April 1, 2006  

Understanding strategy: A delicate dance

America must learn to comprehend China’s culture and tactics

It was often said during the Cold War that the Soviet Union had a hard time understanding the United States. There was a clash of strategic cultures that made clear calculations of the balance of power all but impossible and made the diplomatic niceties of signaling a rival with military power much more dangerous.

This clash of cultures also pervades with our new potential peer competitor, the People’s Republic of China. And since Sept. 11, 2001, when the United States embarked on a perhaps messianic mission to transform the politics of the greater Middle East, well, what’s a poor one-party autocracy to think?

At the height of the China threat debate, a handful of sinologists brought academic rigor to the study of Chinese strategic culture and produced exceptionally insightful accounts of how Chinese strategists view their security environment. By the end of the decade, these works established the mainstream view on Chinese strategic culture.

In “Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History,” Harvard professor Alistair Iain Johnston wrote that ancient Chinese states practiced a hard realpolitik premised upon the belief that “pure violence is highly efficacious.” He identifies a pattern whereby weaker states accommodate their stronger rivals to buy time, mobilize resources and craft political and military stratagems that eventually defeat the stronger enemy. Modern China was no less shy about using force: Johnston calculated that China used force in 72 percent of its foreign policy crises to 1985.

Francois Julien of the University of Paris provided an essential analytical framework for understanding how China traditionally applied force. In “The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China,” he focused on the concept of “shi,” a term that is often translated as “disposition.” The operative meaning of shi is that “a general must aim to exploit to his own advantage and to maximum effect whatever conditions he encounters.” Shi encompasses not only the lay of the land, but also the moral disposition of the protagonists, the climate, the condition of the troops — in sum, all of the circumstantial factors that can give advantage to or enervate an army. Applied to statecraft, shi includes broader strategic factors such as political disposition, the strength of alliances and the robustness of an opponent’s politics.

China scholar Michael Pillsbury then showed how these traditional patterns and concepts of strategy in Chinese history had been revived in present times when he translated copious amounts of contemporary Chinese materials in “China Debates the Future Security Environment.” Pillsbury found that China’s contemporary practitioners of scientific socialism have developed the notion of shi by measuring what they call “comprehensive national power.” Although this concept can be understood intuitively — the United States possesses more than, say, Costa Rica — Chinese analysts have devised complex algorithms to give relative weights to the various components of national power and create qualitative values for international comparison.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing strategic flux provided a rich environment for measurements of comprehensive national power in the 1990s. For Beijing, these measurements revealed the obvious: The United States wielded hegemonic strength, and China remained something less than a great power.

But Chinese strategic culture predicts that this asymmetric distribution of power is not completely to China’s disadvantage. The Chinese term for the “hegemon” translates literally as “bully power,” and China’s strategists believed that the hegemonic position of the United States would drive the other powers to create a multipolar world. This declinist view of American power held that as long as China could “bide its time and hide its capabilities,” in the words of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, it would stand poised to benefit in this emerging world order.

This gradual dissolution of U.S. hegemony would bring China other advantages. While the United States tied itself down in various wars, it necessarily revealed its disposition and vulnerabilities. Through study and understanding, China can respond to the changing American way of war without ever revealing how it would fight. Chinese strategists thus studied the 1991 Persian Gulf War closely, inspiring many commentators to conclude China must prepare for “local war under modern high-technology conditions” by investing in weapons systems that would directly undermine major U.S. capabilities.

But in the eyes of Chinese strategists, this inevitable decline of American power also introduces a danger: If Washington ever perceived that it was losing its international preeminence, it might strike down China preemptively. Chinese strategists feared that those Americans who argued the China threat theory would conspire to bring about such an attack.

Experience seemed to confirm Chinese fears when a U.S. aircraft bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the midair collision of a Chinese fighter and an EP-3 spy plane in April 2001 claimed the life of the Chinese pilot. By mid-2001, Beijing was facing off against an American president who had described China as a “strategic competitor” and had told a journalist that the United States would do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks provided Beijing with an opportunity to reverse the deterioration of U.S.-Chinese relations and discredit the China threat theory. In the days after the attacks, Chinese President Jiang Zemin offered his personal condolences to President Bush, authorized intelligence cooperation with Washington and pressured Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to meet U.S. demands for cooperation during the war in Afghanistan. The United States reciprocated China’s assistance. In August 2002, the State Department designated the Uighur East Turkistan Independence Movement, the principal threat to tighter Chinese control over perennially restive Xinjiang province, as a terrorist organization. The bilateral rhetoric peaked in October 2002, when President Bush welcomed Jiang to his ranch and declared the two countries “allies” in the fight against terror.

In the two years after the invasion of Afghanistan, Chinese views of the bilateral relationship swung from paranoia over the China threat theory’s return to new fears that America was not, in fact, in decline. By 2002, America had destroyed the Taliban, occupied Afghanistan on China’s western border and established a basing network in Central Asia.

Chinese scholar Wang Jisi of the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences acknowledged the significance of this massive expansion of U.S. military activity, and was almost certainly reflecting official opinion, when he stated that “in the short term, it is difficult to identify signs that American overall power is declining. … U.S. superiority is comprehensive, covering the full spectrum of national power.” It appeared some in China were rethinking the declinist view of American power. China was particularly suspicious of the rapid accumulation of American influence in Central Asia, where the sino-centric Shanghai Cooperation Organization was supposed to dominate the region’s security affairs. As one Chinese strategist observed at the time, “All signs indicate that the United States is striving to expand and make permanent its military presence in Asia,” and forces that were sent to encircle the Middle East could encircle China’s western border as well.

