November 1, 2005  

China’s grand strategy is to make war while avoiding a battle

China’s impact on world affairs is growing and poised to grow further in coming decades. Whether the People’s Republic continues to prosper and maintain a strong measure of domestic stability and control, or encounters severe crises and founders amid the many obstacles that could pull it apart, waves originating in Beijing will wash across the world and affect U.S. interests.

Discerning China’s grand strategy then becomes a must. Beijing often has stated its belief that, sometime in the middle of the century, it will become the premier economic power on earth and demand a commensurate position in global decision-making, in strategic affairs, in military power. Beijing will reach for its “rightful place in the sun,” which in traditional Chinese terms, happens to be the sun itself.

The strong persistence of an imperial ideology, increasingly divested of its Communist rhetoric and baggage, the reassertion of hegemonic status in the broad regions around China and the assumption of the trappings of empire, all point to a strong reassertion of a Chinese self-conception as zhongguo, the country of the middle — the middle of the world around which all revolve and to which all must pay homage and obeisance.

Thus, the possibility of a strategic conflict between the United States and China is real. Whether conflict is inevitable is impossible to say, but its likelihood cannot be ruled out.

Beijing’s efforts to develop and acquire military capabilities that go beyond self-defense, added to a track record of military interventions as a normal instrument of diplomacy, make it imperative to explore the potential shape of such a conflict. To China, after all, there is only one peer, only one competitor: the United States.

So let us put ourselves in Beijing’s shoes. Can we understand how the Chinese strategic mind looks at conflict in general, and at this conflict in particular?

China enjoys an enviable strategic and military reputation. China’s chief military theorist, Sun Tzu, revered as one of history’s great strategists, is studied fervently in the West as the “anti-Clausewitz.” Sun Tzu teaches that deception and maneuver supplant the battle. His most quoted line, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill,” has achieved iconic status, even in today’s U.S. armed forces.

Yet, since China’s original encounters with Western-style armies, Sun Tzu has come off second best to Clausewitz. In 1830, 1842, 1860 and then with the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, Chinese armed forces were comprehensively defeated on the battlefield. China lost its wars against the British, the French, the Japanese, Russia and Vietnam. The Chinese Army did score a limited victory against the politically hamstrung Indian Army in 1962. And, of course, it initially manhandled the U.S. Army in Korea.

The greatest exploits of Chinese arms were scored against Chinese armies: the Taiping Army in the 1850s; the Nian and other internal rebellions in the second half of the 19th century that were ultimately put down by the Qing; Chiang Kaishek, who subdued the warlords in the course of the 1927 “Northern Expedition.” Mao’s People’s Liberation Army beat Chiang in turn in 1949. The PLA crushed organized rebellions of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution and unorganized civilians at Tiananmen Square.

Mao Zedong thus not only has shaped the political but also the strategic thought of China for decades. Winners are always right — and the victory in the wars that built the current regime in Beijing were bloody affairs — and often write history or have it written as if victory was inevitable. Mao’s doctrine of the “People’s War” has been the source and driving force in the victory of Third World guerrillas against Western armies, prominently so in the case of the two Vietnam wars, thus enhancing its fame as an ever-victorious doctrine.

In brief summary, Chinese strategic culture tends to downplay victory in battle while emphasizing other aspects of warfare. This stands in stark contrast to the Western way of war.


Battle strategy in the West and in China are fundamentally different. From the Greek hoplite, the Macedonian phalanx and the Roman Legion to the Panzer Army, Soviet operational maneuver group and American “AirLand Battle,” shock is the hallmark of Western-style combat. The sword is the weapon of choice, hand-to-hand combat the norm. Through the long history of warfare in Europe, the sword also is the symbol of nobility. As a prominent British war historian wrote, not without hyperbole, “the history of the sword is the history of humanity.” This holds true in spades for Japan, that most Western of Asian cultures.

Not so in China. Neither in the symbolic realm nor in war was the sword the distinctive, the principal, the noble weapon. The bow is the weapon most esteemed in China. The bow — and its mechanical variant, the crossbow — remained the predominant tactical weapon of field armies through the 16th century. The set Chinese expression of “The Five Weapons” refers to bows, sticks, spears, pikes and halberds — no swords. Read the characters Zhong guo, China’s name in Chinese; the glyph for guo, country, includes a square — the kingdom — and a halberd. The glyph for zhong represents an arrow that hits the center of a square target — Chinese archery targets are square, not round. China’s very name embodies bow, arrow and halberd.

The bow is not merely the prime weapon, but the central Chinese metaphor for battle. A Chinese battle (until modern times) was not the about the shock created between two advancing armies coming together. But as the 11th-century author Zeng Gongliang describes: “The arrows must be shot with saturation fire then no enemy can stand before you and no troops can keep their ranks in formation facing you.”

A Chinese battle pitches two armies standing still on a battlefield. Huge volleys of arrows fly from each side and rocket down upon the other side. Men fall, wounded or killed. The lines stand firm. When enough men on one side have collapsed and the lines have been thinned, panic breaks out and that army runs. Then the opponent’s line, or what remains of it, rushes in hot pursuit and slaughters the fleeing enemy. Battle has been fought at a distance. It has been won by the bow, the weapon par excellence of combat at a distance. The decisive moment, the tipping point, however, was psychological.

