Conventional Conflict & Strategic Competition Dynamics between the U.S. and China

Jon Law
15 min readDec 8, 2023
Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

A direct large-scale conventional conflict between the U.S. and China is unlikely in the near term given domestic challenges and a lack of net incentives, relatively rational players, structural globalization and smart power pursuit that brings economic, technological, cyber and cultural “conflict” into preeminence over direct conventional conflict, and nuclear capacity as an equalizing arbitrator. This notion and its legs are analyzed in the following piece. In addition, it examines how the U.S. should best react to this dichotomy between conventional conflict preparation and strategic competitiveness, as well as the underlying question of resource allocation.

The U.S.-China dynamic and competition therein must be initially examined via two domains — the present moment, in which current comparative economic, political, technological, and combative capabilities are key, and second the internal and external trends that will determine said dynamic at any future point. This model of contrasting time horizons, one occurring in the present and one occurring in a forecasted future, must be used since competition, conflict, and strongarming are about the upper bound: we must act as if what they could do is what they will do. In a game theory sense, this assumes that actors are rational and puts aside — momentarily — both Xi’s yes-man inner circle and dogmatic party extremists of the U.S.[1] To expand upon this premise of completion occurring because of what each nation could do, take a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma matrix extrapolated into a general “Compete” “Don’t Compete” scenario between the U.S. and China:

Anequilibrium of (C,C) this demonstrates how both nations will choose to compete across strategically important domains, whether in a militant, cyber, economic, political, or technological sense even at a cost to themselves — assumed because resource allocation infers money and effort cannot be put somewhere else — simply because losing to the other is unacceptable across all time horizons; this excludes the fact that competition can stimulate growth, thus in fact generating positive payoffs over the short-run.

Thus, now assuming that the U.S. and China will compete as a given, or engage in strategic competition that may include, but not necessarily, direct conventional conflict, we may return to the question of current capability and trends that forecast potential capability.

Domestically, China’s core problems relate to its slowing economic growth, difficulty in moving up the value-add chain, drastically worsening demographics, poor ties with regional powers, and regime change.[2] Meanwhile, dominant U.S. concerns are growing debt and fiscal instability, decreasing global militant, political, and fiscal hegemony, political polarization, immigration, and party politics. Notably, most bandwidth of U.S./China leadership goes toward these internal problems — which are not existential, but dangerously close to such — thus reinforcing the idea that until and unless domestic concerns are deemed less important than foreign concerns, foreign impediments to domestic progress without clear associated upside are not likely to be pursued. There is no clear forecast on these trends; the upper bound of their danger is not limited, while at best, these domestic woes will dominate media narratives and several impact all other trends over the coming century.

The economic dichotomy between China and U.S. is that of manufacturing and general good production versus services, finance, and software; this is not to say performance nor comparative scale is mutually exclusive, but rather these are the general economic domains that each country excels at. Ironically, China is attempting to move up the value-add chain into advanced technologies and the U.S. is attempting to reshore manufacturing and bring industrial capacity back home. Each country is doing so because a lack of industrial/manufacturing capacity creates reliance on foreign partners, while industrial/manufacturing capacity and little else (given the scale of China) limits wealth. Forecasts for both countries are all over the place; generally both economies are predicated to grow consistently over the next decade or two, with higher variance on models predicting Chinese economic performance given its rapid run-up and current challenges (esp. demographic-wise).

China is two decades behind the U.S. in military technology and capability.[i] Manpower and raw ship numbers are more symbolic than anything, as pure manpower means little in conflicts dominated by technology fought across water, land, and sea, and the PLAN (Chinese navy) nearly completely lacks blue water capability. Furthermore, the Chinese military budget is only one-third that of the U.S. What is more noteworthy is China’s meteoric rise in military capability and modernization — state shipyards, for example, have built 83 ships in 8 years, perhaps second only to the U.S. WWII shipyard ramp-up.[ii] China aims to surpass U.S. military capability by 2049, giving it two-odd decades to make up its two-odd decade lag. Given the budget gap at hand, this is not likely whatsoever; however, China does not necessarily need to eclipse global U.S. military capability, and rather primarily to exert offensive and defense influence domestically and regionally. That comparative advantage in regional performance is the critical assumption that produces ambiguity in regional conflict outcomes, combined with the parallel to U.S. pre-WWII versus post-WWII military-industrial capacity, quality, and performance (essentially, China’s capacity to scale up as needed).

