‘A New Type of War of Unification’: Liu Mingfu on the American Civil War’s Relevance to Taiwan

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 14

The cover of Kenji Minemura’s translation of Liu Mingfu’s book, China’s “Strong Army” Dream in the New Era: Building a World-Class Military (Source: Amazon Japan)

Executive Summary:

  • A recent translation of a book by influential writer and retired PLA officer Liu Mingfu includes a previously censored chapter on a new approach to reunification with Taiwan, indicating that a wider range of approaches to the “Taiwan question” are in play than many outside the PRC assume.
  • The book uses the American Civil War as a model of a successful war of reunification that decisively quashed divisive forces and safeguarded national unity.
  • Liu emphasizes the Union’s ability to influence international public opinion in ways that limited support to the Confederacy and precluded foreign intervention.
  • Liu argues that the American model should be transcended in the Taiwan context by reducing casualties and national spending, aiming instead for an “intelligent war,” a “civilized war,” and a “zero-casualty war,” though he does not elaborate on what these would mean, limiting their practical utility.

In September 2023, the Japanese translation of China’s “Strong Army” Dream in the New Era: Building a World-Class Military by Liu Mingfu (刘明福) was released. [1] Originally published by the Central Party School, the book carries an official endorsement and likely reflects the latest ideology, policies, and strategic thinking of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The translator of the Japanese edition, Kenji Minemura (峯村健司), managed to acquire the complete manuscript, including sections that were censored in the original version published in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2020. Liu, a senior colonel and professor at Beijing’s National Defense University, wrote the book as a sequel to his 2010 work The China Dream: The Great Power Thinking and Strategic Positioning of China in the Post-American Age, which attracted considerable attention in PRC and Western media when it came out (China Brief, April 1, 2010). [2]

Liu remains important within the Party. Indeed, the recent expulsion of former PRC Defense Minister General Li Shangfu (李尚福) and his predecessor Wei Fenghe (魏凤和) from the CCP as part of an ongoing anticorruption campaign within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) owes something to Liu (Gov.cn, June 27). Liu was a key player in the anticorruption campaign that took place during Xi Jinping’s first term, both in terms of providing some of the intellectual justifications for it and as an advisor to its flagbearer, General Liu Yuan (刘源) (CLM, April 30, 2012). [3] Liu Yuan, through whom Liu Mingfu gained Xi’s trust, retired in 2015. But Minemura believes that the connection between Xi and Liu Mingfu remains strong (Bunshun, October 12, 2023). As such, understanding Liu’s recent book provides a window into the discourse environment in which Xi operates.

Liu’s new book offers a vision for transforming the PLA into a world-class military. It focuses on a force development concept that demonstrates the desire of the PRC leadership to become one of the world’s leading military powers by mid-century. [4] In particular, the unredacted edition contains insights into tactical approaches toward Taiwan, including a discussion of what Liu terms a “new type of war of unification (新型统一战争).” These sections were omitted from the original publication, likely due to touching on sensitive aspects of security strategy.

The China Dream is the Unification of Taiwan

Liu’s title borrows from a concept that Xi Jinping first referred to on November 29, 2012, shortly after he was anointed General Secretary of the CCP—the “China Dream.” That day, Xi brought the entire Politburo Standing Committee to the National Museum of China to visit an exhibition titled “The Road of Rejuvenation (复兴之路)” (Gov.cn, November 29, 2012). There, Xi articulated the “China Dream” as “the greatest dream for the modern era (近代以来最伟大的梦想)” aimed at “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation (中华民族伟大复兴).”

In a speech delivered on January 2, 2019, during the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Taiwan Compatriots (告台湾同胞书),” [5] Xi emphasized that the China Dream is the “common dream of compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait (中国梦是两岸同胞共同的梦)” and declared that “the motherland must and will be reunified (祖国必须统一,也必然统一)” (FMPRC, January 2, 2019). This sentiment was reaffirmed in an August 2022 white paper on “The Taiwan Question and the Cause of China’s Unification in the New Era (台湾问题与新时代中国统一事业)” that stated, “resolving the Taiwan issue and achieving the complete reunification of the motherland represents the collective will of all Chinese people, and is a necessary condition for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation (解决台湾问题、实现祖国完全统一,是全体中华儿女的共同愿望,是实现中华民族伟大复兴的必然要求)” (Gov.cn, August 10, 2022; see also China Brief, September 20, 2022). These statements highlight the central position that unification holds in the Party’s conception of national rejuvenation, and how integral Taiwan is to Xi Jinping achieving his aims.

The Civil War as ‘The War of Unification of the United States’

In the previously censored chapter from China’s “Strong Army” Dream in the New Era, Liu analogizes reunification with Taiwan to the American Civil War, positing that it serves as a model for the PRC. Liu argues that the primary aim of the American Civil War was to maintain national cohesion and counteract secession, branding it as “The War of American Unification (美国统一战争)” (p 73). He emphasizes that the American Civil War decisively quashed divisive forces and safeguarded national unity, which is precisely what the PRC hopes to achieve with Taiwan. Liu also meticulously details how the Union’s operations and its success in swaying international public opinion contributed to its victory. Liu applies these historical insights to propose strategies for Taiwan. His interpretation of the American Civil War diverges from prevailing analyses in the United States but can be read as a provocative framework for understanding the potential complexities of Taiwan’s future status.

