vulnerable boomers into areas infested by American attack subs, it will offer a strong indication that Beijing feels either extremely confident or extremely vulnerable.

Finally, US air and land forces may face the prospect of defeat on Formosa itself. If the war goes the wrong way, at some point, US policymakers will need to draw deep breaths and decide how much more blood and treasure to commit to the defense of the ROC government. Everyone across the Pacific Rim, and indeed the world, will watch this decision-making process with rapt attention.

Who Will Win?

It’s very hard to say who would win, as much depends on how the war will begin. The Center for Strategic and International Studies recently prepared a report on a series of wargames simulating a Sino-American war over Taiwan. The CSIS study determined that the most likely outcome of any conflict was a US victory that left Taiwan autonomous, assuming for a vigorous Taiwanese resistance, an immediate U.S. response, U.S. access to Japanese bases, and sufficient numbers of anti-ship cruise missiles.

Still, this formulation leaves a bewildering array of unknowns. We don’t know how well Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles will function, how destructive US cyber-attacks against the PLAN will prove, or how dangerous the F-22 Raptor will be to conventional Chinese fighters, or how effectively the different elements of the PLAN will cooperate in actual combat. in general terms the battle will turn on these questions:

Domain Command

How severely will the United States disrupt Chinese communications, electronic, and surveillance capabilities?

Attacking US forces will depend on communication between seers and shooters. To the extent that the U.S. can disrupt this communication, it can defang the PLA. Conversely, Chinese cyber-warfare against the United States could raise the domestic stakes for American policymakers. In space, how resilient will U.S. satellite networks prove against attack from Chinese electronic and kinetic measures?  How much damage can the U.S. inflict on Chinese surveillance and reconnaissance networks?

Missiles vs. Missile Defenses:

How well will the USN and USAF be able to defeat Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles? The PLAN, PLAAF, and Second Artillery have many options for attacking deployed and deploying US forces in depth. The American capacity to survive the onslaught depends in part on the effectiveness of defenses against cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as the ability to strike and destroy launchers within and around China.

Joint Operations:

How well will the disparate elements of the PLA operate together in the context of high-intensity, disruptive military operations?

Unlike the U.S. military, the PLA has little relevant combat experience from the last three decades. On the flipside, how well will U.S. commitment to “jointness” prepare the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Marines for working together?

Quality vs. Quantity:

Chinese forces are highly likely to achieve local numerical superiority in some types of assets, including ships, aircraft, and submarines. The (narrowing) gap between U.S. and Chinese technology and training will determine how well American forces can survive and prevail in such situations.

How the War Ends and the Peace Begins

This war doesn’t end with a surrender signed on a battleship. Instead, it ends with one participant beaten, embittered, and likely preparing for the next round. Control of Formosa is a binary; either the Taipei government will remain in power after a ceasefire, or the Beijing government will occupy the island. It is difficult to imagine a settlement that would leave both governments with a degree of territorial control on the island. In effect, the war will end when either a) the United States gives up on reinforcing Republic of China forces on Formosa, or b) when Chinese naval and air forces are so badly mauled that they can no longer seriously contemplate either a cross-strait invasion or a quarantine of Taiwan. This will represent the end of the war, or at least to continuous high intensity combat between China and the United States. An enduring cease-fire might take some time to conclude, as the defeated government makes its own peace with the outcome and figures out how to sell it domestically.

If China loses but the People’s Republic of China remains essentially intact and the Chinese Communist Party still in power, then “peace” will simply be an interlude before the next war; the CCP cannot accept the permanent independence of Taiwan and maintain its domestic legitimacy. Conversely, China can claim victory by either forcing the United States to accommodate Chinese goals, or by removing the alliance framework that motivates and legitimates US action. The United States cannot continue the war if South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines no longer have an interest in fighting. Either of these require doing significant damage to US military forces and, potentially, to the US economy. This would have long-standing and exceedingly unpredictable effects on US domestic politics.

No matter who wins, the aftermath will feel more like a desert than peace.

A Window For War

The window for war between the United States and China could last for a long time. The demands of preparing either side for victory will tax diplomatic, military, and technological resources for the foreseeable future. Still, we can’t forget that the China, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States trade network constitute the heart of the most dynamic economic regions the world has ever seen. War would destroy that engine, to the impoverishment of everyone involved.

Preventing war will require tremendous diplomatic skill and political acumen, but it is well worth the effort.

Author Expertise and Experience: 

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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