The year is 2034. On March 12, US Navy Commodore Sarah Hunt is in charge of a routine operation in the South China Sea. Your vessel detects an endangered small fishing vessel which, despite this, does not emit a distress signal. By the end of that day, Hunt’s ship will be at the bottom of the sea, struck by the Chinese Navy using cyber weapons.
The above scene is from the recent “2034: A Story of the Next World War”. Interestingly, the fictional book was co-authored by an American Reserve Admiral, former Supreme Commander of NATO (Western Military Alliance). James Stavridis says the United States is good at intelligence and equipment – but bad at imagination.
The seasoned soldier never used to write novels. But, he said, the work could serve as a warning to avert disaster.
The problem is, under the protective cover of fiction and the justification of good intentions, the book ends up liquidating America’s obsession with China.
It is true that the situation is tense, as the recent meeting between the Americans and the Chinese in Alaska showed. But then exaggerating the US security risks is another story.
The military, the arms industry, and defense experts are great at inflating threats to justify their importance – and larger budgets.
The US defense establishment specializes in fabricating war theses – just remember the weapons of mass destruction that motivated the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The difficult relationship with an adversary like China could not not offer a better opportunity.
“Welcome to the era of inflated Pentagon budgets,” said Fareed Zakaria, “all justified by the great Chinese threat.” After two decades of operation in the Middle East with questionable results, the Pentagon is poised to gain prestige, power and resources on the basis of the fear it fuels itself.
In the ranking of countries with the highest military spending, the United States alone invests more than the next ten countries combined, Zakaria recalls. While the Americans have around 800 military bases around the world, China has three.
Alarmism is dangerous for the world but also for the United States itself. As Ryan Hass tells Foreign Affairs, China is not three meters tall. He argues that focusing on Chinese forces without considering their vulnerabilities creates anxiety. Anxiety fuels insecurity. Insecurity leads to disproportionate reactions, to bad decisions. This increases the risk of miscalculations.
On the other hand, Beijing projects self-confidence – and the Alaskan reunion has served it well. In public discourse and in local media, China highlights its strengths and, at the same time, America’s weaknesses.
The narrative useful for domestic consumption carries risks – as it finds an audience in the United States eager to appropriate Chinese assertiveness to justify its own scare-mongering rhetoric.
To top it off, China knows that many in Washington hold the threat story with charged inks to be true. This fits into Beijing’s political and military calculation, encouraging both real investment and conspiracy theses here as well.
Discussing the parameters of a peaceful and prosperous coexistence would obviously make more sense. For this, however, there is a great poverty of imagination. It does not contribute to the defense budget. Don’t sell books.
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