The Art Of War – Culture And Strategy

War is the focused use of coercive force in extreme conflict. Modern Euro-American thinking about war converges strategy with politics in Aristotle’s “instrumental distinction between ends and means. War is seen as an instrument for obtaining a specific end, usually one that is political.”


China’s strategic culture has regarded war as an inescapable, unpredictable evil that disturbs universal harmony. When war occurs, rulers must manage it carefully. Whereas European strategists have sought to use maximum force in decisive battle, Chinese commanders have sought victory through minimum force.

Chinese strategic culture has consistently rejected “the Western way of warfare, with [its] obsession with successful campaigns and engagements, many of them hollow, or ensuring tactical success often at the price of strategic ruin.”

Recognizing rationality as dominant in human affairs, Euro-American military philosophers esteem the human ability to control their warlike passions and use war for political ends. War’s horrors when passions overcome rationality are less war’s nature than people’s failures in managing war. In contrast, Asian philosophical traditions question the power of instrumental rationality to control human behaviors. China’s strategic culture commands rulers and generals to use only the force that is necessary to restore domestic order and universal harmony—to control specific means within explicit ends. Facing periodic military crises along China’s long land borders and coastlines, China’s many neighbors have unsurprising concerns about Beijing’s approaches to using force in managing disputes with them.

In drawing implications from China’s emergence as a great power, most analyses and comments emerge within a narrow Euro-American basis of Clausewitzian, rational strategic thought. Some analyses indifferently deem China a developing country and draw conclusions accordingly Interdependence theories predict that the economic and political costs ofusing force will constrain China’s behavior as the Chinese economy becomes dependent on foreign trade and investment. Legal and cultural normative theories suggest that China will increasingly comply with liberal rules of good global citizenship.

Some China experts, however, remain skeptical about China’s convergence to Euro-American norms and recognize the profound differences between Chinese society and politics and those in the Euro-American world. China’s supernationalism, hypersovereignty, and obsession with national economic growth seem to blend French Gaullism, radical U.S. Republicanism, and the world’s various isolationist fashions. “A realpolitikstrategic culture still colors the worldviews of many of China’s senior security policy decision makers, a worldview in which military force is a potentially useful tool, among others, for the pursuit of traditional power and prestige maximizing national interests in a competitive and relatively dangerous world.”

While superficially similar to Euro-American fears that international institutions encroach on national prerogatives and autonomy, China’s strategic culture is both deeper and broader than Clausewitzian realpolitik. China’s use of force has not concentrated on either the Euro- American security dilemma or traditional national security expanded through complex interdependence. Although most Chinese wars have involved territorial integrity and political legitimacy, neither alone has justified Beijing’s decisions to use force.

The Dominant View

Most Euro-Americans, and many Chinese, share a loose, shallow, orthodox understanding of China’s strategic mentality in the historical tendency of the Chinese to use coercive diplomacy for limited objectives, while avoiding offensive campaigns.

Relegating force to a “last resort,” the Confucian rejection of violence formed a solid foundation for China’s reluctance to use force, which had become the “pacifist bias of the Chinese tradition.” For Euro-American analyses, this inherent antimilitarist bias has explained Chinese preference for psychological warfare over weaponry and firepower, victory without fighting, nonviolent stratagems, and deception. Some scholars have found an instinctive Chinese aversion to violence or a cultural conviction that war was aberrant. Sociologists have stressed the Confucian ethic that could not justify more than minimal and necessary war and inferred a systematic denial of belligerence.5 Political theorists have noted the absence of any ideological basis in China’s ancient culture for total war. Beyond recognizing China’s reluctance to use force, Euro-American orthodoxy suggests that Chinese strategic thought has historically preferred to use force in defensive and limited roles. Since China has rarely used wars of annihilation to exterminate states, occupy territory, or massacre enemy citizens, China’s small battles or engagements of annihilation seem at best anomalous and perplexing. China has been historically successful in combining limited wars or campaigns constrained within well-defined geographic boundaries, periods, or levels of violence with cooperative diplomacy to achieve political aims. Increasingly since the rise of liberalism and capitalism, orthodox analysis remains puzzled by China’s apparent disconcern for high casualties and costs (Korean and Sino-Vietnamese Wars), while readily absorbing enemy defectors. Anomalies in China’s wars have been Beijing’s acceptance of high risk (Korean and Sino-Soviet Wars) and disjunctions between military action and political results (Sino-Indian and Sino- Vietnamese Wars). Although this dominant, orthodox view of China’s strategic thinking enjoys consensus, few analysts, China watchers, or East Asian countries have high confidence in predicting China’s next use of Force.

