Preventing War with the PRC
By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior FellowMARCH 2021—“Can the United States win a war with China?” Scores of publications are asking some version of this question. But given what a U.S.-China war would unleash, a far better question is this: Can the United States deter Xi Jinping’s regime and prevent a war with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)?Ugly and IntenseOur starting point is something too many Americans forget or never learned: Waging war is far more costly than building and maintaining a military capable of deterring war.
In the eight years before entering World War I, the United States devoted an average of 0.7 percent of GDP to defense. During the war, the U.S. spent an average of 16.1 percent of GDP on defense—and sacrificed 116,516 dead to turn back the Central Powers.In the decade before entering World War II, the United States spent an average of 1.1 percent of GDP on defense. During the war, the U.S. spent an average of 27 percent of GDP on defense—and sacrificed 405,399 lives defeating the Axis.During the Cold War, by contrast, Washington spent an average of 7 percent of GDP on defense. Those investments didn’t end all wars, but they did deter the Soviets and prevent World War III.Yet by 2000—nine years after the collapse of the USSR—defense spending would fall to just 3 percent of GDP. Then came 9/11, and defense spending spiked above 4.5 percent of GDP. But then came the Great Recession of 2008 and the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, and defense spending cratered again to around 3 percent of GDP. Is it a coincidence that just as sequestration took a guillotine to America’s deterrent military strength, China began annexing the South China Sea, and Russia lunged into Ukraine and Syria? (At $740 billion, the U.S. defense budget for FY2021 is around 3.5 percent of GDP, although that’s a deceptively high share of GDP because of the economic effects of the government-ordered COVID-19 lockdown.)
The destructiveness and vastness of modern war—especially hostilities between two great powers such as the U.S. and the PRC—counsel against crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. Unlike the wars America has fought since 1945, a U.S.-PRC war would not be confined to some faraway desert or jungle. Nor would it be fought solely on America’s terms. Instead, Beijing would exploit its capabilities to inflict heavy damage on America’s Navy, dare U.S. air assets to venture into the teeth of its layered air-defense kill zones, deploy precision missilery across vast stretches of Indo-Pacific waters, saturate island bases with waves of missile strikes, carry out attacks against U.S. space and cyberspace assets (thus blinding our forces and putting at risk our economy), cut off critical supplies, target infrastr