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Is China?s Strategic Culture Anti-Militaristic?

by Justin Arnold Saturday, Jun. 11, 2011 at 9:30 AM

The strategic culture of the People?s Republic of China (PRC) is a contested spiritual concept that is being debated both inside and outside of China and I hope my contribution will help add to this debate. In this paper I will explore the two main variants that go into making up the dualistic concept that is Chinese Strategic Culture so as to ascertain whether should be considered as anti-militaristic.

Is China?s Strategic...
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Justin Arnold

I will first examine the concept of Strategic Culture from both Western and Eastern perspectives and then examine the two leading strands of Strategic Culture in the PRC the traditional Daoist/Confucian strand as well as the modern one that can be encapsulated in the term Marxist-Leninism with Mao-Zedong Thought. By doing this I hope to explore what is potentially a minefield of philosophical and political ideas, in fact a convergence of more than two and a half thousand years of collective thought and human experience.

To realize that our knowledge is ignorance
This is a noble insight
To regard our ignorance as knowledge
That is mental sickness
LaoTzu

In my attempt to understand the nature of contemporary Chinese Strategic Culture I will attempt to look at the topic from a Chinese perspective using both western and eastern analytical tools for the impact of national culture upon the military is a key indicator for weather a national will be prone to be a good regional strategic partners in the Asia Pacific Region. For the past few centuries the Western Imperialism has been unable to either contain the China militaristically or to empirically define them due to their failure to comprehend the dualistic spiritual process that is the Chinese Culture of Strategy.

Chinese Strategic Culture is not an empirical definable idea as it is in the west. It is a spiritual process, one that flows like a river, expressing both a Ying and a Yang in a dialectical evolutionary process that has since the time of Lao Tzu that cannot be defined and contained by western empirical techniques such as the use of the term Chinese Strategic Culture for as Confucius says, to know what we know and know what we do not know is wisdom. All of these elements can be seen in contemporary Chinese Strategic Culture as found in the largest Chinese state the PRC. In China its own self-perception of its own strategic culture according to Scobell, is pacifist, anti-hegemonic and purely defensive in nature.

Despite populist misrepresentations in the west the PRCs political leaders are not of one mind when it comes to outlining the historical materialism of Chinese Strategic Culture. Andrew Scobell of the Strategic Studies Institute in his book China and Strategic Culture, provides a good definition of the concept of Strategic Culture from the limited western empirical perspective as, The Fundamental and enduring assumptions about the role of war in human affairs and the efficiency of applying force held by political and military elite in a country. Alistair Johnston of Harvard University defines strategic culture from the western perspective as being based upon the answers to, three broad interrelated questions about the role of war in human affairs, the nature of the adversary, and the efficacy of military force and applied violence. These two perspectives from Scobell and Johnston represent the western perspective but the Chinese however have a more fluidic idea when it comes to defining Strategic Culture.

Whilst Scobells and Johnstons concept of a Strategic Culture may be applicable in the west Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd reminds us that if we want to understand China we need to look at things from the Chinese perspective. According to Feng Huiyan the dualistic Chinese culture of strategy,
Strategic culture is a cultural construct with operational dimensions that affect the behaviour of individuals through the symbols, values or beliefs that it embodies, which affects the strategic thinking of leaders, perceptions and assessments of threat, the utility of force and the possible outcomes the political/philosophical part affects the individuals general worldview and the value assigned to the use of force and military.

The Chinese perspective differs from the western perspective through the placement of culture, i.e the way one approaches conflict, in that the pre-eminent position compared tot eh western position which emphasises strategy as the determinate of the outcome of the conflict. With this we can see that from the Chinese perspective they have a different view when it comes the measuring the outcomes of conflict and the use of military force.

There are two major strands when it comes to strategic culture in China, the traditional School whose major contributors were Lao Tzu, Sun Tzu and Confucius and the modern Europeanised conceptualisation that can be summed up by the term Marxist-Leninism with Mao Zedong Thought. There exists in contemporary China a contradiction which sees a dialectical relationship existing between upon the contradictions between traditional and modern cultures of strategy in what Mao called the law of the unity of opposites, is the most basic law in materialist dialectics. The Traditional approach of China Strategy of Culture as seen in Sun Tzus Art of War whilst aggressive when compared to the pacifist philosophies of Lao Tzu seen in the book Tao Te-Ching are to a certain degree non-militaristic.

Johnston traces the origins of China Traditional Culture of Strategy of non-violence and hence anti-militarism originates from two historical sources Sun Tzu notion of defeating the enemy without fighting and Lao Tzu spiritual concept of using softness to overcome hardness. The other influence on Chinas Culture of Strategy in found in the Analects of Confucius which according to Teng, opposed to the offensive or excessive use of force against external enemies for the reason that this very application of this force undermines the authority and legitimacy of the whole imperial order. It is for this very reason that Confucianism found itself at the centre of the centre of an anti-Confucian campaign during the Cultural Revolution lasting from 1973-1974 as being the source of Chinas national humiliation with its defeat and occupation at the hands of Japan.

