Sun Tzu and a Peerless Empire

“KNOW THE ENEMY, know yourself,” said Sun Tzu (“Master Sun”) in Chapter Three of his ancient work called The Art of War, “and victory is never in doubt, not in 100 battles.” Not in 100 battles? That is a lot of battles, and so this old martial prescription is categorical. And viewed broadly, Sun Tzu’s comment is more than just a Chinese maxim of war, albeit one of the most famous in all of history. In its own way, this counsel is an approach to living life itself.

Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu’s writings are a high-level form of what we call today strategic thinking, the key requirement of which is thinking, despite what they teach — or fail to teach — in many American universities. Sun Tzu is thought to have lived from 544-496 B.C., but his literary approach is credited with having distilled more than 1,000 years of previous Chinese strategic thought.

The short summary of the theory of Sun Tzu is that in any confrontation, one should first “know the enemy” and attack the enemy’s strategy. The next priority is to attack the enemy’s alliances. Only after accomplishing this should you dare attack the enemy’s army. And the worst prescription is to attack the enemy’s “cities,” which is another way of cautioning not to get bogged down in a war against the enemy’s people in its own terrain. As to protracted war, Sun Tzu noted that war is exceedingly expensive, and that “There has never been a protracted war from which the nation has benefited.” (Some things do not change.) And finally, according to Sun Tzu, “Those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.”

Do Not Be Misled

One British military scholar has stated that “Master Sun is fundamental and, read with insight, lays bare the mental mechanism of our enemy. Study him, and study him again. Do not be misled by his simplicity.” Among the senior ranks of U.S. Marine Corps officers, no professional bookshelf is complete without a well-thumbed copy of Sun Tzu occupying a place of prominence.

A Way of Deception

Sun Tzu’s message is partly restated in another Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching (“The Way and Its Power”), as “To know others is wisdom. To understand oneself is enlightenment. To conquer others requires force. To conquer oneself shows strength.” In other ancient commentary that accompanies Sun Tzu’s work, the words of this Master of War refer to both attack and defense. Knowing the enemy permits you to take the appropriate form of offensive stance. Knowing yourself lets you adopt the appropriate defense. That is, attack is the secret of all defense. And defense is the heart of planning the attack. What brings this all together, according to Sun Tzu, is that “The way of war is a way of deception.”

“We Must Not Underestimate the Wisdom”

More recently, these words of Master Sun, “Know the enemy, know yourself,” were endorsed by no less than founder of the modern Chinese Communist state Mao Zedong, who declared: “This saying of the great Chinese military thinker [Sun Tzu]…includes the [highest] stages of both theoretical knowledge and practice…We must not underestimate the wisdom of this saying.” We must not underestimate the wisdom? By making such a passive yet direct reference, Mao may as well have carved the words of Sun Tzu into stone tablets.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the philosophy of Sun Tzu is deeply embedded in the manner by which many Chinese observe, interpret, and understand major political, economic, and military developments in the world, and particularly within the United States. To be sure, almost all public Chinese commentary politely avoids direct reference to the U.S. as an adversary, let alone labels the U.S. as an “enemy of China.” But it is widespread practice in many less well-known forums of Chinese political-military analysis to describe an adversarial view of the U.S., with occasional blunt talk of the U.S. as the “enemy,” whether in so many words or by direct implication.

Expansionary American Empire

Are there examples of Chinese commentary that illustrate the point? There are many, but one in particular offers more insight that most. During the preliminary operations that preceded the U.S. war against Iraq, the China People’s Daily of March 11, 2003, presented a historical commentary entitled “American Empire Steps Up Fourth Expansion: News Analysis.”

In a penetrating glimpse into Chinese long-term historical and strategic thinking, the People’s Daily commentator wrote:

“At the time of its founding in 1776, the United States was composed of only 13 British colonies in the East Coast, its territory at that time was like a small, long strip. Today, the American territory stretches across the European continent, reaching the Atlantic Ocean in the east, the Pacific Ocean in the west, bordering on the Caribbean Sea in the south and nearing [sic] the Arctic Ocean in the north…expansion is an eternal theme in American history, as well as a mainline running through U.S. foreign policy.”

