The Origins of Chinese Strategic Thinking

For the past three millennia, the Chinese have looked inward, presumed and cherished their moral superiority, and disdained but feared outside marauders and invaders. Here, of course, one has to distinguish ethnic Han emperors from the Khitan, Mongol, and Manchu rulers who imposed their dominion on the Middle Kingdom for many centuries. Yet even non-Han emperors embraced the Middle Kingdom’s security assumptions and fear of collapse wrought by “inside disorder and outside calamity.” They saw no need to conquer “barbarian” territories beyond the empire but only to manage nearby neighbors as subservient vassals against more powerful, distant foes. Except when directly menaced by non-Han “barbarians,” Chinese rulers regarded these neighbors as a part of the nation’s security belt. In exchange for exacting loyalty and tribute from vassal states, the emperors pledged to protect them. Over many centuries, Chinese emperors typically regarded the use of force as the last resort.

At the strategic level, the dominant Chinese philosophy created a culture characterized by “strong secularism, weak religiousness,” “strong inclusiveness, weak exclusiveness,” and “strong conservativeness, weak aggressiveness.” These features wax and wane in a twentieth-century China wracked by war, revolution, and globalization, but the Chinese now appear to believe they are in the ascendancy and in the recent past have given primacy to diplomacy in resolving disputes. In today’s China, leaders draw on the traditional code of conduct that “peace claims precedence” (he wei gui). From Mao to Deng, Jiang Zemin, and now Hu Jintao, he wei gui is invoked to justify diplomatic negotiations and the avoidance of war. In the tradition, peace and stability ensured progress and heaven’s blessing, while war could unleash decades of strife and usher in centuries of foreign rule. That tradition finds an echo in modern Beijing’s political and military councils, and we shall encounter it again at the end of our inquiry.

The dangers of war and the opportunities wrought by enduring tranquility required skilled statesmen and prudent policies, and the Chinese held that the writings of ancient, revered sages were must-read texts for all aspiring leaders and youthful cadets in training. Those steeped in the wisdom of treasured ancestors would be best equipped to guide the ship of state away from impending disasters and toward a common ideal.5 Whether one speaks of the Mandate of Heaven or the authority of Party cadres, the subject always begins with learning from the past and heeding its supposed lessons.

For those charged with guarding the nation against foreign incursions and internal strife, the place to begin was Sun Tzu, the Middle Kingdom’s renowned military strategist. His Art of War, written about 500 B.C., during the Spring and Autumn years of the Zhou dynasty, summarizes the classical notion that the best prepared for war either will win without fighting or will fight and win. War must be studied. Its basic rules and principles are universal and, taken together, are an art that can and must be learned. Sun Tzu urges leaders to think boldly but to act with extreme caution because war is “a matter of life and death, a road to safety or ruin.” As Confucius later declared, “The cautious seldom err.”

In essence, the art of war is a battle of wits, and those who master the art have the best hope of winning without fighting. That mind-against-mind struggle is characterized by brilliant stratagems, active diplomacy and deception, and judicious intimidation. Yet, armed struggle sometimes cannot be prevented, and Sun Tzu’s guidance for generations of generals stipulated the priorities for achieving victory or avoiding defeat when war occurs: “What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy. Next best is to disrupt his alliances by diplomacy. The next best is to attack his army. And the worst policy is to attack cities. . . . Those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle. . . . Therefore, I say: Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated.”

The art of war blends the skills of statesmanship and generalship, though Sun Tzu warned, “He whose generals are able and not interfered with by the sovereign will be victorious.” Historians also record stories of the ruthless side of Sun Tzu that transcend this warning. One story illustrates his fierce insistence on submission to command. When challenged by the king of the state of Wu to demonstrate his skills by drilling the palace concubines, Sun Tzu divided the women into two groups and explained his demand for absolute obedience and the penalties for failure. When his new recruits merely giggled and ignored him, Sun Tzu selected the king’s two favorites and had them beheaded. The giggling ended. “In the tumult and uproar, the battle seems chaotic, but there must be no disorder in one’s own troops,” Sun Tzu wrote. From empire to revolution to the Korean War, Chinese soldiers have fought in the certain knowledge that iron obedience is their only option.

