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Michael Pillsbury: This Is What a War with Communist China Could Look Like

“Right now the topic is: will there be war with China? How soon? Someday, there might be another set of questions. Can we win a war with China? If so, how?” says Michael Pillsbury, senior fellow for China strategy at The Heritage Foundation and a co-author of the new report: “Winning the New Cold War: A Plan for Countering China.”

“We have to be able to think through: what are our advantages? What are our weaknesses? And how would this war be conducted?” Pillsbury says.

Dozens of laws to counter the Chinese Communist Party threat have been proposed in recent years, but how many have actually been passed and implemented?

“If you just watch television, you see all these members of the House and Senate bragging about their new legislation. So of course, I would think—and others would think—we’re doing a lot to stop the Chinese. What if it’s not true?” Pillsbury says.


Interview trailer:

Watch the full interview:



Jan Jekielek: Dr. Michael Pillsbury, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Dr. Michael Pillsbury: Thank you very much.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s start with the hard stuff first. Yesterday on stage, here at the Heritage 50th Anniversary Leadership Summit, you said you expect war with China sometime this century. When exactly do you expect this to happen?

Dr. Pillsbury: This is a highly speculative topic. The panel moderator, a 33-year-old talk show host specializing in domestic issues, asked the panelists, “Is war coming for sure or not?” Here’s the key thing, she wanted a yes or no answer. I couldn’t say, “No, there’s no chance of war with China,” so I chose yes.

But obviously, nothing is inevitable. There are various ways to deter a war. Also, the definition of war varies from the really small incursion or incident, a few people killed, ceasefire, and it doesn’t really happen, to a real war like World War II that goes on for three years. Inside the U.S. government, when I was a government official, I was in many war games involving China. To get the game started, you always assume a war breaks out.

For me, it’s not shocking to say yes or no to whether there could be a war with China. There are a variety of wars with China that could happen. There are a number of programs to prevent those different wars from happening. This is a business for many people in Washington, both at the CIA and in the Pentagon. To some degree, White House planning also takes place. We think about imaginary scenarios just to see if we can challenge ourselves with one that might happen, that we hadn’t even thought of.

The reason for that is so often in the real world, things happen that nobody expected. The origins of World War I, now referred to as sleepwalking into a war, happened because of some random incidents, and then, the countries involved did not understand what the other might do. There was a very high level of suspicion, mobilization, trains being loaded with weapons, and soldiers. Pretty soon, millions of people are dead, and nobody anticipated that this particular incident would trigger World War I.

It was the same thing with World War II. After World War II everybody said, “Why didn’t we do something when Hitler announced, ‘I’m going to fortify the Rhineland. I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.’ They were violations of the Versailles Peace Treaty from World War I.” At the time people thought Hitler was bluffing, or he would stop at just step one. He never killed anybody. He peacefully occupied these places.

30 years later, historians dug out the debates in London, in Paris, even in Washington, DC, about what were Hitler’s intentions? Why did World War II begin? One of the discoveries historians have made is very similar to World War I, the events that happened were not anticipated. Hitler kept saying, “I want peace. I’m only taking these steps with my army to get peace.” We have something like that happening with China. Now, it’s very difficult to imagine how a war with China would break out. Is this something we can anticipate?

I worked at the Pentagon at the Office of Net Assessment, and also with the intelligence community on war games trying to anticipate wars that we hadn’t thought of. We then asked ourselves, “Do we have a strategy to deter or prevent this war from happening?” And secondly, “If such a thing does happen, are we going to win or not?”

For me, this is very routine to talk about war, how to plan it, how to prevent it, what happens, and the history of war over the last 500 years. But you can see a 33-year-old TV podcast lady might find it quite shocking that someone would say, “Yes, a war with China is quite possible, even very likely.” Now, she said she didn’t have time. She didn’t go into, “What kind of war do you think is the most likely? Will we win that war?”

This is considered to not be part of the current journalistic coverage of China. Right now the topic is, “Will there be war with China? How soon?” Someday there might be another set of questions, “Can we win a war with China? If so, how?”

Mr. Jekielek: You’ve done a great job at proposing the question I should ask. This my next question, what kind of a war would this be? This is something we’ve talked about in our past discussions. Is this a war that the U.S. can actually win?

