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A review of RAND Corporation’s ‘War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable’

Among US analysts, war with China is no longer a taboo subject. RAND Corporation has now tackled the issue head on, publishing a lengthy analysis titled: ‘War with China: Thinking through the Unthinkable. So far, Paul Dibb and Mike Scrafton have provided two excellent assessments on what this means for Australia. This review evaluates RAND’s assessment itself.

1. RAND seriously underestimates the probability of a high-intensity conflict escalating to the nuclear level

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The authors all but exclude the possibility of nuclear use from either side, especially if the US avoids targets that would threaten China’s nuclear deterrent. In reality, China would have significant incentives for nuclear use if it was greatly disadvantaged in a conventional conflict. For instance, China could use nukes as counterforce weapons against US staging areas in the Western Pacific, calculating the US won’t respond at the strategic level. In extremis, China could even detonate a strategic warhead over a civilian population of a non-nuclear US ally (such as Japan) as a direct challenge to US nuclear assurances and to demonstrate absolute resolve, without forcing America’s hand by attacking the homeland directly. Indeed, I would argue that these outcomes are far more likely than what RAND assumes: China accepting total military defeat.

In other words, the fact that America enjoys overall nuclear superiority appears to have led to dubious assumptions about US-China nuclear dynamics. It would have been better for RAND to simply assume a high-intensity conflict that does not escalate to the nuclear level, without attempting to justify that assumption. After all, it is just as dangerous for US decision-makers to be presented with an unrealistic appraisal of nuclear risk as it is for Chinese leaders having unjustified confidence in their conventional forces.

A review of RAND Corporation’s ‘War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable’

The Specter of an Accidental China-U. S. War – WSJ

Yet, as China flexes its muscles in the South China Sea and East China Sea, the risks of an inadvertent clash on the water or in the air are growing by the day.

A new RAND Corp study says that a Sino-U. S. war as a result of such a crisis “cannot be considered implausible.”

Violence could ignite quickly, the report warns. That is because each side has deployed precision-guided munitions, as well as cyber and space technologies, able to inflict devastating damage on the other’s military assets, including Chinese land-based missile batteries and American aircraft carriers. Thus they have a strong incentive to launch massive strikes first as part of a “use it or lose it” calculation.

The Specter of an Accidental China-U. S. War – WSJ

Russia Building New Underground Nuclear Command Posts: U.S. intelligence detects dozens of hardened bunkers for leaders

Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon nuclear policy official, said Russia’s new national security strategy, which was made public in December, discusses increasing civil defenses against nuclear attack, an indication Moscow is preparing for nuclear war.

Russia is getting ready for a big war which they assume will go nuclear, with them launching the first attacks,” said Schneider, now with the National Institute for Public Policy, a Virginia-based think tank.

“We are not serious about preparing for a big war, much less a nuclear war,” he added.

Additionally, Russian officials have been issuing nuclear threats.

“A lot of things they say they are doing relate to nuclear threats and nuclear warfighting,” he said. “Active and passive defense were a major Soviet priority and [current Russian leaders] are Soviets in everything but name.”

Russia Building New Underground Nuclear Command Posts

The overall Russian attitude toward nuclear war is substantially at odds with the attitude in the West. The Russians believe they can fight and win a nuclear war. The West is almost unable to even contemplate a nuclear war, let alone winning one. But the West forgets that the Russians get a vote too. And if the Russians are actually preparing to fight and win a nuclear war, then the West has a serious problem on it hands.

If the West could just get past its hysterics concerning nuclear war, then they could see that the Russian are correct. One can fight and win a nuclear war. Nuclear war will not destroy the planet. But certainly the US will lose a nuclear war with Russia due to lack of preparation.

I take the building of underground nuclear bunkers as a severe threat. And the West must respond. Naturally, the West is fast asleep on this issue. There is little or no response. So one must personally respond to this Russian threat by building their own underground nuclear bunker or leaving the US.

The rising power of China will create new political fissures in the west | Gideon Rachman | Opinion | The Guardian

Both a Trump and a Clinton presidency would probably lead to increased tensions with China, but by very different routes. Hillary Clinton is regarded in Beijing as a dangerous hawk who would be likely to be more determined in pushing back against China’s maritime claims. President Xi is a tough-minded nationalist, so a Clinton presidency would increase the chances of a clash in the Pacific between the US and China.

