“Can the United States win a war with China?” Scores of publications are asking some version of this question. But given what a U.S.-China war would unleash, a far better question is this: Can the United States deter Xi Jinping’s regime and prevent a war with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)?

Ugly and Intense
Our starting point is something too many Americans forget or never learned: Waging war is far more costly than building and maintaining a military capable of deterring war.

In the eight years before entering World War I, the United States devoted an average of 0.7 percent of GDP to defense. During the war, the U.S. spent an average of 16.1 percent of GDP on defense—and sacrificed 116,516 dead to turn back the Central Powers.In the decade before entering World War II, the United States spent an average of 1.1 percent of GDP on defense. During the war, the U.S. spent an average of 27 percent of GDP on defense—and sacrificed 405,399 lives defeating the Axis.During the Cold War, by contrast, Washington spent an average of 7 percent of GDP on defense. Those investments didn’t end all wars, but they did deter the Soviets and prevent World War III.Yet by 2000—nine years after the collapse of the USSR—defense spending would fall to just 3 percent of GDP. Then came 9/11, and defense spending spiked above 4.5 percent of GDP. But then came the Great Recession of 2008 and the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, and defense spending cratered again to around 3 percent of GDP. Is it a coincidence that just as sequestration took a guillotine to America’s deterrent military strength, China began annexing the South China Sea, and Russia lunged into Ukraine and Syria? (At $740 billion, the U.S. defense budget for FY2021 is around 3.5 percent of GDP, although that’s a deceptively high share of GDP because of the economic effects of the government-ordered COVID-19 lockdown.)   

The destructiveness and vastness of modern war—especially hostilities between two great powers such as the U.S. and the PRC—counsel against crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. Unlike the wars America has fought since 1945, a U.S.-PRC war would not be confined to some faraway desert or jungle. Nor would it be fought solely on America’s terms. Instead, Beijing would exploit its capabilities to inflict heavy damage on America’s Navy, dare U.S. air assets to venture into the teeth of its layered air-defense kill zones, deploy precision missilery across vast stretches of Indo-Pacific waters, saturate island bases with waves of missile strikes, carry out attacks against U.S. space and cyberspace assets (thus blinding our forces and putting at risk our economy), cut off critical supplies, target infrastructure and sow chaos inside the U.S., and perhaps even threaten use of nuclear weapons.

The fact that the U.S. would be doing these very same things to the PRC is of little comfort given the level of death and destruction the two would unleash. Consider that a U.S.-PRC conflict would likely draw in Japan, Australia, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and India—directly impacting some of the world’s largest economies and staggering the global economy.

“It would be very ugly,” as Lt. Col. Dakota Wood (USMC, RET) said in a Military Times analysis exploring a U.S.-PRC conflict. Added Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle (former commander of Air Combat Command) during that same symposium: “It’s going to be rapid, it’s going to be intense, it’s going to be a high potential for casualties.” 

All of that explains why America’s military must retool and refocus on deterring the PRC, even as America’s diplomats must refine their messaging to prevent miscalculations in Beijing. In order for military deterrence and diplomatic messaging to work, a few factors must hold.

First, the adversary must be rational, which means it can grasp and fear consequences. As Churchill observed, “The deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics.” The good news here is that—even though its political system and objectives, like the Soviet Union’s, are at odds with ours—the PRC is not ruled by some death-wish dictator or by mass-murderers masquerading as holy men. Unlike the latter, Xi and the Chinese Communist Party are rational, recognize that they have everything to lose, and don’t view martyrdom as a doorway to a better world. In fact, as good atheist-communists, they probably believe this material world is all that matters. And unlike the former, Xi’s regime and the Chinese Communist Party want to survive and reap the rewards of their spadework. What Churchill said of the Soviets is just as true for Xi and his henchmen: “I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.”

Second, military signals and diplomatic messages must be understandable and understood by the adversary. Critics of deterrence often cite World War I to argue that arms races trigger wars. But if it were that simple, then a) there wouldn’t have been a World War II, since the Allies allowed their arsenals to atrophy after 1918, and b) there would have been a World War III, since Washington and Moscow engaged in an unprecedented arms race. The reality is that misunderstanding and miscalculation lit the fuse of World War I. The antidote is clarity plus strength. In other words, just as Washington made clear to Moscow during the Cold War by word and action that an attack on West Berlin or South Korea would be viewed as an attack on the U.S.—and would thus trigger war—Washington must convince Beijing today by word and action that an attack on Taiwan, or the island possessions of Japan and the Philippines, or Australian vessels will be viewed as an attack on the U.S.—and will thus trigger war.

Third, the consequences of military confrontation must be credible and tangible, which was the case during most of the first Cold War. Not only did America construct a vast military arsenal to deter and contain the Soviet Union; American leaders were clear about their treaty commitments and about the consequences of any threat to those commitments.

The Trump administration reversed years of defense cuts and began the arduous effort of trying to ensure that the above factors apply to the PRC. The Biden administration is continuing along the same path: Biden’s defense team is firming up basing agreements with the Philippines. Secretary of State Tony Blinken just held talks with his counterparts from Japan, Australia and India—the so-called Quad partners—focused on countering Beijing. He recently declared, “The commitment to Taiwan is something that we hold to very strongly.” The State Department has pledged “deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan,” reaffirmed the Taiwan Relations Act and Six Assurances, committed to “maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability” for Taiwan, and declared a “rock solid” “commitment to Taiwan.” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has used that same language, calling U.S. support for Taiwan “rock solid.”

In addition, freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, which were a constant feature of the Trump administration’s defense policy, are continuing under the Biden administration. In its first 35 days in office, the Biden administration sent warships through the Taiwan Strait on two separate occasions, steamed two aircraft carrier strike groups into the South China Sea for joint maneuvers, and deployed a package of B-52 bombers to Guam for “strategic deterrence operations.” Related, a U.S. B-1B bomber deployed to India in early February—the first time a U.S. bomber has landed in India since 1945. Washington’s message to Beijing: You will not be allowed to cordon off international waterways or airspace, and you are exposed to multiple avenues of attack.Finally, President Joe Biden has stood up a Pentagon task force to “chart a strong path forward on China-related matters,” “meet the China challenge,” and “ensure the American people win the competition of the future.”

This is a good start. But additional steps are necessary to keep Xi’s military at bay—and keep Cold War 2.0 from turning hot. We will discuss those steps in the next issue.