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April 11, 2024

War with China: A View from Early 2024

Marco J. Lyons

US defense analysts are overdue for a fundamental reassessment of the strategic factors that would shape a future Sino-American war.

The United States may lower the overall risk of sparking a war between Washington and Beijing by more formally committing advanced US capabilities in intelligence collection and targeting, long-range fires, and theater air and missile defense to Japan and South Korea and by initiating bilateral planning to introduce such capabilities in Taiwan in the future. The US defense community still lacks a broad and integrated national strategy for successfully managing the rivalry with China. A clear-eyed assessment of a possible United States-China war could lead to a national strategy.


The late diplomat and RAND Corporation Senior Fellow James Dobbins published an article in a 2012 edition of the journal Survival titled “War with China.” Dobbins concluded that numerous cases were possible for a Sino-American conflict—from the collapse of North Korea to an unrestrained Sino-Indian border war. The cases were unlikely, however, as long as the United States retained the ability to deter certain Chinese behaviors effectively.1 Dobbins’ analysis was incisive and level with international developments at the time. Now, more than a decade on, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) modernization and regional diplomatic and economic developments have evolved, calling for new strategic analysis. This analysis is an attempt to update Dobbins’ approach to today.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the end of the United States’ war on terrorism campaigns, and the rise of a bolder China under Xi Jinping, Beijing has become Washington’s greatest rival. At the same time, China is the most powerful potential adversary the United States has ever faced. Beijing wants to eliminate US military activity in the regions surrounding its borders—activity Beijing finds threatening and destabilizing—which means great-power balancing is a central regional dynamic.

China seeks great-power status on its terms. Despite pursuing many pragmatic policies, the risk that Beijing will precipitate conflict involving the United States appears to be growing in probability and consequence as China’s national power expands. A future Sino-American war would very likely involve one, all, or some combination of the following cases.

Warfighting Cases


As long as relations between China and Taiwan remain strained, progress on the ultimate governance status of the island will be unlikely. A China-Taiwan war could involve various levels of conflict, from a soft blockade to a hard blockade, from limited missile strikes to massive and sustained firepower-electronic-information offensives, to an amphibious-airborne special operations forces invasion. As the People’s Liberation Army continues to modernize, the US Joint Force’s ability to deter aggression across the Taiwan Strait is waning.2


Sino-Japanese relations are increasingly contentious, if not yet outright hostile, based on historical animosity and the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands.3 Tokyo appears to be stepping up the protection of its economic growth, supply chains, and sensitive technologies against China’s aggressive regional policies.4 In an armed conflict between Tokyo and Beijing, the United States should expect to be drawn in to help preserve Japan’s Self-Defense Force, restore Japanese territorial integrity, and gain control of key air and maritime areas to enable Japanese Self-Defense Force operations. As China grows its air, sea, and space capabilities, demands for more capable US Joint Forces will likely continue to expand.

North Korea

North Korea could attack South Korea and try to bring China into the conflict. Alternatively, given Beijing’s interest in border stability with Pyongyang, China might choose to intervene in the Korean conflict, leading to Seoul requesting additional US assistance beyond what the Mutual Defense Treaty outlines. American and South Korean forces on the Korean Peninsula, and other US forces in the region, would be concerned with securing ballistic-missile launch sites, securing weapons of mass destruction sites, completing the defeat of North Korean forces, as well as deterring China from expanding the conflict beyond the Korean Peninsula. Despite significant South Korean forces and capabilities, Seoul would be hard-pressed to resolve the conflict favorably, especially once PLA forces reinforced the Korean People’s Army. In a North Korean attack, US and Chinese forces would likely become fully engaged, and the potential for escalation would be high.

South China Sea

Several potential flash points are present in and around the South China Sea. As armed conflict between China and one or more of its neighbors erupted, the United States could be drawn in to help enforce freedom of navigation or defend allied and partner territory. Any armed conflict in the South China Sea or the waterways connecting the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean would likely draw in US air and naval forces to prevent PLA dominance of the operational space.5 After several inconclusive opening battles over the South China Sea, the conflict would likely spread to land, creating a demand for land-based air and missile defense; long-range, land-based strikes; special operations forces; and forced-entry ground maneuver capabilities. China’s capabilities to project sustained combat power into the South China Sea region are steadily growing.6


Although China could launch a cyberspace attack on the United States independently, the attack would probably be part of a broader armed conflict, likely as an early shaping campaign. As the People’s Liberation Army expanded its intrusion into US systems, all the way up to sensitive national capabilities, the likelihood of escalation would increase. As both sides conducted cyberspace activities to protect critical programs and reestablish deterrence, both sides would likely suffer large-scale network disruptions, causing shocks to economic markets and trade.7


An armed conflict between China and India might be sparked by escalating violence along disputed areas of the China-India border, unmanaged responses to terrorist activity, or competing responses to a failing state in the region, such as Myanmar. Although Washington might not immediately be drawn into such a conflict, increased US military activity in the region to protect US interests might lead to unintentional hostile contact with the People’s Liberation Army. To keep China from gaining the upper hand, Washington would probably extend political and economic support, as well as military intelligence and specialized military equipment, which could provide Beijing with a reason to treat the United States as a belligerent party—and react accordingly.

