The Return of Great Power War: Scenarios of Systemic US-China War

January 2023 No Comments

Speaker(s): Heath, T. (RAND)

Date: 11 January 2023

Speaker Session Summary

SMA hosted a speaker session with Dr. Timothy R. Heath (Senior International Defense Researcher, RAND) as part of its SMA INDOPACOM Speaker Series.

How a war between the US and China over Taiwan’s sovereignty would develop is a frequently debated subject by scholars and military leaders as China continues to deny the island nation’s autonomy. War games are an integral part of how decision makers develop their grand strategy; however, war games are a far cry from actual warfare, Dr. Heath stated. Dr. Heath and his RAND colleagues instead analyzed academic literature and Chinese documents in order to examine how a US-China conflict over Taiwan would occur at both a high and low intensity. The intensity refers to how aggressively China and the US would attack each other’s armed forces inside and outside of the theater. Dr. Heath stated that if any military conflict between the US and China were to occur, it would be a) long lasting, b) multidimensional, and c) transcontinental. Furthermore, regardless of the war’s intensity, the outcome would heavily influence who the global political and economic leader will be.

It is not likely that China commits itself to a military conflict with the US if the outcome would not assist its ascension to regional hegemony. Dr. Heath used the Cold War as a case study due to several historical parallels, including China’s status as a communist state. However, he noted that China is currently developing a military that will eventually have greater power projection than the Soviet Union had. In the event of a high-intensity war, both the US and China would be forced to carry out substantial political, economic, and industrial mobilization. Other features of a US-China military conflict—among others—would include an arms race, alliance building, and a multilateralization of rivalries and alliances. The largest difference between a low-intensity conflict and a high-intensity war, Dr. Heath concluded, is that China would be fighting for its national survival during a high-intensity war, as opposed to pursuing its goal of regional hegemony in a low-intensity conflict. 

Speaker Session Recording

Briefing Materials


Dr. Timothy R. Heath is a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation. Prior to joining RAND in October 2014, he served as the senior analyst for the USPACOM China Strategic Focus Group. He has over twenty years of experience researching and analyzing military and political topics related to China. In addition to his publications with the RAND Corporation, Dr. Heath has published numerous articles and one book. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he has extensive experience analyzing China’s national strategy, politics, ideology, and military, as well as Asian regional security developments. He has a PhD in political science from George Mason University and a MA in Asian studies from The George Washington University.



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