Analysis & Opinions - PRISM - National Defense University

The 21st Century's Great Military Rivalry

| September 30, 2022

A quarter-century ago, China conducted what it called “missile tests” bracketing the island of Taiwan to deter it from a move toward independence by demonstrating that China could cut Taiwan’s ocean lifelines. In response, in a show of superiority that forced China to back down, the United States deployed two aircraft carriers to Taiwan’s adjacent waters. If China were to repeat the same missile tests today, it is highly unlikely that the United States would respond as it did in 1996. If U.S. carriers moved that close to the Chinese mainland now, they could be sunk by the DF-21 and DF-26 missiles that China has since developed and deployed.

This article presents three major theses concerning the military rivalry between China and the United States in this century. First, the era of U.S. military primacy is over: dead, buried, and gone—except in the minds of some political leaders and policy analysts who have not examined the hard facts. As former Secretary of Defense James Mattis put it starkly in his 2018 National Defense Strategy, “For decades the United States has enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain. We could generally deploy our forces when we wanted, assemble them where we wanted, and operate how we wanted.” But that was then. “Today,” Mattis warned, “every domain is contested—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.” As a result, in the past two decades, the United States has been forced to retreat from a strategy based on primacy and dominance to one of deterrence. As President Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his National Security Council colleague Kurt Campbell acknowledged in 2019, “The United States must accept that military primacy will be difficult to restore, given the reach of China’s weapons, and instead focus on deterring China from interfering with its freedom of maneuver and from physically coercing U.S. allies and partners.” One of the architects of the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy put it less diplomatically and more succinctly: “The era of untrammeled U.S. military superiority is over.”

Second, while America’s position as a global military superpower remains unique—with power projection capabilities no one can match, more than 50 allies bound by collective defense arrangements, and a network of bases on almost every continent—both China and Russia are now serious military rivals and even peers in particular domains. Russia’s nuclear arsenal has long been recognized as essentially equivalent to America’s, and while China’s nuclear arsenal is much smaller, Beijing has nonetheless deployed a fleet of survivable nuclear forces sufficient to ensure mutually assured destruction. The Department of Defense (DOD) designation of China and Russia as Great Power competitors recognizes that they now have the power to deny U.S. dominance along their borders and in adjacent seas.

Third, if soon there is a “limited war” over Taiwan or along China’s periphery, the United States would likely lose—or have to choose between losing and stepping up the escalation ladder to a wider war. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and her fellow members of the National Defense Strategy Commission provided a vivid scenario of a war over Taiwan that the United States could lose. In response to a provocative move by Taiwan, or in a moment of hubris, if China were to launch a military attack to take control of Taiwan, it would likely succeed before the U.S. military could move enough assets into the region to matter. If the United States attempted to come to the defense of Taiwan with the forces currently in the area or that could arrive during the Chinese assault, it would not be able to materially affect the outcome. As former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James Winnefeld and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Acting Director Michael Morell wrote last year, China has the capability to deliver a fait accompli to Taiwan before Washington would be able to decide how to respond. The National Defense Strategy Commission reached a similar conclusion: the United States “might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham and Jonah Glick-Unterman.“The 21st Century's Great Military Rivalry.” PRISM - National Defense University, September 30, 2022.