Dr. Pillsbury: It depends on the quality of strategy the U.S. brings to the war. We have certain advantages in terms of economy, and experience in war with Afghanistan and Iraq. But we have certain major disadvantages, one of which is distance. It’s up to 10,000 miles away from our best ports, our munition storage areas, and our bomber bases to get over near China.

Whether it’s to defend Korea, to defend India, or to defend Taiwan, we have a huge disadvantage in that it takes our forces two or three weeks to sail there. It takes them 24 hours to fly there. The Chinese are right there with quick action to seize something, like a piece of Indian territory, or do something involving Taiwan. They have a series of islands around Taiwan that have been attacked in the past.

China has the advantage for a short war that involves short distances close to China, something that would be over within three or four days. Then, the Chinese simply announce, “We’ve done this, please don’t overreact. We’ll be happy to debate this with you at the UN Security Council, where we Chinese have veto power.” That’s one kind of war I’m implying that we would probably lose.

It’s the topic of a very interesting book called, The Strategy of Denial, by Elbridge Colby. In chapter 10 of that book, he goes into detail. He was a Pentagon official for a few years, so it’s important to know what his thesis is. He says, “Taiwan would probably fall. It would collapse within a week of combat. There would be 50,000 to 100,000 Chinese PLA [People’s Liberation Army] troops on Taiwan. Should we Americans surrender?”

He says, “No, this is a great opportunity for us. We can land our own forces, and link up with whatever’s left of the Taiwan forces. Then, in a kind of guerrilla warfare movement, we can force the PLA off of Taiwan and to return to the mainland.” I’m summarizing a 30-page description.

He says, “This will be a good thing, because right now most countries in Asia want to hedge their bets. They’re all on the fence. They want to be friends with America. They want to be friends with China.” But according to Mr. Colby’s argument, “When the Asian leaders see that China has attacked Taiwan and occupied half of it, and they see that America is fighting back, they will then be galvanized.

“They will see for the first time just how evil Communist China is. They’ll stop being fence sitters. They’ll stop hedging. They’ll join our new coalition. They will have a whole new world in which we’re taking the China threat more seriously.”

I interviewed him once on TV myself. I recommend his book, and please read chapter 10. It’s quite fascinating that someone thinks this way. Notice what his answer would be. He might avoid answering yes or no to the question, “Is war coming?”

But he certainly has devoted a lot of thinking to the contingency where we can’t get there in time. We don’t store munitions in Taiwan. We have almost no U.S. troops on Taiwan, only a few trainers. We don’t have exercises with Taiwan. They’re a non-country, diplomatically speaking. We don’t recognize their government. We don’t call them a country.

It’s quite a stretch to say, “Here’s this island with 23 million people. Here’s how close they are to China, 100 miles away. Here’s all the forces that could be landed on the island. How are we going to take it back?” But at least the Colby book is raising the issue publicly.

You might say, “Maybe this should be something that is secret internal planning in the Pentagon, because it will never happen, or the chances are a million-to-one.” But he’s introduced this subject publicly, and then gone around the country making speeches about it.

You can imagine the Chinese reaction to this. It’s good news from their point of view. Here’s a former American defense official saying, “The Chinese can capture at least half of Taiwan, if not more. All they have to worry about is making sure the Americans don’t come and land on Taiwan and start a guerrilla warfare movement to push the PLA off.” This might sound like good news in Beijing.

One thing I focused on is what can we do to make the Chinese leadership think we can’t win this war? That’s another whole topic. But the idea of deterring the Chinese leadership gets you into how they think about war. How do they make calculations about, “Can we win or should we wait another two or three years?” The topic is how much they believe the politics on Taiwan is in their favor.

As long as they believe Taiwan is going in the direction of unification, and a pro-China candidate is becoming president and leading Taiwan, there’s no incentive for them to start a war. It would be idiotic. Taiwan is going in their direction. If Taiwan is going in a different direction, then war becomes the only hope they have of reunifying the island.

This is a complex area, where to win a war with China, we would have to be able to think through, “What are our advantages? What are our weaknesses? How would this war be conducted?”