Central Asia

China could attempt to increase its influence in Central Asia significantly to secure energy and trade routes to the Middle East and Europe, which could lead Central Asian states to push back and request greater US military presence, potentially leading to an unintentional military clash. Although the scenario is still unlikely, some Central Asian states are growing wary of Chinese diplomatic and economic activities in the region.8 The temptation for Beijing to build friendly relations with states to the west to balance increasing US military posture in the western Pacific will probably rise, especially if the Russia-Ukraine War greatly weakens Moscow.

Operational Analysis

Considering that a Sino-American war would probably entail some of the above cases (and since Washington cannot be certain which cases to prepare for), the US Joint Force will likely need the forces, capabilities, and posture for a diverse range of operation types. With time and continuing PLA modernization, Beijing could likely bring its anti-access and area-denial systems, along with at least limited power-projection capabilities, to bear in the North Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and South China Sea cases. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) advances in cyberspace attacks, directed-energy weapons, and anti-satellite missile systems designed to target US low-earth-orbit and geostationary-orbit satellites are increasing the potential cost of the US Joint Force intervening to defend an ally or partner against a Chinese attack.9

As directly defending territory in the region becomes harder for the US Joint Force because of Beijing’s coercive diplomacy against its neighbors, Washington will likely pursue more lethal munitions, rely more heavily on long-range-strike warfare, and try to expand its posture of bases and agreements closer to the potential conflict zones. As the balance between US extended defense and Chinese offense tips more in Beijing’s favor, the strength of US regional assurances will likely diminish. If current technological and capability trends continue, the United States’ role as the primary security guarantor in the region will be progressively challenged.

If the conventional military balance continues to swing in China’s favor, US deterrence will likely weaken, and escalation dynamics may become more unpredictable in armed conflict. To avoid losing a war over a country near the Chinese mainland, the US Joint Force would likely attack to neutralize Chinese computer networks and space-based capabilities, which would further fuel the escalation of hostilities. Another possible US approach would be long-range precision strikes against command-and-control and targeting facilities on the Chinese mainland or on other territory seized by the People’s Liberation Army, actions Beijing would likely interpret as highly escalatory. As Chinese anti-access and area-denial and power-projection capabilities improve and expand, the US Joint Force will become more dependent on capabilities Beijing will likely interpret as highly escalatory.

Strategic Analysis

As its ability to assure allies and partners around the Chinese mainland decreases, Washington could pursue more horizontal and vertical escalation options against Beijing. With the probability that a Sino-American war would become a general war as opposed to a localized conflict, Beijing will have more and better options for using nuclear weapons to try and dominate the escalation dynamic with Washington. American strategists should accept that bilateral trade between the United States and China is no longer the stabilizing factor it once was, though bilateral trade mitigated the risks of political conflict up to about 2008.10 China emerged from the financial crisis of 2007–08 with buoyed economic confidence, especially after the Chinese economy outperformed all other major economies in 2010 with a gross domestic product growth rate of about 10 percent.11 The assumption is that Beijing’s leaders became more confident in China’s ability to weather a US trade war.

Economic Warfare

In general, the United States will presumably face strong international opposition to large-scale military action in many smaller contingencies involving the People’s Liberation Army, making different forms of economic warfare more appealing to US policymakers. In protracted economic warfare (either as part of or separate from a broader armed conflict) lasting more than a year, Washington may be able to gain the upper hand by using allies and partners to multiply sanctions losses in China. Beijing lacks a comparable strategy, according to an insight from a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology political-economic exercise.12 If the Washington-Beijing rivalry continues to sharpen, the United States may consider different economic strategies to raise the cost of Chinese aggression while managing the national and international impacts. Such economic strategies would be an effort to shape military instruments.

Massive and Mutual Economic Damage

Setting aside a strategic nuclear exchange, the greatest damage from any Sino-American war will likely be in the global economy, despite the intentions of either side. Aside from being 10 times larger than Russia’s, China’s economy is ingrained in global trade and finance.13 Given the realities of globalization, massive trade disruptions will occur, and countering escalatory pressures will be practically impossible for any country, going to the highest levels. As the United States-China balance in economic dependence stands today, experts do not know whether the United States still has the economic deterrence power to persuade Beijing to refrain from aggressively moving against US interests in the region. The influence of the economic balance and dependence on strategic options may lead US policymakers to consider decoupling from or reducing risk exposure to the Chinese economy. Decoupling effectively from the Chinese economy while protecting national security would probably take a coherent and far-looking national policy effort.

