James Holmes

How Chinese Strategists Think

Commentators err in reducing US-China competition to economic and military numbers. Competition is a human enterprise.

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.

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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.