Clausewitz Revisited: Decoding the US-China Rivalry and Taiwan’s Fate

Brian Iselin
10 min readJun 3, 2024

During my first Masters, Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist whose seminal work “On War” communicated timeless wisdom on the nature of conflict and strategy, was one of my favourite dead strategists. Insightful. Clever. Timeless. But does he remain relevant? Short answer, absolutely.

Let’s apply his thinking to one of the most critical and potentially volatile dynamics in geopolitics today; the evolving relationship between the United States and China, particularly concerning Taiwan. To navigate this maelstrom, let me examine this dilemma with the profound insights of Clausewitz and his wisdom on the nature of conflict and strategy. Through the lens of Clausewitzian thought, we can better understand the strategic calculus of the US-China rivalry and the looming spectre of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

The Nature of Power and Conflict

Clausewitz’s assertion that “war is the continuation of politics by other means” remains a cornerstone of strategic thought. This principle underscores the idea that military conflict is fundamentally a tool to achieve political objectives. And wars only end through political cessation. For China, the question of Taiwan is not merely a territorial issue, and it is not one of nonchalantly taking its aircraft carriers out for a spin, but a matter of national sovereignty, historical legacy, and strategic positioning. Taiwan represents a symbol of China’s quest for reunification and national pride, intertwined with its broader ambition to assert itself as a dominant global power.

The United States, as the incumbent superpower, the Thucydidean Sparta in this deal, perceives China’s — read Athens’ — rise as the most direct challenge to its hegemony. The US aims to maintain its strategic dominance, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, which is crucial for its economic and security interests. This rivalry between an established power and a rising power creates a dynamic that Clausewitz would recognise as a classic example of strategic competition, driven by the interplay of ambition, fear, and the pursuit of national interests.

Strategic Objectives and the Primacy of Politics

Clausewitz emphasised the primacy of political objectives in shaping military strategy. In the case of China and Taiwan, Beijing’s strategic objectives are multidimensional. Firstly, achieving reunification with Taiwan would solidify the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) domestic legitimacy, bolstering its narrative of national rejuvenation, at a time when membership is falling, and its legitimacy is questioned. Secondly, controlling Taiwan would enhance China’s strategic position in the Asia-Pacific, providing a critical foothold in the first island chain and enabling greater power projection capabilities. Thirdly, Taiwan’s economic and technological resources, particularly its semiconductor industry, are of immense strategic value to China.

For the United States, its strategic objectives include maintaining the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, ensuring freedom of navigation in international waters, and upholding its commitments to regional allies and partners. Taiwan, in this context, is a crucial piece in the broader geopolitical puzzle. Its defence is seen as essential to preserving the credibility of US alliances and deterring Chinese aggression.

Clausewitz would analyse these objectives to understand the underlying motivations driving both nations. He would see China’s military build-up and assertive actions in the region as a calculated effort to alter the strategic balance, while the US military presence and alliances are designed to counterbalance China’s rise and preserve the existing order.

The Remarkable Trinity and its Implications

Clausewitz’s concept of the “remarkable trinity” involves the government, the military, and the people. This trinity operates dynamically in any conflict, shaping and being shaped by the nature of the war. In the context of a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, each element of this trinity plays a crucial role.

The Chinese government’s decision-making is influenced by its desire to maintain domestic stability and consolidate power. The CCP’s legitimacy is closely tied to its ability to deliver economic growth and national pride. At least on the former count, the CCP is in serious trouble, notwithstanding its recent efforts, including ultralong bond sale and de-dollarising, to breathe new life into the economy and keep the Party relevant. Reunifying Taiwan would be a significant victory for the CCP on the national pride side of the equation, reinforcing its narrative of restoring China’s historical greatness. But reunifying Taiwan and destroying Taiwan are two very different things that would play out very differently on the CCP. Taiwan’s destruction would be a serious outrage to many Chinese and would damage the CCP, probably permanently. So Zhongnanhai must also weigh the risks of domestic backlash if they go overboard, coupled with international backlash, political and trade isolation, economic sanctions, and the potential for prolonged conflict at enormous military and economic cost.

