Books | The Next Major War

Xi Jinping Has Already Been Prepared to Take High Strategic Risks in the South China Sea and Along the Northern Indian Border
Ross Babbage, author of the new book The Next Major War: Can the US and its Allies Win Against China?


The Next Major WarWhat drove you to write this book? What were the main challenges you faced in the process of researching and writing?

The primary drivers have been the greatly increased risks of major war we now face in the Indo-Pacific, the critical need to better understand how such a war can be prevented and, if such a war begins, how it can be won.

We are in this situation primarily because China’s president, Xi Jinping, has stated repeatedly his determination to seize control of Taiwan and promised his people that this ‘must be realized and it can without a doubt be realized.’

On the other side of the Pacific, President Biden has stated four times since his election that if China attacks Taiwan, American forces will be committed to defend this island democracy of 24 million people. With Beijing and Washington at loggerheads on this fundamental issue, the prospect of major war between the world’s two largest powers is probably greater now than at any time since the Second World War.

So far most of the research and writing on these issues has focussed on how such a war might begin and the military challenges that would confront each side in the first few days and weeks. There has been little analysis of the markedly different conceptions of such a war in China and the US, the divergent preparations being made by the two countries and the assumptions each side is making about how such a war would be fought, the likely phases of such a conflict and how it would probably end. This book addresses these issues and also discusses the economic and business impacts, the consequences for international trade and technology and also the implications for domestic and alliance cohesion and resilience.

This project posed few major challenges other than the complexities of analysing and integrating such a large number of variables. Serious research was conducted on the key dimensions, global experts were consulted, several closed workshops were conducted, and draft judgements were then reviewed by senior practitioners. We worked hard to get it right.


What are the key differences between the Chinese and US concepts of war?

The two approaches differ substantially. The primary US focus has been on preparing for a conventional military struggle, largely in the maritime, air, cyber and space domains. The assumption has been that Beijing would probably start a war by launching a military assault on Taiwan or possibly against an American ally in the Western Pacific and that this would draw the US into a direct fight with China.

The regime in Beijing, on the other hand, believes that it is already engaged in an intense struggle with the US, its allies and partners. The Chinese approach involves the application of pressure in a much broader range of domains including ideology, political influence, coercion, subversion and disruption to weaken, divide and dis-integrate opposing societies prior to the use of any kinetic force. China is also pursuing dominance in key civil and military technologies and industries through industrial-scale technology theft, vast business subsidies and a range of aggressive mercantilist practices. In consequence, China’s manufacturing output is now larger than that of the United States and it arguably also has a stronger and more current military-strategic manufacturing base.

China also now has the largest army and navy in the world in numerical terms, the biggest military aviation forces in the Western Pacific and is also expanding its cyber, space and nuclear weapon capabilities.

When these developments are considered in the context of Xi Jinping’s fierce determination to seize control of Taiwan and the reported order to his military to be ready to conduct major operations by 2027, the outlook is very worrying.


How would a war between major powers in the Indo-Pacific region be different from big wars fought in Europe?

Wars between the major powers in Europe during the last two centuries have been predominantly land wars with supplementary air, maritime, economic warfare and, more recently, cyber operations.

By contrast, in the Indo-Pacific a war between the US and China would likely be maritime supported by substantial air, cyber and space operations and very substantial economic and information and political warfare campaigns. There would be few sanctuaries with combatants located on distant continents facing heavy cyber, space and economic attacks and even some precision kinetic strikes.

The nature of the Indo-Pacific provides both sides with great strategic depth, suggesting that most types of major war in this theatre would not be short and key roles would probably be played by the allies and partners of each side.


What characteristics define a major power? How are major powers like the US, China and Russia different from European powers like France and Britain?

A great power is strong in all of the primary dimensions of national power; political will and determination, national unity and cohesion, economic and industrial capabilities, advanced technologies, capable military forces and, in addition to all of that, national leadership that is able to harness all national and allied instruments in order to achieve priority goals.

