It's unlikely that the U.S.-China trade dispute is going to escalate to a full-scale war any time soon — but it's not impossible. Neither side is inclined to go to war with the other, but a war of that scale is what both plan to fight. All it would take is one bungled crisis, one itchy trigger finger, one malfunctioning automated defense system and the entire region could become a war zone.
China's military upgrades, especially in the areas of anti-access and area-denial weapons, would make any war between the two countries "intense, destructive, and protracted," according to the RAND corporation, America's premiere policy and decision-making thinktank. The non-profit, non-partisan organization has been doing this kind of research since 1948.
David C. Gompert is the lead author of a recent study on the chances and effects of such a war. He's an adjunct senior fellow at RAND. Gompert doesn't predict a coming war, but acknowledges the possibilities.
"Tensions exist between the United States and China on a number of issues," Gompert said. "And a crisis could occur and involve incidents or miscalculations that lead to hostilities. For example, China could try to intimidate its neighbors below the threshold of U.S. intervention and misjudge where that threshold is, or underestimate U.S. willingness to back Japan militarily in a crisis over disputed territory in the East China Sea."
If the situation did escalate, both sides would suffer incredible losses in manpower and materiel. Chinese losses would be much more severe compared to the Americans, but as Chinese military capabilities improve, U.S. loss projections get much, much higher. As the war goes on, Chinese A2AD will make American dominance much more difficult to achieve. But the Chinese will suffer from a lack of resources and a protracted conflict will make affect China's ability to suppress internal divisions.
Economically, China would suffer tremendously, while damaging the U.S. economy and anyone else dependent on China for trade. The study recommends ensuring China is aware of the level of destruction it faces in a fight with American forces — whether or not it loses a military conflict. Also, it is critical for the United States to improve interoperability with regional allies to both present a strong counterforce in the face of Chinese aggression — but it is highly unlikely that a partner like Japan would join the fighting. The international community would be divided in its support, but this would have little to no effect on the fighting.
RAND also recommends increasing military communications with China in order to avert a misunderstanding should any kind of military accident occur. The U.S. also needs to be more understanding should such an accident occur against its forces. If hostilities did break out, the U.S.' most survivable platforms (like submarines) and anti-missile systems should be at the fore of the fight.
Finally, disrupting Chinese supply lines and technology from the sea and replacing products the American economy needs from China are critical to minimizing the damage suffered from a war.
"History suggests that wars that are very destructive to both combatants have a way of persisting as long as neither side faces complete defeat," Gompert said. "A Sino-U.S. war would be so harmful that both sides should place a very high priority on avoiding one."