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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

How Does China Deter America in the Taiwan Strait?

Chinese leaders take delight in the results of wargames such as the one conducted recently at CSIS, which showed that America could win in the Taiwan Strait but only at a terrible cost.

Aircraft Carrier
ARABIAN SEA (May 24, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) transits the Arabian Sea. Abraham Lincoln is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Amanda L. Kilpatrick/Released)

Editor’s Note: These remarks were delivered at the U.S. Naval War College Foundation Newport Summer Symposium, panel on Conventional Deterrence, August 19, 2022.

The topic of this panel is conventional deterrence vis-à-vis China, so I thought it would be fun and maybe even enlightening to try some role reversal and consider how China thinks about deterring America through conventional means. We sometimes seem to assume that we can deter an antagonist for all time if we make its leadership a believer in our power and resolve. And so we might, for awhile. But dynamism pervades strategic competition. Contenders grapple constantly for strategic advantage, trying to one-up each other.

The red team tries to deter us even as we try to deter the red team. So it’s worth looking at deterrence through their eyes. If I’m Xi Jinping & Co., how do I deter U.S. intervention in the Taiwan Strait, the hotspot that dominates the news of late?

Well, if I were Xi, I would crack open my volume of Clausewitz. While the Prussian grandmaster was writing about open war, he also hands us tools for thinking about peacetime deterrence. The Chinese Communist Party leadership subscribes to his logic but carries it to the nth degree. For example, founding chairman Mao Zedong repurposed the Clausewitzian definition of war as a continuation of political intercourse carried out with the addition of violent means. Mao proclaimed that war is politics with bloodshed while politics is war without bloodshed.

This all-consuming, bloody-minded outlook possesses party leaders to the present day. It manifests itself in China’s bullying “wolf warrior” diplomacy, in its doctrine of “three warfares” to shape the peacetime strategic environment, in its predatory lending, and in everything else China does to bolster its standing in Asia and the world.

We and our allies and friends dream of perpetual peace; for China war is perpetual, regardless of whether contenders are slinging gunfire or missiles at one another or not. This is what we’re up against.

So what does Clausewitz tell us about deterrence? Well, he tells us there are three ways to win a strategic competition. The victor can cast down its opponent and dictate terms, in the ordinary sense of winning through battlefield triumph. The other two ways apply to peacetime competition as well. The victor can put its opponent in a position where it cannot win should the competition go hot. Or it can put its opponent in a position where it either can’t afford to win or doesn’t care about its political aims enough to pay the price victory would cost.

A rational opponent stands down if it finds itself in a hopeless or unaffordable predicament. Few competitors embark on a forlorn hope. And that’s what China is banking on.

So how do you convince an adversary to stand down, letting you get your way without fighting? For Clausewitz, the pinnacle of statecraft is to compete rationally in an environment inimical to rationality. By that, he means you should always keep what he calls the “value of the political object” uppermost in mind. The political object is your goal, and the value of the object is how much you want that goal. How much you want something governs how much you’re prepared to pay for it. It’s the same principle as when you go shopping.

In Clausewitz’s lingo, the value of the object dictates the “magnitude” and “duration” of the effort you make to obtain it. Magnitude is the rate at which a competitor spends resources such as lives, treasure, and military hardware; duration is how long it keeps on spending. Just as in elementary physics, multiplying the rate by the time gives you the total amount of something. In this case, it reveals the price of your political goal.

Think of it as purchasing your goal on an installment plan.

But there’s a corollary to this Clausewitzian function: he counsels competitors not to overspend on their goals. In fact, he warns them to get out of an enterprise if they find that the goal is no longer worth what it will cost them. The price may have gone up in terms of magnitude, duration, or both. Or it could be that the leadership has stopped caring about its political goal enough to pay the price, or has more pressing priorities to tend to.

US Navy

GULF OF ADEN (May 17, 2016) Members of the visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) alongside guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez (DDG 66). Gonzalez is currently operating with the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations.