This brief outline may seem perfectly obvious, if not innocuous, to an American recalling his or her own schooling in U.S. history. In some benign respects, it mirrors the famous words from a famous song, illustrating a nation that spans a continent “from sea to shining sea.” But think of this analysis in terms of what the ancient Chinese commentators said in interpreting Sun Tzu, that attack is the secret of all defense, that defense is the heart of planning attack. The Chinese historical view of the U.S. is as a nation whose national “eternal theme” is based upon territorial expansion. This is a “mainline,” according to Chinese perception, of “U.S. foreign policy.” So expansion is, seen this way, part of U.S. national strategy. And recall that strategy, according to Sun Tzu, is the first point of attack when confronting an enemy.

A Peerless Empire

Consider this Chinese view by way of comparison with many other nations of the world that do not have overtly expansionist pasts. (Well, not recently expansionist pasts.) In this light, the Chinese view of U.S. history takes on a fundamentally different meaning. What the Chinese see is that at the heart of U.S. history and long-term trends in foreign policy lies a permanent expansionist theme. And it follows, unspoken because it does not have to be said distinctly, that in the Chinese view, this expansion constitutes a distinct U.S. potential to pose a threat to China. The Chinese commentator continued:

“In a short space of 200-odd years time, the United States has developed from a small colony into a peerless empire of today. The reasons for this are: besides the fact that the country enjoys perennial relative political stability, continuing scientific and technological innovations, and new achievements in economic development, but an important reason for this is, without doubt, its constant external expansions.”

“Constant external expansions?” This is an interesting way to characterize what the U.S. national consciousness called, for its first century of national existence, its Manifest Destiny. Still, keep Sun Tzu in mind, and his advice to “Know the enemy, know yourself.” The Chinese commentator views the U.S. and its “constant external expansions” as leading to a “peerless empire.” The essence of the comment that the U.S. is an “empire” is amplified by the adjective “peerless.” The Chinese commentator is making a key point, albeit indirectly, that China is not currently a “peer” of that U.S. empire. This reinforces the self-serving notion that modern China is not an “imperial” power in the world. The commentator continued:

“The American history of expansion can be divided into four stages: First, continental expansion stage; second, overseas expansion stage; third, the stage of global contention for hegemony; and fourth, the stage of world domination.”

The commentary explains this in more depth:

“The continental expansion stage features mainly traditional territorial expansion, the second, third, and fourth stages feature mainly the expansion of its economic, military, and cultural influence. Completion of the expansion process in each stage brought tremendous benefits to the United States.”

Traditional Territorial Expansion

Note the rather casual Chinese nod to “traditional territorial expansion.” Traditional? The Chinese commentator equates it with “continental expansion.” There are, of course, many similarities — crude and not so crude — between the expansion of U.S. power and national sovereignty across the North American continent and the far older course of Chinese expansion throughout the Asian mainland. Chinese expansion includes, of course, China’s relatively recent acquisition of such otherwise distinct landscapes as Tibet and the current Chinese claims over maritime areas such as most of the South China Sea and oceanic areas historically claimed by Japan.

And beyond “traditional territorial expansion,” note the Chinese labeling of other forms of expanding American influence: economic, military, and cultural. The commentator is making all but a clinical diagnosis of the spread of U.S. power and influence over many decades.

Other Stages of Imperial Expansion

The Chinese commentator labeled the second stage of U.S. history as “overseas expansion.” This is in reference to the period between the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the end of World War II in 1945. During that time period, the U.S. extended its national power across the world’s ocean basins and into the periphery, if not into the heart, of Europe and Asia. A conventional American view of this period is that the U.S. was reluctantly pulled overseas and into world “great power” affairs by two world wars and other critical events occurring beyond both its shores and its ability to control. But the Chinese commentary seems to characterize U.S. overseas expansion as part of an internationalist drive that is part of the American fiber. (This is, sad to say, some indication of how well the modern assumptions and theories within most schools of American foreign policy have buried the ghosts of such mid-20th century noninterventionists as Garet Garrett and John T. Flynn.)

The third stage of U.S. expansion, according to the Chinese commentator, was “global contention for hegemony.” This refers to the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union and, at root, the 50-year struggle between Western-style capitalism and Bolshevik-driven communism. Again, a more conventional American view of the Cold War is that it was a reaction and defensive effort to contain the expansion of world communism led by Comrade Generalissimo Joseph Stalin in the years after World War II. There are, of course, far more complexities that we can discuss in this relatively short article. The key point is the Chinese view, that “global contention for hegemony” is part of an expansive U.S. national dynamic.

