War With China Over Taiwan Is Not A Fictional Worry

Former Supreme Commander of NATO Adm. James Stavridis’s new novel, “2034,” imagines nuclear war between the U.S. and China.

Patricia Bolinches for Noema Magazine

Noema editor-in-chief Nathan Gardels spoke with former Supreme Commander of NATO Adm. James Stavridis about his new novel, “2034,” co-authored with Elliot Ackerman, in which war between the U.S. and China escalates into a nuclear exchange.

Gardels: Your novel with Ackerman, “2034,” is set 13 years in the future. The core plot revolves around China finally taking Taiwan by force after disabling the avionics of fighter jets and the digital control systems of an armada of U.S. ships, which it sinks. China’s advantage is the ability to blind satellites and internet communication while cloaking the movements of its own fleet.

How far are we today from this cyberwar asymmetry between the U.S. and China? 

Stavridis: Today, the U.S. enjoys a slight edge over China in offensive cyber technology, artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing. But that edge is rapidly diminishing — see, for example, the report by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, chaired by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work. Ten to 15 years from now, when “2034” is set, I believe there is a strong possibility that China will have surpassed the U.S. in all these areas. We still have time to course-correct, but the relative trends do not favor us on our current path.

Gardels: What needs to be done to keep even or surpass China? Is there a way to negotiate curbs or a code of conduct on using AI or other advanced weapons technologies? 

Stavridis: We should bolster resources for investment in science, technology, engineering and math curriculums at every level; identify and nurture the best and brightest among students in STEM fields; create new masters programs in computer science, AI and quantum computing at our top universities; increase research and development funding from the government to basic science in these fields; incentivize the private sector to work with U.S. defense authorities and partner with allies who have strong capabilities in these fields, including Japan, the U.K., Germany and France. Separately, we should be working to create the kind of deterrent regimes for cyber that exist for nuclear weapons.

“Ten to 15 years from now, there is a strong possibility that China will have surpassed the U.S. in cyberwar capacity.”

Gardels: Some military planners believe that the current balance of traditional forces is skewed toward China and that if there was a war today, the U.S. and its allies could not defend Taiwan. Is this assessment correct? 

Stavridis: Well, it would be “the nearest-run thing you ever saw,” as the Duke of Wellington said of the Battle of Waterloo. Personally, I believe the U.S. could still prevail, but it would be very close and bloody for both sides. We must find a way to avoid such a disastrous outcome. Part of why we wrote “2034” was to provide a cautionary tale that ought to inspire us to take steps to avoid sleepwalking into war as the Europeans did in 1914.

Gardels: An Australian defense expert recently argued that President Xi is intent on “unifying China” by forcefully taking Taiwan as the capstone of his rejuvenation of China as a great civilization. Do you agree with this assessment? 

Stavridis: I do, and perhaps more importantly, the former leader of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson, testified recently in an open hearing to this very point, saying he believes a military move could come as soon as the next six years. Since he saw all the very top intelligence and woke up every morning thinking about these warfighting scenarios in great depth, we should listen closely to him.

“Part of why we wrote ‘2034’ was to provide a cautionary tale that ought to inspire us to take steps to avoid sleepwalking into war as the Europeans did in 1914.”

Gardels: If China’s leaders perceive that the balance of military power closely favors the Middle Kingdom at this point, and the Biden administration and others pledge that the West will defend Taiwan, wouldn’t logic dictate that China should strike now instead of waiting until the West builds up its defenses? 

Stavridis: That is precisely the line of thought Adm. Davidson laid out, and I agree with it.

Gardels: Should the U.S. go to war to defend Taiwan?

Stavridis: To avoid getting to that point, what we should do for now is draw closer to Taiwan and seek to make it a harder target for China. This means more offensive and defensive cyber capability; advanced missile defense systems; anti-submarine warfare technology; fighter aircraft; and better intelligence and information sharing, along with joint training and exercises. Think of Taiwan as a porcupine — it won’t defeat the dragon of China, but it could be very hard to digest. That might create real deterrence. 

