Economic Ties Could Help Prevent US-China War
Now-retired U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pays his respects as members of the People's Liberation Army play each country's national anthem at the ministry of Defense in Beijing, Jan. 10.
CREDIT: U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison
As the U.S. faces China's economic and military rise, it also holds a dwindling hand of cards to play in the unlikely case of open conflict. Cyberattacks aimed at computer networks, targeted disabling of satellites or economic warfare could end up bringing down both of the frenemies. That means ensuring the U.S. economy remains strong and well-balanced, with China's economy possibly representing the best deterrent, according to a new report.
The Rand Corporation's analysts put low odds on a China-U.S. military conflict taking place, but still lay out danger scenarios where the U.S. and China face greater risks of stumbling into an unwanted war with one another. They point to the economic codependence of both countries as the best bet against open conflict, similar to how nuclear weapons ensured mutually assured destruction for the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War.
"It is often said that a strong economy is the basis of a strong defense," the Rand report says. "In the case of China, a strong U.S. economy is not just the basis for a strong defense, it is itself perhaps the best defense against an adventurous China."
Such "mutually assured economic destruction" would devastate both the U.S. and China, given how China represents America's main creditor and manufacturer. The economic fallout could lead to a global recession worse than that caused by the financial crisis of 2008-2009.
The U.S. still spends more than five times on defense compared with China, but Rand analysts suggest that China's defense budget could outstrip that of the U.S. within the next 20 years. The U.S. Air Force and Navy's current edge in the Pacific has also begun to shrink as China develops aircraft, ships, submarines and missiles capable of striking farther out from its coast.
Existing U.S. advantages in cyberwar and anti-satellite capabilities also don't offset the fact that the U.S. military depends far more heavily on computer networks and satellites than China's military. That makes a full-out cyberwar or satellite attacks too risky for the U.S., but perhaps also for China.
"There are no lives lost just extensive harm, heightened antagonism, and loss of confidence in network security," Rand analysts say. "There would be no 'winner.'"
Open military conflict between China and the U.S. could also have "historically unparalleled" economic consequences even if neither country actively engages in economic warfare, Rand analysts say.
The U.S. could both boost direct defense in the unlikely case of war and reduce the risk of escalation by strengthening China's neighbors. Such neighbors, including India, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, also represent possible flashpoints for China-U.S. conflict in the scenarios laid out by the Rand report.
Other possible danger zones include the South China Sea, where China and many neighboring countries have disputes over territorial claims, as well as in the murkier realm of cyberspace.
Understandably, China has shown fears of being encircled by semi-hostile U.S. allies. That's why Rand analysts urged the U.S. to make China a partner rather than rival for maintaining international security. They also pointed out, encouragingly, that China has mostly taken "cautious and pragmatic" policies as an emerging world power.
"As China becomes a true peer competitor, it also becomes potentially a stronger partner in the defense as well as economic field," the Rand analysts say.