The US government, on the other hand, must navigate a complex political landscape where public opinion, congressional dynamics, and alliance commitments all play a role. The Biden administration, like its predecessors, has to balance the need to deter Chinese aggression with the risks of escalating tensions. Clausewitz would recognise the intricate calculations involved in such high-stakes decision-making, where political considerations are paramount. The US would face far few trade sanctions, far less vilification, and far less domestic backlash from defending Taiwan. There would be a “just war” dividend for the US that China would only get for reunifying Taiwan in the most harmless way.

The military dimension of the China-Taiwan scenario is fraught with challenges. Clausewitz emphasised the importance of understanding the enemy’s strengths and capabilities. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has undergone significant modernisation, enhancing its capabilities for amphibious operations, missile strikes, and cyber warfare. However, an invasion of Taiwan would still be an immensely complex and risky operation — amphibious invasion perhaps the single most difficult and costly military adventure — requiring overwhelming force (read more than 3:1, a fairly standard heuristic) and the ability to sustain operations across the Taiwan Strait. A massive military with significant first-strike capability would risk being the blunt instrument that the CCP needs to avoid using on Taiwan. As I Said, destroying Taiwan would undermine the party more than it will bolster it. Hawks in the military and government — such as Chinese Defence Minister Dong Jun — are not typical of where the less hawkish, and more worried-about-next-paycheck majority of Chinese are.

The US military, with its technological superiority and forward-deployed forces in the region, poses a formidable deterrent. Throw supportive allies, both regional and extra-regional, and the US deterrence is more than considerable. The potential for US and allied intervention adds a significant layer of complexity to China’s calculations. While China would love to be a regional, let’s say East Asian, hegemon, indeed it is now becoming encircled by countries that will not stand by while that happens. NATO’s expansion is because people want to join it. That is not so with China; no regional player (excluding the jackanape in Pyongyang) wants to join up with China. Clausewitz would argue that the military balance and the credibility of each side’s deterrence capabilities, of which the US’ are still far superior, are critical factors in shaping the strategic landscape.

Public opinion and national morale are essential components of Clausewitz’s trinity. In China, nationalism and the narrative of reunification drive public support for the government’s stance on Taiwan. However, as I said, that sentiment does not extend to the destruction of Taiwan. the human and economic costs of a military conflict would absolutely affect public sentiment in China. Managing public expectations and maintaining support for potentially prolonged military engagement would be a more-than significant, probably insurmountable, challenge for the CCP. Short of the US or Taiwan were to attack China, which provocation may turn Chinese public sentiment against the aggressor/s, public sentiment in China would not extend to a crushing military assault on Taiwan the likes of which US hawks are predicting and fearmongering.

In the United States, public opinion is shaped by a combination of strategic concerns, historical commitments, and media narratives. The American public’s willingness to support military action in defence of Taiwan depends on the perceived stakes and the effectiveness of political leadership in articulating the strategic rationale. While maintaining a stance of strategic ambiguity over Taiwan, there is little doubt that the US has actually boxed itself into a response in the case of aggression against Taiwan.

Escalation and the Fog of War

Clausewitz’s notion of the “fog of war” highlights the inherent uncertainty and unpredictability of military conflict. An invasion of Taiwan would involve significant uncertainties, including the potential for miscalculations, unintended escalations, the risk of protraction, and the reactions of other regional actors. The risk of escalation, particularly pulling in the United States and its allies, would be a central concern for both Chinese and American strategists.

Clausewitz would caution that the outcomes of military actions are never fully predictable. The complexity of modern warfare, with its technological advancements and rapid information flows, only amplifies this uncertainty. The potential for cyber warfare, information operations, and asymmetric tactics adds layers of complexity that both sides must navigate.

Deterrence and Balance of Power

Deterrence is a critical element in the strategic calculus of both China and the United States. Clausewitz would emphasise the importance of maintaining credible deterrence to prevent outright conflict. For China, demonstrating the capability and resolve to take Taiwan, if necessary, serves as a deterrent against Taiwanese moves toward formal independence. For the United States, maintaining a robust military presence and demonstrating the willingness to defend its allies are essential for deterring Chinese aggression. China’s military build-up, seen by China as increasing their deterrence stance, sparks a regional arms race, whereby the cost of deterrence just gets higher and higher. Building deterrence power is always self-perpetuating.

The balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region is a dynamic and evolving factor. Clausewitz would argue that shifts in this balance, driven by military modernisation, economic changes, and political developments, continually reshape the strategic environment. Both China and the United States must adapt their strategies to respond to these changes, ensuring that their deterrence remains credible and effective. This means arms race.

Diplomatic and Political Solutions

While Clausewitz is often associated with the study of war, he also acknowledged the importance of diplomacy and political solutions. He would likely advocate for robust diplomatic efforts to manage the US-China rivalry and the Taiwan issue, recognising that war is a last resort when political objectives cannot be achieved through other means. This is definitely where China needs to go. Beijing does not want to launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan; the risk of annihilation of the island is an existential concern for the CCP.

A massive military, led by hawks, is like releasing a hurricane from a bottle; a completely unknown, untested force with completely unknowable consequences.

Diplomatic engagement, confidence-building measures, and multilateral frameworks can help mitigate tensions and reduce the risk of conflict. Clausewitz would see value in exploring diplomatic avenues that address the core concerns of both sides, potentially leading to a stable and sustainable equilibrium. Of the two parties, although they are not doing this, the CCP should be prioritising this as the one with the most to lose from uncorking the bottle.

Protracted Competition and Adaptability

Clausewitz would certainly predict a protracted period of competition between the US and China, characterised by strategic manoeuvring, economic rivalry, and intermittent crises. This competition would be marked by ongoing efforts to shape the strategic environment, influence regional dynamics, and maintain or shift the balance of power.

Adaptability is crucial in such a prolonged strategic competition. Clausewitz would emphasise the need for both nations to remain flexible, adjusting their strategies in response to changing circumstances. Technological advancements, economic shifts, and political developments all require continuous reassessment and adaptation of strategic objectives and methods. Understanding the domestic mood in China — driven by dire economic concerns — is perhaps the best litmus for understanding the CCP’s resolve and intent.

The Future: Clausewitz’s Perspective

Predicting the future course of the US-China rivalry and the Taiwan issue through Clausewitz’s lens involves considering multiple factors:

  1. Strategic Calculus : Clausewitz would see China’s decision to invade Taiwan as contingent on a careful calculation of risks and rewards. If Beijing perceives that the strategic benefits outweigh the potential costs and risks, it may consider military action. However, the significant uncertainties and potential for prolonged conflict would weigh heavily on this decision.
  2. Deterrence Dynamics : The credibility of US deterrence, both in terms of military capabilities and political will, is crucial. Clausewitz would argue that a robust and credible deterrence posture can prevent conflict by raising the costs and uncertainties of military action for China. The innumerable costs of invading Taiwan are prohibitive for now. Peace demands those costs be kept prohibitive.
  3. Diplomatic Efforts : Clausewitz would advocate for sustained diplomatic engagement to manage the rivalry and address the underlying political issues. Effective diplomacy is inarguably the only way to reduce tensions, build confidence, and create pathways for peaceful resolution.
  4. Technological and Economic Factors : Technological advancements and economic interdependencies play a significant role in shaping the strategic environment. Clausewitz would recognise the importance of these factors in influencing both the military balance and the broader geopolitical dynamics. China is doing a swell job at isolating itself, and alienating every one of its neighbours; can you be hegemon in a region where nobody wants you? There have been a few such Empires over time, but they always fall, often from within. Otherwise, I feel fairly sure history says no, a desire to be a regional hegemon needs more willing neighbours willing to ketou.
  5. Adaptation and Resilience : Both China and the United States must remain adaptable and resilient in the face of a protracted strategic competition. Clausewitz would emphasise the importance of continuous reassessment and adaptation to respond effectively to evolving challenges and opportunities.

So, by looking at the US-China rivalry and the potential for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan through the lens of Carl von Clausewitz, we can think about the strategic dance as a tango comprising strategic objectives, political considerations, economic dimensions, and military capabilities. Clausewitz’s insights into the nature of war, the primacy of politics, and the dynamics of the remarkable trinity provide a profound framework for analysing this critical geopolitical issue. I think he would look at the Taiwan Strait and say nobody but the most foolhardy is launching anything anywhere anytime soon.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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Brian Iselin

Senior Research Fellow - Stockholm Taiwan Centre, Managing Director - Iselin Human Rights Ltd, Secretary General - slavefreetrade International, MAIPIO