[Prediction] What war between the USA and China would look like in 2050

by lsusr11 min read26th May 202152 comments

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WarChinaWorld Modeling
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The Cold War is over. Russia is a fading power. The most important geopolitical rivalry of the 21st century is between China and the USA. Any analysis of the conflict must take into account the possibility that it escalates into a hot war. This post explores how a direct conflict between the USA and China might unfold. It assumes strong AI has not been invented and nuclear weapons are not used.

America's Interests

The United States' interests have been basically unchanged since 1945. Its primary objective is to maintain the liberal world order (LWO), also known as the "rules-based international order". The LWO describes a set of global, rule-based structured relationships based on economic liberalism as embodied by the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. The LWO promotes political liberalism too, albeit much less consistently.

As the primary power behind the LWO, the United States designed it to maximize economic and political power of the United States. As the United States' relative power wanes, we may see a transition toward a more multipolar LWO.

China's Interests

China's interests have been basically unchanged since 1978. Its primary objective is to maintain internal domestic stability i.e. prevent regime change. There are two ways of keeping its population under control: via a police state and via economic development. The stronger it's police state the less economic development is necessary and vice versa. China's economic growth is slowing as its east cost gets closer to a Western standard of living.

The People's Republic of China did not get a seat at the table in 1945 when the LWO was designed. It wasn't even allowed into the United Nations until 1971. From 1945 until 1971, "China" was represented by the Republic of China i.e. Taiwan. This illustrates how the LWO favors American geopolitical interests and is one of the many reasons why the People's Republic of China seeks to annex Taiwan.

China has prospered under the LWO. Rather than establishing broad international coalitions, China tends to pursue its interests bilaterally. With a few exceptions (like the dispute over the South China Sea) China is content to play according to the rules of the LWO.

Besides annexing Taiwan, China's geopolitical interests mostly revolve around securing markets and raw materials to fuel its economic development. This is the motivation behind 一带一路 (the Belt and Road Initiative).

Relative Power

The United States dominates global military spending.

Military spending is a trailing indicator. What really matters is the size of each nation's respective economy. Metaculus predicts a 1.7 China-to-USA GDP ratio in 2050. The PPP difference will be even higher.

This underestimates the relative strength of the USA because the USA has many close allies: The European Union, Britain, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and so on.

China has North Korea.

The advantage to America is it has allies to call upon. The disadvantage to America is it has allies it must coordinate with and defend. America is spread thin. China focuses its attention on its smaller sphere of influence.

Conflict Points

Of all the potential points of conflict, the obvious ones are Taiwan and the South China Sea. For the purpose of this analysis, suppose Taiwan declares independence from China in 2050 which causes China to attack Taiwan which causes the United States to attack China.

The last time something like this happened was in 1949 when the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan. The United States refused to get involved until the Korean War in 1950. The United States sent its Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Straight. American naval supremacy kept the People's Republic of China from advancing into Taiwan, thus establishing the status quo which remains until today.

The United States maintains naval dominance over China. This will not last. China's PPP surpassed the United States years ago. China's GDP will surpass the United States well before 2050. Most importantly, the crown jewels of the United States' fleet will be almost useless in a direct conflict against China.

Ships vs Guided Missiles

When the United States wants to project power to a faraway land it uses aircraft carriers. In the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the United States sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait to demonstrate solidarity with Taiwan.

Aircraft carriers dominated the seas in the second half of the 20th century because planes used to have short ranges and missiles used to be dumb. Today, airplanes have long ranges and missiles are smart.

A Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile is believed to have a range in excess of 1,500 km. The newer CH-AS-X-13 has a range of 3,000 km. It can be launched from an airplane so its effective range is even farther. I estimate anti-ship missiles cost about $2 million each. An aircraft carrier costs more than $10 billion. Hiding an aircraft carrier battle group on the open sea isn't possible. The only way aircraft carriers could be remotely viable in a hot war between the United States and China would be if they had very reliable missile defense systems.

Israel's Iron Dome blocked 90% to 95% of incoming missiles in this year's Israel-Palestine crisis. That means it missed 5% to 10% of incoming missiles. A Hamas Qassam rocket is primitive. It is propelled by a mixture of sugar and potassium nitrate (ordinary fertilizer). It is not even accurate enough to use against military targets. A Qassam rocket is to a Chinese CH-AS-X-13 what a Mitsubishi A6M Zero is to an F-16.

I predict at least 5% of guided missiles can penetrate a surface fleet's missile defense system in 2050. If my numbers are right then either side can sink a $10 billion aircraft carrier with no more than $40 million in guided missiles.