Trump, by contrast, seems relatively uninterested in America’s strategic role in the Pacific, but his vociferous protectionism has led him to propose swingeing tariffs on Chinese goods. Any such policy would be regarded as an act of economic warfare by Beijing.

Either way, the era when globalisation seemed like a process that could create only common interests between China and the west is over. It is now giving way to an epoch that looks altogether darker and more dangerous.

The rising power of China will create new political fissures in the west | Gideon Rachman | Opinion | The Guardian

How China is Setting the Stage for War with Japan in the East China Sea | The National Interest

The positive signs that China was moving past the ruling have been overtaken by a number of very disturbing trends which, regardless which path China ultimately takes, puts it on a collision course with Japan, the United States or perhaps a much broader group of states. Unless something dramatic emerges as a result of the secret conclave in Beidaihe, China seems intent on settling scores with those states responsible for its legal embarrassment and loss of face in ASEAN. Japan now seems to be the likely candidate even though it is an East China Sea (ECS) power. Japan warned China’s ambassador twice in the past week that relations between the two countries were “deteriorating markedly.”

… It is entirely possible that China’s leadership does not fully appreciate the dangerous choices their countrymen are making and how their actions are being perceived on the world stage. Recent military encounters in the East China Sea especially are occurring frequently and the potential for a costly misstep increases with each passing day. China’s leaders need to appreciate that they may be setting into motion a Japanese military juggernaut that it cannot stop.

How China is Setting the Stage for War with Japan in the East China Sea | The National Interest

Uncoordinated military action in event of N.K. collapse could lead to U.S.-China war: report

“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,” the report said. “China and the United States are at loggerheads over several regional disputes that could lead to military confrontation or even violence between them.”

   As to the North’s action in the event of a U.S.-China war, the report said Pyongyang is unpredictable.

“Although North Korea no longer has the conventional military capability to invade and defeat South Korea, it could use missiles against South Korea or Japan; although Seoul would almost certainly not enter a war against China in any case, Tokyo’s options would be complicated by North Korean belligerence,” it said.

Uncoordinated military action in event of N.K. collapse could lead to U.S.-China war: report

Commentary: Here’s how a U.S.-China war could play out | Reuters

For all the focus on terrorism, one of the most striking features of the last decade is that the risk of war between the world’s major countries has returned. For the first time since the fall of the Berlin wall, military thinkers in the United States, Europe and Asia are putting serious thought into what such a conflict might look like.

For a world with no shortage of nuclear weapons, that’s alarming. As I wrote last month, there is now not just a credible – if still limited – risk of conflict between Russia and NATO states, but also a real risk any such war would go nuclear.

Last week, U.S.-based think tank RAND Corporation – which also studied the prospects of war in the NATO member Baltic states – unveiled its latest thinking on what a potential clash between the United States and China would look like. The report is not direct U.S. government policy – although RAND has long been regarded as a major generator of thought for the U.S. military – but it does push the envelope further than much that has gone before.

Commentary: Here’s how a U.S.-China war could play out | Reuters

Here are a few other articles discussing the possibility of war with China.

Is War with China Now Inevitable? | National Review

China is acting like it wants a war. It probably doesn’t, but it doesn’t want the United States to know that. China’s communist leaders know they must keep growing the economy and improving the lives of their citizens, or risk revolution and the loss of power. They also know that they are on a clock: Within the next ten years, China’s recently amended one-child policy will invert the country’s economy, forcing that one child to pay the medical and retirement costs of his two parents and four grandparents. Under these circumstances, the state will need to begin allocating additional resources toward the care of its citizens and away from its burgeoning national-security apparatus. China has to lock down its sphere of influence soon, becoming great before becoming old. It’s time for Chinese leaders to go big or go home, and they’re slowly growing desperate.

Is War with China Now Inevitable? | National Review

The ‘Inevitable War’ Between the U.S. and China | Newsweek

Though little talked about in the West, many Chinese officials have long felt that war between Washington and Beijing is inevitable. A rising power, the thinking goes, will always challenge a dominant one. Of course, some analysts dismiss this idea; the costs of such a conflict would be too high, and the U.S., which is far stronger militarily, would almost certainly win. Yet history is riddled with wars that appeared to make no sense.

