How China and Russia Could Defeat the U.S. in War

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) with Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) / Getty
March 14, 2019

American pundits and politicians often call the U.S. military the best fighting force in the world, and they are right. The United States spends far more money on defense than any other country, and its military capabilities outclass all rivals, with unmatched air and naval power. Most importantly, the United States has dozens of allies around the world that act as force multipliers, allowing Washington to project power in far-flung regions. Americans should not get cocky or complacent, however. Despite maintaining military supremacy—albeit by a smaller margin than in recent decades—the United States could still lose wars against China and Russia, both of which have developed concepts of defeating a more powerful America in armed conflict. This notion may sound crazy, but it is all too real. Indeed, Beijing and Moscow could actually triumph if the United States does not plan and adjust accordingly.

In prepared testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Kathryn Wheelbarger, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, referenced this grave threat. "Russia's and China's military modernization, combined with the challenges in time and distance we face, provide the opportunity for these actors to pursue rapid, short duration actions—what is commonly called the 'fait accompli' scenario," she said, "Were such a scenario to transpire, it places the United States in an untenable position of responding in ways that may be viewed as escalating the conflict—a deeply problematic path when confronting nuclear-armed powers."

Wheelbarger touched on how China and Russia hope to defeat the United States in war, should one arise—potentially without even fighting American forces. Since the 1990s, Beijing and Moscow have thought carefully about the chief strategic problem before them: deterring and defeating a "conventionally superior, nuclear-armed major power and its allies"—that is, the United States. While considering this problem, both Eurasian powers developed what Brad Roberts, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, calls "theories of victory." These theories share the same basic features and have multiple phases, depending on how long the United States stays in the fight.

To start, if China or Russia thinks that war may break out with the United States, they will act first and quickly, creating a fait accompli, in this context a new geopolitical situation before American forces can stop them. For example, if it looks like there will be a war over Taiwan, China will immediately seize the island and present the United States with an unpleasant choice: either accept this new reality, or launch a bloody counteroffensive to reverse it. And China will make clear that such a counteroffensive will impose terrible costs: thousands of Americans will die, far more dollars will be spent, and the conflict will only escalate from there. Moreover, such a campaign will be quite difficult to wage because of geography: it is much easier for Chinese forces to defend nearby Taiwan than it is for American forces to re-take an island many miles away. In the case of Russia, this scenario will likely involve the Russians quickly seizing one of the Baltic states in eastern Europe, or even all of them. Again, the choice for Washington is the same: accept the new situation, or wage a war.

China and Russia would hope the United States yields, thus winning a war without even fighting the Americans. But what if the Americans are not deterred? Roberts highlights how China and Russia will, according to their theories of victory, then try to separate America's allies from each other and from the United States by threatening to attack them, again presenting Washington with a choice: fight alone or yield. If the United States still keeps fighting, China and Russia will attack American and allied forces as they arrive, making life as difficult as possible just to get to the fight. At this point, the Chinese and Russians hope, the American public will be calling for their troops to come home. And if the United States is still willing to fight, its adversaries will threaten the American homeland, bringing nuclear blackmail and brinksmanship into play. Is the United States willing to sacrifice some of its cities for Taiwan or Estonia? This is a form of the classic question from the Cold War. Fortunately, it was never answered.

That first step, the fait accompli, is the critical point in this process at which either violence will seriously escalate, or the Americans will choose not to fight at all. The Russians and Chinese are banking on an asymmetry of stakes. In other words, while the United States may have important interests at stake in these conflicts, they are not as important as the interests that Russia and China have at stake. So what are the stakes? Beijing and Moscow are concerned about returning to their periods of humiliation—for China from 1839 to 1949, for Russia the aftermath of the Cold War. They do not want to feel weak and helpless as foreign powers exploit them. But more importantly, a loss for either country would legitimately threaten their regimes, especially China's. That is the ultimate national interest, so their stakes are probably higher than America's.

But that does not mean that the United States should yield. The costs of continuing to fight are obvious, but what if Washington does yield? What if the United States accepts Chinese control of Taiwan or Russian control of the Baltics? Sure, American lives would be saved—for the time being—but surrendering would also carry heavy costs. For starters, America's credibility with its allies would be destroyed, and its network of alliances would disappear. If the United States does not come to the defense of Taiwan or NATO allies, how can other allies in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East ever trust Washington? They will look elsewhere for security, either appeasing belligerent powers in their region, like China and Russia, or acting on their own, often recklessly, which in turn could trigger more conflict. The value of America's allies is immeasurable. As I wrote last year:

Allies exponentially boost the U.S. economy (there would be no Samsung Galaxy smartphone without U.S. troops in South Korea, for example), American military power (the U.S. could not win wars outside the Western hemisphere without allied bases), and deterrence ("Alliances are not to be measured in dollars, but in their effectiveness at deterring conflict," Allan R. Millett, a prominent military historian, once said).

Moreover, if America yields, it would not only embolden China and Russia to seek more, but also other adversaries like Iran and North Korea to be more belligerent. America's deterrence would break apart, as would the American-led world order, which has created unprecedented global peace and prosperity, including for the United States itself. Finally, it would be a moral tragedy to allow large autocracies to bully smaller, inspiring democracies, disregard human rights, and make the world a darker, less secure place.

Yes, the American government would not be at risk like Vladimir Putin's rule in Russia or the Communist Party's control in China. But if the United States yields, it will be setting itself up for a more destructive war in the future, with it working from a weaker position.

China and Russia do see a path to victory in a war against the United States, even in the face of American military dominance. So does Washington have its own "theory of victory" in such a conflict? Roberts asks this essential question in his most recent book. If the answer is no, then American strategic thinkers have a lot of work to do. But above all, the American posture must start with the will to fight if it comes to it. Hopefully it never will.