Clausewitzian Orthodoxy

Watching the raw force of Napoleon’s armies pushing to the corners of Europe, Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) found the essence of military strategy in destroying enemy forces to achieve political objectives.

Clausewitz and his successors stressed the physical use of force—primarily military—either to gain success by destroying a defending army—coercive force—or to deny success by destroying an advancing army—denial force.

In both cases, however, the direct approach was to destroy—or defeat— the enemy’s military force. While stressing the importance of chance and confusion—the fog of war—Clausewitz understood them as problems to overcome, rather than opportunities to exploit.

Whether through coercion or denial, war’s aim was to alter positional advantage between the contending forces and the balance of power between their respective political sponsors.
Since the ultimate aim was permanent change in the balance of power, time and intangible factors lost relevance.

Fixating on the imbalance and the physical and human resources available to change it, commanders and political leaders became obsessed with losses and costs. Politicians and generals struggled with dwindling resources, sunk costs, and political will, as people absorbed losses and suspected their leaders of undervaluing their sacrifices. Still facing the enemy, troop commanders struggled to husband the more important factor: whatever was left after their battles.

Although rooted in the Clausewitzian, conventional battlefield, Sir Basil Liddell Hart’s (1895–1970) indirect approach brought strategic thinking legitimately into the political domain. The Cold War found the Clausewitzian direct approach inadequate and demanded a patient, indirect strategy, since mutual deterrence precluded any direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. By integrating all elements of power—military, economic, political, cultural, technological, idealist, and negotiation from strength—in a continuous concentration of pressure, the Reagan administration exhausted the overextended, fragile Soviet Union. In recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Euro-American strategists have rediscovered more-than-military, intent-based strategy by combining diplomatic isolation with air, land, sea, and psychological operations.

As the star of Clausewitzian strategic thought and direct, decisive action ascended, Euro-American strategists convinced themselves that Clausewitz had exposed a body of enduring immutable principles of war. Liddell Hart’s indirect approach was a useful method and technique that applied to special situations. “Methods change, but the principles are unchanging, . . . independent of the arms employed, of times, and of places.”8 Despite unpredictable, unorthodox enemies, Euro-American strategists preserve their respect for the Clausewitzian, forces-based principles of war and the ability to seize territory and destroy hostile military forces.

The Problem of the Unexpected

The People’s Republic of China has used force against its neighbors at least 12 times since 1949. While Euro-American analysts have attributed China’s foreign wars to ideology, preservation of sovereignty, or territorial defense, the Chinese Civil War was also a departure from Clausewitzian forces-based war. Few expected Mao Tse-tung’s nondescript million-man peasant army to defeat Chiang Kai-shek’s three million soldiers armed with modern, heavy weapons.

In 1950, Mao committed his people to fight the United States, not because of any threat to China’s survival but to resist U.S. expansion on China’s periphery.11 Neither U.S. planners nor U.N. diplomats expected China to intervene in Korea. After concentrating poorly armed troops in five persistent campaigns against superior U.S.–U.N. forces, with an indecisive ceasefire, Beijing unilaterally withdrew and unexpectedly left U.S. forces intact in South Korea.

In the early 1960s, China’s difficult domestic situation left the Chinese in no position to address anything beyond resolving their own internal affairs. In 1962, after minor clashes between Indian border troops, China’s surprise attack with massed troops and artillery penetrated deep into the Sino-Indian border area and occupied dominant strategic positions.