If, for Clausewitz, war is political, then, in the Chinese tradition, war is a mind game. It is in that sense mind over matter, or in other terms, of strategy over combat.


“To the Chinese, war is not just a continuation of diplomacy, war is diplomacy,” writes Bruce A. Elleman. Taken at face value, this might seem similar to the Western, Clausewitzian tradition, which understands war as the political use of violence. But Sun Tzu has taught every generation of Chinese leaders for 26 centuries that “all war is deception.” And while ruse, cunning and deception are not absent from the Western way of war — think of Odysseus’ Trojan Horse — perhaps the fundamental difference is that these are adjuncts to the Western way and central to the Chinese way. The Trojan Horse “prepares the battlefield” for the sack of the city; Odysseus — a deeply ambiguous character in Homer — gives way to the true hero, to the warrior in the tradition of Achilles.

In the Chinese tradition, the purpose of deception is to create an illusion in the mind of the enemy command, to create what this author has called elsewhere a “phantom image” in the mind of the enemy command. The war involves the art of manipulating the enemy’s view to create a phantom image in their minds, and have them pursue the phantom image rather than reality. The deceiver pursues reality while the deceived pursues the phantom image. A potentially lethal asymmetry is created. The stratagem is the device by which this can be made to occur.

This is war by stratagem, war by deception, war by mind games, not war by combat. As Harro von Senger, a student of Chinese strategic culture, puts it: “Stratagems have been considered significant in China since ancient times. Over the course of the centuries, there gradually crystallized a body of idiomatic expressions, colorful metaphoric phrases that describe a whole range of stratagems.”

There is no direct Western analogue to these idioms or maxims, but they are a prevalent element in Chinese culture, not simply Chinese strategic culture.

“Many of the individual idioms were familiar to most Chinese from childhood on. The great popularity of the stratagems is due largely to Chinese popular literature. The classic novels and novellas known to almost every Chinese include tales involving stratagems,” writes von Senger, the most prominent of which is “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” “which might almost be characterized as a stratagem textbook. There is hardly a trick of war the planning and the execution of which is not described in its pages, sometimes in great detail.”

Daoist grand strategy

Peoples, nations and cultures have a strong, built-in tendency to behave like prestressed materials: They tend to revert to form, in the event, to deep-seated “default” conceptions. Sun Tzu’s is one of those, because it is itself based on the fundamental substratum of Chinese thought, Daoism.

“The development of modern military technology, the exposure to foreign military theories, and the repeated defeats in wars against the Western powers, have broken the monopoly of the ancient military theories but they are still highly respected and continually influence the thinking of Chinese military leaders,” writes Chinese military historian Chen-Ya Tien.

What does the Daoist sage, or his post-Maoist successor, do in the age of ICBMs and cyberwarfare? He will tend to resort to his “prestressed” posture, in this case, the Daoist principle of wu wei, or nonacting or indirect strategy: Never confront a stronger enemy directly.

And so Chinese strategists seek to understand America’s strengths and to exploit U.S. weaknesses. In my judgment, Chinese strategists will attempt to make war while avoiding battle as much as possible. They will follow Sun Tzu, employing deception at all times, before and during combat, and on all levels. These may be diplomatic, to drive a wedge between the enemy and his allies; political, to sow the seeds of suspicion and discord in his army through political subversion; or military.

Thus Chinese military agreements in Europe, in Latin America, in Africa, in the Persian Gulf, in Central Asia and with Russia are noteworthy. I do not believe that these entail or imply Chinese war plans. Far more, they represent, as the game of Chinese chess xiangqi, ways of encircling and miring the opponent.

Where China may take a different course is toward Taiwan. This does not mean that China will invade Taiwan. Rather, Beijing prefers to cow the island into obedience and subservience. But in pursuing this stratagem, China might provoke a war out of miscalculation, and particularly by miscalculating domestic politics on the mainland. To secure its own legitimacy in the “post-communist” present, the Beijing leadership has unleashed the tiger of Chinese nationalism. Beijing always tries to carefully modulate use of the beast, and trot it out mostly for show to impress and frighten other countries. But time and again — think of the popular reaction to the crash of a Chinese fighter during the 2001 EP-3 incident — the leaders must precipitously repress nationalistic sentiment to regain control. Such an explosion of nationalism could force the leadership into going to war on Taiwan, miscalculate the U.S. posture and provoke a direct showdown.

Let me repeat that this is neither a forecast of war nor a forecast of a long-term strategic victory for China. Chinese military history offers at least as many strategic defeats as victories to “northern barbarians,” Westerners and East Asians. In other words, Sun Tzu rules as long as Clausewitz does not show up on the battlefield. At that point, Clausewitz takes over.

Laurent Murawiec is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization. This article is based on his study “Vulnerabilities in the Chinese Way of War,” prepared for the director of Net Assessment in the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense.