Ancient Lessons

To reduce the potential for misunderstanding or mirror imaging discussed in the preface, this prologue draws together examples from nine authors in five key research institutes who draw upon concepts from ancient statecraft. Their comments about the future security environment would be difficult to understand without extensive knowledge of the metaphors of Chinese ancient statecraft. The Chinese language is rich in idioms from ancient statecraft. Moreover, Chinese writing about the future security environment describes the future in terms of the Warring States era in Chinese history. (41) The age in which the classics of Chinese statecraft were produced was a time when a multistate competition to become "hegemon" featured stratagems, small wars, interstate conferences, treaties, and what Western scholars of international relations would label "anarchy." One set of "lessons" (among many) was how to become a hegemon; another was how to survive destruction at the hands of a predatory hegemon.

One specific Chinese premise from the ancient statecraft of the Warring States era seems to influence Chinese authors who write about the United States today--the concept of how to diagnose and deal with a powerful "hegemon" (ba) that seeks to dominate several other less powerful states. The way hegemons conducted themselves during the Warring States period of ancient China forms one of the sources of the classic lessons of Chinese statecraft. Unfortunately, lessons from Chinese statecraft about dealing with a predatory hegemon are little known in the West, and there is no guide for Westerners to the famous stories in Chinese traditional statecraft so well known to all our authors. (42) According to interviews with Chinese military officers, these stories are embedded in Chinese culture just as the West has its own history, its own literature, and its own Bible stories. This prologue selects only one subject among many from the lessons of the Warring States--how China in the future should assess and deal with a powerful hegemon.

China's military authors have called the future multipolar world "amazingly" similar to the Warring States era and declare that China's future security environment resembles the Warring States era in several ways. A representative article by Colonel Liu Chungzi of the National Defense University Strategy Department states that Sun Zi's The Art of War was "the product of the multipolar world structure in China 2500 years ago," that "there are a surprising number of similarities between Sun Zi's time and the contemporary multipolar trend,"and that "in the 1990s, the world entered a multipolar era very similar to the time of Sun Zi." (43) General Gao Rui, former Vice President of the Academy of Military Science (AMS), writes that the era is "extremely distant from modern times, but still shines with the glory of truth" and "the splendid military legacy created through the bloody struggles of our ancient ancestors . . . [today] has a radiance even more resplendent." (44) Others claim that China should study "treasuries" of strategies from the Warring States. Many books have been published in the last 5 years as a revival of interest in ancient statecraft has been officially blessed by a large commission of China's generals. The director of research at the General Staff Department of the People's Liberation Army published six volumes of studies on ancient statecraft in 1996 that contained specific advice on how to comprehend the current and future security environment. (45)

geopolitical calculations

n essential aspect of assessing the security environment is said to be determining the rank order of the power held by the various warring states. Although today's Chinese concept of Comprehensive National Power (CNP) was invented in the early 1980s, it originally stemmed from Chinese traditional military philosophy. Authors who currently assess the CNP of different nations can find precedents in the ancient classics. For example, Sun Zi identified "five things" and "seven stratagems" that govern the outcome of war, and Wu Zi wrote about six conditions in which, if the other side's strength was greater, war should be avoided. Colonel Wu Chunqiu of AMS writes that these six points "are relatively complete, they simply are the epitome of [today's concept of] Comprehensive National Power." (46)

However, much like current times, Chinese ancient strategists also attempted to help their country achieve dominance through nonwarfare methods. According to Wu Chunqiu, calculating CNP can aid a nation not just for war but also to "coordinate a political and diplomatic offensive, to psychologically disintegrate the enemy forces and subdue them." Assessing one's own CNP can also aid a country in promoting development and growth.

Two studies by the late Herbert Goldhamer of the RAND Corporation sought to outline some of the content of Chinese statecraft and China's unique perceptions. (47) One of Goldhamer's insights relevant to this study is his emphasis on how China's ancient statecraft demanded efforts to calculate the future. He points out that ancient China's first Minister was called "The Universal Calculator"; that the philosopher Han Feizi demanded that strategy be based on cost-benefit calculations; and that the philosopher Mozi persuaded an enemy general to surrender by showing he could calculate through a "seminar game" what the outcome of the battle would be. (48)

The Warring States era had the equivalent of general staffs, which calculated the strengths and intentions of players in this multipolar world. (49) Sun Zi warned that victory depended on calculations and estimates of enemy strength and weaknesses made in advance by advisers in the temple council; Mozi taught his students the future could be known. (50) Two of ancient China's greatest advisers on statecraft, Lord Shang and Li Si, warned of the need for calculating the future in a multipolar strategic environment. Li Si wrote a famous memorandum to the ruler of Qin, the man who would unify China and become its first emperor, warning, "This is the one moment in ten thousand ages. If your Highness allows it to slip away . . . there will form an anti-Qin alliance." (51)

With regard to calculating the future, Goldhamer suggests that political writings from ancient China contained "principled predictions," not just intuition or guess work. For example, Lord Shang, a famous adviser in Qin, warned that the price for neglecting quantitative calculations would be that even a state with a large population and a favorable geographical position "will become weaker and weaker, until it is dismembered. . . .The early kings did not rely on their beliefs but on their figures." (52) The subject of Chinese statecraft in a multipolar world explored by Goldhamer remains important to China's process of strategic assessment, especially judging by the sharp increase of Chinese military publications about the relevance of ancient statecraft in the last few years.

geopolitical strategy

Warring states that rose too fast suffered attack, dismemberment, and even complete extinction. In the final phase of the Warring States era, as every literate Chinese knows, a brilliant strategist formed a coalition that stood for several decades against the predatory hegemon Qin. Chinese authors today apparently believe the United States is this kind of hegemon, which, if provoked, will attack or "contain" China to preserve its hegemony.

The existence of a dangerous and predatory hegemon is the context of Deng Xiaoping's advice, which employs expressions from the Warring States and other ancient texts to guide future Chinese leaders on strategy. China must "tao guang yang hui," which, literally translated, means "Hide brightness, nourish obscurity," or, as the official Beijing interpretation translates the four-character idiom, "Bide our time and build up our capabilities." China at present is too poor and weak and must avoid being dragged into local wars, conflicts about spheres of influence, or struggles over natural resources. Deng's much-quoted advice also is to "yield on small issues with the long term in mind."

How is Deng's advice about dealing in the future with a dangerous hegemon actually applied? Dr. Yan Xuetong, Director of the Center for Foreign Policy at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), China's largest international research institute, warned in an article in 1997 that the probability of China's avoiding war for at least 10 more years will increase the more China avoids any confrontation not only with the current global hegemon but with at least two of the other major powers. Like his colleague at CASS, who warns about the dangerous decade from 2020 to 2030, when the U.S. leadership will finally realize that China's power is about to surpass America's, the CICIR center director warns that from ancient times, the hegemon will form a coalition to strangle to death (e mo) a rising power when he fears he is to be replaced. Deng Xiaoping's additional word of advice was bu chu tou--never be the leader or, literally translated, "Don't stick your head out."

President Jiang Zemin has issued traditional-style, poetic statements in sets of 16 Chinese characters that continue Deng's cautious advice about avoiding confrontation with the hegemon. (53) Under Jiang Zemin, an additional set of writings (five books in 1996) has advocated that China's military programs be focused on the potential RMA rather than improving current weapons. According to these books, the potential RMA will not "mature" until at least 2030, by which time Chinese military authors calculate that China (or possibly Japan) will score highest in the world in CNP and be well positioned, as General Mi Zhenyu has written, to "get ahead of all the others." (54)

Deng Xiaoping's call for caution is not the only lesson based on ancient statecraft. Other Chinese authors (called hotheads by their critics) want to take the initiative to form a coalition against the United States, Warring States style. This is the opposite of not sticking your head out, or biding your time. China's ultranationalist and well-connected author He Xin advocates that China, "under the banner of opposing the hegemon" should align with every anti-American nation in the world, explicitly citing the powerful precedent of the Warring States coalition. Critics of He Xin, especially authors from his former employer CASS, point out that the Warring States era ended when a more brilliant statesman adroitly broke up the coalition and became the founding emperor of China, which may be just what He Xin fears. He predicts that the future ambition of the United States is to impose world domination.

He Xin's critics, however, project a sharp decline in the global role of the United States, asserting that in two decades or so:

From this viewpoint, dealing with the dangerous hegemon is only a temporary problem. Within two or three decades, or so, the problem will solve itself, as happened many times in the Warring States era.

Patience and caution are thus seen to be wiser than aggressive coalition building against the United States. Dr. Yan Xuetong, of CICIR, has cautioned that the ruling American hegemon can be kept from using force to contain China's rise as long as certain policy goals are maximized: annually increasing exports up to 9 percent and avoiding simultaneous confrontation with the United States and two other powerful nations. Using the following imaginative table of probabilities, Dr. Yan predicts that China can avoid war for at least 10 years by adopting these two policies. However, his table shows that as China's annual share of export markets declines and the number of powerful nations China confronts increases, the probability that China will become involved in war with the United States increases rather sharply.

