For the US to prevail in a war against China, it will have to adopt a new kind of strategy.
If you read any number of foreign policy related articles, you may have noticed that in the last half decade the coverage has shifted radically from discussing terrorism and American policy in the Middle East towards great power struggles. Specifically, the US-China rivalry has increasingly absorbed the attention and ink of most commentators. Outlets constantly run articles with titles like "Is a US-China War in Asia Inevitable?" or "A New Cold War Has Begun." And of course, these think pieces often carry a negative message, like: "In a War With China, the US Could Lose." So what would a war between the US and China really look like, and is it as bleak a picture as the pundits predict? Here, we'll explore a hypothetic war to demonstrate that the answer is a resounding "No!"
Losing the First Battle
The United States and China have ample reason to avoid war. Taken together the US-China relationship is the most important and productive economic relationship in the world, their market is the most profitable of any in the history of the world. Any disruption in that trade would seriously injure both nations equally. And this is without even bringing up the human cost, as such a conflict would pit over 1.7 billion people against each other.
Each nation also maintains a substantial stock of nuclear weapons and the weapons to deploy them, including Intercontinental and Submarine launched Ballistic Missiles. Any total war waged between the two nations would be as damaging to human civilization in its totality as a war between the US and the Soviet Union was in the previous century. But this kind of thinking, that war would be too expensive in terms of lives and trade to wage, was just as popular before World War One as it is today. This is to suggest that while both countries may have deep and logical incentives to avoid a war, there are still opportunities for both sides to come to blows. Take, for example, the disputed, resource-rich islands of the South China Sea. Here neither the US or the Chinese are immediately willing to back down, and an incident in the flashpoint could quickly spill into a larger conflict.
For our hypothetical war let's imagine that this region provides the spark for a larger conflagration. In the near future, the USS The Sullivans is ordered to the Scarborough Shoals to conduct a 'Freedom of Navigation' mission. Her orders are simple, sail inside waters claimed by the People's Republic in an effort to delegitimize their claim over the region. But what was to be a routine mission turns to tragedy.
A Chinese destroyer is ordered to harass The Sullivans in an effort to drive her out of the claimed waters. But in their game of maritime chicken, the ships collide and the smaller Chinese vessel is lost. Dozens of sailors are killed on both sides. Misinterpreting the incident, a supporting Chinese warship escalates the incident by firing on The Sullivans, forcing the ship to defend herself. In the span of less than an hour, two Chinese warships are lost with a heavy loss of life. The Politburo in Beijing is forced to decide in a matter of hours what really happened on the high seas. With a clear American attack on the second ship and the suspicious loss of the first, Beijing decides that either China must retaliate, or else appear weak on the international stage. They choose retaliation. Their target is the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group which at that moment is itself transiting the South China Sea. The Chinese launch missiles from across the mainland and saturate the Nimitz's defenses. Dozens are shot down, but enough get through to cause real damage. The Nimitz is lost with all hands, as is two of her escorting destroyers. 6500 American sailors and airmen are killed in a naval disaster worse than Pearl Harbor.
Avoiding A Land War in Asia
The biggest open question of this hypothetical would be what the American response to such a brazen attack would be. In Beijing, the hope would obviously be for a breakdown in popular support over the prospects of waging yet another war in a place they couldn’t find on a map. But in this scenario, I have my doubts that things would go that well for Beijing. Rather in the face of a military defeat worse than nearly any suffered in World War II, it's fair to think that the American people would actually, for once, unify over this profound tragedy.
That is, after all, what happened in both 1941 and 2001. While this unity may not last indefinitely, especially in the face of the economic turmoil of war, it certainly would be enough to bring the full weight of the US Navy to bear. Let's also assume that, despite domestic support at home, the US cannot, or does not, bring in its treaty allies, especially in the Pacific region. While this would obviously reduce the total military power available in the region, by not immediately tapping into the support of Allies the US can constrain China's strategy. They would, for example, hesitate to invade Taiwan or support an invasion of South Korea if it meant antagonizing the Japanese or the Philippines. America's real ace in the hole, though, would be India. Despite recent headlines, India has had longstanding issues with the PRC, and their neutrality would be critical lest China fights a war on not just two, but three fronts.
So we've managed to constrain the war to one between the United States and China. How does this war actually play out? The United States operates a 6+1 rotation with its carrier groups. That is, six of eleven are on deployment or deploying at any given time, with a seventh that can deploy within ninety days.
Add to this the HMS Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales, now currently fitting out. We've already limited the belligerents, so the QE and the Wales will not be joining the American counterattack, but what they can do, along with other NATO forces, would be to pick up the slack in other theaters of operations like the Persian Gulf. And surely NATO would do this duty happily to avoid outright war with China. This would free up the five remaining deployable American carrier battle groups. But they have a problem. The missile screen which sank the Nimitz would surely also savage any other battle group which entered the South China Sea. In this region, the Chinese have built an area denial defense network, which has turned the waters off their coast into a veritable maritime citadel. How, then could the US Navy and its carriers penetrate these waters?
The Alligator's Approach to Warfare
The answer is simple: it can't, and only a fool would try to. Rather, the Navy would bring the fight to the enemy by, ironically, attacking them far away from their homeland. And here the Navy is aided by two geographic and geological realities. First, geologically, China possesses almost no natural oil reserves. Thus it must import virtually all of its oil, 3/4ths of which come from the Persian Gulf and Iran. The second geographic reality is that all of these imports pass through one choke point, the Strait of Malacca. This narrow body of water is like China's jugular vein, with the flow of oil as its blood. If the US sat somewhere west of Malacca and stopped all eastbound tanker traffic, it would deplete Chinese oil supplies within weeks. While the PRC might be able to import enough oil from Indonesia and Russia to maintain its military forces, its economy would grind to a halt. Goods would sit on the docks of factories undelivered, food would rot on the vine without the trucks to bring it to market, and the country would be plunged overnight into a humanitarian crisis the likes of which the world has never seen.
To prevent that outcome, the People's Liberation Army Navy would have to set sail within days of the outbreak of hostilities and make for the Indian Ocean. Its mission would be simple: maintain China's access to oil by destroying whatever American fleet is present there. In response, the US Navy would employ the same strategy as the alligator. The alligator does not catch prey by climbing up the riverbank. Rather, it sits in the deep water and waits for its moment of opportunity, the moment when its prey is the most exposed and vulnerable.
The US Navy would likewise wait for the PLAN surface fleet to leave the protective screen of its area denial missiles. Then, like the alligator, the Navy would snap up the Chinese. And in a straight up fight, it wouldn't be much of a contest. The Chinese currently have a mere two aircraft carriers, ships that they are still learning how to use and have never once deployed in battle. They would be up against the US Navy, five of its supercarriers, and its nearly eighty years of carrier combat experience. With the loss of the majority of the PLAN surface fleet, Beijing would be in a tough spot. It would have little at hand to stop the American fleet, and many reasons to want to avoid risking a wider global war. The Politburo would then be faced with a simple choice, negotiate peace, or risk their destruction from without and within.