Mythicising China’s strategic behaviour

From great wall to great iron via Sunzi bingfa

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

Because we don’t understand China’s strategic priorities well enough, we often resort to historical antecedents, writings, even quotable quotes (remember Deng Xiaoping’s “lie low”?), to explain China’s strategic behaviour. This reductionist tendency is no longer the preserve of the non-Chinese. Chinese strategists themselves selectively pull out cultural myths that can project China as an eternally peaceful and responsible global power. Strategic culture myths serve another function: when on the backfoot, Chinese strategists often use cultural myths to imply that China has a totally different perspective on war and strategy that the West is incapable of understanding.

Given how frequently strategic culture myths are used in the Chinese context, I was delighted to read the chapter “Myth busting: challenging the conventional wisdom on Chinese strategic culture” by Andrew R Wilson, professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The book is a Routledge edited volume titled China’s Strategic Priorities (ed. Jonathan Ping and Brett McCormick). The author identifies five myths that are believed to be the core elements of China’s strategic culture — the Great Wall myth, the Sunzi myth, the Good Iron myth, the Zheng He myth, and the myth of shi.

In the author’s words,

these myths enjoy little historical basis and even less explanatory power for understanding contemporary Chinese strategy. At best they are reductionist and misleading. And yet these five myths in their various forms and combinations continue to dominate today’s discussions of Chinese strategic behaviour [China’s strategic priorities, page 8].

I found this dismantling of China’s strategic culture myths very useful and constructed a mind map that can help China watchers (maximise the image to see the text). Maybe this will be instrumental in diffusing the mysticism surrounding China’s strategies.

China's Strategic culture myths. (Based on Andrew R Wilson's chapter in China's strategic Priorities)

China’s Strategic culture myths. (Based on Andrew R Wilson’s chapter in China’s strategic Priorities)

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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