Similarly, we should bluntly communicate to China that an armed invasion is unacceptable and would provoke a significant diplomatic, economic — and possible military — response by the U.S.

“The former leader of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson, believes a military move by China against Taiwan could come as soon as the next six years.”

Gardels: In your fictional book, you and your coauthor cast Russia as seizing the opportunity of conflict in the Pacific to take the long-coveted Baltic zones in and around Poland by force. The “atrophied bodies” of the West, as you call them in the book, implying NATO, are just too unprepared and lacking enough unified will to resist.

This brings to mind French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement that NATO is brain-dead. Do you agree?

Stavridis: Think of NATO and the larger network of allies, partners and friends around the world enjoyed by the U.S. today as a garden. It must be tended, nurtured and occasionally weeded. That means very consciously exchanging high level visits, conducting joint training and exercises, and coordinating positions on key global issues, from North Korea to Iran, Russia and China. When all share the same threat perceptions and posture in defending the democratic world, we will be able to overcome frustrations that can develop over issues like military spending differences.

Churchill said the only thing worse than fighting a war alongside allies is fighting a war without allies. The Biden team understands this and is putting a great deal of effort into tending these gardens. If we can consistently do so, NATO will be fine, as will the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India “quad” arrangement that is emerging as a new strategic cornerstone for the U.S.

“Think of Taiwan as a porcupine — it won’t defeat the dragon of China, but it could be very hard to digest. That might create real deterrence.”

Gardels: At one point in your novel, the Russians cut the undersea optic fiber cables in the Atlantic that carry internet communication and blacked out the East Coast and Washington. These are the same kind of cables that cross the Pacific and keep us connected. How vulnerable are those cables that cross international waters? How are, or should they be, protected? 

Stavridis: They are few in number — only several hundred essentially carry the internet. And yes, they are vulnerable. It is very difficult to “harden them” sufficiently to protect them from a determined attack by major powers armed with nuclear submarines. So the best way to ensure they remain viable is deterrence, showing our opponents that an attack on the internet cable system will be treated as a significant attack against our economy and will prompt a similar response.

Gardels: So far, the Biden administration has not shied away from confronting Russia and China at the same time, driving them further together against the West. This is the opposite of the Kissinger-Nixon strategy of dividing them, which led to the initial opening to China.

Is this wise from a strategic point of view?  

Stavridis: Russia and China are going to draw closer whatever we do. As the two leading authoritarian nations in the world, they are naturally inclined to reinforce each other diplomatically and economically. They complete each other, so to speak. Russia is a vast land power with considerable natural resources; China is relatively constrained geographically and has a huge population. There are natural symmetries built into their cooperation, including, of course, the fact that they share a significant land border.

“The purpose of ‘2034’ is to show how miscalculation — a faulty understanding of controlling the ladder of escalation and an inability to understand what the other side aims to accomplish — could lead the U.S. and China into a war.”

Gardels: Finally, despite all these conflicts, both Xi and Putin showed up at Biden’s climate summit recently. Beyond the old geopolitical conflicts, there is now also an imperative of planetary realism around climate. Paradoxically, might the common challenge of global warming in the end temper what is shaping up to be an all-out Cold War?

Stavridis: Let us hope so. My approach to both China and Russia is pretty simple: confront where we must — interference in our elections, human rights violations, claims of ownership of the South China Sea, threats to Taiwan — but cooperate wherever we can. That can include climate but also cooperation in preparation for the next pandemic, humanitarian operations, arms control and at least discussions about creating a deterrent regime in cyberspace.

The purpose of “2034” is to show how miscalculation — a faulty understanding of controlling the ladder of escalation and an inability to understand what the other side aims to accomplish — could lead the U.S. and China into a war that would be, to say the least, in neither side’s interest.