An all out war between the world's two biggest superpowers is very likely in the next 15 years, according to a retired United States general.

If there's anyone who would know about the anxieties and expectations of the US military, it's the former commander of the US Army in Europe.

Retired Lt. General Ben Hodges delivered a sobering message to European leaders this week, telling them the US won't be able to play bodyguard as it shifts it focus towards thwarting China's aggressive actions in the Pacific. With the rise of China and increasingly emboldened Russia, he urged Europe to do more to ensure its own security.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) leads the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers in the Philippine Sea. Photo / Getty Images
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) leads the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers in the Philippine Sea. Photo / Getty Images

"The United States needs a very strong European pillar. I think in 15 years — it's not inevitable — but it is a very strong likelihood that we will be at war with China," Mr Hodges said.

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"The United States does not have the capacity to do everything it has to do in Europe and in the Pacific to deal with the Chinese threat," he told a packed room at the Warsaw Security Forum, a two-day gathering of leaders and military and political experts from central Europe.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has largely dominated the international order. A prominent school of thought in International Relations called the Hegemonic Stability Theory claims the international system is more likely to remain stable when a single nation-state is the dominant world power, or hegemon. But when a rising power, in this case China, challenges that incumbent hegemon, a military conflict becomes much more likely.

Speaking to the Associated Press on the sidelines of the event, Mr Hodges pointed to a recent near-miss between a US Navy destroyer and a Chinese warship in the disputed South China Sea was only one of the signs pointing to "an increasingly tense relationship and increasing competition in all the different domains."

Others, he said, are China's "constant stealing of technology" and how China is gaining control of infrastructure by funding projects in Africa and Europe. He said that in Europe, China owns more than 10 per cent of the ports.

Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges speaks to reporters on the sideline of the Warsaw Security Forum in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday Oct. 24, 2018. Photo / AP
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges speaks to reporters on the sideline of the Warsaw Security Forum in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday Oct. 24, 2018. Photo / AP
Chinese soldiers march past Tiananmen Square before a military parade last month. Photo / Getty Images
Chinese soldiers march past Tiananmen Square before a military parade last month. Photo / Getty Images

Despite shifting geopolitical priorities and President Trump's unpredictable rhetoric at times, Mr Hodges said the US commitment to NATO and European security remains "unshakeable."

He is certain the Trump administration views Europe's security as a key US interest even though the US president has thrown shade at the Western military alliance and bemoaned what he sees as a lack of funding from European countries.

"You're going to see [the US] continue to invest here in Europe, continue to train, to practice rotational forces, as well as permanently assign forces for the eventuality that in 10 or 15 years we're going to be having to fight in the Pacific," Mr Hodges said.

The former general stepped down as Army Commander last year and is now is a strategic expert with the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington-based research institute.

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