Photo/Illutration James Stavridis (Provided by James Stavridis)

James Stavridis, former commander of NATO, may have underestimated the risk of a U.S.-China war when he set the opening of hostilities 13 years from now in a best-selling novel.

Many military officers and policymakers told the retired U.S. four-star admiral that they believe a U.S.-China confrontation will occur sooner than 2034. 

“You wrote a great novel, but you’ve got one big thing wrong. And that is the date,” Stavridis said he was told about “2034: A Novel of the Next World War,” which he co-authored with Marine Corps veteran Elliot Ackerman.

The book opens with an attack against U.S. naval vessels during a freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea, a scenario that Stavridis lists as one of the red lines that the United States and its allies should not allow China to cross.

“If China decides to cross one of those red lines, it will be because they feel they have the military capability to do so,” Stavridis said during a recent interview. “When will that occur? Perhaps about 10 years from now.”

Stavridis discussed a “broad strategy” that the United States should pursue to avoid a war with China, among them the maintenance of its military capability and partnerships with Japan and other allies and partners.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

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Q: You have published books and policy papers on geopolitics and the Navy, but it came as a surprise that you presented the scenario of a U.S.-China nuclear war in a novel. What was behind your thinking?

A: The effort we made in the book was to show that nations are like people--they make mistakes, miscalculate and overthink their abilities and can go down a dangerous path once they cross that nuclear threshold.

This is not a novel of the apocalypse, and the world does not end. But China and the United States in this novel, I would argue, are significantly diminished by the fact that they have chosen this path. That is a part of the message of the book--we must avoid such a war.

Nobody understands how dangerous nuclear weapons are better than Japan, which is the only nation that they have been used against. We collectively need to imagine how terrible nuclear war is to avoid it. That’s the point of the book.

I chose to write fiction because, in a novel, you can bring characters into the story. People can relate to characters in a way that they have more difficulty relating to cold hard facts and policies.


Q: In the novel, in the face of a belligerent China, NATO has been weakened and the United States has no choice but to confront adversaries almost alone. Is this your prediction about the future?

A: I would say that it is my warning. It is a cautionary tale, a cautionary story. I think there are two paths forward for the United States regarding our relationship with allies and partners.

One is to continue to cherish these partnerships to have military exercises and to work on systems and technology such as protective and offensive cybersecurity. That’s a very valuable relationship for the United States, and it will undoubtedly strengthen if we focus on it.

The other road would be if the United States decided to not value these alliances and bring our troops home from various places such as Japan, South Korea, Germany and Italy. I think that would be a terrible mistake for the United States.

I’m hopeful we don’t go down that path. But my observation, having watched for years the Trump administration, is that it was possible that the United States could move in that direction. I think it would be a terrible mistake for our nation.

We ought to continue to cherish these relationships. That means working with our allies, partners and friends coherently, particularly in the face of rising concern.

When I began writing the novel, it was set in the middle of the century, roughly 2050. But the more I researched and the more I applied my analysis to the situation, the closer the date was set.

Many of my friends, very senior officers in the military, both active duty and retired, and senior policymakers have complimented me on the book.

Still, they have said, “You wrote a great novel, but you’ve got one big thing wrong. And that is the date.” Many believe that the date of a U.S.-China confrontation will be sooner.


Q: In March 2021, Adm. Philip Davidson, then-commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, testified at the Senate Armed Services Committee that he sees the possibility of China moving on Taiwan within six years. Where do you think lies a red line that China should not cross?

A: The United States has a long and rich history of operations in the South China Sea since the mid-1800s. We have been very fortunate since the end of World War II to enjoy strong, warm and positive strategic relationships with nations like Japan.

The South China Sea is a vital entry point for the United States today. It’s a massive body of water full of oil and gas as well as fisheries, and about 40 percent of global trade passes through it.

So, there are strong strategic reasons, as the United States values its alliances in Asia, to push back against Chinese claims.

It is not just the South China Sea but also the East China Sea, where the Senkaku Islands lie, that are vital to American interests as long as our allies operate there and trade flows through there.

And above all we simply as an international community cannot acquiesce to China’s preposterous claims, which have been rejected by international law.

The cover of “2034: A Novel of the Next World War” (Provided by James Stavridis)

Indeed, a number one red line would be an attack against our allies.

