Can China Learn from Rome?
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Can China Learn from Rome?

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It strikes me there’s a more highfalutin’ metaphor than Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope ploy for Beijing’s strategy in the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands—namely Roman history.

China can dispatch unarmed or lightly armed ships from its fisheries, surveillance, or law-enforcement services to disputed waters. Japanese ships must follow lest Tokyo appear to forfeit administrative control of the archipelago. Chinese mariners can run their Japanese counterparts ragged. And indeed, yesterday the Japan Coast Guard reported that four ships from China’s non-military maritime agencies entered the territorial sea encircling Uotsurijima, the largest of the islets. This was the latest in a string of such incursions. Beijing appears intent on establishing a near-constant presence around the islands, tiring out JCG ships and crews sent to police sovereign waters.

Enter Quintus Fabius. During Rome’s second war against the North African city-state of Carthage, general and dictator Fabius mastered the art of stalling for time against the vaunted Carthaginian army commanded by Hannibal. Time was on Rome’s side; the balance of forces was not. Fabius, writes historian Polybius, grasped his army’s “manifest inferiority.” He thus “made up his mind to incur no danger and not to risk a battle” against battle-hardened foemen. He simply lurked nearby, posing a threat while refusing combat. Because the Roman army was fighting on home ground—Hannibal had landed in Spain, fought his way overland to the Alps, and crossed the mountains into Italy—it could afford to let the Carthaginians exhaust their resources. Remaining in the field for long intervals debilitated Hannibal’s army, whereas Roman forces were the beneficiary of an “inexhaustible supply of provisions and of men.” Ultimately the balance would tip toward the Roman defenders—even absent major combat.

Such an approach made sense for Fabius, the commander of an inferior force. It muted risk while promising eventual victory. But Fabian strategies are available to the strong as well as the weak. The stronger yet patient contender can cling to the weaker one. Such an approach compels the weaker contender to either back down or expend resources it can ill spare. Delay suits Beijing’s purposes, letting it present Tokyo a no-win choice. Time is on its side. It holds the advantage of numbers—an advantage that will only grow. Ultimately it can avail itself of the military option without undue risk, should it see the need for a definite end to the controversy. Simply having that option will transform the dynamics across the East China Sea.

Whether Chinese leaders have the patience to prosecute a Fabian strategy of the strong, however, remains to be seen. Self-mastery was the key determinant of Roman strategy. Rome needed a Fabius, a general impervious to the lust for renown that impels so many great captains. Rather than seek a decisive battle, he was content to shadow the enemy army, awaiting ideal circumstances to strike. Not for nothing did his contemporaries nickname him “Fabius the Delayer.” On one occasion, fortuitous circumstances let the Roman army strike a heavy blow. Afterward, Hannibal reportedly joked: “Did not I tell you, that this cloud which always hovered upon the mountains would, at some time or other, come down with a storm upon us?”

Gathering storm clouds followed by a sudden cloudburst—that’s a metaphor for the Fabian way of war. But again, a guileful strategy of delay depends on Fabian virtues that are in short supply in China these days. Beijing appears as anxious to humiliate Tokyo as it is to wrest away the contested real estate. If so, impatience may prod it toward rash, decidedly non-Fabian actions.

Comments
15
visions de paix
November 11, 2012 at 20:40

Depends which way Taiwan teeters too.

Gandhi
November 6, 2012 at 04:31

Yeah, Mickey mouse, and I am a White American god.

phil
November 6, 2012 at 02:43

military strategists.. like what? bully the small and weak neighbors and run away from the strong like Russia. So pity!

talking points
November 6, 2012 at 01:22

the professor often times get carried away with history. there is no need to use rome examples. the simple fact is that China is determined to get the island back using non military means.
it is just too bad Japan got greedy and tried to change the status quo. The good thing is China only trying to control the island with cilivian ships.
the whole world, especially US, should learn from China. stop the gunboat diplomacy, use law enforcement diplomacy.
China is rewriting engagement rules of big power politics. we are witness human progress and history here. yet the professor is thinking everything in military terms

Milk
November 6, 2012 at 00:04

You are right, China just killed millions of their own people during the glorious culture revolution, enslave the peaceful nation of Tibet, intimidated its neighbors, rewrote history and fabricated bogus maps to claim territorys and stole technology and claim it as their own.  China has been quite busy would't you say?