Beijing’s concerns peaked in spring 2003, when the lightning-quick U.S. victory against the Iraqi military again demonstrated the overwhelming superiority of American arms. Reflecting past practice, China studied the U.S. campaign in Iraq closely to see whether its own basic military strategy should be rethought. Deputy chief of staff and premier strategist Xiong Guangkai declared that China should “study and draw on the experiences and lessons of various countries in making military changes … [but] we should not mechanically copy other countries.”

The growth of the insurgency in Iraq from early 2004 presented China with welcome evidence that the declinist view was right after all and that the U.S. was making mistakes that would lead to its fall like all bully powers before it. China also decided the time was ripe to take advantage of those mistakes.

The essential theme that would guide Chinese diplomacy in this period was a variation on the peaceful rise theory, as China could offer itself as a normal diplomatic alternative to the United States. Whereas U.S. envoys demanded cooperation against terrorism, Chinese diplomats focused on economic cooperation. Likewise, China could build on its traditional policy of offering a friendly hand to countries that fell crossways of the U.S. human rights agenda.

Using this approach, China reinvigorated the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Following the massacre of Uzbek protestors in May 2005, China organized an SCO joint statement calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Central Asia, and President Islam Karimov announced that American forces would have to leave the country, including the major installation at Karshi-Kanabad. Thus in a little more than two years, the organization derided by U.S. officials as “stillborn” in 2002 re-emerged as a stumbling block to American strategy in Asia.

China has also asserted itself in East Asia, where Yang Jiemian has pointed out that Beijing “is perceived as more sensitive to East Asian needs than the United States.” One such opportunity presented itself in mid-2004 when the United States and its treaty ally the Philippines fell out after Manila capitulated to insurgent demands to withdraw its forces from Iraq. China leapt at the opportunity to deepen the schism and offered to upgrade an upcoming official visit to Beijing by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to a state visit in September 2004. Manila signed a bevy of bilateral agreements, and Washington, preoccupied in the Iraqi desert, was in no position to prevent it.

Likewise, China has also used the framework of the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis to assert a role for itself as an honest broker in Asia. In this setting, the Chinese government has adroitly widened the already growing gap in strategic views between South Korea and the United States.

The big prize for China, though, was exacerbating the transatlantic rift over the Iraq war. An Huihou of the China Institute of International Studies argued that U.S. policy “does not conform to the strategic interests of the European countries … and cannot but meet with criticism, containment and opposition” there.

Through 2003 and 2004, China welcomed successive delegations of European politicians and businessmen while building pressure to lift the arms embargo the European Union levied on Beijing in the wake of the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989. U.S. opposition successfully defeated the move in early 2005; China appeared to have overestimated the transatlantic rift.

The common link in all of China’s responses to the war on terrorism is that Beijing sought to exploit the current predicament of the United States without provoking it to reprise the China threat theory. Practitioners of shi would advise wise leaders to take advantage of the changing disposition of international power and configure the system to best position China once American power declines.


At the same time that China is attempting to take advantage of what it perceives as hegemonic decline, the United States, through diplomatic maneuvering, is also building its own military capabilities at a faster rate than ever. Much like China’s diplomatic track, this arms buildup reflects a growing consensus in Chinese thought that the United States can be defeated through asymmetric means.

Chinese strategists believe today that a combination of strategy and technology will allow the “weaker to defeat the stronger” in future warfare. For proof, they only need to point at the failure of the United States to triumph in the war in Iraq.

Of course, Chinese planners don’t seek to defeat the U.S. military through a post-conflict insurgency but would prefer the conventional capabilities, assisted by assassin’s mace or trump card weapons and technologies, to target specific vulnerabilities in the U.S. military.

The most important of these capabilities are those that can sink an aircraft carrier, detect and destroy stealth aircraft, and overcome U.S. missile defenses. The first goal would have the most profound consequences in the event of conflict, as U.S. carriers are central both to our power projection capabilities and our military prestige.

The most articulate and succinct description of this evolving Chinese strategy was provided by Princeton Professor Tom Christenson in his 2001 essay “Posing Problems Without Catching Up.” Christenson writes that the crux of Chinese strategy is to so inconvenience a potential adversary through the deployment of mines, submarines and ballistic missiles that it is easier to settle on China’s terms than to fight.


As Chinese historical theory predicts, the United States will increasingly find its military and diplomatic options hemmed in while China develops its military and political capacities. This is, as Chinese strategists would say, the tide of history.

However, if awareness of shi or comprehensive national power involves following a broad range of trends and waiting until the configuration is ripe for action, then the Untied States can affect how influential Chinese thinkers view this propensity of things. To do this, American strategists must keep a vigilant eye on how Chinese perceive key trends, their measurements of the configuration of relative power and other metrics Chinese strategists use to decide when decisive action would be advantageous.

The key to avoiding a crisis — or, to use a Western term, to “dissuade” dangerous behavior on the part of the Chinese — is to influence their calculations about the configuration of power. That requires a vast increase in our understanding of how the Chinese view their strategic environment.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow, and Christopher Griffin is a researcher, at the American Enterprise Institute.