Essays & Reviews

Sources of Chinese Military Strategy

In the Winter 2014-2015 issue of Parameters, the U.S. Army War College’s quarterly journal, Timothy L. Thomas explores “China’s Concept of Military Strategy.” Thomas, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, is an analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office, a TRADOC G-2 element, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Thomas’ article raises in passing the question of the degree to which China’s current military strategy can be understood as a linear descendant of the teachings of Sun Tzu and other classical Chinese writers; or as reflecting more modern, especially communist, analysis (communist in the sense of the doctrine laid down by Chinese Communist Party). I asked Sophia Leddy of the Ashbrook Center, Ashland University, to provide us with the following digest of the article:

Thomas emphasizes the difference in the ideas of strategy among China and the West. Whereas the US focuses on an “intelligence-judgment-decision” paradigm, China has a more comprehensive method of determining strategy.

For comparison, Thomas includes an explanation of the American concept of strategy. The U.S. Armed Forces defines strategy as “a prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives.” This definition essentially restricts the US to use of diplomacy, information, military, and economic means for employing national power.

In contrast, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China has a much broader and analytical view of strategy. Strategy is the topic with the most entries in Chinese military encyclopedias, so clearly the Chinese have a broad view of strategy. It uses five main components. First, China’s official definition highlights the use of analytical thinking. Second, the analytical thought process (according to Marx and Sun Tzu) is necessary in understanding Chinese strategy. The idea is to use objective situations (i.e. geography, sizes of forces, weather) to create subjective strategy. Third, the use of stratagems alongside technology is critical, for technology can improve the trickery of strategy. The use of stratagems allows a country to use another country’s strategy against it; for example, if China could paralyze the financial, transportation, and communications of the US at the same time, say with cyber-attacks, it would have an opportunity to attack much more easily than if it simply used brute force.

Fourth, the Chinese seek to use shi, or the strategic advantage, which is described in the Art of War by Sun Tzu. Shi assesses all potentials of every side in war and can be created in five ways: “maneuver, posture, position, psychology, and calculations.” Shi is a fairly complicated concept, for it is also the moment when it becomes apparent that a side is going to win and is created with stratagems. Shi is used in many forms, including psycho-shi, geo-shi, and shaping-shi.

Fifth, and perhaps most important, is using your opponent to achieve your objectives. Sun Tzu discusses this concept, yet many Western scholars tend to ignore this section of his writings. Thomas uses a common joke to explain this concept:

Vinnie is in jail. His father writes to tell him he wishes Vinnie were home now to dig up the tomato garden. Vinnie writes back not to do that, since that is where he buried the bodies. The next day the FBI digs up the ground and finds no bodies. A day later Vinnie writes, “Under the circumstances, Dad, that was the best I could do.”

Vinnie humorously portrays Chinese strategy: he makes the opponent (the FBI) do something for his dad (his ally). The use of trickery to achieve objectives is something Mao approved of; his example explains how to make a cat eat a hot pepper. You can force it down its throat, disguise it in cheese, or crush it up and sprinkle it on its back. In the last case, the cat will lick the pepper off, believing it is doing something for itself when it is really helping you. While this example does not appear to help anyone, the implication is clear: tricking someone into doing what you need them to while appearing to help them is powerful manipulation.

Retired PLA officers have spoken candidly about Chinese strategy. Lieutenant General Li Jijun has remarked that strategy is the art and science of using and strengthening power to achieve long-term political goals. He does not appear to care about short-term gains because the long-term goal is more important to the Chinese. He also emphasized the learning of enemy cultures and customs because it is as important as knowing the military positions and strategy of the other side. This idea comes from Sun Tzu’s advice to know your enemy in order to understand future moves. He places little importance on past experience, for maintaining traditions can be good and bad. He understands the necessity of surprise in gaining strategic advantages.

China Military Science author Wu Chunqiu states that strategy is having the ability to use objective reality to carry out subjective goals. This echoes the idea in the second component of Chinese strategy. Zhang Xing Ye and Zhang Zhan Li, editors of the book Campaign Stratagems, agree, saying objective situations come first and strategy (or subjective decisions) comes second from these objective situations. The analytical thought process is important to Chinese strategy because they do not make any moves without first knowing the objective reality.

Colonel Xue Guo’an argues that the West focuses on power in strategy, whereas the Chinese focus on using stratagems. In the US definition of strategy, the emphasis is on the use of resources and forces to achieve the objective. China seeks to use the situation to adapt strategy. War becomes fight of stratagems against resources. Xue Guo’an points out three flaws in PLA thought. First, some treasure the classics too much. Second, some ignore science and technology in favor of doctrine. This sentiment is also found in Major General Li Bingyan’s finding that China relies too heavily upon its ancient books, The Art of War and Book of Changes in place of science. Third, they focus too much on land power at the cost of building up sea power, and China is just beginning to catch up in this area. Nonetheless, the Chinese have the capability to adapt their stratagems to current fronts, such as cyber warfare, so it could be dangerous for the US to ignore Chinese strategy.

Thomas recommends that US analysts study Chinese military strategy more deeply for two reasons. First, it would give the US the ability to predict and counter China. Second, they could learn new methods and strategies to use. Strategy is constantly changing and analysts should be familiar with many different strategies. China could now be creating stratagems to disrupt US financial systems or other disruptive situations to influence the “intelligence-judgment-decision” method of the US. Therefore, it could be critical that analysts understand China. US strategy has worked well for many years, but it must be willing to adjust to Chinese thinking.