2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Eliot Ackerman and James Stavridis (New York: Penguin Press, 2021) imagines a future war between the United States and China that takes place in the eponymous year, much like Peter Singer’s Ghost Fleet. Admiral Stavridis had a highly distinguished military career including command of a carrier strike group in combat, going on to be head of Southern Command and later the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, before retiring and becoming dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The novel is a quick and gripping read, filled with the details of naval operations that give it a lot of color and plausibility.
It has worried me for some time that we have not adequately imagined how a future war with China might start. The prospect of such a war is so horrendous that it is natural that ordinary people in and out of the region choose to shy away from the subject. Nonetheless, if we want to prevent such a war, we need to think through these scenarios very carefully and plan against them. There is growing recognition of Taiwan’s vulnerability to Chinese military power, which few people have taken seriously until now. Over the past year, China has been behaving much more aggressively toward Taipei, and Chinese leaders' rhetoric about using military action to force unification has grown more frequent and shrill. It would be foolish not to take this announced intention seriously.
During the Cold War, strategists thought through a number of canonical scenarios for a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict, like a Soviet grab for Berlin or Hamburg, or a full-scale invasion across the north German plain. Scenarios for how the two sides might move up an escalation ladder led to the concept of extended deterrence, and new investments in conventional forces that would make rapid escalation less likely.
While planners in places like U.S. Indo-Pacific Command have been working hard on such contingencies, there has been very little public discussion of what a future war in East Asia might look like, or the escalatory ladders they would involve. This is what makes a work of fiction like 2034 particularly valuable. Any such effort to posit scenarios will draw criticisms about their plausibility, and no scenario is going to seem fully plausible until after it happens.
Spoiler alert: the war that unfolds in 2034 starts with the Chinese using a combination of offensive cyber and stealth capabilities to blind not just the Pacific Fleet, but the entire U.S. National Command Authority. They simultaneously help the Iranians take control of an American F-35 in the Persian Gulf and force the pilot down in Bandar Abbas. Cut off from the chain of command, a destroyer group performing a Freedom of Navigation exercise near islands claimed by China as sovereign territory in the South China Sea are lured into an encounter, and three American ships are sunk. The onus is then on the American President to either back down or retaliate. Attempting the latter, Washington then suffers an even more humiliating debacle and loses a significant part of its Navy. At this point, China moves on Taiwan and … well, you have to read the book to find out what unpleasant consequences flow. Let me just note that the President of the United States makes a relatively early resort to tactical nuclear weapons because she doesn’t have a lot of conventional options at her disposal.
The idea that China could come to dominate the cyber realm so completely fourteen years from now may not seem likely today. But it is a useful admonition to show how the central domain of strategic competition has shifted dramatically, and could continue to shift if we don’t take measures to protect ourselves. The more important contribution is to help define the escalation ladder. Many armchair strategists would say that the deliberate sinking of three American warships and the consequent loss of thousands of American lives would trigger a general war between the United States and China, and for that reason would be a risk too far for any Chinese leadership. But this is precisely the part of the scenario I found frighteningly plausible. The fear of general war cuts in both directions: the United States has as much to lose as China in any retaliation, and would be strongly motivated not to escalate to general war even under these circumstances.
This kind of miscalculation has happened before in history. The Japanese did not attack Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, thinking that the United States would then declare general war and march across the Pacific to take the Japanese homeland, or that they could win such a war. The attack’s planners calculated that such a response would be so costly that the United States would back down, and let Japan do as it wished in Manchuria, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies. We know in retrospect that the American people were willing to pay that price, but would they be in a future war in East Asia? Nuclear weapons and the prospect of massive casualties in the continental United States did not exist in 1941, but they will in any future confrontation with China.
There are other parts of 2034’s scenario that are less plausible. The U.S.-China war stops escalating because of an intervention by India, which by then has developed capabilities for power projection that no one anticipated. The premise that cyber capabilities have become so good as to completely blind command authorities allows carrier battle groups (CBG) to operate near enemy shores and remain relevant. If the cyber premise is relaxed, the CBGs become highly vulnerable to a variety of long-range cruise and ballistic missiles, and would most likely have to be withdrawn early on in a conflict. Heroic naval aviators play a big role in 2034, but likely wouldn’t if the balloon really went up. One imagines the book’s scenario would have unfolded very differently had Stavridis been a submarine rather than a carrier strike group commander.
This doesn’t, however, detract from the novel’s usefulness. Apart from professional military planners, there simply isn’t much hard thinking right now about what a war in Asia would look like and how escalation might unfold. During the Cold War, U.S. Presidents and their civilian staffs had fairly clear ideas about extended deterrence, and could push back against military planners if their scenarios rested on questionable premises. I’m not sure that this is the case today.
If there is one single objective for American foreign policy to aim at in Asia, it is to prevent a U.S.-Chinese military conflict from ever occurring. The way you do this is not by ignoring the possibility of war or refusing to plan against it; rather, you need to understand exactly where escalation points lie, and how to give yourself alternatives to the big and destructive options described in 2034. To that end, an imaginative work of fiction may be more useful than any number of academic articles on the subject.
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