An Arleigh Burke-class destroyer costs $2 billion per ship. Surface ships are basically going to be obsolete in a direct war between superpowers. The battles of the sea will be fought with aircraft, missiles, drones and maybe submarines.

Taiwan

I expect China will not be able to establish air supremacy far beyond its borders and that the United States will not be able to establish air supremacy over mainland China. Without air supremacy, neither side can protect aircraft carriers and transport fleets. This makes amphibious invasions difficult. Except Taiwan isn't far beyond China's borders.

Taiwan's military can be quickly destroyed by a Chinese attack. Taiwan itself is too weak to repulse China on the beaches. If Taiwan wants to maintain its independence then it needs dug-in defenders. Taiwan's mountainous terrain is advantageous here. Taiwan already conscripts all qualified males. It should be training them in guerrilla warfare. This is not happening. Taiwan should also have weapons caches and underground bunkers strewn all over the island. It doesn't.

How many troops would it take to conquer Taiwan?

  • A Chinese invasion of Taiwan might be similar to a United States invasion of the Japanese homeland in 1945. In 1945, the United States' Project Downfall projected an invasion force of 5 million was required to subdue a population of 70 million. Projecting from this, an invasion force of 2 million might to be necessary to subdue Taiwan's population of 23 million.
  • On the other hand, armies today are more efficient than they were in 1945. (People are more docile too.) Afghanistan has a population of 40 million but US troop levels in Afghanistan reached a height of only 100 thousand. It might take China only 50 thousand troops to subdue Taiwan.

I'm not sure which number to use. 2021 Taiwan is a lot like 2021 Japan but 2021 Japan is very unlike 1945 Japan. Taiwan is also unlike Afghanistan. It might take even fewer than 50 thousand troops to subdue Taiwan.

If 50 thousand troops is all it takes then China could land them quickly before the USA gets its act together. But if 2 million is what it takes to conquer Taiwan then China would need a bigger army than it has right now. Also, you can't land an invasion force of 2 million troops overnight. China would have to win the initial missile exchange and then maintain air superiority while it landed troops in Taiwan.

Things get hard to predict from here. What happens depends on the decisions of individual world leaders and the determination of various peoples.

Cyberspace

In Darknet Diaries Episode 21: Black Duck Eggs, Ira Winkler tells the story of how his team broke into a major datacenter containing billions of dollars worth of technology.

Well, the first time you steal a billion dollars it’s a bit of a rush. After you’ve done this so many times it’s almost expected. Frankly, it was really unclimactic to actually take over control of all their computers in the RND center.

I know, right? Who cares if you can just walk into a datacenter and steal a billion dollars worth of advanced technology? It doesn't mean anything when you have a get out of jail free card because you are doing an officially-sanctioned penetration test. Except that after the penetration test Ira Winkler's team discovered a physical "Chinese intelligence operation in the middle of this small town, directly across the street from the research and development center of a Global 5 company".

For every hack we hear about there are many hacks we don't hear about. When you break into an adversary's computer network the first thing you want to do is establish persistence. Most of those hacks we don't hear about probably establish persistence. I would be surprised if China and the United States hadn't established persistence in most of each others' critical systems.

In the event of a hot war between the United States and China, both sides will burn most of their zero-days immediately to cause as much disruption to the enemy as possible. It takes a lot of work to clean a hacker out of one of your systems. The cyber onslaught will probably overwhelm both sides' ability to reset their software. They will have to focus on the most critical systems of all: communications.

I expect all but the most secure systems (think "US president's personal phone") will be entirely compromised. However, there are many ways to communicate. Both sides can improvise. Since secondary channels abound, it might be better just to spy on enemy communications instead of breaking them.

It is theoretically possible to take control of enemy weapon systems too but I don't think this will have a major impact. Weapon systems will continue to have human beings in the loop. Human beings can't be hacked the way computers can.

I think compromised weapons systems will just be taken out of commission rather than commandeered. Some of them might be destroyed, but I think most will just be rendered temporarily inoperable.

Space War

Satellites serve four purposes: reconnaissance, communication, navigation (GPS) and destroying other satellites. GPS going down would inconvenience both sides but it wouldn't be decisive. There are other ways of navigating. The same goes for satellite communication.

The most important use of satellites is reconnaissance. Aerial drones are nice but they can't see as much at once as a camera in outer space. If both sides are restrained in their use of nuclear weapons then they might also be restrained in space warfare. That seems overly-optimistic to me. The primary objective of both sides will be to preserve their spy satellite capability while destroying the enemy's.