Sun Tzu’s dictums are echoed in the texts of Confucius. Wise leaders, Confucius held, must constantly reflect on war and prepare for it. The most consequential national security decision comes when selecting a military commander. A nation’s leader must pick as his generals or members of his national security team, as Washington would put it, those who understand the right mix of political and military preparations for war, approach the coming battles prudently, and act with caution. Overconfident generals or ineffectual security advisors can bring ruin to the strongest state. For Confucius, a qualified commander “must be afraid of the assignment he is going to undertake” and must be able to win by prudently planned strategies that outmaneuver and outthink an adversary.

Chinese traditionally deemed the symbols of force—swords, guns, trophies, and war medals—inauspicious. A Chinese maxim says, “Those good at war do not speak about war” (shan zhan zhe bu yan zhan). For generations, the best generals shunned boasting about their military skills and did their utmost to avoid an armed struggle. Should war break out, they would pursue and bring victory because they had so diligently made ready for it politically, psychologically, and militarily. In modern times, they typically denigrated the West’s “stress on military force” (shangwu) and adopted a “force avoidance” (rouwu or “soft military”) or low-posture stance. Veiled threats and brief-strike military “lessons” reflect this classical legacy in modern-day China. The culture disparaged the race to war and lauded its avoidance as marks of wisdom and moral strength.

The Contrast of American and Chinese Military Philosophies

Chinese strategists draw on these classical perspectives to study and assess potential adversaries, extrapolating military philosophies from their conduct on the battlefield. The didactic process of comparison and assessment of perceived differences has helped chart the equation of liabilities and assets underlying each side’s doctrines and set the stage for pitting strategy against strategy. This constitutes an exercise in the great tradition of Sun Tzu and a prelude to directing the complex process from national command decision to battlefield tactics.

Lodged in military academies and command-and-staff colleges, these comparative studies start with the basics, sometimes exhibiting considerable insight and often simplistic and biased distillations. They begin with assertions about concepts of basic human nature, and though they speak somewhat grandly of the “West,” they most often mean the United States or their characterization of its beliefs and biases. For the West, so these uniformed academics say, human nature is deemed to be evil, causing its citizens to exaggerate the importance of the law and to rely on courts for punishments and redress of wrongs to individuals. Chinese in the mainstream Confucian tradition, by contrast, hold that human nature is good or perhaps just neutral and can profit from education and the collective wisdom of the past. For Chinese, court-imposed enforcement, except to protect the state, is a last resort or a foreign artifact to be scorned. Translated to the level of strategic culture, Western strategists rely on power politics, stress individual as opposed to social misbehavior, and threaten forceful retaliation to back up negotiating demands. Chinese, generally speaking, prefer recurring rounds of diplomacy, insist on consensus building especially on matters of general principle, and consider harmony reached through negotiations and compromise to be the epitome of diplomatic skill.

This presumed or alleged contrast in worldviews applies to the exercise of military power as a means to accomplish political and economic aims. Compared to leaders in the West, the Chinese profess to place a higher strategic, even moral value on tranquility and peace, a condition long absent in their own modern history. This difference, however, could help explain why the Chinese often yield to pressures from the outside world, especially in the early stages of a crisis, and only suddenly and unexpectedly resort to force as a crisis unfolds and a head-on conflict appears inevitable. According to Chinese military scholars, Westerners often prematurely terminate talks in favor of military action and, comparatively speaking, more often refuse to patiently explore promising areas of potential agreement.

Holding the view that “offense is the best defense,” Westerners, so the Chinese argument goes, too readily have adopted an aggressive stance in order to seize the initiative, while Chinese traditionally “forsake offensive actions in favor of defensive postures” (fei gong), an approach underlying one of their basic strategic doctrines, “active defense” (jiji fangyu). An oft-used Chinese character for “force” (wu) reflects the culture’s ambivalence toward its use: the defining component or “radical” part of the character is zhi, meaning “stop,” while the second component, ge, is the name for an ancient dagger-axe. Such contradictions flourish in the Chinese language and speak in subtle ways to what is sometimes interpreted as “inscrutable” Chinese behavior. As this study proceeds, however, we shall encounter signs of that behavior changing under the demands of military modernization and the complexities of the Taiwan and American challenges.

