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We Can Deter and Contain China or Lose a War

The U.S. can conduct its rivalry with the CCP on our terms or theirs. The consequences are clear and the choice is up to us.

In the South China Sea and surrounding waters, the United States Navy and allied countries are currently conducting the largest naval and beach landing exercise in 40 years. Not far away, and in the same waters, the Chinese navy is likewise conducting one of its largest-ever naval exercises. Both sets of nations claim the drills are designed to deter the other.

Unless Washington adopts a more rational, restrained, and realistic naval policy, we could find ourselves stumbling into—and losing—a war that should never have been fought. Regardless of whether anyone likes it or not, China’s decades-long rise has produced a global power with which we must reckon. They have an advanced and developing nuclear arsenal, will soon have the world’s largest economy, and they already possess a modern combined arms military that is regionally dominant. That does not mean, however, that China’s elevated stature automatically represents a threat to America’s security.

The Soviet Union was dramatically more powerful than modern day China in both nuclear power (the USSR had a staggering 45,000 nuclear weapons as recently as 1986, while the Defense Department expects China to have a comparatively minuscule 200 missiles that can reach American territory by 2025) and conventional military power (the USSR had six million men spread throughout its empire in 1984; today China has a total of two million, almost all stationed on its own territory). The Red Army could have destroyed the United States 20 times over with nuclear weapons and had modern mechanized units stationed directly on the borders of our allies, and yet we effectively deterred them from attacking the U.S. for three-quarters of a century.

America’s global air, land, and sea power, along with our superior nuclear forces, can deter China indefinitely from launching any direct attacks against the United States or our allies. Even with all the advancements China has made in the past three decades, they are still essentially limited to the defense of their own borders, or, as in the case of Taiwan, about 100 miles off their shores.

The U.S. ability to project combat power around the world is strong enough to meet any Chinese attempt to attack us or our allies. We have every strategic advantage imaginable for our defense. There is, in fact, only one scenario in which China would have a military advantage over us: if we foolishly choose to fight China in its backyard where they have considerable tactical advantages.

That reality has been driven home in the past two years in several computer simulations. In a 2019 drill, one of the exercise analysts admitted the U.S. side got “its ass handed to it” in a fight with China. In the past 12 months, two more simulated fights have both produced major U.S. defeats, with one concluding not just that America would lose, but “we’re going to lose fast,” and in the second, U.S. forces “failed miserably.” It doesn’t take classified exercises to understand why.

As the Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress on China has painstakingly explained for two decades, China’s advancements in modern fighter aircraft, navy ships, submarines, rocket forces—equipped with “carrier killer” missiles—and the development of its military technology and capabilities in space have made it a modern and lethal military near its shores and borders. America has a powerful force, but it is spread thinly all over the world, while China’s military power is concentrated almost entirely around Taiwan and the South and East China Seas.

The key to American security is not continuing to build bigger and more powerful air and sea bases closer and closer to China’s shores, but to maintain a force that can deter any attempt by Beijing to strike American territory or our allies. While China would have a military advantage if we fought in a Taiwan scenario, virtually all other scenarios would tilt decisively in our favor almost anywhere beyond Taiwan, to include our allies South Korea, Japan, and Australia, or U.S. territories such as Guam.

The implications of the foregoing are profound: 1) the United States has a strategic and tactical advantage over China in almost all categories beyond Taiwan and the South China Sea. 2) China is at best decades away from having the ability to challenge U.S. military supremacy in the open waters of the Pacific Ocean or the skies above them. Most critically: 3) the only scenario in which we surrender the military advantage is if we foolishly choose to fight China over Taiwan.

We have a Navy and Air Force that can unquestionably deter China from attacking our country or allies, and can destroy their forces if it makes such an attempt. To keep our country safe, then, we need to acknowledge the military realities at play, avoid fighting over Taiwan, and continue to patrol the waters and air beyond it.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America. Follow him @DanielLDavis1

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