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Air University Research Papers 1999


Title: China as Peer Competitor?

Subject: Trends in Nuclear Weapons, Space, and Information Warfare

Author(s): KATHRYN L. GAUTHIER Lieutenant Colonel, USAF


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  In China as Peer Competitor? Trends in Nuclear Weapons, Space, and Information Warfare Lt Col Kathryn L. Gauthier analyzes the potential for China to emerge as a peer com -petitor of the United States in the coming decades. First, she examines two traditional pillars of national strength— China’s status as a nuclear weapons state and as a space power. Second, she then explores China’s growing focus on information warfare (IW) as a means to wage asymmetric warfare against a technologically advanced adversary. Third, the author carefully examines the status of the three pro -grams, highlights areas of concern and potential conflict with the United States, and analyzes the implications of these issues for the United States.

    The author concludes that China does have the poten-tial to become a peer competitor, based on a number of factors. The United States’s military advantages over China are narrowing in the critical areas of nuclear weapons, space technology, and information warfare. China is developing nuclear weapons with increased accuracy, mobility, and range. Beijing’s growing prowess in space—including a possible manned presence within the decade—will also provide it significant benefits in the military realm. In selected areas, Beijing has demonstrated its ability to "leapfrog" over more rudimentary stages of technological development. Finally, China’s previously rapid economic growth has supported tech-nological modernization and an improved defense posture.

    Colonel Gauthier emphasizes that Beijing does not— either philosophically or militarily—have to approach US levels of capability or proficiency to pose a threat to the United States or to US interests in the region. There is clear evidence the Chinese are vigorously analyzing, pur -suing, and acquiring the means to wage asymmetric war -fare against a more powerful adversary. Asymmetric warfare can be cheap, low tech, readily available, and devastatingly effective against the United States. For these reasons, in -formation warfare may prove to be the "weapon of choice" for the Chinese; given the vulnerability of the US infra -structure and China’s more rudimentary military informa-tion systems, China could actually hold the "high ground"  in this arena in the future. In keeping with its long-stand -ing cultural and strategic traditions, Beijing would likely attempt to "defeat the enemy without fighting" by playing its information deterrence card. Alternatively, it could at -tempt to carry out a surprise IW attack with sufficient deception to avoid retaliation.

    The author does not believe it is inevitable that China will become an adversary of the United States. But this possibility could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if the United States mishandles its relationship with China. Colonel Gauthier advocates a policy of constructive en -gagement with the People’s Republic of China, believing the United States holds some of the cards with which to positively shape the future of Sino-US relations, and the specter of a militarily capable and potentially hostile China makes a compelling case for doing so. The Air War College encourages a debate of these views.

Major General, USAF
Air War College