Great powers also possess the ‘soft power’ of attracting other states and international actors as well as talented individuals to join them. They usually build alliances and partnerships of deep trust and genuine societal friendship rather than just government-to-government agreements of convenience.

Great powers differ in their areas of primary strength and weakness and these factors are rarely permanent. They change over time. The United States is close to being a comprehensive great power with strength in nearly all domains. China has great economic and demographic strength but modest soft power and few reliable allies. France, Britain and Germany possess strength in a few domains but not in the range or scale possessed by the US or China. India has the potential to become a comprehensive great power later in this century. It is certainly on a promising trajectory.


In the light of the Ukraine-Russia war, how would trade and commerce be affected by future wars between the great powers?

A major war between China and the US and its allies would be vastly different to the current mostly land conflict between Russia (with an economy about the same size as Australia) and Ukraine, a local but very determined nation fighting to retain its territorial integrity.

By contrast, a US-China war would be a direct fight between the two most powerful countries on the globe. It would be on a much larger scale involving operations in a wider range of domains and its primary theatre focus would be, at least initially, on maritime and maritime support operations across the expanse of the Indo-Pacific.

Maritime trade in the Western Pacific would be severely disrupted with shipping and aircraft movements between the two camps stopping almost entirely and many ships and aircraft sheltering in the closest ‘safe’ location. Technology transfers between the two camps would cease almost entirely and extreme economic sanctions would be imposed by each side against the other. The overall impact of these economic, technology and related sanctions on China would be far more severe than those imposed on the US and its allies. But the costs to both sides would be huge.

Nevertheless, within a few months of such a war breaking out, trade between the members of each camp would surge. So, trade between China, Russia, North Korea, Pakistan and Iran would probably rise steeply as would trade between the US and all of its Indo-Pacific and European allies and partners. Within 12 months the supply chains of both camps would be heavily restructured and their economic structures and output patterns would be substantially changed within 24 months.

Nearly all non-aligned states would suffer serious disruption but the nature, scale and duration of their challenges would vary greatly. The book contains brief assessments of the economic and business impacts of the primary phases of a major US-China war on all of the major economies in the Indo-Pacific.


Since most emerging technologies are incubated in civilian industry, how does civil-military fusion for war readiness and planning compare between the US and China?

China has a centrally directed and controlled civil-military industrial complex that is very large and can produce standard systems in large numbers. But the rigidities in the centrally controlled Chinese system and its continued reliance on some foreign technologies constrain innovation and competitive performance.

The US, by contrast, has a loosely structured civil-military community that is highly innovative and flexible, but which has fewer production capacities that can manufacture on a large scale at short notice. China currently possesses larger defence manufacturing capacities of most types already running at speed.

In sum then, the US is probably better placed to invent and produce ‘breakthrough’ defence systems. And when its manufacturing base is combined with the production capacities of its allies, the US-led coalition is likely to prove stronger in sustaining a prolonged struggle.


What constitutes deterrence between the US and China?

Deterrence involves convincing one’s opponent that overt war or escalation of conflict would cost more than it is worth. Deterrence is thus a psychological state reached by the key decision-maker(s) on each side. Because of the imponderables in making such judgements, it is difficult for opposing sides to be certain that the other is deterred, especially in the lead-up to a kinetic conflict. In the China-US context an important factor is the tolerance of risk that is acceptable in each culture and in each decision-making team. It is notable that Xi Jinping has already been prepared to take high strategic risks in the South China Sea and along the northern Indian border. It remains to be seen whether he will take even greater risks in the future.


What’s Next? Are you planning another book to expand on this theme?

There are no immediate plans for another book. There is, however, a need to research how best to build resilience and endurance to safeguard our societies in future crises. New forms of economic, industrial, technological, military and other cooperation need to be developed between like-minded states so that we are better placed to help each other and reinforce our national and our combined deterrence and defensive capabilities. India has a key role to play in the period ahead.

(The author is CEO of Strategic Forum in Canberra and a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington DC. In earlier years he served as an official in the Australian national security community, worked as a senior business executive and led the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University)


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