The Chinese Military's STRATEGIC MIND-SET

By Thomas, Timothy L. | Military Review, November/December 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Chinese Military's STRATEGIC MIND-SET


Thomas, Timothy L., Military Review


"STRATEGY" IS a Chinese military term with thousands of years of tradition and culture behind it. In antiquity, the Chinese classified strategists according to four concept-categories: power and stratagem, disposition and capability, Yin and Yang, and technique and skill.1 This strong emphasis on strategic concepts can still be felt. The 1997 Chinese Military Encyclopedia's index, for example, offers a comprehensive overview of strategic concepts. The word "strategic" is followed by other terms (pivot, thought, surprise, etc.) 78 times in the index while concepts associated with the words "strategic" or "strategy" were used 21 times. A 2002 addendum to the encyclopedia added another 12 strategy-related items that resonate with idiosyncratic meaning often challenging to Western comprehension. But that does not mean that we cannot know how Chinese strategists think. By looking at several recent texts, especially The Science of Military Strategy (2001), we can arrive at some understanding of the Chinese military's strategic mind-set. It differs markedly from the methodology the U.S. uses to develop its strategic thought.

Stratagem, Philosophy, and Science

The Chinese divide their concept of strategy scientifically into basic and applied theory, relying even today on the word's ancient roots. For example, in routing an electronic warfare attack on an adversary's computer network through a third country's network, the Chinese would say they seek to "kill with a borrowed sword."3 Americans simply do not think in terms of using packets of electrons like so. This instance of cultural expression captures just how much ancient tradition has informed China's modern strategic thinking.

An important and revealing aspect of this mind-set is that the Chinese strive to impel opponents to follow a line of reasoning that they (the Chinese) craft. According to Li Bingyan, one of the most influential and brilliant contemporary Chinese strategists, they work to entice technologically superior opponents into unwittingly adopting a strategy that will lead to their defeat.4 Li's examples are noteworthy. First, he asks how an inferior force could fight a technologically superior opponent. Using the example of a weak mouse (i.e., China) trying to keep track of a huge cat (i.e., the U.S.), he asks, "How could a mouse hang a bell around a cat's neck?" His answer: "The mouse cannot do this alone or with others. Therefore, the mouse must entice the cat to put the bell on himself." Second, he asks, "How can you make a cat eat a hot pepper?" His answer: "You can stuff a pepper down a cat's throat [the most difficult], you can put the pepper in cheese and make the cat swallow it, or you can grind the pepper up and spread it on his back. The latter method makes the cat lick itself and receive the satisfaction of cleaning up the hot pepper."5 The cat is oblivious to the end goal either in the case of the bell or the hot pepper. This deception reflects idiosyncratic Chinese strategy and, at least so far as how an inferior force might defeat a superior force, it evinces their mind-set.

When assessing the character of their country's military culture, China's ancient scholars arrived at a specific military style that is "good at strategy and adept at the use of the indirect method."6 A recent report on China's military culture notes: "Chinese scholars' way of thinking was essentially a kind of wisdom and war, this lively confrontation between people with all its variables, this arena with all the traits of a game, which provided them with the best stage for giving free rein to their marvelous imaginations and creativity. While it is true that they attached importance to the substance of war, they attached even greater importance to bringing into play the subjective, dynamic roles of people, using strategy to gain victory, and they especially advocated not following one pattern and using the indirect to gain the upper hand."7 The example of die cat demonstrates vividly the indirect method of bringing imagination and creativity into play.

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