Guerilla warfare has qualities and objectives peculiar to itself. It is a weapon that a nation inferior in arms and military equipment may employ against a more powerful aggressor nation. When the invader pierces deep into the heart of the weaker country and occupies her territory in a cruel and oppressive manner, there is no doubt that conditions of terrain, climate, and society in general offer obstacles to his progress and may be used to advantage by those who oppose him. In guerrilla warfare we turn these advantages to the purpose of resisting and defeating the enemy.

The conflict between Maoist and Confucian Cultural Strategies is one that continues today and can be seen in the competition for defining the Chinese Strategic Culture. The concept of the Peoples War was developed during the ear;ly 20th Century to counteract the failed Confucianist polices of the Guo Ming Dang (GMD) and their failure to defeat Japanese Imperialist Occupation. The internal contradictions of Confucianism as a Cultural Strategy were first exposed when China was defeated and the Chinese people humiliated. It was Mao Zedong who promised the Chinese people both a method and technique to help them regain their rightful place in the world. A promise that was kept by defeating both Japanese in China and western imperialism in Korea. Following the death of Mao the focus of Chinas cultural strategy has shifted to the concept of fighting a peoples was under modern conditions which has seen a modernisation and professionalisation of the PLA in both its cultural strategy and its capabilities.

Maos main contribution to Marxist-Leninism was through his theory of a Peoples War was a concept he developed during the occupation of China by Japan during the Second World War. Whilst Traditional Chinese Cultural Strategy did have an influence upon Mao, especially Sun Tzu, the major influence for Mao came from European Communist philosophy and its application in Soviet Russia by Lenin and Stalin. Today Mao is still the main influence upon modern Chinese Cultural Strategy and he not only influence of how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) makes decisions in China but influences how China interpret the Cultural Startegy of other nations. As well as impacting upon the development of future capabilities by the PLA to counter the potential strategic threat faced to China from the United States and Japan.

The contradictions between the Maoist and Confucian Cultural Strategies have led tensions within the CCP in the lead up to the 2012 National Peoples Congress about the future direction of China. In a book of essays published in late 2010 leading progressive Chinese General Liu Yuan has called for the return to the New China policies under Mao. The resurrection of the Maoist left in China based in the PLA has seen it come into conflict with the so-called pro-reform Confucian right of the CCP. Zhang and his book have become a political force in China trying to save the CCP from the self-destructive path it is heading in through the re-introduction of the Maoist concept of New Democracy

Lenin defined the concept of the dialectic as having three distinct features, The determination of the concept out of itself, the contradictory forces and tendencies in each phenomenon and the union of analysis and synthesis. It is from this perspectives that contemporary Chinese Cultural Strategy is having an influence on policy making in the PRC and hence the world.

The contradictions that exist between Chinas two main schools of thought have led in the past to internal conflict and may again in the future especially as various tendencies jockey for position in the lead up to the 18th National Congress. Feng believes that under a Confucian cultural strategy Chinas rise will not pose a threat to the United States, and therefore will be a peaceful and stable rise. But as history has shown the internal contradictions of Confucian Philosophy let China vulnerable to fifty years of humiliations at the hands of the Japanese aggressors.

The contradictions that exist between Confucian philosophy and Maoist politics led to direct conflict during the Cultural Revolution where Mao attempted to rid China of the contradictions of Confucianism. These Chinese internal contradictions still are seen in the recent publication of Zhang Mushengs Changing Our view of Culture and History in which Chinas current social path is criticised. However, with these contradictions in place, the question that remains unanswered is how the PRC will deal with its neighbours when difficulties arise especially considering its rise as a military superpower.

The outcome of Chinas dialectical Maoist-Confucian Culture of Strategy is a contradiction which Scobell calls, the Cult of Defence which actively promotes a Confucian anti-militaristic agenda externally whilst promoting a Maoist style Peoples War against its own people including an aggressive approach to Confucianist Taiwan, which can be seen when Jiangs stated, any form of Taiwan independence will not be tolerated. Through the application of the Marxist-Leninism with Mao Zedong Thought Culture of Strategy China has grown from being one of the most war torn and impoverished to be today the second most powerful nation in world in around 65 years.

So therefore in conclusion, Chinas Modern Culture of Strategy is militaristic but there are conditions with Traditional Cultural Strategies dictating a less aggressive and more spiritual approach to warfare. The greatest contradiction in contemporary China is that it has a militaristic cultural strategy as expressed in its ideology based upon Marxist-Leninism with Mao Zedong Thought which takes a militaristic approach to all aspects of life. Chian at the same time has a anti-militaristic stand of Cultural Strategy which is based historically writings of Lao-Tzu, Sun-Tzu and Confucius. China if it wants to return to its rightful place as a global power needs a government that is both willing and able to not only define but implement a culture of strategy that is both Modern and Traditional so that its regional neighbours, global economic partners and its own citizens can predict how it will respond to conflict situations both at home and around the Asia Pacific Region.






Keep a cool head and maintain a low profile. Never take the lead - but aim to do something big.
Deng Xiaoping


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