Immediately after their decisive military victories, Chinese soldiers collected all the Indian weapons abandoned on the battlefields, cleaned them, and returned them to the defeated Indian troops. China unilaterally withdrew its troops without demanding any political concessions.

Orthodox Euro-American strategic analyses have offered various, fashionable, innovative explanations of the Sino-Soviet War in 1969. Most explanations rely on local commanders’ misinterpretations and zeal as the natural result of increasing border tensions. Conventional understandings of Chinese strategic thought as rational pursuit of national interests, however, require Mao Tse-tung to accept the unacceptable risk of Soviet escalation.

If Mao had used Clausewitzian rationality, the unexpected incidents at Zhenbao would not have occurred! Even by invoking error and human nature, orthodox explanations of Chinese behaviors in 1969 return ultimately to paradox and unanswered questions.

A similar pattern of confusion, paradox, and dilemma appeared in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. After announcing its intent to do so, China invaded Vietnam, a former ally, not because of vital interests but to recall the Vietnamese to their proper place in the world. When Chinese troops had finally seized Lang Son, at great cost, Beijing unexpectedly announced a unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam and recalled its forces to China.

Euro-American Clausewitzians could explain neither why China needed to occupy Lang Son with massive casualties nor why it withdrew from decisive terrain without any political concessions from Vietnam.

In these modern Chinese uses of force, Clausewitzian strategy has not credibly explained the beginnings, motives, processes, or termination of wars. In the Chinese Civil War, despite Chiang’s clear military superiority, Mao accepted that the weak could defeat the strong without fighting, while Clausewitz recognized “the dominance of vigor and tension.” In Korea, Clausewitzian strategists could interpret the U.N. advance north as a threat to Chinese security, and explain Beijing’s intervention as a strategic response. This logic, however, did not support the unilateral withdrawal in 1958 that left the threat intact in South Korea. Neither could Clausewitzians explain Chinese wars with India, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam as military means to political ends. These anomalies in China’s uses of force raise troubling questions about the foundations of modern Chinese strategic thinking.

Conventional analyses have not compellingly explained Beijing’s declining use of force since 1979 beyond adducing globalization, liberalization, and the demise of ideology as a basis for war. China’s peaceful settlements of territorial disputes and economic liberalization have allayed fears of Beijing’s use of China’s growing military power in aggression. Implicit in such analyses is the comfortable—perhaps naïve—assumption that the Chinese are really just like us: peace-loving people forced into war by realpolitik. China’s distinctive strategic culture has developed from the philosophies of Tai Kung, Sun Tzu, and Mencius and continues to influence Chinese strategic thought about using force. Any understanding of China’s use of force must include some familiarity with—even understanding of—the strategic culture that dominates Beijing’s strategic thinking.

Rational-Choice Analyses

Contemporary Euro-American scholarship often interprets China’s strategicbehavior as rational decisionmaking using twisted logic to achieve irrational objectives. Through the comfortable lens of rational choice, scholars and strategists alike try to analyze Chinese use of force as a relationship between action and plausible calculation. Within the scope of rationalchoice analysis, various observers of Chinese uses of force find different explanations. One simple explanation is that China, like other governments, merely responds rationally to external stimuli. Another common approach analyzes Chinese strategic and operational behavior through the lens of realist theories of international relations—realpolitik. With no recognizable pattern, realists readily infer that modern Chinese strategy is broadly the result of pragmatic reactions to changing factors in a crisis. Yet another rational explanation lies in deterrence theory, which suggests that

China has used force only when deterrence has failed. Despite their persistence, these rational-decision making approaches could not explain China’s strategies of initiating war while accepting its own weakness against powerful U.S. and Soviet enemies. Nor could they illuminate the recurring Chinese pattern of terminating war by unilaterally withdrawing without political demands for concessions in India (1962) or Vietnam (1979).

Cultural Approaches

Few people would deny that China’s culture developed its own world order and attitudes toward warfare over nearly three millennia. Through its history of survival, evolution, domestic conflicts, and defenses against foreign aggressions, China’s distinctive culture has shaped and limited strategic choices and profoundly influenced China’s interactions with other states.

Some scholars—Euro-American and Asian—recognize that the traditional Chinese approaches to warfare have differed sharply from the rational doctrines adopted by modern Euro-American cultures.20 They recognize that the orthodox rational-choice model cannot fully explain Chinese strategic behavior, and stress culture as an explanation of any country’s use of force.

Cultural theories categorize cultures around sets of ranked strategic preferences that are consistent across national strategies as they change over time. Strategic preferences do not follow directly from changes in threat, technology, or organization, but from patterns of successful campaigns in a society’s history, geography, economy, and politics. The resulting strategic culture aggregates the political elite’s behavior patterns, the military establishment’s doctrines, the principles of cultural values, and the flows and fashions of public opinion. Just as rational choice dominates Euro- American strategic preferences, China’s strategic culture continues to dominate not only China’s use of force but also Chinese public life.

Like the rationalists, in seeking to explain modern Chinese strategic behavior most effectively, culturalists differ on the proper focus along a broad spectrum. A focus on the Ming dynasty’s brutality against the northern tribes suggests aggression as a prominent strategic-cultural pattern for China’s use of force. While this pattern is compatible with China’s use of force toward Tibet, India, and Vietnam, it does not fit the Chinese Civil War, the Korean War, or the Sino-Soviet War.

Another cultural focus finds the roots of modern Chinese strategy in Mao’s military romanticism in believing that men could defeat weapons.

For many Asian analysts, Mao’s experiences and his dramatic success in the Chinese Civil War remain the best explanations of the modern pattern in China’s use of force. Several generations of Maoist students have refined much of his thought—people’s war, protracted war, or people’s power—in patterns for modern Chinese strategy. Arising in his romantic ideals of Marxism and Confucianism, many broad principles in Mao’s thought do not, however, resolve smoothly into strategic actions or decisions.

Another insightful, cultural analysis of Chinese wars since 1840 explains China’s military adventures as symbolic use of force. Chinese elites have used force not to pursue rational interests but as a symbol of their national images of China. While this pattern clearly supports a cultural explanation of China’s strategic behavior, symbolism covers a range of national imagery too broad to be analytically useful.26 Despite Euro-American readiness to equate any national imagery with nationalism, Chinese national images are both deeper and broader than ideological nationalism. Although rationalchoice analyses can accommodate romanticism and symbolism, discrete cultural interpretations are too broad to explain China’s uses of force or to predict Chinese strategic behavior with any confidence. Only the lens of China’s strategic culture brings China’s use of force into focus with both Euro-American rational choice and China’s distinct culture.

China’s Strategic Culture

Instead of either culture or rational choice, a strategic-cultural approach is helpful and necessary for understanding Chinese use of force. More than two millennia before Clausewitz, Jomini, and Liddell Hart, Sun Tzu (541?–482? BC) recognized that “warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way [Tao] to survival or extinction.”

Within this perspective, China’s strategic culture has kept the need for moderation and harmony uppermost in China’s strategic and philosophical minds. Well beyond any principles of war, Sun Tzu’s thought absorbed the Taoist canon of universal harmony of all under heaven. To avoid releasing the chaos, destruction, and death that accompanied war, leaders had to follow Tao: the universal principle of all things—the one way. Beyond its philosophical meanings, Tao expressed the idea of path or road, not only in a physical sense but with a moral-ethical notion of right or the proper way. Instead of legalistic rationality or Euro-American liberalism, moral conduct for Chinese was to follow the right way within the Taoist order of all under heaven. Within Tao, moral fulfillment of an individual’s personality emerged from living as “a man among men,” in proper relations with other individuals.

Since war, fighting, anger, and weapons were outside Tao, “the one who has the way has no concern with them. . . . Only when forced to do so [the noble man] bears them, and peace and quiet he sets above all.” When forced into war, “a skillful (general) is resolute. That is all. He dares not use violence in seizing (an objective). . . . A good captain is not impetuous. A good fighter is not angry. A good conqueror (ruler) does not engage his adversaries. . . . This may be called the virtue of not striving (noncompeting), . . . the acme of conformity to heaven.” The Taoist term wu-wei (nonaction or noncompeting ) did not mean doing nothing but implied refraining from activity contrary to Tao.