Some war games looked at a three-year war with China over Taiwan. The first thing we learned is that we run out of ammunition. The U.S. Navy, in each of its submarines, only has so many torpedoes. Each Navy warship has what they call loading. How many of each kind of missile goes into that ship? You can mix different kinds of missiles. When you make this decision, you’re deciding what happens in the first couple of weeks of the war. How many ships can you shoot down on the Chinese side? What will happen to our side?

There is a very scary Rand Corporation report from 2015, highly recommended by me, called, “Military Scorecard.” It shows how the balance of power between Washington, DC and Beijing has shifted. In almost every category, we do worse and worse and worse over the last 30 years. One of the worst cases is a long war where we cannot produce anti-ship missiles, air-to-air missiles, torpedoes for submarines, or even fuel. A lot of our Navy still runs on fuel. It doesn’t have nuclear reactors the way aircraft carriers do.

We will run out of all of these things. Here’s China, right there, highly productive, with major arms factories already building hundreds of missiles of various types over the past 15 years. It doesn’t look good for the United States to win in a long war. The other related issue is will our allies be with us? All of our forces to defend the area of Taiwan involve going through Okinawa and other bases in Japan.

What if the Japanese are attacked by China and they’re told, “Keep out of this war. This is between us and the Americans. Taiwan is our own land. You Japanese keep out or we’re going to punish you with another set of missile strikes.” The Japanese may say, “We don’t care. We’re for this war. We love Taiwan. We don’t care if you hit us again, we’re going to let the Americans use our bases.” Because Okinawa is the closest air base to Taiwan.

That’s a big question, isn’t it? It’s the same thing to the south of Taiwan. We would need the Philippine naval and air bases. Some Filipino leaders say, “Yes, you can have them. Taiwan is like us. It’s a vulnerable island. So, you’re most welcome.” Other Filipinos say, “No, this is madness. China will attack us.”

In a long war of six months or a year or more, if the U.S. is denied access to Japanese bases, denied access to Filipino bases, and if our main forces on the island of Guam are also harmed by Chinese missiles and bombers that they’ve been flying around to show us they can attack Guam, then we don’t have any support infrastructure.

That’s why other historians and I have gone back to World War II to ask, “How did it happen then, when the Japanese took such a large area in just a few months?” The answer is that the Pacific Islands were the fallback. We had to start out in Australia and New Zealand, go north, and take these Japanese-occupied islands one by one. A lot of people know these islands names, because they have a parent who was killed there. No one knew the names. We hadn’t built bases in advance. The Japanese very carefully left to themselves the privilege of using these islands.

It took two years to reclaim these islands that could then be used as air bases, depots, or naval storage areas. Only then could the war be brought to an end by a complete blockade of Japan. Could we do that again today? There has been a lot of public discussion by the Pentagon, “We need to focus on the Pacific Islands.” There’s only a few hints as to why. By logic, if we have to fall back from the Japan ring, the first island chain and the Philippines, if we have no bases, the next set of bases are in the Pacific Islands.

What do we find China doing there? They are opening embassies, signing security agreements, and building air bases. As early as five or 10 years ago, the Chinese have obviously thought this, saying, “We can take care of the Americans near China in the first island chain. What we have to be careful of now is making sure the Americans can’t use the Pacific Islands like they did in World War II to come back into the war zone.” So, that also looks not promising, if you start thinking about what a war with China would look like.

The United States has only started in the last two or three years, beginning under President Trump, to start looking at access agreements. It’s a whole set of measures that the Defense Department has announced in a paper about the Indo-Pacific. The word Pacific includes all these islands. A lot of people don’t think about war with China in terms of geographical scope, but that’s another factor.

There’s another issue that’s come up in a lot of war games. This is nuclear power. China’s nuclear power, at a minimum, is 300 warheads. What would they do with all this? Some smart people interested in nuclear strategy write a lot about deterrence through demonstration. They might fire off a nuclear weapon someplace in the ocean just as a demonstration, “Look what we can do. We’re really serious about this, pull out.”

Or would they not touch nuclear weapons? Would they consider them something that’s only for long-term strategic purposes? Would they use nuclear weapons more readily, more easily than we might, because it’s their territory, in the case of Taiwan?

