How Chinese Strategists Think
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How Chinese Strategists Think


Toshi Yoshihara joins me (or I join him) over at Investor’s Business Daily to refocus attention on the human dimension of the U.S.-China strategic competition. Followers of these pages pixels know that Toshi and I are true believers in the idea that competition is a human enterprise. As Colonel John Boyd liked to say, people, ideas, and hardware — in that order — are the determinants of competitive endeavors like power politics.

People, not stuff, fight.

That’s not to say hardware is unimportant. Not for nothing did author Hilaire Belloc ascribe British imperial dominance over subject peoples to the fact that “we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not.” Too great a material advantage, then, can translate into an insurmountable competitive advantage. And this mismatch holds true beyond colonial wars against outgunned antagonists. World War I proved that there were limits to men’s capacity to stand against fire, even when peer army faced peer army.

But human ingenuity is crucial even in the material dimension, isn’t it? It’s the common denominator among all of Boyd’s elements of competition. People with ample resources concoct gee-whiz engines of war. People not blessed with such abundance can work around material shortcomings, devising asymmetric tactics and weaponry to get more bang out of scarce materiel. Look no further than the improvised explosive device, a homemade landmine that has given high-tech militaries fits in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Only expensive countermeasures have kept the IED menace at bay, and imperfectly so at that.

Which is a roundabout way of getting back to China. As red-blooded ‘Mercans, my wingman and I have little sympathy with Beijing’s goals. But as professors we’ve come to admire how assiduously our Chinese counterparts do their homework. They look to history, and to the greats of strategic theory, to guide their thinking and illuminate their strategic discourses. Mahan is a fixture in debates over sea power, however improbable that might seem. Corbett puts in the odd appearance. And, unsurprisingly, Sun Tzu and Mao are regulars.

In a sense Chinese scholars are running a Far Eastern campus of our Strategy and Policy Department. We read theory with our students, use strategic precepts to evaluate history, and see where the analysis takes us. Strategists in China read theory, apply it to history — as in the Rise of the Great Powers books and TV series– and see where the process takes them. In short, these are strategic competitors worth taking seriously. And their playbook is strikingly similar to ours.

Western commentators err badly if they reduce the U.S.-China competition to GDP figures, numbers of ships, warplanes, and other widgets, or other quantitative measures. Colonel Boyd would disapprove — and rightly so.

June 29, 2013 at 21:52

Security strategic decision making agenda should be based on the analysis of threats, interests, resources of present situation, moreover cost-benifit analysis and MIXIMIZING PREFERENCES and it requires the least amount of information to "predict" behavior (not on the past interests).It is called a realist model. Our Chinese brother know it. Here is an effordless way in thinking is KNOW OURSELVE AND KNOW OTHER'S INTENTION.(ref:oci/mit/edu/course/ps/)

June 26, 2013 at 09:58

Mark Thomason wrote:

June 22, 2013 at 8:37 pm

China did not seek to occupy and govern Vietnam.

Vietnam coming off the war with the US was on an emotional high. It was challenging China politically. In particular, it invaded Cambodia. This was an odd reversal of US fears of the domino theory. Also, Vietnam was seen by China as siding with the Soviet Union against China, opening a second front in the South of China.

China demonstrated that the Soviets could not or would not protect Vietnam from China. China also put a major scare into the Vietnamese Army, which was not defeated but was badly beaten up with Hanoi opened to operations by China at the end.

It was a lesson, about the Soviets and about respecting the Chinese. It worked.

China had done the same thing to India in the previous decade, in the same way. China had no intention of occupying the remote Himalayan areas fought over, just teaching a lesson to India. That worked too.

China paid a high price in infantry lives for teaching lessons. The Chinese leadership seems to have been fine with that.


A good post.  I'd just change a few things.

China had to abandon Zhangnan after defeating the Indians in 1962 because the supply routes to this area were very thin and unsustainable.  I think it was a mistake to retreat because if China had difficulty supplying the Chinese soldiers the Indians had just as much difficulties supplying the Indian soldiers.  In retrospect, the Indians were too demoralized to launch another large scale attack in Zhangnan if the Chinese soldiers stayed.  Now the situation is totally different.  China has build many roads, railroads, airports, etc. through the region.  China also has large capacity for air-dropping supplies with fixed wing planes and helicopters, far more than India.  Therefore, China has no more problems supplying its troops in the region in the event of a sustained war.  Some reports indicate that China has some 500,000 troops poised to take back Zhangnan and hold it this time.  (To counter this, India is proposing to deploy some 50,000 troops.  If India thinks it can fight 500,000 well armed Chinese troops with 50,000 poorly armed Indian troops, then it is asking for another humiliating defeat.)  China can also liberate the neighboring Indian territories whose people are clamoring to be independent or outright join China to enjoy greater wealth and respect under the Chinese protection.

Kim's Uncle
June 26, 2013 at 05:45


Chinese Communist society is very, very open minded and tolerant too!  Just ask Liu Xiao Bo.  How about Ai Weiwei..  How about the blind the Chinese activist deported to NYU and wrote about China's forced abortions?

Is this China's soft power?  

Are you sure you're a refugee from communism as you claim?   


Kim's Uncle
June 26, 2013 at 05:34


"This is not necessarily true.  Every knowledgeable people know that the USSR produced far superior weapons than the US".  (Eyes roll)

You're welcome to hold that point of view.  That's a belief.  There are people in this world who would deny the Holocaust and there are people who think they will ascend heaven and be rewarded with 72 virgins once they crashed a hijacked plane into the World Trade Towers.  

The operative words here are reasonable, objectivity, impartiality, and honesty.  

Look up these words! It takes maturity see the world as it is not what one wants it to be.  

June 25, 2013 at 16:41

This is what is known as the Chinese Dream!!

Kim's Uncle
June 25, 2013 at 11:14

@ Sanford and son, please do not embarrass red Chinese so openly like that in the international language in front of an international audience!

There is no such thing as MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Uof Tokyo, UC system, etc. in China.

There is no such thing as Chinese Nobel laureates in the sciences either! Not this year, not in 5 years, not in 20 years!

Such rhetorical questions will only make commie Chinese more resentful, jealous, hateful and war like! They have very fragile psyche!

It just shows how weak their Chinese society is because it is just a cut n paste society. Even bad ideas like communism was not from china but Chinese cut n paste communism into china. The uninventive nature of Chinese society just shows Chinese have to import bad ideas too!

June 24, 2013 at 19:02


You are confusing "free speech" with "whistle blowing". What Snowden is doing is the same as what Daniel Ellsberg was doing during the Vietnam War, that is taking the risk of revealing confidential information because these secrets MAY reveal wrong doings (unconstitutionality)  by their governments. "Free speech" is about the right to disagree, without taking the risk of doing anything illegal (such as disclosing confidential information).

June 24, 2013 at 18:18

@Nguoi Phan Bien,

You seem to take pleasure in "putting your 2 cents" here and there, but when pressed on to provide evidence, you just rely on evasive tactics. "I have been on TV, I have watched, I have this and I have that…". With so many records on your supposed debating talent, why don't you tell on which TV did you appear, on which date, debating against who?

I suggest then that you change your pen name from "Phan Bien" to "Phan Boi", because your talent in "Phan Bien" is poor.

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