The price of space travel is going down. We can expect a large increase in the number of satellites between now and 2050, including spy satellites and anti-satellite satellites. It is plausible that satellite warfare could trigger Kessler syndrome in low earth orbit where collisions cascade into a giant mess of debris.

Protracted Total War is Unlikely

The initial exchange of missiles and zero-days will be fast. Critical tactical decisions may occur in the first few hours. The decisive fighting could be over in a matter of days. The limiting factor isn't technical. It's the speed at which leaders can make decisions.

After a few weeks, both armies will be running out of missiles[1]. Both civilian populations will have suffered massive damage from cyberattacks on their civilian infrastructure. If satellite warfare triggers Kessler syndrome then much of the world's communication infrastructure could be irreversibly damaged. The global economy would be a mess. Economic chaos would be bad for US interests and even worse for Chinese interests.

If we do see a protracted war then it matters a lot what countries get involved. A conflict where India or Russia joins the fray is very different from a conflict where they don't. Whatever happens, the tech level will probably go down. Advanced weapon systems like stealth drones take a long time to build. Destroy a few major semiconductor fabricators and the whole world runs low.

But it's hard for me to imagine a protracted war on the scale of World War II. In the past, getting your cities bombed was a small price to pay in order to expand your territory. China may sieze some already disputed territory like Taiwan or Kashmir. But it doesn't want to administer a large empire. China's primary objective is to maintain domestic stability. Annexing Afghanistan or Vietnam or Pakistan would make China harder to govern, not easier.

China's secondary objective is to secure access to resources and markets. Destroying the United States might help tear down the LWO, but if China dragged itself down alongside the United States then that would just open up a power vacuum for countries like Brazil, India and South Africa.

The United States isn't an expansionary power either. America likes the LWO because the LWO supports American interests. I don't see America sacrificing its own hegemony to preserve the LWO.

The Seven Years War happened because Britain and France were expansionary powers. World War One happened because the European powers were expansionary. World War Two happened because Germany, Italy and Japan were expansionary powers. The United States and China aren't expansionary powers.

Instead of a protracted total war, we'll probably see a ceasefire or deescalation. Besides control over Taiwan, the most important thing to come out of a conflict like this is a (re)establishment of the world order. A war would clarify who is and isn't a superpower (anymore).


  1. If things go longer then it would be because the United States' military force is spread around the world. Its reserve forces could take weeks just to get to China. ↩︎

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Even without a singularity, 2050 is unimaginably far away. 2050 is as far from 2021, as 2021 is from 1992, a time when there was no mass Internet, no smartphones, no 9/11, Japan was America's big economic rival, China was still debating whether to continue economic reform, the Soviet Union had just ceased to exist and the European Union had just begun to exist. Half the world population of 2021 wasn't even alive in 1992. 

2021 man forgot "finding info about almost anything, instantly, for free, from home."

Now imagine if, in 2050, we could find/view books & scientific datasets as easily as we read the web... (in fact, why would it take until 2050? Oh right: copyright law and entrenched practices)

Sorry, but I'll comment on a meta level. I find the topic interesting and am interested in reading such discussions; but may I ask the admins what the current policy regarding frontpaging politics is? Last time I checked, It seemed that the rule was that only Zvi is allowed to write politics for the frontpage... Now the post already starts off with a subjective worldview and presents it as objective (e.g. the "interests" of the US that are stated as facts without evidence or discussion; the "liberal world order (LWO), also known as the 'rules-based international order'" is presented as an objectively existing thing, the US is claimed to unambiguously protect it, and to have designed it "to maximize economic and political power of the United States"). I don't mind forum posts and discussions on that level, but I have a preference for consistency. So just to be sure: Is this kind of politics discussion now encouraged?

Not sure whether we made the right call. 

I had a sense this post wasn't actually particularly political in the usual mindkilly sense, mostly because it talked about stuff that's far in the future, and skimming it, I didn't have a sense that it was super much falling into usual tribal error modes. 

The three principles that determine frontpage status are: 

  • Useful, novel, and relevant to many LessWrong members
  • “Timeless”, i.e. minimizes references to current events and is likely to remain useful even after a few years
  • The post attempts to explain rather than persuade

Political discussion usually fails on the timeless dimension or the "'persuade instead of explain" dimension. But I felt like this post didn't do either. 

