Chinese Strategic Culture- An Elusive Quality

Lots has been written about China’s military and geopolitical strategy, its strategic tradition, and the shifts in strategic thinking over the past forty years. But to actually define and make positive statements about the content of China’s strategic culture is so difficult that many more careful, not to say anal-retentive, scholars shun the topic altogether. Culture is already a subjective quantity, and to say that Text X conditions Culture Y in certain ways that make it likely to do Z in a given situation is an exercise that is speculative at best.

There are a few distinct ways to appraoch the question of strategic culture. One is to recognise that China enjoys the world’s oldest continuous strategic and political culture, and to go back to the foundational texts. Another is to emphasise the modern period- the emphasis on strategies based upon class struggle and “people’s war” under Mao and the more recent introduction of theories based upon Western Realism and, to a lesser extent, liberalism. Yet another is to analyse the writings of modern Chinese strategists and political figures, strategic scholarship and the military posture of China. Finally, of course, there is the perspective taken by analysts of China’s very active foreign and economic policies in the developing world.

While each of these approaches can yield interesting information, none of them is sufficient of itself to draw conclusions about this thing called “strategic culture.”

A popular assertion is that China is a Realist state with a Realist strategic tradition. Sun Tzu, the father of Chinese strategy, can be read in this way- if one ignores certain passages, such as his warning that no state has ever benefitted by a long war, and that the skillful general wins without fighting. But Sun Tzu, like most if not all Chinese strategists, did not regard an anarchic system among states as a constant, but rather as a problem to be solved- by force if neccessary, but also by other means. The Confucian order of international relations, much-touted by China these days as a legacy of peaceful coexistence, may have been a cloak for hegemonic behaviour in many instances (annexations of Korea and Vietnam come immediately to mind), but the ideal was to create a basis for peaceful coexistence based on filial piety.

There are many problems with simply projecting a text into modern strategic culture. In Gilboy and Heginbotham’s recent book Chinese and Indian Strategic Behaviour, in which they consider this question, they point out that such modes of analysis implicitly assume a lack of critical distance from the texts on the part of the strategic actors in question. Additional problems are the vast array of possible texts to draw upon and the lack of historical context. The pool of classical sources is considerably larger than many people appreciate, and their perspectives can be incredibly nuanced. There is no Thucydides to point to as the founder of a dominant theory of Chinese strategic policy. Chinese rulers and dynasties have also varied considerably in strategic behaviour- some engaging with the world through trade and others opting for splendid isolation, to give one example.

Proponents of a more modern view of Chinese strategic culture can persuasively argue that, while there are continuities in the strategic tradition, there are also discontinuities. The intrusion of the Western powers and the rise of communism sparked a new era of ideologically-driven strategy. With the end of class struggle, China suddenly found that a whole generation of strategists indoctrinated to class struggle and people’s war were obsolete. Deng Xiaoping and a few of his generation had some knowledge of the strategic classics, but China urgently needed a new generation of strategic scholars. As part of this process, an analysis of the strategies of the Great Powers was undertaken, leading inevitably to “Realism with Chinese characteristics”.

But again, those like Joshua Kurlantzick who have studied China’s extensive image campaign can point out that this “Realism” continues to draw on an incredibly nuanced understanding of narrative, image and “soft power” that Western Realism struggles to approach.

So, what can we say positively about Chinese strategic culture? First of all, we can note its vast range of perspectives and intellectual resources, spanning 2500 years of writings and now taking in material from other nations and continents. We can also note the political constraints upon particular strategic approaches, not least those currently imposed by popular nationalism. We can note the attention Chinese leaders have given and continue to give to the classics in formulating and articulating their policies. However, we can also note where political constraints may lead to strategic behaviour that Sun Tzu might well have warned against, as in the ongoing island chain disputes.

Finally, we can assess China’s position based on past strategic advice, and China’s past behaviour in similar circumstances. Today, China’s economic strength is offset by the strategic vulnerability of the sea-lanes on which it depends and by a host of internal problems which have yet to be dealt with. Either of these factors by itself would cause the classical writers to urge caution- internal strength and good governance is a key requisite for victory in the Chinese strategic tradition, mentioned at the beginning of The Art of War and constituting the main focus of Zhuge Liang’s Way of the General. Nevertheless, Chinese states have not always been prudent in practice in avoiding conflict when political image is percieved as being at stake.

What we cannot definitively say is what effect these sources of strategic culture might have in any given crisis, with rare exceptions- current Chinese military doctrine for dealing with carrier groups, for example, fits right in with traditional approaches to turning an enemy’s strengths into weaknesses. What is not in dispute is that China has already used the breadth of its strategic understanding to great effect in managing its econmic, geopolitical and military rise.

Among China’s leaders of the past few decades, Deng Xiaoping in particular deserves recognition as a first-class political strategist. So long as China followed the strategic principles which he helped to lay down, it prospered economically and threatened no one strategically. This should stand as evidence that to a certain point, a China following sound strategic principles is good for the rest of us, in a world that increasingly depends on China’s economy for prosperity, and China’s prudence for international harmony. There is no guarantee that the trend will continue in this new phase of China’s growth, and in some respects, it already seems to be faltering- but we can hope.


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