Liu identifies four distinct characteristics of the American Civil War: uncertain victory, minimal external interference, protracted conflict, and extensive damage. Following the formation of the Confederate States of America in February 1861 and the secession of a number of states, the Union was not initially poised for a clear victory—the Confederacy represented a quarter of the nation’s territory and a third of its population. Moreover, the Union’s first military engagement, the Battle of Bull Run, ended in defeat. Liu commends Abraham Lincoln and other Union leaders for their audacity and unwavering commitment to reunification. He also highlights European attempts to influence and divide the United States, particularly by Britain and France, who saw an opportunity to contain American expansionism. Britain’s declaration of neutrality on May 13, 1861, and its recognition of the Confederacy as a belligerent power marked a critical step toward potentially recognizing it as an independent state. France and Spain followed suit, threatening further colonial ambitions in the Americas. This external interference, Liu argues, compounded the internal challenges faced by the United States, transforming the American Civil War into a grueling war of attrition that lasted four years. The Union ultimately prevailed in the face of enormous setbacks, but at immense human cost—over 624,000 American lives were lost, more than in two world wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined (p. 78).

Liu points to two pivotal factors that tipped the scales in favor of the Union, namely, the abolition of slavery and the prevention of British interference in the conflict. According to Liu, the United States emerged from the war with a strengthened national identity, paving the way for its rise to become a global hegemon. In the post-Civil War era, the abolition of slavery and territorial expansion catalyzed the transformation of the country from a primarily agrarian economy to an industrial powerhouse centered around major steel corporations and robust capitalist growth. Liu’s narrative underscores the necessity of internal unity and the management of external threats to achieve national consolidation.

Liu Mingfu’s interpretation of the American Civil War as a model for Taiwan’s reunification will raise eyebrows for many outside the PRC. More typical analogies include the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, or perhaps the Normandy landings by the Allied forces in June 1944. Liu’s comparison, while novel, does not fully resonate with contemporary realities—the geopolitical, cultural, military, and international legal landscape has undergone significant transformation since the middle of the 19th century. His characterization of the American Civil War as a unification effort also oversimplifies the complex causes of the war, which include deep economic, social, and ethical divisions, particularly over slavery. His reductionist view may reflect a selective interpretation of history, tailored to support a specific narrative that justifies forceful reunification with Taiwan, but such selectivity undermines his argument, as it leads to him disregarding international norms that prioritize self-determination and peaceful resolution of disputes.

Recognition of the Confederacy as a belligerent by Britain and France without establishing formal diplomatic ties illustrates the delicate balance of international diplomacy during conflict. Liu suggests that similar diplomatic strategies could prevent Western interference in a potential Taiwan conflict. In the American Civil War, while Britain and France initially provided de facto support to the Confederacy, such support eventually diminished due to the international acceptance of the Union’s cause of emancipation. Similarly, it is likely that the PRC would appeal to a global audience, especially countries in the Global South, arguing that external interference violates the international norms of territorial integrity and the principle of non-interference—convenient concepts that many authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian states leverage to refuse external pressure or push back against international opprobrium.

A New Type of War of Reunification With Taiwan

For Liu Mingfu, a potential war of reunification involves denying Taiwan independence movements and external interference, particularly from the United States, Japan, and other states (p.98). It is also characterized by the dual goals of “anti-separation (反分裂)” and “anti-interference (反干涉)” (p 83). A decisive victory in this conflict would significantly impact the PRC’s national destiny, but it would also affect regional power dynamics and have implications for the structure of the international system.

To achieve a decisive victory in the “new type of war of reunification,” Liu argues that the PRC needs to transcend the old (American) model in three respects. First, the PRC must avoid extensive casualties and national spending. Instead of brutal armed conflict, the PRC and the PLA should strive for an “intelligent war (智慧战争),” a “civilized war (文明战争),” and a “zero-casualty war (零伤亡战争),” something that is unparalleled in human history (p 100).

Second, the PRC should redefine “landing operations.” Traditional landing operations are outdated, and with their high costs and heavy casualties would conflict with Liu’s first criterion for a new approach. The new strategy should instead pursue innovative methods that minimize loss of life and maximize strategic effectiveness. Liu does not articulate how exactly the PLA could achieve these goals. He merely argues for an approach that would discourage the enemy’s will to fight by fighting “skillfully” and “with wisdom” to “crush the enemy’s hearts and minds,” and characterizes its effects as including no casualties among personnel, no destruction of property, and no damage to society. Yet as the current conflict in Gaza illustrates, the reality of contemporary warfare in densely populated areas suggests that Taiwan would suffer immense civilian harm and would rapidly deteriorate into an international humanitarian crisis.

