As tensions increase between China and the United States over the South China Sea and Taiwan, American strategists and statesmen might benefit from reading two recent fictional accounts of a future Sino-American war. Those novels — Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole (2015) and 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and James Starvridis (2021) — serve as cautionary reminders that sometimes works of fiction can help foresee events and thereby provide warnings that may help forestall disaster. And those fictional accounts stand in the shadow of Hector Bywater.
In Ghost Fleet, China’s attack begins with the destruction of American communication satellites in space. Then, Chinese cyber-warfare experts disable U.S. computer networks, while Chinese and Russian forces attack U.S. military installations in Japan. China closes the Panama Canal (its companies control both ends of the canal) and Sino-Russian naval and air forces attack U.S. naval forces at Pearl Harbor. The war ends in stalemate only due to the heroic efforts of U.S. naval forces who use old mothballed warships (the Ghost Fleet) to defeat a Chinese-Russian armada in the Western Pacific.
In 2034, the PLA Navy lures a U.S. warship into providing assistance to a supposedly disabled Chinese trawler. A cyberattack shuts down U.S. naval communications and communications between the Pentagon and all U.S. warships. Meanwhile, a Chinese nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and other Chinese warships surround a U.S. naval flotilla in the South China Sea and subsequently attack and destroy the entire fleet, including two U.S. aircraft carriers. More than a thousand U.S. sailors are dead. China’s Russian allies, meanwhile, cut the subsurface 10G internet cables that service the United States, causing a nationwide power outage. China then invades Taiwan and the U.S. responds by launching tactical nuclear warheads which destroy the Chinese port of Zhanijiang. China responds by moving its warships to America’s Pacific Coast and using its tactical nuclear weapons to destroy San Diego and Galveston. The American president orders nuclear strikes against three more Chinese cities, but Indian forces step in and prevent two of the U.S. strikes (one gets through, destroying Shanghai), and also destroys a Chinese carrier before it can retaliate against the U.S. The war ends in a stalemate negotiated in New Delhi.
Before discounting the fictional scenarios of Ghost Fleetand 2034, it is worth remembering Hector C. Bywater. Bywater was a British journalist, spy (before and during World War I), and military writer who worked for the New York Herald, the London Daily Telegraph, and the Baltimore Sun. He was very much an intellectual disciple of the great American naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. In 1921, Bywater wrote Sea-power in the Pacific: A Study of the American-Japanese Naval Problem, a nonfiction book that analyzed the geopolitical competition between the U.S. and Japan, especially in the naval realm. It was a timely book — that same year Japan and the United States (and other powers) participated in the Washington Naval Conference, which attempted to establish limits on naval warships — an early example of arms control efforts.
In Sea-power in the Pacific, Bywater described “the rapid growth of Japanese naval power” and its potential impact on U.S. interests in the Pacific Ocean and East Asia. Bywater suggested that in the event of a U.S.-Japanese war, Japan might try to block the Panama Canal, thereby delaying U.S. naval reinforcements from the Atlantic. Bywater noted that “war with the United States has furnished the theme of several … stories by Japanese writers, and in nearly every case the imaginary campaign opens with a sudden and devastating raid on the Panama Canal.” He also wrote that under then current circumstances, the United States “could do nothing whatever to protect” the Philippine Islands from a Japanese attack and invasion. If war breaks out within the next few years, Bywater wrote, it would result with “the Japanese flag waving over Manila.” It was incumbent upon the leaders of the United States, he wrote, “to take the most elementary precautions against the loss of the Philippines.” He also noted the importance of Guam as a U.S. military base in the event of a Japanese attack on the Philippines. Bywater also noted the strategic significance of the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and advocated strengthening it for both defensive and offensive operations. He suggested that Pearl Harbor could become the target of a torpedo attack by Japan at the outset of war.
But it was Bywater’s 1925 novel The Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931-1933, that foresaw a surprise Japanese attack against America — not at Pearl Harbor, but in the Philippines. In this fictional account, Japan goes to war against the United States because of America’s reaction to Japan’s ambitions in China and due to domestic problems in Japan. Japan’s attack was preceded by a “violent anti-American campaign” in the state-controlled press that noted America’s attempted interference in Japan’s internal affairs and U.S. immigration policies that discriminated against persons of Japanese descent. “Japan was bent,” Bywater wrote, “if not on provoking war, at least on subjecting the United States to a diplomatic humiliation that would not only reduce American prestige in the Far East to zero, but at the same time force that country to acknowledge … Japan’s complete ascendancy in China.”
The surprise Japanese attack destroys the U.S. Asiatic Squadron based in the Philippines, and Japanese forces invade and conquer the islands. Japan’s flag flies over Manila. Japanese ships lay mines around Hawaii. “Japan,” Bywater wrote, “had swept the American flag from the Western Pacific.” This all happens within a month. Next, Japanese submarines attack the U.S. Pacific Coast and Japanese aircraft strike targets in California.
Eventually, however, America’s economic might, war production, and series of victories on Pacific islands wear down Japan’s forces. Guam and the Philippines are retaken by U.S. forces. Tokyo is bombed. “Japan was brought to the verge of ruin,” Bywater wrote. And finally an armistice is signed.
Writing 16 years before the outbreak of war between the U.S. and Japan, Bywater got many things right. He foresaw Japan’s imperial ambitions in China. He envisioned a surprise Japanese attack on U.S. possessions. He recognized the difficulties of defending the Philippines and predicted that Japan would attack those islands and Guam. He accurately foresaw the course of the war — with Japan’s initial victories followed by America’s successful island campaign, bombing of Tokyo, and ultimate victory. Let us hope that the authors of Ghost Fleet and 2034 are not as prescient.