Decoding the usage of Sun Tzu tactics in Contemporary Geopolitics

By – Tanishk Saxena;

Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War‘ is seminal Chinese military treatise that looks to forecast victory or defeat. China under Xi Jinping has followed his suggestions and satisfactorily executed Sun Tzu’s Military Treatise that have bolstered confidence and built a moral consensus within China to legitimize his decisions. This opinion piece analyses contemporary endeavors by China (domestically and internationally) that fall in line with Sun Tzu’s Military Treatise on laying plans, waging war and attacking by stratagem.

Sun Tzu mentioned that “morality makes the population comply with the ruler regardless of conditions.” (Pg.1) Herein, we see that Xi Jinping has enforced his thoughts on the people by embedding his thoughts in the education system and running re-education camps in the supervision of the Propaganda Department and Education system to build a moral consensus. 


Sun Tzu has also stated that “he could predict victory by analyzing the General’s ability, advantages derived from occupying strategically important grounds, discipline enforcement, increasing the strength of an army, training of officers and men and constancy both in reward and punishment.” (Pg 2). We see that China trains its generals to uphold the spirit of fearlessness and indomitable courage. PLA comrades endure rigorous training under extreme conditions which includes training to use NunChaku, spears and other non-lethal weapon fighting tactics, especially along the India-China LAC wherein firing of weapons is prohibited. It adds to the strength of the forces in hand-to-hand combat. Such training programs boost commanding and fighting capabilities to foster excellent conduct. During the Beijing winter Olympics 2022, Qi Fabao, the regiment commander of the People’s Liberation Army who fought during the Galwan Valley clashes, was made the torchbearer as a reward for his bravery. Concurrently, harsh punishment to officers for indiscipline is a common practice in PLA. China has worked extensively on gaining high grounds and places of strategic importance through its BRI projects, investments and loans globally. These strategic locations include Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and Gwadar Port in Pakistan which adds to the strategic depth of China.

Sun Tzu notes that “deception is at the core of warfare. Strategies should be formed as one is capable and prepared to conduct an attack- must seem unable; and while during aggression- must seem inactive; when close to conduct an attack must make the enemy feel far away; when far away, make him believe to be near.” (Pg 3). During the reign of Mao Zedong, China had limited military capabilities and didn’t hold significant economic might or stature in international politics. At that time, China claimed to reunify Taiwan in coming 10 years. China was very far away from its goal at that time as the presence of western powers and support for Taiwan was certain. Later during the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China was in better condition after opening up its economy and had made a place in the international system. Deng Xiaoping during his tenure expressed the willingness to reunify Taiwan but changed it from ten years to hundred years. As China got closer to reunification; China made the world perceive it is moving away from its goal through statements of its leaders. Xi Jinping stated in his comment on Taiwan said that ‘China is still willing to reunify Taiwan but did not mention the exact time or year for his plans. Though China seems much closer to its goal to reunify Taiwan with its economic might, maintains a gigantic military, can write international rules and challenge the global governance, it has made its stance that it is outlying away from its plan of reunification. From Mao’s time to now, China has maintained its stance that China will use only peaceful means to reunify Taiwan also seems a deceptive move as it sends regular flights, fighter jets and bombers close to the island.

Sun Tzu has also suggested that “an opponent with a choleric temper should be irritated and then should pretend to be weak against that same opponent so that the opponent may develop arrogance.” (Pg. 3). During the Trade War with the USA, China had used all means to irritate the former President of the USA – Donald Trump, through various means. Donald Trump taking the America First campaign forward – was willing to bring back manufacturing industries from China back to the USA with a key objective to refrain China from taking unreasonable benefits of the international system, but the chronic temper of Trump was also a well-known fact. Xi Jinping imposed retaliatory taxes on the USA products that received retaliation with even more tariffs on Chinese products. Xi Jinping used to flatter Trump during the dinners and unofficial meetings telling him how grateful he is. John Bolton (Former National Security Advisor of USA) writes in his book ‘The Room Where It Happened’, that Xi Jinping’s personal relationships mean next to nothing to him if it is inconsistent with the interest of the CCP and then China. This consistent cyclic retaliation during the trade war and flattering during personal meetings built up arrogance in Trump. His arrogance grew to a level where he started competing with Xi Jinping and stated ‘People are talking about repealing the two-term limit for him. The Trade deal with China that Trump projected to his domestic audience as success went into a hoax. China used this tactic to build up arrogance into Trump so much that he later fired his National Security Advisor Jon Bolton and Defense secretary Mark Esper over Twitter and could not accept his defeat in elections by the Democrat candidate Joe Biden leading to Capitol Riots. 

Next, Sun Tzu’s statement that, “at the time of war: the expenditure is enormous both at home and on the front and suggests to account money required to pay for the entertainment of guests and other miscellaneous expenses” is noteworthy (Pg. 4). 