Third, the PLA must innovate at the tactical level. A paradigm shift has occurred over seven decades of de facto separation, with both sides of the Taiwan Strait now bracing for a decisive “landing-counter-landing (“登陆”与“反登陆”)” battle. Taiwan’s military has moved beyond its reliance on traditional anti-landing defenses, while the PLA has shed the conventional constraints of such tactics. Liu argues that this strategic evolution is crucial for securing a victory with “zero casualties” and complete national unity, suggesting that PLA soldiers may choose not to land on Taiwan Island at the initial stage of a war, but a post-victory occupation and administration would be necessary to solidify control.

Liu’s framework reimagines what a PRC approach to Taiwan’s reunification could entail. He emphasizes that contemporary warfare requires minimal casualties and strategic sophistication and challenges traditional military doctrines, suggesting a shift toward methods of conflict resolution that could be more politically palatable for the rest of the world. However, executing such a strategy requires careful consideration of what international reactions to an invasion might be, the legal implications of non-conventional warfare, and the humanitarian impact on Taiwan’s populace. While it is convenient for the PRC to claim that it acts within the established principles of international law and human rights, Liu does not provide his views on these considerations.

Liu is forced to admit that his new type of operation to achieve unification “at any cost (不惜一切代价)” is not a war to “subdue the enemy without a fight”—fundamentally, it is still a military operation (p.218). Engaging in military aggression could potentially isolate the PRC or at least damage its reputation on the global stage. A major weakness of Liu’s work is his silence on how such an operation could be negatively received. He does not consider regional security dynamics, including the muti-layered security architectures that exist, such as ASEAN, the Quad, AUKUS, and other minilateral organizations. Beyond the strengthening of military alliances, he also does not lay out how more neutral states might oppose the PRC’s actions in the diplomatic realm. Just as a number of states have recently recognize a Palestinian state at the United Nations, similar motions could be put forth in support of Taiwan, for instance (UN Press, June 26). Russia’s experiences in the last two years, including extensive economic and financial sanctions and repeated condemnation by the G7 or via resolutions at the UN General Assembly, suggest that international efforts may not significantly alter an aggressor’s will to fight, though it is unclear that the PRC is willing to undergo a loss of face to the extent that Putin has been. Liu’s book was published well before these two recent conflicts broke out, and it is not known what impact they may have had on his thinking. It is clear, however, that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been studied in depth within the PRC (China Brief, May 24).


Liu’s analysis provides a unique perspective on the discourse around unification within the CCP. He uses an oversimplified model of contemporary international relations and military ethics, however, and his analogy with the American Civil War is not persuasive to those knowledgeable about its causes, conduct, and consequences. If Liu Mingfu still retains the same level of influence as he clearly used to enjoy under Xi, it is possible that the PRC will adopt aspects of his proposed strategy and learn from the American example when deploying narratives to justify an aggressive attempt at reunification against Taiwan.

Liu’s limited elaboration on how to operationalize his strategy makes it of little practical value for the PLA in the short-term. Liu’s ideas nevertheless suggest that a wider range of approaches to the “Taiwan question” are in play than many in policy circles assume.


[1] 刘明福Liu Mingfu, “Xin Shidai Zhongguo Qiangjun Meng: Jianshe Shijie Yiliu Jundui” 新时代中国强军梦:建设世界一流军队 [The Dream of China’s Strong Army in the New Era: Building a World-Class Army]. Zhonggong Zhongyang Dangxiao Chubanshe中共中央党校出版社 (2020); Liu Mingfu劉明福. China’s Dream of Becoming a “Military strong nation” 中国「軍事強国」への夢. Kenji Minemura 峯村健司.Bungeishunjū文藝春秋, 2023. Unless otherwise noted, Liu’s views are taken from Chapter 5 “From Opposition to Taiwan’s Independence to the Complete Reunification of the Motherland” (pp. 71–108).

[2] 刘明福Liu Mingfu, “Zhongguo Meng: Hou Meiguo Shidai de DaGuo Siwei yu Zhanlüe Dingwei” 中国梦:后美国时代的大国思维与战略定位 [ The China Dream: The Great Power Thinking and Strategic Positioning of China in the Post-American Age]. Zhongguo Youyi Chuban Gongsi 中国友谊出版公司 (2010). Liu was also a coauthor of a book that was the first to use the formulation “Xi Jinping Thought.” (see Tsang, Steve; Cheung, Olivia. The Political Thought of Xi Jinping. Oxford University Press, 2024, p.25.

[3] Minemura confirmed this point during his interviews with Liu Mingfu.

[4] Fravel, M. T. (2020). China’s “World-Class Military” Ambitions: Origins and Implications. The Washington Quarterly, 43(1), 85–99. https://doi.org/10.1080/0163660X.2020.1735850

[5] The “Message to Taiwan Compatriots” was released on January 1, 1979, during the early years of the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. It articulated a desired policy of terminating cross-Strait military confrontation calling for peaceful reunification. In the decades since, direct transportation, postal services, and business ties have allowed for substantial engagement between both sides of the Strait.