The ‘Inevitable War’ Between the U.S. and China

China Debates: Is War with U.S. Inevitable? | The National Interest

Pointing to what is perhaps the most important sentence in the entire Western cannon on international relations, Allison invited strategists and analysts on both sides of the Pacific to recall that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Moreover, Allison supplied disturbing evidence of the frequency of war between a rising and established power, as observed by Thucydides in the History of the Peloponnesian War. According to Allison, “in 11 of 15 cases since 1500 where a rising power emerged to challenge a ruling power, war occurred.”

China Debates: Is War with U.S. Inevitable? | The National Interest

There are a lot of credible people talking about the possibility of war with Russia and China. Maybe you should take notice.

Europeans Are Quietly Preparing for War with Russia

“Everything is connected; basically what we are seeing is the collapse of the world order as we have known it since World War II, and we—politicians, intel and security agencies—still struggle to understand it,” the European director of a private intelligence and security firm told The Daily Signal on background.

Admittedly, while sitting in a Parisian café, a Berlin beer garden, or a London pub, it’s somewhat of a stretch to really believe another conflict like World War II ever could happen again in Europe. Some say, however, this confidence in European security is misplaced, reflecting the historically perennial trap of assuming the next war, or the events leading up to it, will be like the last.

Europeans Are Quietly Preparing for War with Russia

I posted this on May 14, 2012:

Entering the Age of Great Upheaval | 1913 Intel

The Global Trends 2025 report suggests that the international system as we know it today – created out of the ashes of World War II – “will be almost unrecognizable by 2025?. The last international system broke-down during World War I – 1914 to 1918.  Trends in place today suggest major discontinuities, shocks, and surprises. In other words, we should not be surprised by great upheaval to everything we know.

Entering the Age of Great Upheaval | 1913 Intel

Chinese official: Prepare for a ‘people’s war at sea’ – Business Insider

China had given signs that it had no intention to respect the Hague’s ruling, but lately rhetoric has been stepped up a notch, with the AFP reporting that a Beijing minister urged preparations for a “people’s war at sea.”

In fact, China’s state-run media has been awash with bluster on the subject of their military and sovereignty. China’s Global Times went as far as to challenge Australia directly, saying: “If Australia steps into the South China Sea waters, it will be an ideal target for China to warn and strike.”

On Weibo, a state-regulated blogging site, Lian Fang, a professor at the military-run National Defense University said that, “The Chinese military will step up and fight hard and China will never submit to any country on matters of sovereignty,” Reuters reports.

Chinese official: Prepare for a ‘people’s war at sea’ – Business Insider

Is the World Getting Safer? Maybe Not – Bloomberg View

“History as seen from tail analysis,” Cirillo and Taleb conclude, “is far more risky, and conflicts far more violent than acknowledged by naive observation.”

Is the world getting more peaceful? Some academics think so. New research, though, suggests they might be getting their math wrong.

To get a clearer sense of what’s really going on, the statistician Pasquale Cirillo, working alongside Nassim Taleb of “The Black Swan” fame, did an analysis using extreme value theory — a branch of mathematics specifically designed for such problems. Looking at war data over 2,000 years, they found that violent conflicts have fatter tails than earthquakes and markets, suggesting an even more profound tendency to extremes. “History as seen from tail analysis,” Cirillo and Taleb conclude, “is far more risky, and conflicts far more violent than acknowledged by naive observation.”

Cirillo and Taleb also found no evidence that wars cluster together, as earthquakes and episodes of financial volatility are known to do. Rather, big wars follow no trend and simply occur with equal likelihood through time. Doing the statistics right, they argue, shows that the recent peaceful past is almost certainly causing us to seriously underestimate how much violent conflict we’re likely see in the future. I’ve given some more technical detail on the argument here. Some of this has been known since the 1960s (I wrote about the topic in a book 15 years ago), and other recent studies have found similarly dissenting views. European economists Mark Harrison and Nikolaus Wolf, for example, have looked at the total number of bilateral conflicts between nations going back to 1870, finding that the total number of such conflicts has actually been increasing from then to the present. Indeed, the number of countries at war at any given time has steadily been rising.

Is the World Getting Safer? Maybe Not – Bloomberg View