Here’s the perverse thing: the price is not fixed. Your opponent can manipulate your rational calculus of statecraft and war. Think about how Beijing can play with Washington’s calculations vis-à-vis Taiwan. It can try to drive down the value of Taiwan’s de facto independence from the United States or discredit that goal altogether by denying the government in Taipei any legitimacy. The leadership can also try to deflate the value of Taiwan, a small island, relative to other U.S. priorities such as amiable relations with Taiwan’s giant neighbor, China.

Push this narrative persuasively and you discourage the American government, society, and military from paying much to defend Taiwan—maybe nothing at all. And China will prevail.

And then there’s the other side of Clausewitz’s ledger: cost. China can try to convince the United States it can’t win in the strait, or can’t win at an acceptable cost. This is where military deterrence comes in, in the form of People’s Liberation Army anti-access and area-denial weaponry and doctrine. The PLA has littered Chinese coastlines with shore-based armaments that can strike out to sea in concert with the PLA Navy fleet in an effort to prevent U.S. naval and air forces from reaching the battleground before it’s too late to rescue Taiwan, and to do our joint forces grave harm should we try.

If Beijing convinces U.S. political and military leaders that our forces can’t prevail in the strait, Washington may forego the attempt. China will have deterred us. Or if Beijing convinces Washington that the grand-strategic cost is too steep, our leadership may be deterred even if victory in the strait is attainable.

Think about it. If the United States’ standing in the world depends on command of the maritime commons, as it does, and if our sea services underwrite command of the commons, as they do, then China could do fatal damage to our superpower standing, even in a losing effort. Our leadership might balk at coming to Taiwan’s aid—even if it considered the island a worthy cause—to preserve our status.

Self-interest would triumph.

China Hypersonic Missiles

We would be deterred—and Clausewitzian logic would have helped China carry the day. That’s why Chinese leaders no doubt take delight in the results of wargames such as the one conducted recently at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which showed that we might win in the Taiwan Strait but only at a frightful cost. Under his breath, Xi can ask President Biden whether a small parcel of real estate like Taiwan is worth such extravagant risk and cost. Xi hopes the answer is No. If it is, he will have deterred us from stepping in.

Puzzling out how to escape this Clausewitzian logic and turn it to our own advantage is the challenge that brings this panel and this symposium together.

Expert Biography: A 1945 Contributing Editor writing in his own capacity, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010, and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes also blogs at the Naval Diplomat

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. pagar

    August 19, 2022 at 7:38 pm

    Easy, as easy as drinkin’ a micro mini-glass of water.

    First, make sure ya got a humongously huge arsenal of rockets like df-5 and the like. Heh, heh. So, start erecting factories producing all their individual parts, in big villages, small towns, remote moutain areas, in far off siberia, and even across that yalu river.

    Second, develop a BIG laser cannon, like the peresvet or kalina, able to vaporise anything coming within 100 km.

    Third, start stocking up on neutron warheads, one pop will make all heads turn, even those stiffened by dementia or bse or covidous cancer.

    But, but, but, but with xi jinping in charge, china can’t do all those things cuz xi is just more stupid and dumb than 80-yr-old biden.

    Thus to deter USA, china first must give xi a big stupendous kick in the pants.

  2. Chip Henry

    August 19, 2022 at 8:13 pm

    If we allowed a loss of Taiwan to China, we forfeit our status throughout the world once and forever. Freedoms the world over would begin to falter. The result is unthinkable. That is not an option. Taiwan is the truest government of the Chinese people. It’s the elected leader of the free nation of Taiwan. China never was.

  3. Brett

    August 20, 2022 at 12:24 am

    This site is def owned by China. The author should be ashamed of himself and register as a foreign agent. No mention of submarine warfare in the article lol.

  4. David Chang

    August 20, 2022 at 1:05 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Yes, Democratic Party has destroyed the entire defense program,
    but how Republican Party make defense program again?

    They make socialism war with Communist Party in 20th century, and U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are in danger now.

    I hope all people will never believe atheism.

    I hope all people trust God, obey Ten Commandments, and stop socialism war.

    one America under God.
    one China under God.

    God bless America and China.