Strategies of Diplomacy

As the US military’s ability to intervene in the Indo-Pacific, and especially the western Pacific, is increasingly challenged by PLA anti-access and area-denial capabilities, and the United States’ ability to manage escalation is constrained by expanding Chinese power projection, the range of viable operational options available to Washington will narrow. The changing United States-China military balance will almost certainly upset Washington’s current hub-and-spoke defense framework. The changing balance would also suggest that Washington should reevaluate its reliance on deterrence in the region. As reliance on deterrence decreases, the need for forward force presence increases.

Alliance and Partner Defenses

Because the United States will be less able to rely on intervention to defend territory, manage dangerous escalation, and deter China, the importance of ensuring the region’s US allies and partners can militarily stand up to Beijing will increase. Washington will need to assure allies and partners while encouraging them to make greater unilateral efforts to defend their territorial integrity.14 The United States will need to pursue a multidimensional strategy of diplomatically engaging China, while countering expanding Chinese power through China’s neighbors.

Influencing the United States-China Relationship

The United States-China rivalry will continue and will risk producing a security dilemma, including a regional arms race. Given current Chinese military capabilities and plans for modernization, the United States will face increasing difficulties in paying for and deploying sufficiently lethal long-range-strike weapons and sufficiently survivable formations in the land, sea, air, and space domains. Washington will probably increase cost-effectiveness by enabling the defensive capabilities and capacities of China’s neighbors to protect US interests in the region. The United States must do much more to ensure it can deter Beijing through the threat of economic warfare. A Sino-American war may escalate fast, even to nuclear levels, melting down the global economy and threatening US vital interests to a level the nation has never seen before.

The View Looking Ahead

As things stand in early 2024, the US national defense landscape is in flux. National defense watchers will work through the implications for US interests of the ruling Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party’s historic third consecutive presidential victory on January 13, 2024. The US government is operating on a fourth continuing resolution with a second set of appropriations bills scheduled to expire on Friday, March 22, 2024, and 2024 is a hotly contested election year, making the trajectory of our national security policy uncertain moving forward.15 Washington is also managing two regional, limited wars with global impacts as both wars become protracted. The recent announcement that the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary) will conduct joint logistics over-the-shore to deliver humanitarian assistance in the Israel-Hamas War indicates that future US Army operations will grow increasingly complex.16

Firstly, this brief analysis suggests that perhaps the most volatile potential driver of a Sino-American war, short of a direct Chinese cross-strait invasion of Taiwan, is worsening relations dramatically between Beijing and Tokyo, followed closely by a resumption of armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. In the short term, the United States can address the three risk cases for a Sino-American war by more formally committing advanced US capabilities in intelligence collection and targeting, long-range fires, and theater air and missile defense to Japan and South Korea, and by beginning bilateral planning to introduce such capabilities in Taiwan at a later, undetermined date. The United States should consider establishing a regional security planning group among first-island-chain nations as an early precursor to a combined headquarters in wartime.

Secondly, Washington should address the increasingly risky assumptions that US bilateral security guarantees can still properly assure allies and partners facing Chinese aggression. The United States should be able to achieve a better balance of power and greater regional security by getting nations to prepare more for their territorial defense, even if encouraging preparation means granting some military hardware and offering low-interest loans for more advanced defense purchases. Lastly, the scenarios and potential combinations of scenarios outlined above point to an overriding need for a coherent, forward-looking national strategy for managing the rivalry with China.

American national strategic authorities have apparently tried to advance a comprehensive China strategy, such as the declassified and released 2018 Donald Trump administration Indo-Pacific strategic framework, and have ultimately failed.17 The 2022 White House Indo-Pacific Strategy is broad (for example, it primarily outlines the highest level of ends).18 The Department of State’s 2019 A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision is also heavy on ends.19 The United States’ current unclassified China strategies are not rigorous enough to focus and prioritize national efforts to improve the relative US security position in the region. Looking at the possibility of a war with China from a 2024 vantage point, current strategies need to change.


Marco J. Lyons

Marco J. Lyons is assistant chief of staff for plans at US Army Pacific in Hawaii. He is a 2021 Harvard University national security fellow, a 2020 Massachusetts Institute of Technology national security fellow, and a 2014 Naval Postgraduate School graduate. His articles on military strategy, land power, and operational concepts can be found at RealClearDefense.