The whole nuclear balance is another thing that’s changing quite strikingly. It used to be that everybody wrote articles about Chinese nuclear strategy. They will never exceed 200 or 300 weapons. This is Confucius. It’s a philosophical principle. They don’t think like we do or the Russians do, in terms of 5,000 or 10,000 nuclear warheads. Everybody in the academic world was very certain of this.

I actually raised a contrarian view, and next thing we know, the Defense Department has just announced in the past year that within five to seven years, China can and probably will go to 1,000 more warheads, and then to 1500 warheads by 2035. By the way, 1500 is an important number.

Our ceiling for strategic nuclear warheads is 1500. The Russians have the same cap. It was negotiated. The Chinese refused to come to the talks. President Trump invited them, actually. They refused to come, even at the last minute. The nuclear balance is also changing against us.

When you line up these various trends, you can get yourself into a very pessimistic mood. You can start thinking about Mr. Ma in Taiwan. He’s already been president. He’s western-educated, and fluent in English. He wants to run again and come back in January of next year. If he wins the presidency of Taiwan, his platform is to be friends with China.

That starts looking pretty good to China. Nuclear war with thousands or millions dead versus a guy who’s doing well in the polls in Taiwan and wins. Then, he says, “China is our friend.” I couldn’t get into this in detail with our 33-year-old host, because of lack of time.

Mr. Jekielek: There are some lessons from the pre-World War II period to be learned with the mentality that you just described, even though nuclear weapons obviously weren’t in play.

Dr. Pillsbury: The main thing is deterrence. How do you deter the leadership in Beijing that may not think the same way we do about the nature of the world? The Chinese view of what we’re doing to them right now is very different from what we’re actually doing. You can see this almost daily in Chinese propaganda. They say, “Number one, America is trying to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party. The Americans did this to the Soviet Union. They got Gorbachev to be their puppet. They overthrew the Soviet Union, and that was a great victory for America. They’re trying to do that to China today.”

We tell them, “That’s not true. There’s no such program. We’re not trying to overthrow the Communist Party of China. That is not U.S. policy, and it never has been U.S. policy.” They just don’t believe it.

The second area is a very recent Chinese foreign ministry article. It’s a long attack on America. It says, “America dominates the world in culture, economics, politics, propaganda, the use of armed forces to invade little countries.” It’s quite a long article, and very detailed. If they believe this, they see us as the evil, malevolent force that not only wants to overthrow the Communist Party of China, but wants to seize Chinese territory, like they claim Taiwan wants to. We’re perceived by them to be a demonic force.

Let’s say a little incident happens, and one jet fighter pilot shoots down another jet fighter pilot. Our side is thinking, “This is an accident. Let’s get in contact.” This actually happened in 2001, when our plane had to crash-land on Hainan Island. Our motives were magnanimous. This P-3 aircraft needed to land safely, because of a Chinese fighter pilot’s reckless behavior. They didn’t see it that way.

They essentially held our crew hostage, and sent us a bill for a million dollars. If there’s an incident involving shooting down two jet fighters, our leadership will probably think, “This was an accident. We’re all adults here, let’s contact each other. Maybe we have to pay something for the accident.”

“Whose fault was it? Let’s review the tapes.” Can we assume the Chinese view will be the same, or will they see this as a hostile test? That is how they saw our B2 bombing 25 years ago. Will they see it as a test to which they need to respond in kind with another use of force against us?

Then, an accident explodes into a really major war within 24 to 48 hours. I’m not confident that the Chinese leadership has a lot of goodwill toward America and would think, “Yes, we understand, this must have been an accident. You didn’t intend it.” More than likely they will have an interpretation which is very unflattering. Unlike in the past, when they couldn’t do anything about it, they will now be able to use force and intimidate the American leadership.

Mr. Jekielek: There are so many things I want to ask you. There were joint naval exercises, the largest ever, with the Philippines. You’re saying that doesn’t mean the Philippines and the Americans are on the same side?

Dr. Pillsbury: No, not at all. Everything I said about war with China is hypothetical speculation based on war games and thinking about what might happen for extremely unlikely events, one chance in a million. Reporters and journalists sometimes hear something about exercises, war games, or something that has happened, and they don’t have the background to understand the circumstances.