In the language of the war room, the Chinese stress intentions, while Westerners focus on capabilities. Sometimes this Chinese emphasis is phrased as a strategy of looking for an adversary’s weaknesses as opposed to the West’s fixation on an adversary’s strengths.

In recent decades, Westerners trumpet their prowess in science and technology—their hardware—though any disparities in this respect would seem to be rapidly eroding as the Chinese scramble to achieve scientific and technological excellence and seem to rely less on the wisdom of the ages. Still the distinction between a “hardware” orientation and one proclaiming the virtues of the intellect or “software” does reflect variations in national culture, not just in the stage of development. The tradition of Chinese intellectuals to “attach importance to self-cultivation but neglect technology” (zhong dao qing qi) may be waning, but the signs of its influence are far from disappearing.

Indeed, zhong dao qing qi figures in many current internal critiques of Chinese military thinking. Military leaders and planners tend to criticize the influence of the concept for their failures to forge the People’s Liberation Army into a more capable fighting force and for the persistence of a bias that inhibits an uninterrupted concentration on advances in technology. Although technological inferiority purportedly causes PLA planners to adopt more creative strategies than their adversaries, that inferiority also reduces strategic options and magnifies the importance of strategic failures.

Finally, the two cultures face in unlike directions. China looks inward, exhibiting a certain smugness, while the West looks outward and seems restless to expand and control. It would be hard to find an American whom the Chinese have not called impatient or worse. In strategic terms, this also reflects a land-sea dichotomy, at least in modern times. For generations, Western strategists called for dominance of the seas and more recently of the air and outer space. Chinese strategists from Sun Tzu to Beijing’s generals, by contrast, have been guardians of the land. They have paid closer attention to domestic political challenges than to international crises. Foreign conflicts and crises seldom take precedence over internal stability and the political power of the established rulers.

China’s sea, air, and strategic missile units belong to the People’s Liberation Army and have never achieved genuine equality with their brothers and sisters in the ground forces. Even in the age of long-range aircraft and missiles, China’s large landmass is still thought to provide a strategic advantage even though the PLA abandoned the doctrine of “luring an enemy in deep” in the 1980s. China is essentially a continental economy, its soldiers mostly hail from landlocked villages, and alien regimes one after the other have been swallowed up in China’s vast territory. These become significant data points when explaining the Chinese military’s strategies from People’s War to “active defense under modern conditions.”

Old Ideas Versus New Concepts

Today’s Chinese strategists acknowledge and seek to modify a number of behaviors that accompany the traditional outlook. Three such unwanted behaviors stand out. First, these strategists have begun to reconsider the long-held article of faith that China has always been the innocent victim, the passive target of foreign aggression. Indeed, Mao Zedong interpreted all modern Chinese history in this light and called for the people to “stand up.” Moreover, he perpetuated both the leadership’s proclivity toward preparing for the worst when making policies in crises and its allergy to taking the initiative. In 1955, he admonished his associates, “[We] will not suffer losses if we always take into account the worst scenario,” and subsequent generations were taught to take his admonition to heart. Driven by repeated setbacks of the revolutionary years, worst-case planning carried over to the People’s Republic and only in the Jiang Zemin era in the 1990s and beyond seemed to be dying out.

From their stronger, more self-confident positions at least for the moment, Western leaders are said to be more inclined to consider a wider range of options and regard the worst case as only one of several possibilities. Where once the PLA belittled the West in this regard, it now privately admires it and increasingly strives to emulate it.

