The West’s First War with China

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This month marks the 350th anniversary of the West’s first war with China. In February 1662, Generalissimo Zheng Chenggong swept the Dutch off of Taiwan, bringing the island under Chinese rule for the first time in history. The Dutch were Europe’s most dynamic colonial power, and the Taiwan colony was their largest holding in Asia, so the war is fascinating from the perspective of global history, touching on the question of the global balance of power in the pre-modern world.

But the war also has lessons for today, because among the factors that enabled the Chinese to win was a rich, effective, and, to Westerners, mysterious military tradition – a strategic culture that provided a discernable boost to Chinese warcraft. The Dutch, famous in Europe for their weapons, tactics, and logistics, found themselves hopelessly outclassed by the Chinese. Since military leaders in China today are still deeply imbued with this traditional military culture, it behooves us to study it.

Westerners still tend to underestimate Chinese military prowess, viewing China as a historically peaceful nation frequently invaded by bellicose neighbors: Huns, Mongols, Manchus, and, of course, Japanese. During World War II, U.S. and British propaganda strengthened this image by depicting China as a hapless victim of a modernized, assertive, and militarily effective Japan. Most westerners even believe that the Chinese invented gunpowder but never used it in weapons, reserving it for fireworks.

In fact, the first guns were developed in China, as were the first cannons, rockets, grenades, and land mines. The Chinese eagerly studied foreigners’ weapons, such as Japanese muskets and English cannons. So it’s no surprise that on Taiwan, the Dutch found themselves hard pressed by Chinese firepower. The Dutch were no laggards. Dutch cannons and handguns were famous throughout Europe, and the Dutch arms industry was a major part of its booming early-capitalist economy. Yet the guns aimed against them by their Chinese foes were strikingly effective, and the Chinese gunners were so fast and so accurate that, as one Dutch commander wrote in chagrin, “they put our own men to shame.”

Yet an even greater Chinese advantage in this Sino-Dutch War was in the area of leadership. The Dutch were known throughout Europe as the inventors of modern military drill, and, indeed, Dutch innovations revolutionized warfare in Europe. Dutch drilling regimes — in which musketmen were trained to march in lockstep, carry out intricate maneuvers, and act as one coordinated unit — spread throughout the West, prompting military historians to argue that Europeans possessed a special “Western Way of War,” making them the most effective fighting troops in the world.

But, in a striking coincidence of world history, at the same time as Europeans were developing their new drilling regimens, China was undergoing a military revolution of its own. Perhaps one should instead say “revival” of its own, because ancient Chinese armies were incredibly well drilled and disciplined. Still, the revival of the 1500s and 1600s went well beyond ancient models, and Chinese commanders experimented with training regimens that sound strikingly modern – the simulation of combat stress, the assumption of prone positions for firefights (Westerners were trained to stand up, exposing their bodies to more bullets), advanced strength and endurance training regimens.

The Chinese forces the Dutch faced on Taiwan were extremely well-trained, and the Dutch, for all their Western Way of War, were routed on the battlefields like novices.

But the most important Chinese advantage was in strategic and tactical culture. Chinese military commanders were able to draw on two millennia of careful thinking on warfare. Most Westerners know about Sun Tzu’s Art of War, which is read by CEO’s from Germany to California, but most westerners have no idea how many brilliant strategists, tacticians, and logistics experts succeeded Sun Tzu, building the world’s richest corpus of military thought.

Zheng Chenggong and his generals referenced complex scenarios and stratagems by means of a few words, much as westerners use the term “Trojan Horse.” This store of knowledge helped the Chinese to outwit the Dutch at nearly every turn, luring them into traps, making careful use of terrain, combining naval and land power in unexpected and effective ways.

The Dutch, concluding that they had no hope to prevail against the superior Chinese forces, ultimately gave up and handed Taiwan over to the Chinese. The next war between Chinese and Western forces wasn’t fought for another two centuries, and by that time the global balance of power had shifted. Europe was industrializing. China was in decline.

Today, China is modernizing at an incredible clip, and the U.S. appears to be in decline. The technological balance is still in the West’s favor, but the situation is changing fast.

Maybe it’s an awareness of this rapidly-changing status quo that’s motivating Western experts to urge Washington to contain China, and it seems that President Barack Obama is moving in this direction, even as his Republican rivals urge even more ambitious military buildups.

Yet one rarely hears them making a much cheaper and ultimately more effective suggestion: to learn more about traditional Chinese warcraft and military affairs. No nation is so deeply imbued with its own history as China. Commanders in China’s armed forces are as deeply aware of China’s deep legacy of military thought as Zheng Chenggong and his generals were. They know their Sun Tzu, their Zhuge Liang, their Qi Jiguang. But they can also quote Clausewitz and Mahan and Petraeus. They know their own tradition, and they know the Western tradition. They’re following Sun Tzu’s advice: “Know your enemy and know yourself.”

If Westerners don’t study the Chinese military tradition, then the West will be at a significant disadvantage. The Sino-Dutch War, Europe’s First War with China, is a great place to start learning.

Tonio Andrade is a professor of history at Emory University. He is the author of the recent book 'Lost Colony:The Untold Story of China's First Great Victory over The West'.

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