James Holmes

Can China ‘Win’ Without Fighting?

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James Holmes

Can China ‘Win’ Without Fighting?

Beijing’s “shadowboxing” strategy: China may have the luxury of wearing down Japan in the East China Sea.

What options does Japan have?  Robert Dujarric gives us three in our China Power section here.

A few weeks back I likened China’s anti-access strategy vis-à-vis the United States to the “rope-a-dope” strategy Muhammad Ali pursued during his famous Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman. In wartime, that is, China would let an initially stronger U.S. Pacific Fleet overextend and exhaust itself getting into the theater before risking a fleet-on-fleet battle. It would overcome the Pacific Fleet in the same manner the lighter, more agile Ali beat the burlier Foreman—with a flurry of punches against a tired adversary.

Such a strategy conforms to Mao Zedong’s counsel to let the other boxer waste his energy foolishly while conserving one’s own energy for the decisive counterpunch. But what about a match in which China played the part of Foreman, the bigger, stronger contestant?

There’s a boxing metaphor for China’s peacetime strategy as well. Retired Japanese vice admiral Yoji Koda says Beijing is “shadowboxing” with fellow Asian powers in the East China Sea. Sparring with them individually makes China the stronger competitor. Because numbers are on its side, for instance, China’s leadership can keep law-enforcement ships on station near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, send PLA Navy task forces through the Miyako Strait and other waterways as a matter of routine, and otherwise overtax finite Japanese military and law-enforcement resources.

It can dance around the ring constantly—compelling its opponent to follow. So long as Tokyo feels the need to monitor Chinese maritime movements, it may wear out its coast guard and navy. In short, Beijing can impose a hyperactive operating tempo on the Japanese sea services—dispersing and enfeebling them while disheartening the Japanese leadership and electorate over time. Ultimately Tokyo may throw in the towel, acknowledging it can no longer keep pace.

China’s navy and police services can sustain such a tempo indefinitely without breaking equipment or tiring out crews. That’s the luxury of being the stronger party to peacetime competition. Shadowboxing, then, is a more offensive variety of the rope-a-dope strategy in which the boxer has no desire to knock out his opponent. He’s determined to win on points—even if it takes the full fifteen rounds, or another bout, or another one after that.

Moving around the ring constantly while feinting or jabbing against an opponent from a lighter weight class lets the shadowboxer score points without cutting loose with a haymaker. In so doing he preserves his strength. He avoids exposing himself to a lucky counterpunch. And he avoids making himself look like a bully in the crowd’s eyesfor decking an outclassed antagonist.

The main challenge is self-discipline. The shadowboxer has to content himself with a victory on points. That means foregoing the glory of a knockout. That’s a tough thing for any pugilist to swallow—especially a pugilist like China that’s attempting a comeback to reverse a long history of defeat.

But, why win by a knockout when you can win without fighting?