Ok, to clarify: It doesn't really matter that this is a politics post because you think that it fulfills the three criteria? Then where do the "tribal error modes" enter the criteria? Or do you think they only follow from violating timelessness or explanation style?

Yeah, basically. I am not claiming those three principles capture everything, they are definitely not perfect. But they were chosen to capture most of the bad aspects, and posts about politics that avoid all three do feel a lot less doomy to me (though some definitely remains, and if we notice bad consequences from frontpaging things like this, we should expand those criteria).

Politics is politics. US vs China is about as divisive and tribal as you can go, on the same level as pro- vs anti-Trump. Would you encourage political discussions of the latter type on Lesswrong, too?

I do have a sense that it's less likely to explode in bad ways, and less likely to attract bad people to the site. Also, we chose our criteria trying to capture most of the bad consequences while not being too restrictive, and sacrificing some detailed fidelity on edge-cases to make the whole system more predictable and easier to interface with seems worth it. I do think that if we see bad consequences as a result of frontpaging things like this, we should expand our criteria.

I do have a sense that it's less likely to explode in bad ways, and less likely to attract bad people to the site.

I agree with the first part of the sentence but disagree with the second part. In my view, Lesswrong's best defense thus far has been a frontpage filled with content that appears bland to anyone with a combative attitude coming from other, more toxic social media environments. Posts like this one though stick out like a sore thumb and signal to onlookers that discussions about politics and geopolitics are now an integral part of Lesswrong, even when the discussions themselves are respectful and benign so far. If my hypothesis is correct, an early sign of deterioration would be an accumulation of newly registered accounts that solely leave comments on one or two politics-related posts.

I like that you specify a prediction what the problem with politics is, but I think this will not be the case.

As I see it, the "politics" part in this post is not so much that country conflicts are discussed, but rather that statements like "The United States' ... primary objective is to maintain the liberal world order (LWO), also known as the "rules-based international order". " are presented as if they were established, undisputed common-knowledge facts that do not need discussion, argument, evidence or references. This creates an atmosphere suggesting that a certain specific worldview is not even a specific worldview. (This is strange in a forum that originated from something called "overcoming bias".) It hampers generation and growth of knowledge, also with respect to politics. 

Every community has such established facts. They may change over time. This may come along with a change in atmosphere and attitudes. I think that the atmosphere of lw with regards to politics has already changed in 2020-21. In particular, I perceive a change in what is an acceptable style and tone of discussing politics from a certain perspective. The addition of geopolitics as a frontpage topics is somewhat consequent.

In principle, it is possible to discuss politics while maintaining high standards of discourse. But it seems to be a field of knowledge where people don't even see a problem of subjectivity, tribalism or whatever as long as their own worldview is the standard.

However, I do not expect the "newly registered accounts" problem. I would expect it to happen if the forum combined politics with non-partisanship (of the forum itself). But lesswrong has the Karma system and the "well-kept garden" belief. 

 

Suppose you have a chess club. The strength of this club is its rigorous and reflective analysis of chess problems. People in the club are friendly, in particular when discussing chess, also regarding non-members. The chess club has officially banned discussion of diets; they know that dietary discussions are divise; some people are vegans, others aren't, and both groups are convinced of themselves. 

However, one day people in the town start panicking about deep-fried chocolate bars, due to some news report. Several senior chess players find that it's completely obvious that eating only deep-fried meals is best and chocolate bars are fantastic; combining that (obviously) improves your ability to focus on chess, and this conclusion immediately follows from applying the rigour of their chess analysis to dietary problems! This is not a dietary partisan issue, it's just obvious! Knowing that is useful information, and nobody around dislikes deep-fried chocolate bars. (Also, sneering at the chocolate-bar panic is refreshing, because the panic is not based on science, and it's just the typical overreaction of the public, and does it really make sense to ban all deep-fried chocolate bars? You will hardly die because of one or two.) 

Discussion of how best to deep-fry chocolate bars is interesting for many of the chess players; the junior players find eating more deep-fried chocolate bars worthwhile because the senior players like it and so maybe it's related to playing chess. (OTOH, some senior players just don't care and just want to play chess.) Additionally, maybe you will see some people becoming members of the club mainly to discuss deep-frying chocolate bars; some of them will even think "wow, I like this whole chess thing more than I did some years ago, I guess I am a better chess player now because I apply the principle of rigorous and reflective analysis to chess problems". But no people would join e.g. just because of potential controversy about deep-frying (there is no controversy). And even if no new members join, I think the chess club has changed its character. And it's not even because the chess club now discusses dietary problems, but because the chess club now has a somewhat official belief on dietary problems and an approach towards dietary problems that is not as rigorous as its approach towards chess.

I also have a personal interest in trying to keep Lesswrong politics-free because for me fighting down the urge to engage in political discussions is a burden, like an ex-junkie constantly tempted with easily available drugs. Old habits die hard, so I immediately committed to not participate in any object-level discussions upon seeing the title of this post. I'm not sure whether this applies to anyone else.

My current impression was that both sides of the aisle are pretty frustrated with China right now. Not sure if that's what you meant, but it doesn't seem like a red-tribe vs. blue-tribe issue like Trump.

I think "this is bipartisan in the US" is not the same as "this is not an ideology-based, nontribal politics discussion".

No that's not what I meant; these two issues divide different tribes but the level of toxicity and fanaticism is similar. Heated debates around US-China war scenarios are very common in Taiwanese/Chinese overseas communities.

Hiding an aircraft carrier battle group on the open sea isn't possible.

Whoa. That's.. not true? Maybe in thirty years if radar + imaging gets dramatically better, but.. As bean says, it's a big ocean, and very easy to hide in inclement weather with drones and electronic counter-warfare and automated point-defence systems that are already very good and etc. The "carriers are doomed" still seems to be quite a controversial contention.

I commend you for giving a fair shake to both sides of the issue. There are two big questions at play: How easy it is to find warships and how hard it is to defend against incoming missiles.

Detecting Warships

Bean's original analysis seems to revolve around surface-based and air-based radar. The price of space travel is going down. I take it for granted we will have many optical cameras in orbit (or, in case satellites are destroyed en masse, then via drones). It might be possible to hide temporarily under a cloud, but once weather changes your ships are visible to anyone with a big space program.

Shooting Down Missiles

In plain English, the missile can’t tell the carrier from a destroyer with a blip enhancer or a merchantman.

Bean's original analysis seems bearish on today's missile guidance and targeting systems. I think that they are getting better quickly alongside space travel and machine learning. It may be true today that a missile can't tell warships apart but I would be surprised if that were still for the most advanced anti-ship ballistic missiles in 2050.

My post is premised on the idea that even if you could shoot down an incoming swarm of missile it would cost far more than the price of the missiles. I could be wrong because my analysis only accounts for interceptor missiles. There are a variety of non-missile defenses to consider.

But there are other defenses besides missiles. There’s also electronic warfare to consider. This is a fantastically complicated topic, and we can’t know the answer without an actual war…

This is a big question mark because the most advanced missile defense systems of today haven't been battle-tested against the most advanced anti-ship ballistic missiles.

Aye, these are all reasonable points, but there will be corresponding advances on the US side in evading detection, adding confusion, and masking signals. I recommend the podcast episode, I listened to it this morning -- Bean's clearly evolved on this, but basically says, "I think it will come down to a cyber race to see who has better zero-days."

Yes to all.

I have so far resisted thinking in terms of "I think it will come down to a cyber race to see who has better zero-days" because my heuristic for this sort of thing is that programmers tend to overestimate our own importance. But then I think about WWI where technological advances were vastly underestimated by the military establishment on the Western Front. It could go either way.

When it comes to space I think Tungsten rods will play an important part.

My initial reaction to this comment was that tungsten rods are science fiction and that we don't have the capabilities or willingness to put the rods in space... but it now occurs to me that Starship makes the possibility of tungsten rods much more believable. 

I would nudge your assessment of the missile defense capabilities of aircraft carriers up a bit. Part of the reason the Iron Dome doesn't intercept everything is because Hamas launches a large number of rockets at the same time to overwhelm the system. This is easier to do when the rockets are cheap and the target distances are short. A comparable number of anti ship missiles are probably harder to fire simultaneously without deploying a large air fleet, in which case you are kind of meeting the carrier on its own terms. Longer range strikes also means greater time for detection and reaction. I also don't know how that 90-95% figure counts rockets that were intentionally not shot down since their trajectories ended in empty areas. I still think your overall assessment is correct though; it is probably much cheaper to sink an aircraft carrier than defend it, in both money and personnel. And the greatest cost to both parties would be from cyber attacks on civilian or mixed use systems.

Your points about Taiwan's lack of preparation are interesting. Could preparing for guerrilla resistance be seen as accepting a Chinese invasion and occupation as inevitable? I don't know much about Taiwan but I would guess proposing that to be career suicide for most politicians or military officers.

You have several good points here. I think the most important one is that shorter distances makes missiles harder to shoot down.