While there is disagreement, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that China leads the U.S. across 37 of 44 high-impact technologies.[3] China also out-patents and out-researches the U.S., and perhaps more importantly, its rise across these industries and domains has taken place only over a few decades. However, the U.S. distribution system and market economy does make it easier for actual products and services to hit domestic and global markets and scale — this is why China may have more AI research papers than the U.S. (by far), despite zero chatbots being used at scale domestically versus popular solutions like Bard (Google) and ChatGPT (OpenAI, Microsoft) reaching over 100m users monthly.[iii] Hence, what remains our primary determinant as to forecasts are the technology & innovate trends, which only see both the population-adjusted and absolute spread increase in favor of China.

The popularized trend of “Westernization” has largely held true over the past several decades and since WWII — ignoring the fact that even the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, etc. are cultural exports of the European West — and while the U.S. has not necessarily achieved political aims given the relative decline of democracy around the world recently, its cultural exports are unparalleled around the world — American music, video games, movies, shows, clothes, food, and technology is consumed practically everywhere and brings American ideas with it. Meanwhile, in 2022, 27 CCP government departments released a policy roadmap detailing means of increasing soft power via cultural exports.[iv] In this manner China is seeking to export its culture, while dual economic-cultural roadmaps like the BRI also aim to integrate, cooperate, and share culture with other countries. Still, the country is comparatively far weaker in its global pop culture exports, and while it is putting more resources toward such an effort (Chinese popular movies, for example, are becoming increasingly common[v]) it lags far behind the U.S. and will likely be playing a catch-up game for the foreseeable future.

Given these trends and forecasts spanning domestic woes, economy, military, technology, and culture, the reasonable conclusion is critically that the existential threats facing each nation regarding its power structure assert the primary domain of conflict as being more so internal than external over a hundred-year time horizon.[4] This is in part because all external forecasts are contingent upon internal performance; e.g., a souring domestic economy catalyzes other weaknesses (political/social instability, etc.) and prevents funds being put toward military & technology development, foreign relations, etc. Simply put, whoever loses less at a domestic scale swill win via outpacing the other within the domains of strategic competition thus largely negating the possibility and need of conventional conflict given 21st century structural bounds, such as those we’ll examine later. In fact, until such a power spread makes a conflict’s outcome obvious before it begins, the conflict will not happen in a militant sense as per the potential for domestic strife, and when — really, if — a power spread makes a conflict’s outcome obvious before it begins, there is no need to fight the conflict (this excludes strongarming, madman plays, etc.) given an upper bound on scale bringing nuclear weapons into the equation as an equalizer that essentially negates all other combat capabilities.[5]

To further back up the ideas of a large spread in strategically important domains not being likely (e.g., an ambiguous outcome to any scaled direct conflict) as well as incentives for scales conventional conflict being dim, consider what an actual conflict would be like. In such between the U.S. and China, these tenets must be assumed as foundational puzzle pieces:

1. The world is dependent upon the U.S and Chinese economies.

2. China imports most of its food and much of its energy.

3. Peace benefits China given internal challenges and economic potential.

4. The United States is an unparalleled military power.

5. Nearly 20% of U.S. imports are from China.

6. China is an unparalleled manufacturing power.

7. Regarding total war, the United States is slave to popular opinion.

8. Nuclear weapons would not be used in conflict that does not threaten the existence of either nation, versus her power.

9. Scaled direct territorial expansion in the 21st century is difficult for large powers.

With these determinants in mind, several conclusions stand out — both countries need each other, and the whole word needs these two countries. While the U.S. is far more domestically secure (energy wise, as well as food) than China, Western ideology places a high value on life & moral conflict, and the U.S. and her allies import so much from China that disrupting the global supply chain via conflict between its undisputed two biggest parties is a practical red line. Furthermore, China is trending upward, leading to only two conclusions — one, she will continue to grow and eclipse the U.S. across all strategically important domains, or two, internal challenges like debt, regime change, and demographics will impair growth. In neither case is China better off interrupting the global supply chain, once again given her reliance on foreign food and energy imports. On the U.S. side, political volatility is such a constant, public opinion so important, and China such a manufacturing workhorse (albeit a weakening one purely in that regard) that leaders have little to gain and an enormous amount to lose by instigating a conflict.

Even apart from this, consider Russia’s territorial ambitions in Ukraine, Israel in the Gaza Strip, the U.S. in Iraq, and civil conflicts in Ethiopia and Somali — achieving scaled territorial gain through conventional conflict is no longer easy nor common. In a paper I wrote earlier this year, I examined the question of how to best fundamentally destroy the U.S as a superpower — in so the power and massive leverage of asymmetric and fourth-generation warfare, the increasing ease and viability of which contribute to the increasing difficulty conventional armies face against asymmetric opponents. Just take the tunnel networks in Gaza (and those certainly in Taiwan), drones and anti-armor munitions in Ukraine, and Gopher-chasing experience of the U.S. in the Middle East. Given the far superior incentives of soft power, economic, and technological expansion and competition, territorial ambitions of the sort that the U.S. and China would have to wage against each other or third parties in a scaled conflict are comparatively less beneficial and more costly than ever before. A conflict could certainly not involve territorial gain (or involve limited but highly leveraged territorial gains), but in such cases the gain/loss equation as a rule is even more skewed toward little incentive to enter into scaled conventional battle actually existing.