A second behavior is implicit in the first: extreme “cautiousness toward the first battle” (shenzhong chuzhan). Tradition teaches Chinese to fear that round one of the fighting could decisively influence the war’s final outcome. From their perspective, Western strategists by contrast are inclined to believe that a nation’s military superiority can compensate for any initial strategic mistakes and that by seizing the initiative they can define the battlefield and determine the nature of the battles to come. This implies that the Chinese, comparatively speaking, may be less inclined to take risks before launching major undertakings or an armed conflict and could be less flexible after the outbreak of a war. Throughout China’s nuclear test program, for example, getting it right the first time translated into far fewer tests. Some explain this by pointing to China’s poverty, but the attitude, as we shall see in our later discussion of the Vietnam border war of 1979, reflects culture as well as money. As the Chinese come face to face with modern warfare, risk taking and seizing the initiative, we shall also suggest, may become mandatory, and rising domestic prosperity may well ease the change to a more “Western style” of military conduct.

The final unwanted behavior that we should note is one of methodology more than style. PLA strategists attach importance to macroanalysis, and believe that their counterparts in the West pay closer attention to microanalysis. The variations in approach to science and technology are deemed part of this behavioral disparity, as are outlooks toward human nature, matters of principle, and negotiating techniques. Nevertheless, Chinese hold that this methodological bias is based as much on necessity as on choice. Neither quantitative nor qualitative methods alone, they acknowledge, can yield a complete and adequate strategic picture, and achieving a balance between the two methodologies in today’s world is not easy.

For the moment, the Chinese military lacks sufficient sophisticated technical means for the real-time surveillance and reconnaissance needed for accurate quantitative judgments or the nuanced human intelligence for complete qualitative assessments. China’s technological inferiority, military leaders have concluded, has crippled or delayed their plans for the nation’s security. The PLA urgently seeks to acquire those means.

In the traditional and revolutionary-era military cultures, the Chinese formulated strategic doctrines first and then determined the type, scope, and pace of weapons programs. Their lack of resources then narrowed the range of choices and the margins for error. To this day, antecedent strategic guidelines, always controversial and painful to formulate, tend to dictate the direction and scope of most arms programs and place a premium on weapons procured to match specific priorities. This approach limits the procurement of weapons optimized not only for immediate needs but also capable of flexible modification to deal with unexpected contingencies over the full lifespan of the weapon. It makes it more difficult to consider interrelated weapons systems and makes R&D on them depend principally on analyses of past Chinese and foreign conflicts, much less so on future unknowns.

While “fighting the last war” and adopting technologies developed elsewhere are not unique to China, the People’s Liberation Army only recently has begun to recognize that the profound post-Vietnam change in the U.S. military, which seeks to leapfrog over next-generation weapons and tactics, is made possible by an active synergy between imaginative battlefield theories and innovative technologies. Neither doctrines nor weapons programs necessarily comes first. Each can drive the other, a reality that has only recently been understood and embraced in the People’s Republic.

What we are seeing is that the cultural differences, so important in earlier years, have begun to narrow and their continued influence often disgusts younger, better-trained PLA officers. The reasons for this continuity, to be sure, may stem in some degree from shortages of resources as much as of vision, though examples such as the air force rejecting cheaper, more advanced satellite-based air traffic control systems in favor of outmoded radars in the 1990s suggest that the problem is one of mind-set as much as money.

The evolution that is occurring in China’s military hardware and doctrines has resulted largely from the direct application of military experience from Korea to Vietnam, from planning for a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and from the dramatic lessons provided by the wars fought by the United States since the debacle of Vietnam. The worst-case planning, aversion to risk, and preference for qualitative or macroanalysis persist as do the artificial boundaries between military doctrine and weapons procurements, but as the chapters that follow will show, the Chinese are rectifying the problems born of rigid thinking and are steadily modifying their approach to war, making it more refined and flexible.

In the course of these changes, the critique of outmoded concepts has become more direct and open. In 2001, a senior PLA general echoed Sun Tzu’s declaration that national strategy is a matter of “life and death” and a road to “safety or ruin.” He castigated the nation’s think tanks for their failure to devise that strategy for the new century.

In response, senior military strategists began a systematic review of the “six domains” of strategy: politics, military affairs, economy, science and technology, culture, and society. They argued that China faces severe challenges in all six areas and outlined five strategic goals in the decades ahead: safeguard territorial sovereignty and “rights”; maintain domestic stability and a stable environment in the Asian-Pacific region; promote economic growth; oppose hegemony and power politics; and build a new international political and economic order.

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