Only in harmony with nature could humans achieve their own aims. “By nonaction, everything can be done.”

Abolishing Use of Force

Convinced that people were naturally good, Mencius (372?–289? BC) placed the people at the center of public affairs. Like his Greek contemporaries, Mencius sought the good life and hoped to establish government by good people. Calling for abolition of war, Mencius challenged the good ruler to wage war against the poverty that brought crime and disorder.

Denouncing war by the state as a crime against the people, he recognized the people’s right to revolution against a ruler who had earned their enmity. His brave doctrine rested on the ancient Confucian-Taoist principle of harmony between ruler and people. The ruler who alienated the people through his laws and misused their power in war had lost the mandateof heaven. For Mencius, as for Confucius, the strength of the state lay in the harmony between ruler and people.

Controlling Use of Force

Recognizing the people as the ultimate source of power, Sun Tzu limited and controlled the use of force within Tao in harmony with the people. To achieve harmony, leaders either had to renounce all use of force or had to make all uses of force total by involving the entire society. By controlling all uses of force tightly within Tao, Sun Tzu’s paradox explained Tao, while urging rulers to use economic wealth, social power, and politics as alternatives to wars. By the Warring States period (403–221 BC), when war involved literally everyone, everything, and all under heaven, Sun Tzu’s thought had begun to converge China’s strategic culture around Tao.”

Six or seven different powers competed with each other. Each could raise an army comparable in size to the entire armed forces of the Roman Empire, although their strengths included conscripts who were involved in logistic support for armies at the front. Even though they were not engaged in fighting, they were mobilized to transport grain along specially built walled supply routes running hundreds of miles.”

In contrast to Clausewitzian campaigns of denial and destruction, Sun Tzu preferred not to destroy enemies but to subjugate them without fighting.

“Preserving the [enemy’s] state is best; destroying their state capital second best. Preserving their army is best, destroying their army second best. Preserving their battalions is best; destroying [them] second best. The preservation of the enemy, in a word, is essential to success.” While defeating an enemy force or political movement was legitimate and valuable, the object of a war could not be absolute security, which required destroying the enemy’s society. Instead, a victorious society should live with the erstwhile enemy in stable, controlled insecurity. The wise ruler encouraged even those enemy societies that remained unconquered and hostile to resolve their differences.

Sun Tzu’s Confucian-Taoist premise that power dwelt among the people focused a state’s true strength less in strong forts and powerful weaponry than in its people’s morale and its soldiers’ moral stamina. Since coercive force could affect people’s thoughts, intentions, and feelings—not only forces and resources—strategists should apply force selectively across the entire enemy society, not just its army. While denial force destroyed an enemy’s hope of victory by preventing something from happening, coercive force persuaded by suggesting what is about to happen: prospective damage, possible inducement, and probable pressures.

Instead of using uncontrolled denial force to destroy, Sun Tzu taught commanders to control coercive force to convince opponents to surrender or withdraw without enduring the destruction of battle. With lower costs and losses than denial campaigns, coercive force included a full panoply of persuasive relationships from threats, inducements, bribes, and gifts to unrestricted violence and brutal destruction. Inducements were less persuasive than violence, since an enemy often absorbed inducements—foreign aid, loans, promises, and other economic benefits—and developed expectations of continuing and more inducements. “Threatening by itself might work if the stakes were not too high and the threat were credible, but more likely, the combined effect of hurting and thereby reinforcing the threat will be more successful—particularly if the threat is also accompanied by an inducement. [Near the other end] of the range is pure punishment. Often this appears a revenge or [stubbornness], and may [generate] the same reaction in the foe.” Anticipating the Euro-American idea of deterrence, the Chinese notion of controlled punishment has included conspicuous destruction of an enemy as warnings to other foes—battles of annihilation.