Finally, if a war was fought presumable in the South China Sea/around Taiwan, no one is quite sure how it would go. Experts and even militaries are split every which way; this ambiguity is good for peacekeepers. What is sure about the conflict itself is the following: the U.S. could limit Chinese food/energy imports if she wished (this would require intense popular will given the resulting loss of civilian life), China has a superior ability to will her people and industrial base to war, the U.S. could not field any sort of manpower given supply constraints and thus would fight the conflict primarily with her navy and air forces, as well as technology like missiles and drones. Given just these assumptions a conflict would likely see China would enforcing strict food quotas and scale energy and munitions production as rapidly as possible. At the core of it problems would likely be its lack of regional support. In turn, these assumptions assume a standard bludgeoning match (overextended U.S. supply lines but superior military/technology versus large populace & industrial base fighting closer to home) that once more ties back to the ambiguity of outcome, and known of immense civilian casualties, present in any kind of large-scale conflict.

So, a large-scale conventional conflict is not likely. However, thus far, we have assumed that players (countries involved) and its leaders are rational and that their decisions reflect the actual informational state of the world and assumed priorities, like limiting domestic damage and winning a conflict. What if this is not the case? Many tout Xi’s yes-man regime as limiting the flow of information delivered to him and many view U.S. presidential decisions as impacted by a willingness to win votes more so than strategic conflict — take Biden’s drawdown of the SBR as related to domestic energy prices versus national energy security.

Irrationality is difficult to forecast, but in doing so one may examine all historic like cases. In the case of nuclear close calls, the Suez Canal Crisis, Cuban Missile Crisis, 1969 EC-121 shootdown, and Norwegian Rocket Incident all detail cool heads of leadership prevailing despite limited or inaccurate information (as well as the fact that we’re still alive). Meanwhile, neither China not the U.S. have fought a war against a remotely conventional opponent since Vietnam, despite numerous opportunities to engage in scaled conflict for clear territorial or economic ambitions (think the U.S. in the Middle East). On this basis alone, we may assume that leaders are not so disconnected (at least, the probability of such is low) as to sleepwalk into a superpower given the disincentives explored previously. Game theory wise, bluffing also does not get us to the point of limited information/irrationality making conflict likely.

Between the U.S. and China, Chinese leadership is more likely to do so than the U.S. because U.S. irrationality is more a matter of political versus national objectives and does not concern itself with information, while in China the actual flow of information reaching leadership, thus bringing about the possibility of rational warmongering decisions based on incorrect data, is a more nuanced but dangerous threat (given Xi’s purging of opposition and yes-man leadership). Take Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine — he most certainly made the call based on information that was incorrect about the strength and capabilities of Russian forces and the Ukrainian will to resist (in addition to short-run miscalculations, but all the same). Putin’s autocratic setup is far closer to that of Xi’s inner party than that of the U.S. and could be used as a counterpoint to the probability of walking into a conflict on incorrect information being unlikely. Here, I will once again point to the radical disincentives facing China to enter into conflict with the U.S. given domestic concerns and the low probability of such a state of informational irrationality occurring to overwhelm that resistance. So, regardless of the high-probability states of rationality v. irrationality and true v. false information flows present among U.S./China leadership, we may conclude that a large-scale conventional conflict is still not likely.

Strategic conclusions from the perspective of the U.S. may be summarized as the following:

1. Rhetoric aside, China is not likely to instigate a large-scale conflict in the South China Sea, around Taiwan, or anywhere else in the near-term.

2. China is likely to prioritize the strategic development of its economy, technology, allies, food and energy security, and (less so) military.

3. China’s national security weaknesses are her domestic concerns (slowing economy, worsening demographics), lack of allies in the region, nonexistent military experience, and food & energy import dependence.

It is notable to mention the preventative role of U.S. conventional military and primarily navy capabilities — if not for its preeminence, not to mention the ideology governing its use, a classic Thucydides trap could be much more easily fallen into.