China has increased its military and defense budget by 7.1 per cent to USD 230 billion from last year’s USD 209 billion. Xi Jinping has paid extra attention to modernizing China’s defense equipment with self-reliance to sustain long wars. The recent session of the Fiscal and Economic Committee of the Thirteenth National People’s Congress emphasized food security, bringing fiscal and taxation reforms. China imports a significant amount of food from outside,  purchasing wheat from Russia and pork is imported through a long channel from Brazil. Having a stockpile of food beforehand during time of uncertainty acts as a tool to mitigate the risk of food security. China’s domestic spending is not standardized and lacks detailing during execution. The use of budgetary funds remains low and allows China to have backup plans/funds in the instance of any black swan event. 

Sun Tzu stated that the objective should be victory and, prolonging warfare campaigns must be avoided. (Pg. 4) We see that China has entered the conflict zone strategically and has always made it on top of its checklist to abstain from entering prolonged warfare. China had strategic plans in Afghanistan and Pakistan attached to its China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and broadly Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Despite strategic goals, China has abstained from directly entering the conflict zone or situation despite being a direct threat to its investments and interests for prolonged nature. On similar lines, Russia sent its forces to support the current leadership of Khaskasths against the coup. China also supported the existing regime of Kazakhstan but did not send its armed forces on the ground, sensing a fear of prolonged war. The pattern observed in various conflict zones where China abstains from entering despite high stakes and interests is for a reason being of prolonged nature. In all these conflicts, the objective of China remained to be victorious even without firing a bullet itself. Moreover, China’s support remained unaffected by the kind of regime it is dealing with.

Sun Tzu prioritized bringing the other state as a whole and intact within the sphere of direct influence. (Pg. 6). China’s strategy to extend loans through AIIB and under its BRI project provides an irresistible bait for any economy struggling. Ambitious leaders willing to bring a huge change within a short span tend to be caught easily into the trap as a desire to project growth is used to gain support,  popularity and acceptance to their people the kind of development brought. China offers loans without any requirement of restructuring the economy as often mandated by Institutions from the Bretton Wood System. The loans extended are offered at a cheaper price but takes tactically important assets for lease or mortgage. Through these means, China maintains the leadership of the state in control and in case of default takes over the assets of strategic importance to China. China under Xi Jinping has used this tactic in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and many other African states. This tactic is also referred to as salami slicing and debt trap diplomacy where loans and investments are provided as bait. These adhere to Sun Tzu’s strategy of bringing a state completely under its sphere of influence intact. 

Lastly, Sun Tzu mentioned that if you know yourself and your enemy well, you will surely win every battle, but if one fails to do so, he will suffer defeat. One who neither knows his strength nor weakness will surely scramble on the battlefield. (Pg 8). China runs extensive surveillance within the country through cameras that can even identify and report the ethnicity of a person and location. It also engages in using artificial intelligence and maintaining strong control over social media outlets. Along with this China maintains strict surveillance over its military leaders, capitalist class, social media influencers, journalists and members of the CCP. China also extensively reviews its domestic projects, population, military capability and situation of various provinces and autonomous regions. This helps China to identify its strength and weakness so that it never crumbles on the battlefield. Chinese companies like Huawei, ZTE, other applications and social media platforms are accused of stealing user data that is further refined and used to acknowledge the actions and to extract vital information from the user whose information is compromised without any consent. China has extensively built Confucius institutes globally along with the Embassies apart from their role in cultural exchange, act as a medium to gather vital information that helps to know more about a potential adversary. China has installed its surveillance equipment in various countries and withholds technological backend data for service and other purposes that can be used for surveillance as and if needed. 

Conclusion

China under Xi Jinping, one of its most powerful leaders since Mao, has effectively implemented the strategies provided by Sun Tzu. Building a Communist Socialist Society with unique Chinese Characteristics, and restoring glory lost during imperialism are key objectives of Xi Jinping.  Sun Tzu, being an ancient Chinese philosopher best suits Xi Jinping to protect the national interest. As he uses the tactics of Sun Tzu in international politics thereby becoming a part of the normal thought process and being used in domestic politics or to pursue his personal ambitions has high possibility. The work of Sun Tzu effectively bolstered the confidence of Xi Jinping while making strategies and taking decisions. Reading Sun Tzu’s work along with the contemporary actions of various state and non-state actors could help better understand and decode contemporary geopolitics.

Tanishk Saxena is Executive Outreach Head at Organization for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). Mr. Saxena is also Project Associate with Asian Pathfinders and is pursuing his PGDM with specialisations in International Marketing, Advertising and Public Relations. Mr Saxena was associated with Mitkat Advisory Ltd. – Information Services Department, Mahindra Rise – Mahindra Construction Equipment as a Management Trainee and as a Mentor at Teach for India (TFI). He has a Masters degree in International Studies from Symbiosis School of International Studies and a BBA-LLB (Hons.). He previously practised as a Criminal Advocate in District and Sessions Court. His research interests include Chinese politics, Private Military Contractors, International Relations, Security Studies and Business Continuity Management. He can be reached on Twitter @tanishk007.

One Reply to “Decoding the usage of Sun Tzu tactics in Contemporary Geopolitics”

  • Aisha.K

    By Aisha.K

    Reply

    Very informative.

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