  1. James Dobbins, “War with China,” Survival 54, no. 4 (2012): 7–24. Return to text.
  2. Walker D. Mills, “Deterring the Dragon: Returning US Forces to Taiwan,” Military Review (September-October 2020): 55–67. Return to text.
  3. Gisela Grieger, Sino-Japanese Controversy over the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai Islands: An Imminent Flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific?, PE 696.183 (Brussels: European Parliamentary Research Service, July 2021). Return to text.
  4. “Explainer: What’s behind Strained China-Japan Relations,” Voice of America (website), September 28, 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/explainer-what-s-behind-strained-china-japan-relations/6766668.html. Return to text.
  5. Oriana Skylar Mastro, “Military Confrontation in the South China Sea,” Council on Foreign Relations (website), May 21, 2020, https://www.cfr.org/report/military-confrontation-south-china-sea . Return to text.
  6. Gregory Poling, “Beijing’s Upper Hand in the South China Sea,” Foreign Affairs (website), August 18, 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/china/beijing-upper-hand-south-china-sea. Return to text.
  7. Ellen Nakashima and Joseph Menn, “China’s Cyber Army Is Invading Critical US Services,” Washington Post (website), December 11, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2023/12/11/china-hacking-hawaii-pacific-taiwan-conflict/. Return to text.
  8. Elizabeth Woods and Thomas Baker, “Public Opinion on China Waning in Central Asia,” Diplomat (website), May 5, 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/05/public-opinion-on-china-waning-in-central-asia/. Return to text.
  9. Kristin Burke, PLA Counterspace Command and Control (Montgomery, AL: China Aerospace Studies Institute, December 2023), 5–10. Return to text.
  10. Volker Perthes, “Dimensions of Strategic Rivalry: China, the United States and Europe’s Place,” in Strategic Rivalry between United States and China, ed. Barbara Lippert and Volker Perthes (Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 2020), 6; and Patricia M. Kim et al., “Should the US Pursue a New Cold War with China?,” Brookings Institution (website), September 1, 2023, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/should-the-us-pursue-a-new-cold-war-with-china/. Return to text.
  11. Linyue Li, Thomas D. Willett, and Nan Zhang, “The Effects of the Global Financial Crisis on China’s Financial Market and Macroeconomy,” Economics Research International (2012): 3. More recently, in 2023, China’s economy reportedly grew at a rate of 5.2 percent, much less than the double-digit growth reported over a decade earlier. Ken Moritsugu and Elaine Kurtenbach, “China Sets an Economic Growth Target of Around 5% But Acknowledges It Will Not Be Easy to Achieve,” Associated Press (website), March 5, 2024, https://apnews.com/article/china-economy-congress-qiang-jinping-1fc37c644ca06a4ab1133b26c5a7b146. The Chinese economy has not fully recovered from COVID-19 lockdowns and questions remain about the reliability of the Chinese government’s economic reporting. Return to text.
  12. George J. Gilboy and Eric Heginbotham, “America Needs a Single Integrated Operational Plan for Economic Conflict with China,” Lawfare (website), December 17, 2023, https://www.lawfaremedia.org/article/america-needs-a-single-integrated-operational-plan-for-economic-conflict-with-china. Return to text.
  13. Robert A. Manning, “Would Anyone ‘Win’ a Taiwan Conflict?,” Stimson Center (website), January 9, 2024, https://www.stimson.org/2024/us-china-taiwan-conflict-global-economy/. Return to text.
  14. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Operating Environment 2035: The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2016), 38–39. Return to text.
  15. “Upcoming Congressional Fiscal Policy Deadlines,” Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (website), March 23, 2024, https://www.crfb.org/blogs/upcoming-congressional-fiscal-policy-deadlines. A one percent cut across all appropriations bills is set to be applied if full-year appropriations have not passed by April 30, 2024. Return to text.
  16. Joseph Clark, “Specialized Army Unit Underway to Support Humanitarian Aid Delivery to Gaza,” U.S. Department of Defense (website), March 12, 2024, https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/3705041/specialized-army-unit-underway-to-support-humanitarian-aid-delivery-to-gaza/. Return to text.
  17. Josh Rogin, “Opinion: The Trump Administration Had a China Strategy After All, But Trump Didn’t Follow It,” Washington Post (website), January 14, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/the-trump-administration-had-a-china-strategy-after-all-but-trump-didnt-follow-it/2021/01/14/846e97d4-56ad-11eb-a817-e5e7f8a406d6_story.html; and Rory Medcalf, “Declassification of Secret Document Reveals US Strategy in the Indo-Pacific,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute (website), January 13, 2021, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/declassification-of-secret-document-reveals-real-us-strategy-in-the-indo-pacific/. Return to text.
  18. White House, Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States (Washington, DC: White House, February 2022), https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/U.S.-Indo-Pacific-Strategy.pdf. Return to text.
  19. U.S. Department of State, A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, November 4, 2019), https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Free-and-Open-Indo-Pacific-4Nov2019.pdf. Return to text.

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