Else, with China’s national weaknesses center around food and energy imports given that U.S allies or quasi allies (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Vietnam, etc.) stretch around a large portion of, and critically the coastline of, the Chinese mainland. U.S. total war military strategy could relatively easily, and very quickly, strangle these imports — 60 to 70% of all Chinese goods (including those produces for domestic consumption) flow through the Eastern seaboard alone, most Russian crude flows through just two pipelines (Atasu-Alashankou & ESPO[vi]), and top food suppliers (Brazil, U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) are nearly universally staunch U.S. allies[vii] — via initially blockading and destroying ports, tankers, and Chinese naval capabilities, destroying crude pipelines & infrastructure, and cutting food imports. This would not cripple China and would have a massive impact on world supply chains but would set the stage for large-scale societal disarray. This also leverages the U.S.’s prime military advantage — her naval capabilities, which are leaps and bounds ahead of competition. China does have the “largest” navy in the world via pure number of surface ships — this ignores its tonnage, which is half that of the U.S., its aircraft reach, being one-fourth that of the U.S. navy, and its modernization, which is rapidly being upgraded but still lags the U.S.[viii] [6]

Thus, preparation wise, the U.S. really doesn’t need to worry about Chinese military threats in the present, with the primary danger being the pace of Chinese militant progress, which forecasts the utility of the outlined strategy (furthermore applicable only in a large-scale conflict given civilian collateral) decreasing with time, which only crunches the core problem of supply. Moreso, fundamentally, a war of that sort would be one governed by three factors: economics, technology, and will; e.g., what each country is willing to spend, the cost-effective, maximum-impact technology possessed by each side, and the political and social desire to maintain a war effort to any degree. Thus, to best prepare for said conflict, the U.S. must instead focus upon those domains of strategic competition, equivalent to technologies that impact conflict, good & service production that impacts conflict, and fostering the national political & social congruity to sustain conflict. Here is a succinct breakdown of specific pursuits related to those domains from the perspective of the U.S.:

1. Advanced/emerging technologies — space technologies & systems, AI, Autonomous Systems and Robotics, advanced engineer materials & computing, networks sensors and sensing, cyber, and hypersonics.[ix]

2. Economic Independence — rare earth elements, electronics manufacturing, pharmaceutical ingredients, metals and minerals, and clothing and textiles.[x]

3. National Congruity — depolarization, bipartisan, collaboration, and politically-oriented strategic decision making.

Thus, these are the domains of strategic competition which will best serve not only general U.S. economic interests, but also directly prepare her for a large-scale conflict against the China in the near-term, however unlikely such an event may be.

It is evident that domestic performance is the primary domain of conflict, a conventional U.S-China conflict is unlikely given domestic challenges and a lack of net incentives, players are not so irrational as to sleepwalk into a direct conflict, and structural globalization and soft power pursuit bringing economic, technological, cyber and cultural “conflict” take preeminence over direct conventional conflict. Direct unconventional conflicts are thus made more unlikely given that ambiguous conventional conflict outcomes dissuade such while a known outcome both brings nuclear into the equation as an ultimate equalizer and encourages arbitration.

Therefore, the domain of “strategic” conflict between the U.S. and China is much more inclusive than conventional conflict and constitutes the constants of strategic economic, cultural, and technological competition. Meanwhile, the threat of direct near-term large-scale conflict is conclusively minimal.\


[1] Not excluding the potential for madman strategies.

[2] Slowing economic growth including debt & its real estate sector.

[3] China’s innovation and advanced-industry capabilities were 75% of that of the U.S. when adjusted for population in 2020, and 139% without adjustment (

[4] The forthcoming optimal U.S. preparatory strategy is derived from this conclusion.

[5] Though nuclear theorists would certainly have something to say about this strain of thought — game theory wise, given the nuclear play essentially being mutually assured destruction, is any payoff whatsoever other than starting a nuclear conflict not the rational strategy?

[6] Older ships are being phased out over the next decade (The Next Arms Race).

[i] Council of Foreign Relations.

[ii] Bhat (retd), Col Vinayak. “High-Speed Production: Chinese Navy Built 83 Ships in Just Eight Years.” ThePrint, 20 Sept. 2017, Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

[iii] Cheng, Evelyn. “China’s A.I. Chatbots Haven’t yet Reached the Public like ChatGPT Did.” CNBC, 28 Apr. 2023, Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

[iv] Translate, China Law. “Opinions on Promoting the High-Quality Development of the Foreign Cultural Trade.” China Law Translate, 8 Aug. 2022, Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

[v] China Power. “Do Chinese Films Hold Global Appeal?” ChinaPower Project, 1 Mar. 2019,

[vi] “ESPO Crude Oil.” S&P Global, 1 Apr. 2022,

[vii] “How Is China Influencing Global Maritime Connectivity?” ChinaPower Project, 30 Apr. 2021,

ChinaPower. “How Is China Feeding Its Population of 1.4 Billion?” ChinaPower Project, 27 Oct. 2017,

[viii]战情解码, International Institute for Strategic Studies





Jon Law

4x Author—founder of Aude Publishing & WCMM. Writing on investing, economics, geopolitics, and society.