The 90%-95% number does not include rockets which fell short and landed in Gaza. The 95% number comes from the Israeli armed forces (the 90% came from the Associated Press) so I expect it to make them look as good as possible which means the remaining 5% probably weren't aimed at unoccupied areas.

According to this article the cost of an Israeli interceptor missile is $40,000-$50,000. So even if they shoot down 100% of incoming missiles it still costs 50× more to shoot down a missile than to fire one. On the one hand, the attack missiles in question are unusually cheap. On the other hand, more expensive missiles are probably harder to shoot down. On the other other hand, much of that money goes things other than defense.

Tanner Greer has better analyses of Taiwan's defensive capabilities than I can write. My guess is there are many reasons you wouldn't want to train your population in guerrilla warfare. For starters, it basically amounts to training terrorists in your own country.

A few selected thoughts :

  1. The number on the US invasion of Afghanistan may explain why it was such a failure. With 10^6 soldiers instead of 10^5 they would probably have been able to really secure the country.
  2. I think a protracted war is unlikely because I expect the US to just give up on Taiwan.
  3. Expansionism is something that grows on you. After China invades Taiwan, I guess they may become interested in securing some form of control over say Singapore, or Vietnam. The fact that they are not expansionist now does not mean they will not be expansionist then.
  4. I think a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is likely to happen way before 2050.

Expansionism is something that grows on you. 

That depends on the amount of trouble you have administering the new expansions.

I guess they may become interested in securing some form of control over say Singapore, or Vietnam. 

The US has some form of control over many states without needing to formally control their territory. China's actions in Australia or Hollywood for that matter, indicates the like having some control but that's very different then needing to incorporate everything.

I'm not sure the victims of, say, Pinochet really appreciate the "we are not expansionist, we are just helping overthrow your democratically elected government in order to maintain our influence on your county's international and economic policy." defense.  
 

I don't think that's how most control goes. If you forbid our cigarette companies from selling in your country you will have to pay hundreds in millions for a case at the WTO or if you don't don't sell your state owned businesses you won't get IMF loans is more the dynamic I'm pointing towards. 

There's a reason why there are currently no Chinese villians in Hollywood movies. It's just not a smart move if you want to raise capital for another movie.

If current trends continue Australia will end up in a state where you can't have a political career if you are openly critical of China. They don't need to overthrow any Australian government to get what they want.

My understanding of the present state of Taiwan is that they are unprepared for war in any real sense. Sure, they've bought a decent amount of American military technology, but that seems to be it.

Total war requires the preparation of the entire populace. Taiwan has not done this, and I doubt the present government intends to do so. Not only do you basically have to train your populace in terrorism, you also need to equip them with caches of a variety of weapons, entirely outside of government control.

Azerbaijan and Armenia's recent war shows just how the game has changed. Armenia had a much more capable and better-trained infantry. Azerbaijan had the latest in drone technology. "Guerrillas hiding in the mountains" don't fare well against combined-arms forces with FLIR-equipped drones.

The defensive proposition of total war is that you force any would-be invader to kill most, if not all, of the local population to achieve victory. Both during the initial invasion, as well as during at least a full generation of occupation.

In essence, you leave only two options on the table: "Leave us in peace" or "In exchange for us inflicting massive casualties upon your forces, you will receive what remans of a barren rock full of refugees, along with at least one full generation of terrorism levied against your people by ours. As a bonus, we are both native speakers of the same language and lack any visual ethnic distinction. Isn't that fun?"

Why would the Beijing government invade Taiwan? Couldn't it get most of what it wants by taking control of the airspace and shipping lanes around Taiwan?

This is a complicated question. It has as much to do with history and nationalism as with realpolitik.

China would get much of what it wants by taking control of the airspace and shipping lanes around Taiwan. Control of the airspace and shipping lanes around Taiwan is a lot easier when you have bases on Taiwan.

But there's more to it than that. China is a nation-state. Nation-states consider their territory and people to be semi-sacred. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, Britain didn't defend them because they were important. Britain defended them because they were British. Similarly, China considers Taiwan to be part of China.

In a perfect world (for the People's Republic of China), China would assimilate the Taiwanese people into the Chinese nation-state.

Part of what I'm asking is how long would Taiwan resist assimilation if assimilation is the only way to re-establish trade with the world?

Indefinitely, I think. Nations don't tend to surrender sovereignty just because they're being blockaded.

China's interests have been basically unchanged since 1978. Its primary objective is to maintain internal domestic stability i.e. prevent regime change.
...

