The U.S.-China Confrontation: “We Need To Avoid Stumbling into a Major War”

On the afternoon of March 12, 2034, the commanding officers of the American guided-missile destroyer John Paul Jones discover a fishing trawler on fire on the horizon of the Western Pacific. They delay but then, on the orders of their superiors, they shift course. It’s the beginning of a chain of events that leads to war between China and the United States and the use of tactical nuclear weapons. These events drive the plot of the geopolitical thriller “2034,” from Washington to Beijing, from the Persian Gulf to San Diego, from India to Shanghai.

The authors are novelist and Afghanistan veteran Elliot Ackerman, 41, and Admiral James Stavridis, 66, who himself commanded a destroyer squadron in the western Pacific years ago. He later rose to the rank of four-star admiral and, in 2009, he became the first naval officer to take over the supreme command of NATO troops in Europe. Stavridis was discussed as a possible vice presidential nominee during Hillary Clinton’s campaign and later as a possible secretary of state under Donald Trump. He has made a name for himself as a political commentator.

DER SPIEGEL: Admiral Stavridis, how close are China and the U.S. to a military confrontation today?

Admiral James Stavridis: A lot of the critical reaction to the book has been: Excellent book. The date is wrong. It’s not 2034, maybe 2024 or 2026. Any number of my very senior military friends have said, “You’ve written a cautionary tale about a war that you think is 10 to 15 years away, but many of us believe it will come sooner.” And there is public testimony to this fact. Just three weeks ago, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, who is the commander of all U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific region, talked about the possibility of a war over Taiwan within six years. The U.S. and China are both operating heavy military warships and aircraft in very close proximity over the South China Sea.

DER SPIEGEL: And China and the U.S. have many political disputes.

Stavridis: That’s right – about the status of Taiwan, about the question of who owns the South China Sea, about human rights violations in China, the Uighur situation. I could go on and on. If crime is where motive meets opportunity, these are two nations who have the opportunity, because of these heavily armed fleets, and the motive – because of the package of disagreements between them.

DER SPIEGEL: The political debates on both sides give the impression that military conflict is almost inevitable. Graham Allison warns of the “Thucydides Trap.” In history, he says, one great power catching up to another has almost always led to war.

Stavridis: I am concerned about this debate, and history is not encouraging. Graham Allison went back 2,500 years to ancient Athens and Sparta and looked at what happens when an established power is challenged by a rising power. The last time that happened is certainly familiar to Germans: It was when the British Empire was challenged by the Kaiser’s Germany. The reason we wrote “2034” was not to predict a conflict but to warn people, to write a cautionary tale which could allow us to figure out what we need to do to avoid stumbling into a major war.

“China is spending its money very intelligently. They are extremely focused.”

DER SPIEGEL: You said that “2034” should “scare the hell out” of its readers – which it certainly does. Were you sometimes scared writing it? Has the thought of a fictional self-fulfilling prophecy crossed your mind?

Stavridis: Absolutely. Particularly (with) some of these incidents, notably the naval ones at sea. I’ve been there. I’ve commanded destroyers. I’ve been a commodore of a flotilla of destroyers in the South China Sea. I know all of this very well.

DER SPIEGEL: In “2034,” China has gained cyber supremacy and cripples the U.S. technologically. How realistic is such a scenario, given that the U.S. defense budget is currently about three times the size of China’s?

Stavridis: Two points: Who could have predicted 9/11? Who could have predicted a 20-year war in Afghanistan? Who could have predicted a pandemic that locks down both of our societies? Human beings tend to think that tomorrow will look like today. But there are always discontinuities and surprises.

DER SPIEGEL: And point two?

Stavridis: China is spending its money very intelligently. They are extremely focused – not only on offensive cyberweapons but also on its operations in space, its hypersonic cruise missiles, its stealth technologies. China has watched the United States spend trillions of dollars, get into two expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and said: “We don’t need all of that. We are not going to get in such wars. We are going to target our spending very intelligently.”