For example, if China attacked and tried to forcibly take the Senkaku Islands, that would be a red line for the United States. Or an attack against the Philippines, another treaty ally of the United States. An attack against any treaty allies would be the number one red line.

A second red line would be trying to attack U.S. military personnel operating in the South China Sea.

We conduct what we call “freedom of navigation patrols.” These are our warships sailing through international waters such as the South China Sea.

If China were to attack a U.S. ship to attempt to demonstrate their view that they own the South China Sea, that would be a red line. In fact, the book “2034” opens with an attack involving U.S. military personnel being killed in the South China Sea.

I think the interesting question is Taiwan. If you ask whether the United States would respond militarily to an attack on Taiwan, I believe we would. Still, the United States has not been explicit in that regard. We have not stated that as a red line.

There is a robust discussion in the United States about whether it is time to move away from what is called the “policy of strategic ambiguity,” which means not stating formally that the United States would defend Taiwan.

China should be under no illusions that an attack on Taiwan would be an easy battle. The United States should continue to support their military technology, cyber capability and intelligence, and I think Japan should do as well.

In any event, the United States would regard an attack against Taiwan as requiring some level of military response. On the other hand, Taiwan should not simply declare independence, and we ought to continue to try and resolve this diplomatically over time.

So those are some potential red lines and some clear red lines.

China’s calculation will be based on its military capabilities. If China decides to cross one of those red lines, it will be because they feel they have the military capability to do so. When will that occur? Perhaps about 10 years from now.


Q: How can we avoid a U.S.-China war in the real world?

A: We need a broad strategy to deal with China. One component would be military capability. The United States must maintain a positive balance so that China does not believe it can win a war with the United States, leading to a miscalculation.

A second element of the strategy is to maintain an alliance structure.

China has no allies in the Pacific, with the possible exception of Russia up to a point, and perhaps North Korea. But North Korea has no significant military capability other than a handful of nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, the United States has strong alliance relationships with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and India.

The third element would be economics. We need to make sure that China understands that if they were to go to war with the United States or one of our allies, the economic consequences would be devastating to them, including massive sanctions.

Number four, we need a communication strategy to explain to China where the red lines are.

We need to negotiate with China where we can try to find areas of cooperation. One area is climate. Another area is preparing for the next pandemic, after the United States has failed to deal with the current one effectively.

Finally, we need specific technical areas where the United States and Japan work together, such as cyber and artificial intelligence, where Japan is truly a global leader, including machine learning.

I think a strategy would have all of those elements in it. I think if we did that, it would create sufficient deterrence, and China would not decide to take on that coalition.


Q: Attention has been focused on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Japan, the United States, Australia and India to keep China in check, known as the Quad framework. Why is India, in particular, seen as a key player?

A: The idea of the Quad is 20 years old. The U.S.-India naval exercises Malabar have been going for many years, and each year, we see India is more interested and more deeply involved.

If you look at the trajectory of India, its demographics are powerful, it’s a very young country, it’s a democracy and it has rich history and culture.

Because its geography is profoundly advantageous, it has vast seacoasts facing the Indian Ocean with no competitors, and it has not been exploited in terms of its natural resources, the way the South China Sea has been. India has a lot of potential.

It’s a vibrant country people are striving for. They want to open businesses and educate their children. India has a very bumpy road immediately ahead of it because of education, corruption and sanitation problems. But over time, I think their path becomes smoother.

On the other hand, China’s path is seemingly smooth at the moment, but China’s road begins to get bumpy further out. Its demographics are declining due to the unnatural way of shaping its population. Over time, that will create internal challenges for China. Instead, India will rise.

Sharing significant national borders with China. which caused clashes between Chinese and Indian troops last year, India wants to align itself with other democratic nations.

The four nations of the Quad are very different, but they each bring something significant to the table.

The United States is a big physical country with a considerable population, relatively young, and has many natural resources and a fair amount of technology. Japan is a big nation with significant technology, maybe the best technology, particularly in robotics, artificial intelligence and cyber. Australia has natural resources,

These four democracies, I think, are a very natural alignment. Over time, you’ll see other democratic nations in Asia want to be part of that alignment.