Table 1. The Rank and Index Numbers of Individual Indexes

The international environment for a rising power Very favorable Relatively favorable Relatively unfavorable Very unfavorable

Index Numbers of Individual Indexes

Index 4 3 2 1 Unit
Anticipated time of being drawn into a war >10 >5
0 Year
Unity with the strategic interests of other powers Be in unity with the United States and one power Be opposed to the United States and in unity with three powers Be opposed to the United States and one power Be opposed to the United States and two powers Country
The increasing share of export markets >0.3 >0.1
<0 %

Source: Yan Xuetong, "Zhongguo jueqi de guoji huanjing pinggu" (An Assessment of the international environment of China's rise), Zhanlue yu guanli (Strategy and Management) 20, no. 1 (1997):18, 20, 23.

Not all authors are as optimistic as Dr. Yan. Indeed, his fellow author at CICIR, Zhang Wenmu, presents a more pessimistic diagnosis also based on Warring States premises. The hegemon needs resources, and such a hegemon presents a set of dangers China will face because of America's desperate need for access to new oil and gas resources, especially in Central Asia. According to Zhang's assessment of U.S. future strategy, the United States has begun to interfere in the Tibet issue as part of a larger scheme involving the enlargement of NATO and the redefinition of the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines. Zhang believes U.S. strategy is always to "follow the oil." In World War II, the United States did not intervene until Japan changed its strategy and moved toward oil supplies. Similarly, before the Gulf War, the United States ignored Iraqi expansion toward the North and West and even "pretended" not to notice, but when Saudi and Kuwait oil was threatened, the United States went to war. Zhang writes that in 1998 the United States had a "two arms" strategy to contain both Russia (with NATO enlargement) and China (with the new Japan Defense Guidelines and promoting the China Threat Theory).

In addition, Zhang predicts that the United States wants to screen off both Chinese and Russian access to Central Asian oil and gas. To accomplish this strategic goal, the United States will promote the future independence of Tibet from China. If there is internal turmoil in Tibet or farther north in Muslim Xinjiang, Zhang predicts that the United States will try to set up an international no-fly zone as it did after the Gulf War. In a disguised manner, this would amount to "dismembering" Tibet and Xinjiang, the hub or pivot of China's geopolitical position. This is particularly dangerous because the Soviet collapse started with the independence of the Baltic states. A chain reaction from Tibet and Xinjiang would affect China's industrial southwest and cause the loss of the high plateau, which provides natural protection to the west. Zhang therefore recommends that China take the lead in settling the Afghan civil war (which he says the United States is prolonging through covert aid to the Taliban fundamentalists). At the same time, Zhang advocates more caution. China must get the Central Asia oil market oriented to China. It is better to place high priority on land transport of oil and gas, which China's superiority in ground forces can protect, rather than depend in the future on sealanes for oil supplies that the United States and Japan will threaten with their powerful navies. (55) These recommendations had their counterparts in the Warring States era.

Zhang Wenmu and Dr. Yan Xuetong contrast sharply with the strategic diagnosis and recommendation based on the Warring States period offered by one of China's most colorful and controversial strategic authors, He Xin, who frequently uses analogies to the era. (56) Reformers despise him and orthodox analysts tend to distance themselves from his outspoken nationalistic writings, which run against Deng Xiaoping's advice to "bide our time" and "never take the lead." Nevertheless, there is no better example of how statecraft from the Warring States era can affect China's assessments of the future. Among many other articles, He Xin has written a call for a Chinese-led coalition against today's hegemon before it is too late. He Xin cites the precedent of the Warring States era, because "the past can help us understand the present" and outlines key points: (57)

Somewhere between the cautionary advice of Deng Xiaoping, Dr. Yan, and Zhang Wenmu, and the bold demand of He Xin for anti-U.S. coalition building, lies the strategic advice offered by Liu Jinghua, of CASS. While less dramatic than He Xin's proposal for a global anti-U.S. coalition, his suggestion deals with the same problem of preventing the predatory, hegemonic United States from containing China's rise, or worse, and is also firmly in the tradition of Warring States statecraft. Liu warns that by 2020 to 2030, serious confrontations will begin among the major powers. At present, it is wise to tao guang yang hui (conceal abilities and bide time), in order to eliminate the China Threat Theory, but by 2020 that policy will not be sufficient. The United States (and Europe, too) will by then begin seriously to attempt to contain China. Then, "once the flood begins, we must have a 'Great Wall' that cannot collapse." One part of this "Great Wall" must be a partnership with Russia to defeat Western containment of China, which will be attempted by restricting access to capital markets and technology, promoting Western values and using military power "as the core" against China. (62) Implicit here, too, is that China has plenty of time and needs mainly not to provoke the hegemon in the intervening two decades until the Great Wall can be made ready.

