James Holmes

Can China Learn from Rome?

China can emulate a Roman general known for delay—if it has the patience.

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.