Look at Singapore, a tiny country but one that has the significant military capability and a critical geographic position. Look at Vietnam, a nation whose population is very young and located in the South China Sea. Another potential nation may be Malaysia. Our European friends are very interested in working alongside the Quad.

The Quad is a popular entity, and the future is very bright.


Q: Some argue that China proved to some extent that authoritarian states can fight crises such as the novel coronavirus pandemic better than democracies because they can restrict human rights. U.S. President Joe Biden said America’s survival depends on proving to China that democracy can outpace autocracy. What is your view?

A: I think this is the big question for the 21st century. Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. In other words, if we look at human history, the winner is a democracy.

If we went back 100 years, there were only a handful of democracies, and most of other countries were autocracies. Today, the vast majority of countries, almost 100 countries, are democracies. The number of authoritarian countries like China and Russia is declining.

Indeed, it is correct to say that taking away human rights presents a very streamlined form of government that can deal with things like a pandemic well. On the other hand, I would not want to exchange my democracy, liberty and freedom for a tactical challenge like a pandemic.

I think that most humans ultimately want a voice. They want to have a chance to go into a voting booth and say yes or no about a candidate. Despite all our political challenges in the United States, we are better off for being a democracy.


Q: In the novel, cutting-edge technologies become useless when command and control networks suffer cyberattacks. The United States must fight in an old-fashioned manner as if it was in a war during the Cold War era. Does the book suggest that there is always fragility and vulnerability no matter how hard nations pursue technological supremacy?

A: We need to maintain a lead in advanced technologies, and I would put at the top of my list quantum computing, which is emerging now as a new form of how to manipulate data.

We’ve created a Space Force in the United States, ensuring that we can link, command and control through surveillance. Much of that will revolve around space. Unmanned vehicles are also important. They can go to greater depths and stay out indefinitely. And so is nanotechnology.

Above all, we may need a Plan B. Because what happens if our exquisite satellite systems and communication networks are shut down?

In the opening scenes of “2034,” a strike fighter, the most advanced jet and the most exquisite technology in the world, is forced down over Iran because of a cyberattack. Plan B was an old F-18 Hornet with almost no electronics.

In fact, the U.S. Navy has resumed paying attention to celestial navigation, and U.S. Navy sailors navigate in the high seas using a sextant. We say in American English that you can “shoot the stars” to determine your position on Earth, a methodology that goes back 2,000 years.

So, you have to have the best technology, but you better have a Plan B as well.


Q: In the novel, one of the main characters is a female naval officer, and the U.S. president is also a woman. Is it a realistic setting?

A: Absolutely. I will be shocked if we in the United States do not have a female president by 2034, and we may have one in 2024. The reality of the U.S. military today is that we have many women who are four-star generals, four-star admirals, three-star and two-star.

When a historian 300 years from now starts writing a history of the 21st century, she will write about three significant trends.

One will be the rise of India. A second one will be the merger of cyber and biology. The third big trend of the 21st century will be the rise of women.

It will go faster in some countries and in some regions than others, but it is inevitable. You can see it happening right in front of us, certainly in my nation and undoubtedly many other democracies, but even in authoritarian countries.

The rise of women is coming, and I think the most important trend in this century will be the rise of women.

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Born in 1955, James Stavridis graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1976. He served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander and commander of the U.S. European Command from 2009 to 2013. He served as dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University from 2013 to 2018.

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James Stavridis (Provided by James Stavridis)

“2034: A Novel of the Next World War” portrays a U.S.-China war in which the two powers attack each other with tactical nuclear weapons while the U.S. command and control are paralyzed by cyberattacks. India, Iran and Russia are also part of the story.

The book, published in March, sold over 100,000 copies in the United States as of May, and it has been released in 14 nations.

In the novel, three U.S. Navy ships are sunk after encountering a burning fishing boat of an unknown identity during a freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea. The same day, a U.S. Marine aviator is captured in Iran after he loses control of his F-35 stealth fighter over the Strait of Hormuz. The story tells how the two incidents are related with each other.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates describes the storyline as “a nightmare we desperately need to avoid,” while Jim Mattis, another former defense secretary, said the book presents “the most dangerous scenario for us and the world.”

(This article is based on an interview by Senior Staff Writer Mizuho Kajiwara.)