One of the hottest reads among Washington national security experts this summer is not the latest White House policy document or a big report from an influential think tank, but a novel by two of the national security community’s own: Peter Singer and August Cole. Their book, “Ghost Fleet,” is a riveting thriller in the Tom Clancy tradition. Much of the attention it is getting is due to its explanation of cutting-edge military technology, but it is also captivating—and important—because its core scenario is one that every policymaker and policy expert fears: a major war between the United States and China.
To anyone closely watching China’s rising power and growing assertiveness, history—in particular, America’s last major war with a rising Asian power—holds ominous warnings. For while Americans believe that their war with Japan began with the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Tokyo laid the groundwork for the outbreak of hostilities years before the surprise raid, establishing a network of bases and expanding its military’s power-projection capability. Pearl Harbor simply made Americans aware of a conflict that, in Japanese eyes, had already begun. Yet Washington and the U.S. military had missed the signs of just how close war was. Could this also be true of China today? Has the war with China already begun?
For decades, Chinese security strategy was aimed at deterring invasion via a huge but relatively low-tech military. When the Chinese economy took off in recent decades, Beijing saw new opportunities to flex its muscles. China’s national security and military strategies shifted toward power projection and contesting U.S. domination of the Asia-Pacific region. One of the most obvious signs of this has been the immense qualitative and technological improvement in the Chinese armed forces. According to a recent Pentagon report, China is pursuing “a long-term, comprehensive military modernization program” and investing in capabilities designed to defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party—including U.S.—intervention during a crisis or conflict.