Wed, Oct 26, 2016 | updated 02:48 PM IST

Battlefield: China Vs USA

Updated: Aug 08, 2016 13:43 IST

Hong Kong, Aug.8 (ANI): With the Rio de Janeiro Olympics now under way, the two countries that will be fighting it out at the top of the table are China and the USA.

It is wise to keep this national competitiveness in the sports arena, rather than see it spill over into other spheres such as the military. Alas, there have been hawkish comments emanating from China, as well as scaremongering in some Western media reports, suggesting that the two sides could end up at war.

A recent example, coming from no less than Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, was that the country must be ready for a "people's war at sea". Warning of the "seriousness of the national security situation" brought about by China's questionable status in the South China Sea, he made the comment whilst visiting military installations in Zhejiang Province.

Additionally, the aggressive Global Times newspaper warned Canberra last week, "If Australia steps into the South China Sea waters, it will be an ideal target for China to warn and strike."

China is clearly bristling with hurt pride over the ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding the South China Sea territorial dispute with the Philippines. Without minimizing the very real differences between China and the USA, however, there is little chance of war breaking out between them right now in the South China Sea.

The release of a new report from the RAND Corporation is timely, nonetheless, as it speculates on the serious consequences of a war between China and the USA. The 116-page report is entitled 'War with China: Thinking through the Unthinkable'.

Its preface opened as follows. "War between the United States and China could be so ruinous for both countries, for East Asia, and for the world that it might seem unthinkable. Yet it is not: China and the United States are at loggerheads over several regional disputes that could lead to military confrontation or even violence between them. Both countries have large concentrations of military forces operating in close proximity. If an incident occurred or a crisis overheated, both have an incentive to strike enemy forces before being struck by them. And if hostilities erupted, both have ample forces, technology, industrial might and personnel to fight across vast expanses of land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. Thus, Sino-US war, perhaps a large and costly one, is not just thinkable; it needs more thought."

Owing to the greatly improving anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capabilities of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), analysts would agree with the premise, ".Improvements in Chinese military capabilities mean that a war would not necessarily go the way US war planners plan it. Whereas a clear US victory once seemed probable, it is increasingly likely that a conflict could involve inconclusive fighting with steep losses on both sides."

The report, sponsored by the USA's Office of the Undersecretary of the Army, is very welcome, since there is a dearth of publicly available studies on a contemporary conflict between Beijing and Washington. It focuses on the 2015-25 period, cognizant that by 2025 China will have narrowed the capability gap with the USA even more.

Both parties must realize the immense costs to war, but simultaneously they need to ensure strong crisis management measures are in place, and that civilian control of the military is strictly maintained by both governments.

War could break out in a number of ways, the report postulated. For example, Sino-Japanese skirmishes around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Chinese harassment of claimants in the South China Sea, interventions after a North Korean collapse, Chinese intimidation of Taiwan, or an incident at sea/in the air between US and Chinese assets.

What would such a war look like? Would it escalate to nuclear conflict? The three authors do not think so because of the dire consequences of retaliatory strikes. As in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the threat of mutual deterrence remains true with China. Unable to strike the US mainland with conventional weapons, Chinese assaults on the homeland would likely be restricted to cyberspace, with China having great expertise in this area.

The RAND report summarizes the nature of the conflict: "We postulate that a war would be regional and conventional. It would be waged mainly by ships on and beneath the sea, by aircraft and missiles of many sorts, and in space (against satellites) and cyberspace (against computer systems). We assume that fighting would start and remain in East Asia, where potential Sino-US flashpoints and nearly all Chinese forces are located. Each side's increasingly far-flung disposition of forces and growing ability to track and attack opposing forces could turn much of the Western Pacific into a 'war zone', with grave economic consequences."

Thus, a battle scenario with large-scale land forces is extremely improbable. Instead, each side would seek to strike first to blunt the edge of the other. "In turn, this creates a bias toward sharp, reciprocal strikes from the outset of a war, yet with neither side able to gain control, and both having ample capacity to keep fighting, even as military losses and economic costs mount."