China has prospered under the [Liberal World Order]. Rather than establishing broad international coalitions, China tends to pursue its interests bilaterally. With a few exceptions (like the dispute over the South China Sea) China is content to play according to the rules of the LWO.

...

Of all the potential points of conflict, the obvious ones are Taiwan and the South China Sea.

 

Great, there's no reason for the US to fight China over control of sea and land next to China. The sooner the US realizes this, the safer and more prosperous we all, and the LWO, will be.

China's secondary objective is to secure resources and trade routes, even if that means breaking the LWO.

The LWO has and can bend a lot without breaking. Great power war risks actually breaking the LWO, and more.

So the whole EEZ rights that these other nations are recognized as having should just be ignored? We should just toss the entire UN bath water out?

I think giving into China on SCS and its claims that conflict with international rules it has agreed with and signed on to necessarily make a mockery of any claims to supporting a LWO or a USA commitment to any such order.

Great power war risks destruction of the LWO. The LWO can and does take a whole lot of mockery (including from the US) and keep on ticking in the most important respects: peace and continued technical progress.

Anyway the EEZ conflicts are between jurisdictions in the region, not the US. Freedom of commercial navigation will continue in the absence of military conflict. I expect the oceans to be more and more governed by states, and if it doesn't destroy itself in unnecessary conflict, US power will benefit, as will the UK and France due to their massive head starts (far flung island territories). For example, if seasteading ever becomes viable, over the long term it'll contribute to more governance of oceans by states. Island building is just the beginning.

Hiding an aircraft carrier battle group on the open sea isn't possible.

This think tank disagrees.

I know it would be complicated but I have to ask whether you have a guess about India and Russia. India has ties with the US. But on the other hand, their water supply (from Tibbet) is under Chinese authority. They may also have common interests with China (India needs technology and money, which China could offer too). Russia is neither too populous nor an economic leviathan but has a vast land, many nuclear missiles, and a well-equipped army (which will fail to keep up with the USA or China). So Russia is a game-changer too (agree?). Which side are they more likely to pick?

Russia is antagonistic towards both the USA and China. They have nothing to gain by picking sides. Russia remains neutral.

I don't know much about Indian geopolitics. Unless something changes (like a mutual defense pact between India and the USA), my guess is India takes advantage of a US-China conflict to extract concessions related to their water supply or their disputed territories with China.

Indians mostly hate China, and this feeling is almost universal in the dominant party.

This all seems pretty sensible.

The United States and China aren't expansionary powers

How long do you think it would take for China to go from its current level of expansionism to a level that would make war with the US plausibly worthwhile?  Could it happen in a generation, and what might precipitate it?  I'm thinking about Weimar Germany to Nazi Germany, or (the reverse) Imperial Japan to Solid-State Electronics Japan.

The Uighur ethnic cleansing is Han (versus "Chinese" more generally, since the Uighurs are citizens of PRC) expansionism, right?  Might that become more widespread and aggressive? 

(Contra, there's not much worth owning in southeast Asia or the Stan countries, and Russia would oppose outside influence in former Soviet states, based on past and current behavior.)  

What about taking over the Korean peninsula? Wouldn't be the first time. If China controlled DPRK's territory, which I assume they could at will, they could much more easily get troops into ROK than the U.S. could, especially if your view on missile-based ocean-area denial is correct. The 30,000 U.S. troops in ROK would have no realistic hope of reinforcement so long as neither side had air or sea superiority.  Does POTUS order them to fight to the last soldier, hoping that 30,000 dead or captured would motivate the country to fight back, or negotiate a peaceful retreat and withdrawal from ROK?  I guess it depends on who's POTUS.  

I bet the modern PRC could stop another Operation Chromite literally dead in the water. If nothing else, spotting an incoming sea assault is so much easier than it was in 1950.

These same issues would apply if China attacked Japan.

I'm thinking about Weimar Germany to Nazi Germany, or (the reverse) Imperial Japan to Solid-State Electronics Japan.

Consider this claim from a recent SSC book review contest entrant, describing the Bretton Woods arrangement:

The deal offered benefits not only to England, France, and the Allies, but also to Japan and Germany that they couldn’t have even hoped to achieve had they won the war. 6

6 Apparently Germany and Japan would have found it to be unbelievable. “The primary reason Germany and Japan had launched World War II in the first place was to gain greater access to resources and markets. Germany wanted the agricultural output of Poland, the capital of the Low Countries, the coal of Central Europe, and the markets of France. Japan coveted the manpower and markets of China and the resources of Southeast Asia. Now that they had been thoroughly defeated, the Americans were offering them economic access far beyond their wildest prewar longings: risk-free access to ample resources and bottomless markets a half a world away. And “all” it would cost them was accepting a security guarantee that was better than anything they could ever have achieved by themselves.” 