Errol
November 5, 2012 at 19:59

There has been signs that Beijing wants to cow Tokyo. The CPC is very effective in suppressing large assemblies of people when it wants to, and yet people were able to hold massive riots against anything Japanese last September. If Beijing didn't organize those events, then it very well gave tacit approval for that chaos to unfold. Add the fact that a lot of Chinese netizens are baying for blood and had been calling the CPC as cowards for not taking a more aggressive stand, and you can see why the author would think that patience might be something that the CPC can afford. Unless you would think that the riots and the netizens's comments are Western propaganda?

Errol
November 5, 2012 at 19:55

Er… tactics and strategies are not based on ideology or geographics. What Rome did can be found in the Art of War. Avoiding fighting a superior enemy, esepcially when and where he is strong, is dictated by Sun-Tzu.

Duke
November 5, 2012 at 15:51

Your're right, Bankosut. But that's just so stupid & silly. All nations in the regions will surely run away from China towards the US for its protection,  particurlarly the Japanese right wing will reemerge  sooner & that's no good for anybody especially China in the long run.  BTW, don't boast too much  about your navy & your missiles . Still a long way to go, my dear comrade!

Bankotsu
November 5, 2012 at 14:23

"We all know that Rome was a western power.  China will never, never, emulate military strategies and tactics from western power.  I should know this because I am a Han Chinese."
Rome was still a small state fighting Hannibal when China was a unified empire under Qin dynasty. 
China already has many military strategists since ancient times, I doubt more is needed.

Bankotsu
November 5, 2012 at 14:16

"There is nothing in recent Chinese military history to indicate patience, command and control discipline or even basic strategic thinking. There is abundant evidence of the lack of discipline and control among PLA commanders. So I think professor Holmes asks too much of Beijing here'
But they didn't wage imperialist wars and instigate colour revolutions or use drones to kill people. That is good enough.

CharlieK
November 5, 2012 at 12:35

Does, China have time?
Do not the Chinese leaders need to divert "their"  people's  attention from domestic issues?

Leonard R.
November 5, 2012 at 09:09

There is nothing in recent Chinese military history to indicate patience, command and control discipline or even basic strategic thinking. There is abundant evidence of the lack of discipline and control among PLA commanders. So I think professor Holmes asks too much of Beijing here. 
 
Japan is being patient. I hope it uses this time to rearm itself. That is the only way it can ensure peace.

Mickey Mao
November 5, 2012 at 01:41

We all know that Rome was a western power.  China will never, never, emulate military strategies and tactics from western power.  I should know this because I am a Han Chinese.

applesauce
November 5, 2012 at 00:59

"Fabian virtues that are in short supply in China these days. Beijing appears as anxious to humiliate Tokyo as it is to wrest away the contested real estate"

i fail to see where the author got the above from, china has not gone further than its initial reaction which was sending civilian ships, tokyo's provacations demanded a response and sending civilian ships to change the status quo is about as lightly as they could have done it(that is acceptable to internal and external forces), beijing could have easiely sent military ships to force a show down but tht does not benefit it and from its actions it knows this, playing for time while sapping tokyo of resources and the addition benefits of smashing the illusion of "control" by tokyo is clearly what beijing is doing and by the look of things, its working

Bankotsu
November 5, 2012 at 00:55

"Beijing appears as anxious to humiliate Tokyo as it is to wrest away the contested real estate."
This battle is not between China and Japan. It is between China and the U.S. 
Anything that China does is for the U.S to see.

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