The RAND Corporation think tank released a research report last week looking into the military trends between the US and China - with most signs pointing to continuing escalation in 2017. The 355-page paper came to the conclusion that in contested areas in close proximity to the mainland, the Chinese will grow to be militaristically capable in time, contributing to a climate primed for eventual conflict.
China has [not] ‘caught up,’ but they [don’t] have to catch up in order to jeopardize the U.S. ability to achieve operational objectives in several key conflict scenarios, particularly those in China’s immediate front yard.
The report looks at each nation’s capabilities in the air, sea, space, cyber, and nuclear sectors in the Taiwan and Spratly Islands conflicts. In all sectors, except two in the Spratly Islands, there is an increase in Chinese capability advantage - with an expedited increase in advantage in the Taiwan conflict.
The report projects an increased missile presence in China: By 2017, thousands of land-based missiles and hundreds of ones on sea will pose a threat to American bases in the Western Pacific region. The threat of US posing a threat to Chinese air bases also sees an increase, contributing to projected tensions. Most notably, the US is predicted to lose air force superiority in 2017 - saying that 504 American Air Force and Navy fighters are going to be needed to obtain a victory in the Taiwan conflict, when only 331 fighters were needed in 2010.
[The Taiwan conflict] is, in short, a conflict that both sides should wish to avoid and one that would likely entail high losses to both. Nevertheless, the possibility of miscalculation or missteps leading to war cannot be discounted.
At sea, US forces face increasing Chinese striking capabilities on their ships from the mainland and the water. The Chinese submarine fleet has grown from two in 1997 to 37 in 2015, with the majority of them armed with cruise missiles and torpedoes. Their submarine fleet is expected to grow and their fleet of ships is expected to double by the end of 2017. While China is rising, America is slipping: US ability to take out a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ship through any force is predicted to decrease in coming years, and their anti-ship cruise missile program has suffered post-Cold War.
A simultaneous rise-slip trend can be seen in space sector as well: American SATCOM and Imagery satellites face an increasing threat from China, while the US threat to Chinese SIGINT satellites are predicted to decrease by 2017.
The report finds it harder to make a concrete projection for the cyber and nuclear sectors, primarily because both are dynamic and “unpredictable.” On cyber warfare, the report says that the US has been increasingly susceptible to attack and will continue on this trend into 2017. For the nuclear sector, China is predicted to have anywhere between 106 to 160 warheads in 2017. With the US boasting over two thousand warheads, China’s capabilities seem to pale in comparison - but, as China continues to develop their warheads, road-mobile systems, and SSBNs, the report says they will become more confident in their second-strike capabilities.
It’s hard to say for certain whether or not the US and China will see war with one another, but the researchers at RAND have noted important rising trends for China and areas where the US is slipping. Mixed with increasing tensions and and a more volatile geopolitical climate, the coming years see a serious possibility for escalation between these two nations.