The art and science of using coercive force to persuade, instead of denial force to destroy, and defeating an enemy without fighting are the heart and soul of Shih-strategy.

Four Cultural Faces of Strategy

China’s strategic culture has converged around Tao three additional important ideas that emerged from prehistoric Confucian thought and belief: Shih, Hsing, and Li. Any analysis of China’s strategic culture and uses of force must begin with an understanding of these four faces of Chinese Shih-strategy.


Congealing over several centuries around Sun Tzu’s thought China’s strategic culture that has formed solidly around the ancient Chinese abstraction—Shih—and its paired opposite—Li. Several generations of strategists—Tai Kung (1212?–1073 BC), Sun Tzu (541?–482? BC), Wu Tzu (440?–381 BC), Wei Liao Tzu (ca. 318 BC) and their successors— developed and taught Shih as a coherent body of strategic thought. The defining theme in Sun Tzu’s The Art of Warfare, the essence of Shih was the dynamic power that emerged in the combination of men’s hearts, military weapons, and natural conditions.

Strategic thinking focused on Shih was Shih-strategy, which converged Shih along three broad dimensions of warfare: the people, the context, and the enemy. Shih-strategy concentrated the power of the people in the soldiers and their weapons. The power of context appeared in opportunity, timing, and logistics. The enemy’s power lay in the relative skill, competence, and will of the opposing force. Since men and their hearts were critical to Shih-strategy, commanders and rulers needed to understand how to mobilize them. A ruler’s adherence to the right way—Tao—brought the people into accord with the ruler in internal harmony. The ruler with a great Tao gained the deep, sincere, heartfelt support of the people. The ruler who had or created Tao could build a strong Shih for his people and his army. Without Tao, even the best commanders could not build or rely on Shih.


Sun Tzu understood Hsing as the outward appearance of an object or situation. As a military term, Hsing described the deployment and employment of forces. In war, commanders could transform equipment, weaponry, and troops into Shih through Hsing. Although some scholars and historians interpret Shih and Hsing as near synonyms, Hsing is explicitly the tangible, visible, and determinate shape of physical strength. Shih also includes intangible factors—morale, opportunity, timing, psychology, or logistics—that are often dynamic and always difficult to ascertain. In contrast to Hsing, which is static, Shih changes in some predictable pattern as flourishing and fading succeed each other in battle.


The counterconcept of Shih with its forward-looking perspective, Li refers to self-interest or material gain and carries a definite priority for the present.

Arising from materialistic thought and theory, Li-strategy does not recognize intangible human factors as important elements of power. Instead it focuses on visible, material assets and enemy forces.

Cultural Premises beneath Strategy

China’s use of force has always embodied legacies from Shih-theory, which students, successors, and clients of Tai Kung, Sun Tzu, and Wu Tzu developed into tactical, operational, and strategic doctrines and policies. From two basic cultural premises, Shih-theory has influenced and molded Chinese strategic thinking. In marked contrast to Euro-American emphases on technology, weaponry, doctrine, or policy, Shih-strategists are unequivocal in their conviction that power dwells among the people. Chinese strategic thought embodies the Confucian worldview that man was the center of the universe and the ultimate source of power. “To be strong, one must be able to employ the strength of men. To employ the strength of men, one must gain their hearts.”41 Although Confucian thinkers gave little significance to military machines and weapons, the hearts—the will, morale, and loyalty—of the men who used them were determining factors of power.

Whereas Clausewitz abjured deception and even Sir Basil Liddell Hart advocated deception only as one technique among many, for Shih-strategists, deception is the essence of military strategy. Embedded solidly in Tao—internal harmony—Shih-strategy expands these two premises to a grand purpose beyond—or even instead of—simply achieving victory in battle.
Just as Clausewitz recognized that victory was not an end in itself, Shih-strategy uses force to bring the people into ultimate harmony and accord with the ruler in Tao. China’s Shih-strategic culture concludes that, if possible, it is best to win the war without fighting.