  5. cobo

    August 20, 2022 at 2:27 pm

    Clausewitz was a military genius, as was Sun Tzu. However, the rationale of these men’s thinking cannot be separated from the realities of war in their times. The war of today is the son of the Second World War, that means Total War. Who cares about Taiwan, the island.. if China defies the USA and any one of its allies, China is engaged and destroyed – however far they want to take that.

  6. Rich

    August 20, 2022 at 2:29 pm

    Outside of some overt hostile action by Taiwan or the US, China will not initiate armed conflict. Their economy would be grievously harmed by such an action. They immediately would forfeit $1.1 trillion in US debt which would be frozen at best or unilaterally abrogated at worst. Add the loss of another near half a trillion in exports annually. China has the time and patience to absorb Taiwan in the same fashion as Hong Kong. Initially as a two system state and years later a full assimilation. All this conjecture and beating of war drums is just click bait at this point. Just like I commented on Pelosi’s visit, which was hyped to the max; besides some verbal jousting, no one cared.

  7. GhostTomahawk

    August 21, 2022 at 1:47 pm

    The issue is American politics is owned by corporations that are tied to China. If our 2 party system doesn’t sell us all out for profit China wouldn’t be an issue.

    Stomping them out is still easy. Embargo. Then watch that country flail about until they come to the table with hat on hand.

  8. Bill Hocter

    August 21, 2022 at 3:53 pm

    If Peter Zeihan is correct, China is doomed due to its demographic crisis nor can Russian oil compensate for loss of Mideast crude when our Navy cuts off the supply. Whatever advantages China may have near its border rapidly dissipate with distance. We’ll strangle China if it attacks Taiwan and that will be the end.

  9. Sun Yat-Sen

    August 22, 2022 at 8:57 am

    Let it be known that if China attacks Taiwan, the allies will open up a second front by decapitating the leadership of North Korea. The spectre of millions of starving refugees, and the military effort needed to close that border, will give them pause.

    Has no expert thought of this yet?

  10. Matt Musson

    August 22, 2022 at 2:57 pm

    Only an idiot in Charge of the American fleet would fight in the straits. He would shutdown energy and food maritime imports a thousand miles away and watch China collapse.

    In 3 months the cars would quit running. In 6 months the lights would go out. In a year you would have at least 300,000,000 dead Chinese.

  11. omega 1

    August 24, 2022 at 12:06 pm

    American aren’t know to be smart, you can see it in their fabulous comment

  12. afhack62

    August 24, 2022 at 3:49 pm

    Getting caught up in a homicidal dictatorship’s collective logic is a fallacy. But is the leadership of the CCP crazy, or does it want others to believe it is? Crazies start large wars for no objectively sound reason. A war for Taiwan would wreck China worse than Mao or the Japanese. Trade relations with the US and much of the world would be severed. Even if the PLA somehow won, it can’t be overstressed how much of a catastrophe a war would be for China.

  13. JMIII

    August 24, 2022 at 11:20 pm

    If the US is unwilling to get very bloody in defense of Taiwan, our credibility as a deterrent anywhere in Asia is shot. Will we get dirty for Japan, Korea, Guam, Australia? If we can get the forces in place to defend Taiwan, lets save 750 billion a year and just disband most of the DoD. Just keep a doomsday force of ICBMs and a warning system and threaten to nuke the whole world if anyone attacks us.
    If we want to be a player in the Pacific, it is going to be costly in treasure and possibly in blood. That is a fact. We need to decide if we are up to it or ready to roll over and play dead.

  14. Cerberus

    September 6, 2022 at 11:06 pm

    Two words end all discussion. ” Malacca Straits”. If China goes to war, India and the US close the Malacca Straits. The CCP destroys itself in 30 – 60 days.

  15. John Smith

    September 16, 2022 at 3:21 pm

    They don’t “deter” us at all. It’s international waters and the US Navy will continue to conduct operations there no matter how much the whiny chinese scream “YOU LEAVE NOW! YOU GO! THIS IS CHINA’S TERRITORY!” Umm, no it’s not you little fire ants! Keep screaming at the sky, we’ll keep conducting business as usual.

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