The researchers recognize there are a number of variables in this conceptual study, including the intensity and duration of a conflict. Thus, it proposes four different case studies, and the effects are assessed militarily, economically, politically (domestically) and internationally.

Non-military factors would be most decisive. The economic fallout, for example, would bring an estimated 25-35% reduction in Chinese gross domestic product (GDP) in a yearlong war, compared with a 5-10% reduction for the USA.

Some 95 percent of Chinese trade is seaborne, for example, which raises the question whether the USA might implement an air and maritime blockade. China is predicted to suffer a 90 percent decline in bilateral trade with the USA, plus an 80 percent decline in regional trade and 50% drop in global trade.

The USA has previously announced that 60% of its naval and air assets will be based in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. While this improves American capability, this would also allow the PLA greater opportunity to inflict losses.

To give a taste, we may look in more detail at just one of the four cases discussed in the RAND report, that of a severe case in 2015. The RAND report speculates the USA would lose an aircraft carrier and significant warships in the Seventh Fleet to Chinese submarines and missile attacks, something that could be mitigated by moving the fleet outside of missile range. However, US submarines would be somewhat impervious to Chinese attack. Regional air bases would be hit by PLA missile strikes, and significant aircraft losses would occur until Chinese surface-to-air missile defenses were suppressed.

On the other hand, the PLA would suffer a sharp loss in airpower, with reinforcement aircraft less capable and more vulnerable. The navy would suffer heavy initial and sustained fleet losses to US airpower and submarines. Many mobile missile launchers would survive, but American airpower would gradually attrite them. Many of China's modern missile systems would be expended early on, leaving the PLA reliant on older and less accurate ones as war proceeded.

Under this most serious scenario, the report assessed overall, "Chinese counterforce capabilities take a major early toll on the United States but then have less of an effect as they are degraded by serious US counterforce." In other words, as Chinese defenses are degraded and US strike power grows, the differential between Chinese and American losses will grow.

By 2025, China's improved and less vulnerable A2AD capabilities would increase US losses early on and throughout a conflict. Nevertheless, aggregate Chinese losses would still remain greater than those of the USA. However, losses may be close enough that the USA cannot obtain a decisive military operational advantage.

The USA would also benefit most from regional allies too. Japan could enter the conflict, for example, increasing Chinese losses and offsetting US losses in a longer conflict. On the other hand, Japanese involvement could enrage China further and widen the conflict.

It is unknown whether a China-US war would draw in other nations and spill over from the region. To what extent would Russia, India and NATO become involved?

How would India respond, for instance? The report does not major on this aspect, but it predicted India would refrain from direct military intervention and "might increase readiness of its force along the frontier, especially if it felt its vital interests could be affected". This would probably encourage PLA ground forces to be ramped up in areas adjacent to the Indian border, especially since army troops would not be heavily involved in a conflict against the USA.

The RAND report offered this gloomy assessment: "Even as US military victory became less likely, Chinese victory would remain elusive. Because both sides would be able to continue to inflict severe losses, neither one would likely be willing to accept defeat. History offers no encouragement that destructive but stalemated fighting induces belligerents to agree to stop. A severe, lengthy, militarily inconclusive war would weaken and leave both powers vulnerable to other threats."

The report concluded, "War between the two countries could begin with devastating strikes; be hard to control; last months, if not years; have no winner; and inflict huge losses on both sides' military forces. The longer such a war would rage, the greater the importance of economic, domestic political, and international effects."

In layman's terms, war would be a mistake. Nevertheless, to not prepare for such a scenario would also be a mistake.

The RAND authors thus recommended, "The United States should make sensible preparations to wage a long and fierce war with China. But it should also develop plans to limit the scope, intensity and duration of a war; tighten up its system of civilian control; and expand communications with China in times of peace, crisis and war." (ANI)