Operational Art

Shih-strategy focuses the commander’s operations on the enemy’s intent and plan rather than his military forces. When battle is necessary, the aim is to deceive the enemy by creating confusion in the commander’s mind, confounding his intent, and fragmenting his forces. The Shih-strategic general can then easily exploit the situation and achieve battlefield victory. Sun Tzu emphasized winning without fighting and destroying the enemy’s will to fight while not destroying his troops.

Shih strategy avoids a direct approach. The initial movements of a commander’s Shih-strategy do not expose, or even indicate, its final objective.

The best strategy, for the Shih-strategist, is not the approach that the enemy—or even an ally—recognizes but the one that no one expects. Shih strategy is the indirect, circuitous approach to both military victory and the national political objective. Chinese Shih-strategists believe that the Shih-detour is more effective than the direct route to the objective, since Shih-strategy converges people and ruler on the Tao.

Grand Strategy

The final aims of Shih-strategy lie in the modern notions of national interests—political ends not military results. At a grand strategic level, military results—victory or defeat—are means to an end, not ends in themselves.

While directing generals to avoid strength and attack weakness, Chinese Shih-strategy admonishes national leaders to cooperate with a far country to strike a near country. Beyond any battlefield, Shih-strategy advises diplomats to use barbarians to control barbarians in indirect political relationships.

Shih as a Strategic Culture

History suggests that Sun Tzu’s insights about Shih have clearly influenced Chinese strategic thought and use of force. While ancient strategists experimented with Shih, modern, Chinese strategists have used force through Shih-strategy throughout the twentieth century.

In contrast to the Euro- American focus on the threat facing a country as the foundation of doctrine and strategy, Chinese strategic thought begins with the people as the source and domain of national power. China’s strategic culture of Shih and Tao values defeating a threat only as a means—Li—to the ultimate end of building Shih within China’s proper Tao. A Chinese national Shih-strategy might include winning a battle, fighting a war, or defeating an enemy as a functional, local, Li, not as a strategic aim. Within China’s proper Tao, generals’ applications of Shih-strategic principles in campaign plans, operational concepts, or tactical battle schemes fit smoothly into the national Shih-strategy.

Resisting threats to territory, defending borders, or protecting other tangible national interests are not the ultimate purposes for using force. Only when these threats menace China’s Shih or challenge proper Tao do they justify the use of force. While building national Shih, Beijing has complacently ignored or deferred territorial challenges and border disputes.
When faced with what Euro-Americans understand as trivial incidents or normal international relations, Beijing has sometimes sensed vital threats to Shih or Tao.

Beijing’s surprising reactions with overwhelming force and even accepting unacceptable casualties and costs have perplexed orthodox Euro-American analyses.

Modern China has perceived continuing threats from its neighbors since Mao declared that the Chinese stood up in 1949. China’s strategiccultural perspective presented any political neighbors as friends, but recognized them also as potential enemies. For Beijing in the late 1940s, the most dangerous potential enemy was the Soviet Union, which shared a long border with China. Despite the 1950 Sino-Soviet friendship agreement and Mao’s declaration of unbreakable friendship with Stalin, Shih-strategic principles—like Clausewitzian realpolitik—led Chinese strategists to recognize the Soviet Union as a potential threat. The same Shih-strategic principles obviated any conclusion that the United States would be an everlasting enemy simply because of the Korean War. Having always been politically subordinate and militarily inferior to China, the occasional noises and flourishes in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and even India were not credible as threats to China’s Tao or Shih.

Only the Mongols, the Europeans, and the Japanese have ever invaded China. The Mongols are now Chinese themselves, the Europeans have gone home, and the United States defeated the Japanese. This unique geostrategic history has formed the context and content of China’s cultural heritage. Any understanding of China’s use of force must take a broad perspective across both space and time and look beyond any immediate threat. Perspectives on China’s use of force cannot focus on the direct target, the visible present, or the immediate future. Instead of this narrow view, the Chinese perspective extends into antiquity, across the broad range of China’s several peripheries and neighbors, through many interests, and into the eventual future. This is the perspective of China’s Shih-strategic culture.