DER SPIEGEL: In your novel, cyberweapons play a role similar to the one nuclear weapons played in the Cold War. Is it conceivable that one day there will be disarmament talks in the cyber realm, similar to the ones the U.S. and the Soviet Union began some 50 years ago?

Stavridis: We need to get to that point as quickly as possible. Offensive cyber weapons are increasingly capable of knocking out the electric grid, taking out transportation systems, affecting water delivery, destroying financial systems. For all those reasons, we need very rapidly to get to at least conversations between the U.S., Russia and China about this subject. I think nuclear weapons are a reasonable example. The problem is, of course, that it is much more difficult to know exactly who is attacking you in the cyber realm as opposed to a ballistic missile which you can track as it flies toward your country. And unfortunately it is much easier to proliferate an offensive cyber technique than it is to construct a massive nuclear weapon. Nations like Iran, North Korea and Israel are rapidly improving their capabilities in this area. So the sooner the Big Three – the U.S., Russia and China – get together and set an example, the better.

DER SPIEGEL: The U.S. military projects global power. China says it only wants to control its neighborhood, the South China Sea – just as the U.S. has done since the early 19th century in the Caribbean. What’s wrong with this argument?

Stavridis: The United States did not claim territorial sovereignty over the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the waters of South America. The United States did say: This is our neighborhood, and we will be a capable military power here. But we did not claim territorial ownership of those waters. China is doing so. That ought to concern the international community beyond anything else China is doing. The South China Sea is half the size of the continental United States of America, probably much of the size of Western Europe. If we simply say to the Chinese: Okay, we know you don’t have any real ambitions globally, go ahead and take ownership of the South China Sea – that’s a disaster, it’s the end of the Law of the Sea Treaty. Then every nation is going to start claiming its chunks of water. That would be exhibit one.

DER SPIEGEL: And exhibit two?

Stavridis: China is building a massive fleet. It has more warships today than the U.S. If all they want to do is patrol the South China Sea – why are they building nuclear aircraft carriers, why are they building massive warships? Why are they deploying them to the Baltic Sea and to the Eastern Mediterranean? Why are they building a base on the Horn of Africa?

“It would be foolish to put our hands over our eyes and say China is not going to be a problem.”

DER SPIEGEL: China has three overseas military outposts, the U.S. has 800.

Stavridis: Much of the U.S. overseas infrastructure is there because our allies desperately want us to be there. When we talk about removing 8,000 troops from Germany then Germany does not like that. What happens in Japan, what happens in South Korea? This is a network of allies, partners and friends, built up and coming out of the Second World War, and we are there at significant cost to ourselves because our allies want us there. And as to the number 800: There are, perhaps, 50 significant bases where there are thousands of troops.

DER SPIEGEL: Still many more than any other force.

Stavridis: Is that an argument for reducing the U.S. global footprint? Well, Donald Trump certainly thought so and he was starting to bring the troops home. Our allies did not like that very much. And China has many bases. Except they are not military, they control ports, in places like Sri Lanka. China just signed a massive deal with Iran – which figures in the book as a very strong ally of China. I think that’s very realistic by the middle of the century.

DER SPIEGEL: Is China copying the U.S.?

Stavridis: It is taking notes on what the United States has done. If China says it has no tradition of global control, that is reasonably accurate in the historical context of China. But what they are doing right now is at odds with that statement. And that has set off some warning bells for us. And if you listen to President Xi Jinping when he talks about where China will be at the middle of this century it sounds to me a lot like a significant global presence. One Belt, One Road: China is on the move. That doesn’t mean we have to go to war. We shouldn’t go to war, we should avoid this. But it would be foolish to put our hands over our eyes and say China is not going to be a problem.

DER SPIEGEL: As the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, the top NATO commander, do you think that the West needs a Pacific Treaty Organization to keep China in check?

