Mutually-Assured Economic Destruction

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Troops from China's People's Liberation Army engage in a tug-of-war with U.S. Marines / Marine photo by Marc Ayalin

Confirming our report Friday that China is our next big enemy, the Rand Corp. has just issued a study entitled Conflict with China. It paints a pretty dire picture of U.S. military prospects in China’s ‘hood, and encourages the U.S. to keep developing weapons to keep China at bay. While the study says the prospect of war is unlikely, it urges development of new weapons and technology to maintain a military edge over Beijing. (As we noted Friday: It’s plain China is our Next Big Enemy. All the experts say so. And even if it isn’t, we have to prepare for war with it in case it comes true.) Or as Rand says in think-tank-speak:

…while Sino-U.S. hostilities may be unlikely, the United States needs a wide range of advanced military capabilities to deter or prevail, and in any case to preserve stability and exert influence in regional affairs despite China’s growing power and reach.

Yet, the report notes such a strategy may be doomed:

…the direct [U.S.] defense of contested assets in that region will become progressively more difficult, eventually approaching impossible…the United States can make more explicit what has been only faintly implicit in its strategy toward China: the threat to use nuclear weapons if conventional defense fails, if U.S. forces face defeat, and/or if vital U.S. interests in the region could be harmed.

But the threat of launching nuclear war against China (did I just type that?) is unlikely to work “because of China’s clear determination and sufficient capacity to have a survivable second-strike deterrent force able to defeat U.S. missile defense (e.g., through mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), multiple re-entry vehicles/multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MRV/MIRVs), and penetration aids),” Rand says.

Note that phrase “to defeat U.S. missile defense” – your can bet your bottom booster this will be cited as a reason to improve existing U.S. missile defenses.

But more and better precision-guided, long-range weapons could give the U.S. military enough firepower to deter China – from trying to take back Taiwan by force, for example – in the years to come. But just how many years? “How long such advantages, if recovered, could be extended beyond another decade or so depends on how long it takes China to extend the reach of its surveillance, targeting, and strike capabilities,” the report says. “Given China’s economic and technological potential, the answer might not be comforting for long-term U.S. planning.”

Jeez. What’s a superpower to do? The answer is right there in the glossary:

MAED – Mutually Assured Economic Destruction

This is a riff on the Cold War’s MAD – Mutually-Assured Destruction – doctrine that kept U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons on a hair-trigger alert (Surprise! Many of them still are!) to deter the other side. As Rand notes:

The two economies are linked with each other and with the rest of the world in a manner unparalleled in history…The operation of MAED is somewhat different from classic mutual assured destruction (MAD). It is at least theoretically possible to limit the escalation of a military clash to the sub-nuclear level. It is not possible to so limit the economic consequences. China is not going to continue buying U.S. Treasury notes while the American and Chinese navies clash somewhere off Taiwan or in the South China Sea. Apple is not going to be shipping iPads from its factories in China.

Better start stocking your fallout shelter with iPhones.