They usually approach two different kinds of sources; sources that will tell them, “Don’t worry about it, everything’s fine. There’s nothing to look at here. Just move on to your next story.” Or it could be sources who exaggerate and scare everybody and say, “Yes, World War III could happen tomorrow. You better get ready, because we’re all going to die.”

We’ve got a school of thought that says China is going to collapse. They’re not going to be around as a great power more than a few years into the future. This view, when it’s understood by our military planners, they will come to the civilian leaders and say, “Why should we plan against China? The place is going to collapse.” You can see how the assumptions that you make for war games or studies or forecasts, whether it’s a journalist or a military planner, depend on your initial thinking.

Those who said, “Hitler just wants to straighten out the Versailles treaty and it’s okay for him to take these few steps.” What we learned later from declassified German documents—and this is very important for Chinese deterrence—Hitler and his generals had many conversations, where the generals, and they’ve been preserved in records that were found later by the American Army, the generals said to Hitler, “Don’t do this. If you do this, the French and British and the Poles will contain us and encircle us and harm Germany. This will be a disaster if you do this.” Hitler said, “I’m doing it anyway. You’re wrong in your forecast of their reactions.”

The records show that after Hitler would do these things, the generals backed down and began to not criticize him or advise caution. They were not a deterrence. This wasn’t internal German master planning, it was Hitler testing and then seeing if he could get away with it.

If something like that is happening in China today, which is a big if, this is the message they’re taking from the reaction of the environment—that the Americans think China’s going to collapse, and that we have to be alert to an American effort to overthrow the Communist Party, which doesn’t actually exist.

By the way, are we going to create an effort to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party? There are ways to do that. It was done against the Soviet Union. Everything has been declassified now. If it’s not being done, why not? The issue ought to be discussed and people should think about it.

But have you seen any debate about overthrowing the Communist Party? I have not. It’s not a topic. Do you see how deterrence theory works? You have to understand both sides of the deterrence equation. Then, you have to plug in how the two sides each see history. My next book is about how Chinese see history differently than we do.

Mr. Jekielek: I’m extremely interested in that book. Based on the example that you gave of Hitler testing and seeing what the reaction was, we have had decades of appeasement policy, and not any form of deterrence.

Dr. Pillsbury: It’s certainly true, we have no organization to fight a war with China. If you look around the world at the Pentagon’s structure, where are the admirals and generals working? What’s the name of the command? What’s their area of responsibility?

You have commands in charge of the Middle East. You have the NATO planning staff that allocates weapons systems and makes war plans for NATO. We have exercises and we have scenarios. We know this might happen and that might happen. Here’s what our Japanese and American forces will do together.

You may have noticed where I’m leading you. Do we have a command in charge of fighting a war with China? No, we don’t. Is there any kind of China command somewhere in the world? Is there an admiral or general with four stars who can be brought before the press or testify in Congress who will say, “My duty is to prepare to win a war with China?”

The answer is no. We have a command in Honolulu up on a mountain called Camp Smith. It used to have about 700 people total. They’re in charge of exercises, planning, and arm sales for about 35 nations running all the way from India around to South Korea.

To some degree China falls in their domain. It’s one of the 35 nations. But is it the China combat command? No, there’s no such thing. If you go in the building, which I have done many, many times, do you think you’re going to see a sign saying China division? No, it’s not set up that way. We don’t have a command for war against China or to deter China within our whole U.S. government.

Mr. Jekielek: This is a great opportunity.

Dr. Pillsbury: Some people might say it’s provocative to do such a thing. “Dr. Pillsbury raised that issue. Oh, how stupid. If we have a command for fighting China, that will just provoke China and cause a war. How irresponsible can you get? Besides, we have a few China experts scattered around various places. They must know what they’re doing.”

Mr. Jekielek: It’s a fantastic question and deeply concerning. We’re here at Heritage, and you have a proposal on how to counter the China threat.

Dr. Pillsbury: Not exactly. This exercise ordered by the new president of Heritage was not to create a new set of measures, it was to survey and canvas the best ideas that have been proposed so far, mainly in legislation by Senate and House members. There’s also a couple of congressional commissions that have been producing recommendations for almost 20 years.

One is called the United-States China Economic Security Review Commission. Every year it produces about a 500-page report. Usually, it averages 70 to 80 recommendations. None of them ever get implemented.