Stavridis: I don’t think Asia lends itself to the very formal structure of NATO. But I think there can be standing arrangements, shall we say, and a pretty good example of that is what is called the Quad: the United States, Japan, India and Australia. You can’t find four nations that are more different than those four but they have come together and are providing some balance to this rising capability of China. And all four of them look at China and have some concern: India because of what’s happening in the Himalayas, Japan because of its territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands, Australia because of China’s pretty sharp trade practices.

DER SPIEGEL: Beijing had penalized Australia early this year because it had called for an investigation into the origins of the pandemic.

Stavridis: This Quad I think is probably the closest we will get to a NATO-like organization, and then you add into that Quad other nations like South Korea or Singapore. But I don’t think we want to set up an Asian NATO. That would be a very provocative signal to China.

DER SPIEGEL: Germany is planning to send a frigate to the Western Pacific later this year. Do you think this is a good idea?

Stavridis: These are decisions for the people of Germany and for Chancellor Angela Merkel for whom I have extreme admiration. From a U.S. perspective, we are happy, indeed enthusiastic, when our allies choose to operate with us in the South China Sea. It sends a signal to China that you do not own these waters. These are international waters. It is very important when other nations demonstrate by sailing their warships – and really that’s all you have to do: Just sail through those waters, fly that German flag, operate your helicopter and turn on your fire-control radar.

“There Is No Hotline”

DER SPIEGEL: How can a spiral of escalation be interrupted?

Stavridis: We’d need another interview to unpack this in depth. But at the tactical level we need more mechanisms of communication. There is no hotline as there was during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. There is no formal agreement as we had during the Cold War for controlling incidents at sea – the so-called INCSEA agreements. That would create buffer zones between military platforms. It would say: Here’s how close you can fly an aircraft to a military ship, here is when you cannot turn on a fire-control radar.

DER SPIEGEL: … which would decrease the pressure on commanders and pilots.

Stavridis: The people who are flying these jets and driving these destroyers are very young, some in their twenties and thirties. I commanded an Aegis destroyer when I was 36 years old – and I was the oldest officer on the ship. These young people need boundaries and controls, and the senior people need to be able to pick up a phone and immediately call and have a hotline to indicate the seriousness of the situation.

DER SPIEGEL: What is needed beyond the tactical level, on a strategic and political level?

Stavridis: Both sides need a strategy for dealing with the other that is clear and sets out where the red lines are. We also need to take a look at the alliance structures. A big part of why Europe managed to mobilize itself into a world war in 1914 was a network of treaty structures that put nations under mutual pressure. And finally, there is a technological set of solutions which have to do with surveillance, space, observing, seeing and showing the other side what you see – protocols which create a possibility of deterrence. The Open Skies Treaty, for example, from which the Trump administration foolishly walked away. Where is the Open Skies Agreement in Asia?

DER SPIEGEL: The pandemic and the isolation of the two superpowers has seemingly blocked many of these channels of communication.

Stavridis: This affects many areas: our economic, trade and tariff relationships, cultural, academic and social exchanges. This is very personal to me, by the way: My oldest daughter is married to a Chinese American, a physician. The tensions have been deeply exacerbated by this pandemic, and that’s certainly the case in the United States. I see that with my son-in-law, who has people yell things at him from a passing car. He works in an emergency room where some patients come in and say: I don’t want to be treated by an Asian because of the “Chinese flu.” It makes everything we have to do much harder.

DER SPIEGEL: Have you had any reactions from Chinese readers yet – and will there be a Chinese translation of the book?

Stavridis: Someone asked me the other day: If you could force one person to read the book, who would it be? My answer, you guessed it, was President Xi. I would love for President Xi to read it, if for no other reason that if he could be photographed holding the book I would sell millions of copies over night. But in all seriousness: I hope the Chinese read “2034.” And I hope they read it fairly – as this is not a good-guys-bad-guys kind of a book. The villain here is war. And I think the most compelling and most sympathetic character in the book is a Chinese Admiral. His name is Lin Bao.

DER SPIEGEL: Admiral Stavridis, we thank you for this interview.

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