Another diagnosis and recommendation project onto the United States the kind of knowledge from ancient statecraft that a true predatory hegemon ought to have. This is a kind of mirror image from the Warring States. According to General Li Jijun, one of China's most distinguished military authors and a former Vice President of AMS, the greater danger to a nation's survival is not warfare but zhanlue wudao--"strategic misdirection"--in the current multipolar world structure. General Li describes the United States as being particularly adept at this strategy, as powerful hegemons used to be.

According to Genera Li, the United States brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union with strategic misdirection. Washington deceptively stimulated the Soviets to increase their defense budget to great heights through various means, including the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), which the United States had no intention of deploying, Li writes. The United States also supported the opposition in Poland and Afghanistan, drove down the price of oil to cut off the main source of Soviet foreign exchange, and exacerbated the domestic Soviet political crisis. In 1990, Washington again used strategic misdirection against Saddam Hussein, in order to contain his rising power in the Gulf. As supposedly revealed by an American author, Washington deliberately lured Saddam into invading Kuwait, in part through deliberately deceptive comments to Saddam by the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad, to the effect that the United States did not care if he invaded Kuwait. General Li, comparing the strategic cultures of all the major powers, concludes that the preferred "strategic cultural" approach of the United States is strategic misdirection. Citing the lessons of history, General Li warns that "unconsciously accepting an opponent's strategic misdirection causes a nation to be defeated or collapse, and not know why." (63)

General Li is not the only PLA officer to hold this view. Following the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in spring 1999, a Chinese journal interviewed several PLA generals about the attack; they stated that one reason for the United States to bomb the embassy was strategic misdirection. An article in the June issue of Zhongguo Pinglun concludes, "The Western forces are attempting to drag China into the mire of the arms race. The United States is planning to pursue a TMD [theatre missile defense] system . . . so that the Chinese will step into the shoes of the former Soviet Union. In an arms race with the United States, China will consume its national power, and collapse without a battle." (64) A key strategy of the Warring States was to attempt to do just this to an opponent.

Having made the point that these nine authors from five key research institutes use lessons and metaphors from the Warring States era and ancient statecraft, the first chapter presents several debates underway among many authors about the exact nature of the future "multipolar" security environment China will face in the decades ahead.


41. The Warring States era (475-221 BC) was "the flowering age for the Chinese fable and exerted a definite influence on works of later centuries," according to K. L. Kiu, 100 Ancient Chinese Fables (Taipei: Taiwan Commercial Press, 1993), 8.

42. A forthcoming study for OSD Net Assessment discusses Chinese military writings published since 1993 on the contemporary relevance of ancient Chinese statecraft, including the following books: Sanshiliu ji gujin tan (Ancient and modern discussions on the 36 stratagems), Zhisheng taolue--Sun Zi zhanzheng zhixing guanlun (Strategies of superiority--Sun Zi's views on knowledge and action in war), Bu zhan er qu ren zhi bing--Zhongguo gudai xinlizhan sixiang ji qi yunyong (Conquest without combat--ancient Chinese psychological warfare thought and usage), Zhongguo lidai zhanzheng gailan (An outline of warfare in past Chinese dynasties), Quanmou shu--Shujia yu yingjia de jiaoliang (Power stratagems--a contest of losers and winners), Sun Zi bingfa yu sanshiliu ji (Sun Zi's the art of war and the thirty-six stratagems), Zhongguo gudai bingfa jingcui (The essence of the ancient Chinese Art of war), Sun Zi bingfa de diannao yanjiu (Computer studies on Sun Zi's the art of war), and Ershiwu li junshi moulue gushi jingxuan (A selection of 25 stories on ancient military strategy).

43. Liu Chungzi, "Sun Zi yu dangdai junshi douzheng" (Sun Zi and contemporary military struggles), Zhongguo junshi kexue (China Military Science) 33, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 136.

