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For centuries, China's leaders have relied on Sun Tzu's masterpiece of strategy. The result? Tragedy, weakness and defeat to inferior forces.
HONG KONG — There’s no question that Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” is a brilliant strategy manual.
Everyone from Oracle's Larry Ellison to the New England Patriots' Coach Belichick has cited the ancient general’s maxims.
Even Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf was a Sun Tzu devotee.
But when it comes to China’s foreign policy, Sun Tzu’s theories is leading China astray.
That’s one of the intriguing arguments put forward by Edward Luttwak, a China expert and military strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in his new book, "The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy."
Luttwak argues that by bullying its neighbors and resorting too often to deception, China is suffering the shortcomings of ancient strategic ideas. These practices, he says, have generated resentment toward China.
With a recent Pew Poll showing that only 5 percent of Japanese and 37 percent of Americans have a positive view of China — down 24 and 14 percentage points, respectively, from previous surveys — it’s clear that something is wrong with China’s diplomacy.
In a conversation with GlobalPost, Luttwak explains why he thinks Chinese leaders would be wise to shed Sun Tzu’s theories if they want to build better relations with the outside world. (The interview has been edited and condensed by GlobalPost.)
GlobalPost: One of the arguments in your book is that Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” is an obstacle to China’s foreign affairs. Why is that?
Edward Luttwak: This literature, which China’s leaders greatly admire, induces a greatly mistaken sense of superior skill. They are convinced that it is full of secrets for success. But China’s history is in fact a long history of defeats. That is ignored by them as they revel in the subtlety and complexity and tricks of this literature.
This is like someone who is a terrible driver who imagines he is a superb racecar driver, but he cannot get out of the garage.
In what ways have these sources led China astray internationally?
The ancient sources are full of suggestions for tricks and manipulations. These are clever, and work within the same culture, but do not work inter-culturally. Picture Manchu nomads on horseback approaching Ming dynasty generals who are busy quoting Sun Tzu. What do they do? They conquer them and rule them for 300 years. That’s the Qing dynasty.
Then think of the Mongols. Before that it was two Turkic dynasties. The Central Asians and people of the northern steppes knew all about diplomacy and interacting with other powers. And therefore they completely outmaneuvered the Chinese. For the last 1,500 years, the Chinese have been more under foreign rule than Chinese rule.
This is what you learn from Sun Tzu.
You don’t use military power to destroy the enemy at great cost, you use it as a clever means to get him to do something you want. Just as in the Senkaku islands, you don’t send an invasion fleet, which would start a war. You use clever maneuvers designed to intimidate and win without a war.
The effect of these has been to mobilize Japanese in a serious and structural way, to turn off the trend of getting closer to China, to the benefit of the US. They are basically inducing Japan to militarize against China — the opposite effect of what they wanted.
Tell us some other examples?
[China’s surprise attack on India in October 1962] is a very explicit example.
When Mao did it, he said, this is how we do it: We are not going to invade India, we will not destroy India. We are just going to follow the proper techniques of Sun Tzu: You don’t use force to crush the enemy, you use it to intimidate and nudge them back to the negotiating table. But it had the opposite effect, so that today the border dispute is still not resolved.
You also see it in the current Senkaku dispute. The idea there is that you get someone to withdraw by marching and displaying your army in front of his fortress.
And in dealing with Vietnam, China is affirming its maritime claims by sending Chinese fishing fleets. They are all expressions of this mentality, which is the idea that you win against other countries by clever tricks.
These tricks have turned the Japanese from potential clients into desperate enemies. They have turned the Philippines from rejecting American bases to wanting them back. Even the Indonesians and the Indians, who have really no reason for hostility, China has managed to increase this antagonism.
What are the strengths of Sun Tzu’s ideas? In other words, where are they still applicable?
They are useful. They have absolute usefulness in intra-Chinese politics. They teach a lot of important lessons. Mao could use them to fight Chiang [Kai Shek] and Chiang to fight Mao. And for members of the Standing Committee who are trying to outmaneuver each other, the ideas are very useful.
But not for foreigners who respond very differently. If the Senkakus belonged to a Chinese kingdom, the strategy would work.
What would be a more effective strategy for China internationally?
If you want to be a global power you must have amicable relations with your neighbors. If China understood that, it would wonder, ‘How does the US do it?’ The US does it by deferring to its neighbors — because of its superior strength — and acting as if it were not at all superior.
You have to take your power out of the interaction. When the US president talks with the Mexican president, the fact that the US could invade is taken entirely out of the discussion.
With Canada, the imbalance of power is entirely irrelevant. A few years ago we got into a timber war, and at no point did Canadians believe that the US would push it around.
To what extent is American diplomacy suffering from a lack of understanding about the Chinese viewpoint on foreign affairs?
I think that Americans grossly overestimate the relative strength of Chinese diplomacy because they are not aware of the strength of US diplomacy. They see correctly China’s superb ability to make wealth from earth and water. But they are always surprised by China’s incompetence in dealing with foreign powers.
What was America’s strength? It was having discovered — and it was a discovery — that you become very powerful by acting very weak.
The US was not born with this. The US fought with the Canadians, it fought with Mexico. It was only later that Americans learned that in dealing with all its weaker neighbors and allies, that it has to offset its strengths by very humble behavior.
See the 60 year history of NATO, where the US was deferring to Luxembourg. They kept NATO together not by imposing their power and authority, but by the opposite: By accommodating, by treating even the weakest member as someone important.
By listening to them.