“World Domination”

The fourth and current stage of U.S. expansion, according to the Chinese commentator, is a perceived American quest for “world domination.” The Chinese commentary elaborated on this theme:

“After the ‘Sept. 11’ incident [sic], the theory on establishing the American century or a new empire has acquired a bigger market. Exponents of this theory hold that establishing an American empire is an unavoidable duty for the United States. After the ‘9/11’ terrorist attacks, the United States began a new round of powerful expansion, with the aim of expanding the U.S. spheres of influence to the whole world. Iraq was chosen as the first target for this new round of expansion.”

“The theory on establishing…a new empire has acquired a bigger market”? What an interesting way to characterize things, as “market”-driven in a post-Sept. 11 world. And the U.S. possesses “an unavoidable duty” to establish its empire? Apparently, this “market” for empire is driven by a remarkable element of Marxist historical determinism. And finally, there is reference to “a new round of powerful expansion [to expand] U.S. spheres of influence to the whole world.” This is an outline of the Chinese perception of the dynamic, expansive intent behind U.S. actions. The last sentence is notable, “Iraq was chosen as the first target.” Note the use of the passive tense in this language, carefully avoiding the naming of any names.

Overall, this commentary is a Chinese characterization of U.S. actions as something akin to the German Drang nach Osten (“drive to the East”), except that this time it is a U.S. Drang nach Mittel-Osten, in which the U.S. is expanding its empire into Iraq. This certainly expresses, in a Chinese form of thinking and analysis, Sun Tzu’s saying to “know the enemy.”

Chinese Conclusions

The commentary in the People’s Daily went on to draw some careful conclusions:

“When will the U.S. fourth round of expansion end depends on the final outcome of the following two wars: U.S. impending war against Iraq [Note: This was written in March 2003, just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq], and the war waged by the al-Qaida network and world terrorist forces against the United States [a reference to the fourth generation war of systemic disruption being waged or sponsored by al-Qaida). If U.S. war on Iraq could end in victory, it would further give a powerful impetus to the force for the establishment of U.S. empire. But many American experts and scholars maintain that the United States should not choose a road by which to establish global order or an American empire through unilateral-based military actions. Only when the United States refrains from taking the road of pursuing global empire can it avoid terrorists’ bombs or other forms of attacks befalling on its own territory.”

The Chinese commentator makes reference to two distinct wars. There is a “war waged by the al-Qaida network and world terrorist forces” against the U.S. And there is a U.S. war of choice against Iraq. Both of these wars are, in the Chinese view, outgrowths of U.S. actions, particularly from the U.S. “taking the road of pursuing global empire” (part of the U.S. national fiber, based on comments elsewhere in the article).

And the Chinese commentator describes conflicting viewpoints within the American house of policymaking. The phrase “Many American experts and scholars” is a respectful Chinese mannerism of portraying the proponents of the camp that opposes “unilateral-based military actions.” And the last sentence sums up the U.S. policy that China would like to see — in all likelihood, a policy that would lead to better U.S. accommodation with China.

Know the Enemy, Know Yourself

So we return to the words from the beginning of this article. “Know the enemy, know yourself,” said Sun Tzu. In describing and characterizing the expansionist tendencies of the U.S. throughout its national history, the Chinese commentator is, in his own way, describing a vision of “the enemy,” meaning an enemy of China.

But the Chinese commentator is also drawing a comparison, by implication. He is portraying a Chinese vision of U.S. history with a lens that also illuminates the past of his own Middle Kingdom. This is the “know yourself” part of Sun Tzu’s advice. That is, expansion and empire requires a nation to pursue a pathway of war and will result in terrorist, if not warlike, resistance to expansion by those affected. This is particularly the case when expansion is accomplished via “unilateral-based military actions.”

One article in a Chinese newspaper does not make for an encyclopedic summary of Chinese views of the world, let alone Chinese foreign policy. But it does illustrate the need to understand the basic documents that inform Chinese thinking. One of the key books is The Art of War by Sun Tzu, as well as the many commentaries on the work. As the British scholar stated, “Master Sun is fundamental and, read with insight, lays bare the mental mechanism of our enemy. Study him, and study him again. Do not be misled by his simplicity.”

Until we meet again…

Byron W. King

August 1, 2007