44. Gao Rui, Zhongguo shanggu junshi shi (Chinese ancient military history)(Beijing: Junshi kexue chubanshe, 1995), 2.

45. See the three two-volume sets by Chai Yuqiu, Moulue jia (Strategists), Moulue lun (Strategic theories), and Moulue ku (Treasury of strategies)(Beijing: Guangxi renmin chubanshe, 1995).

46. Wu Chunqiu, Guangyi da zhanlue (Grand strategy)(Beijing: Shishi chubanshe, 1995), 98.

47. Herbert Goldhamer, The Adviser (New York: Elsevier, 1978); Herbert Goldhamer, Reality and Belief in Military Affairs: A First Draft (Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation, 1979).

48. Goldhamer, The Adviser, 130-132.

49. Goldhamer, Reality and Belief in Military Affairs, 32-33.

50. Huang Yingxu, "Manyi Zhongguo gudai junshi sixiang zhong de minben jingshen" (A discussion on the spirit of relying on the people in Chinese ancient military thought), Zhongguo junshi kexue (China Military Science) 34, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 121-125. Colonel Huang describes the change from divination to calculation in the Spring and Autumn era. He is a Research Fellow in the department of Mao Zedong Military Thought at AMS.

51. Goldhamer, The Adviser, 121.

52. Ibid., 135-136.

53. The 16-character policy put forward by Jiang is, "To enhance confidence, decrease troubles, promote cooperation and avoid confrontation" (zengjia xinren, jianshao mafan, fazhan hezuo, bugao duikang). Quoted in Lu Zhongwei, "On China-U.S.-Japan Trilateral Relations--Comments on Their Recent Exchanges of Top-level Visits," Contemporary International Relations 7, no. 12 (December 1997): 9.

54. Mi Zhenyu, Zhongguo guofang fazhan gouxiang (China's national defense development concepts) (Beijing: Jiefangjun chubanshe, 1988). Excerpts translated in Michael Pillsbury, ed., Chinese Views of Future Warfare (Washington: National Defense University Press, 1997), 361-381. Mi Zhenyu is a former Vice President of the Academy of Military Science (AMS).

55. Zhang Wenmu, "Meiguo de shiyou diyuan zhanyue yu Zhongguo Xizang Xinjiang diqu anquan" (America's geopolitical oil strategy and the security of China's Tibet and Xinjiang regions), Zhanlue yu guanli (Strategy and Management) 27, no. 2 (1998): 100-104.

56. He Xin himself has been compared by a Western analyst to the strategists of the Warring States era that he so admires: "The Party leadership throughout its history has relied on intellectuals and ideologues to rationalize the quirks of its decisionmaking. The more talented and astute intellectuals of this kind serve a function not dissimilar to that of the advisers to the imperial court; or perhaps their role can be likened to that of the itinerant 'lobbyists' (youshui zhi shi) or the 'strategists' (zonghengjia) of the Warring States period. Sometimes these hired hands have proved to be highly capable men, as the case of Chen Boda, Chou Yang, and Hu Qiaomu in the 1940s and 1950s, or Yao Wenyuan in the 1960s. Though he has yet to achieve the prominence of the above-listed figures, over recent years another intellectual has appeared on the scene to vie with clever young things employed by Zhao Ziyang and his supporters. His name is He Xin." See He Xin, "A Word of Advice to the Politburo," translated, annotated, and introduced by Geremie Barme, The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, no. 23 (January 1990): 50.

57. He Xin, Zhongguo fuxing yu shijie weilai (China's rejuvenation and the world's future)(Chengdu: Sichuan renmin chubanshe, 1996), 41.

58. In addition to the one superpower (the United States) and four powers (Japan, China, Germany, and Russia) usually cited by Chinese authors, He Xin also includes France and England. Ibid., 30.

59. Ibid., 31.

60. Ibid., 41.

61. Ibid., 41-42.

62. Liu Jinghua, "Ershi yi shiji ershi sanshi niandai Zhongguo jueqi ji waijiao zhanlue xueze" (Diplomatic strategic alternatives for a rising China in 2020 to 2030), Zhanlue yu guanli (Strategy and Management) 4, no. 3 (1994), 119.

63. Li Jijun, "Zhanlue wenhua" (Strategic culture), Zhongguo junshi kexue (China Military Science) 38, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 8-15.

64. "China Must be Ready to Fight a World War--PLA Believes That the West is Hatching Six Major Conspiracies Against China," Sing Tao Jih Pao (Hong Kong), May 28, 1999, b14, in FBIS-CHI-1999-0528, June 1, 1999.