It seems to me there are positional status questions--is China just a participant in America's world, or is it the Middle Kingdom?--but I think it's hard to see a situation where China is better off annexing countries to be recalcitrant provinces rather than just trading with them while they're American allies and protectorates. (Like, it's really not obvious that China is better off with a conquered Korea than it is with a neighboring Korea.)

Re trade vs conquest - If smart people are in charge of a smart populace, I agree. But China's South China Sea colonialism + attitude toward Taiwan suggest that they aren't viewing things solely in those terms. They act like a people who find terminal value in throwing their weight around and in taking Taiwan, or at least in reducing the influence of the U.S.-Japan alliance in the area by doing those things.

Re your example of Bretton Woods--in an analogous situation, the U.S./world order would be ready to give China great trade terms, but China would not even perceive such terms to be possible--wouldn't that give China an incentive to conquer instead of trade, as the Axis powers did? I am probably misinterpreting your point here. (Does China want more access to U.S./world markets than it already has?)

I think we're looking at a game of chicken. I don't think war between China and the US would be worthwhile for either side unless the opposing side folds. That might happen if the US population becomes much more isolationist. Such a shift could happen fast, slow or not at all.

I'm considering China's actions towards the Uighurs and Tibet to not qualify as "expansionism" in this context because Xinjiang has been part of the PRC since 1949 and Tibet has been part of the PRC since 1951. Not only is this nearly the entire history of the PRC, they were even controlled by the Qing Dynasty. Geopolitically, Tibet and Xinjiang are Chinese territory.

It might be worthwhile for China to conquer Korea, and you make a good point about how China would have an easier time invading South Korea than Taiwan. I don't think this will be an issue by 2050 unless China becomes much more expansionist. Taiwan is a higher priority for them. If China invaded Korea it would probably just be a side effect of a broader war against the United States and its allies.

It's worth noting that the Weimar Republic was a short-lived democracy that was unpopular among the German people from the very start, who (regardless of what they thought of Kaiser Wilhelm & the imperial family), had very strong expansionist / imperialist leanings. When the citizens of a republic don't like the republic, it's hardly surprising to see it destroy itself

I think one factor that was overlooked as a potential for conflict is the developments by Russia and the ongoing push by China to be involved in the Arctic. As you mentioned they are interested in material collection and with the melting ice caps this unleashes a plentiful lot, along with new shipping routes. They have been granted an observer seat on the arctic council and with more military activity in the north with Russia and the rest of the arctic powers, it is not far off that this area will become more engaged here. 

I doubt population size is really a good metric for estimating odds for a battle/invasion. Used to be that the rule of thumb was the attacking force needed 3 times the forces of the defender.  In the case of Taiwan one might think a higher ratio would be required for many of the same reasons you suggest carriers are essentially sunk costs in a war.

I'm also not sure I agree with your assessment of interests or how long their agenda has been in place. There is that whole century of shame/humiliation its been looking to payback and allow a return to its rightful place as the apex culture. It has also been an imperial culture and polity for much, much longer than it's been democratic or socialist/communist. 

With regards to it largely playing by the LWO rules I think that is also rather questionable. It has used its position and acceptance into the UN and other international organizations well to lay the ground work for where they are today. It did so by not playing within the spirit of the rules and often not even within the letter of the rules. But that was just long experience with bureaucratic structures and using them to further imperial goals.

Taiwan already conscripts all qualified males. It should be training them in guerrilla warfare. This is not happening. Taiwan should also have weapons caches and underground bunkers strewn all over the island. It doesn't.

That is quite interesting. I'd gathered a vague impression from Tyler Cowan talking to Audrey Tang and Taiwan's general bang-up handling of covid that the Taiwanese gov has decent capacity and competence. Any thoughts why they would leave these obvious ideas on the table?

Unusually competent does not rule out stupid mistakes like permitting airline pilots to quarantine for only three days, as if they had a better respiratory system than other humans.

I know this is about the US and China, but you can't leave India out of the picture. "the string of pearls" is another route for Chinese expansion which would bring it into conflict with India. 

I would love to read a similar analysis of China's relationship to India. Unfortunately, I don't know anywhere near enough about India to write about the relationship between India and China.