The Art of War

Eastern philosophy has been of great interest to me. I resonate with the strict treatment of virtue where principles of righteousness, loyalty and moral strength are absolute and where cowardice and deceit are viewed as traits of the dishonourable. Martial arts is the physical symbol that applies the same austere practices, where practitioners often link the required physical strength to the same psychological characteristics necessary to lead a life of virtue. The Zhou Dynasty, a dynasty that stretched its lengthy arm in ancient China for over eight hundred years lived the great philosopher Confucius (551-479 BCE). During his life, a cohesive royal system of ancestral aristocrats controlling principalities under the rule of the Zhou monarchy gradually disintegrated into feudal rivalries for power between each of the states. Caught toward the end of the Spring and Autumn period (770-475 BCE) where the Eastern Zhou Period begun following the move of the capital east of China to Luoyang so as to adequately protect itself from possible invasion, small fiefdoms and nomadic tribes united forces with various states that gradually matured to onset the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) just following Confucius’ death. Confucius is said to have written Chūnqiū or the Spring and Autumn Annals[1] that chronicled the vassal state of Lu now an area of the modern province of Shandong and the home of Confucius. It was also the oldest record mentioning techniques of hand-to-hand combat, or martial arts, utilised during the Spring and Autumn period likely because of continuous violence with minimal weaponry.

Confucian political and social ethics is clear by his commentary on civil society and ethical pluralism, strengthened by principals of harmony that reinforce ‘hard’ moral concepts including loyalty and honesty but balanced by a ‘soft’ humble wisdom. The Analects of Confucius, a compilation of teachings that reference the importance of cultivating and demonstrating moral and ethical education and behaviour and attributed to the philosopher also deliberates on the subject of war, moral refinement and the authority of rulers.

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While there exists controversy surrounding the historical accuracy of Sun Tzu as a military leader and strategist, it is no doubt that his treatise The Art of War became highly influential particularly throughout the Warring States period where the growth in numbers, the sophistication and the brutality of war became visibly ruthless and chaotic. Philosophers including Mencius and Xun Kuang turned their attention to the philosophy of law and legalism, on war and just war theories, and social and political education as the period was marked by intense battles. Both Sun Tzu and Confucius were said to have lived during the same period toward the end of the Spring and Autumn period. It is said by Sima Qian, a historian of the Han dynasty that wrote the Records of the Grand Historian that Sun Tzu was a general from the Wu province and commanded the great victory between the Wu army during the Battle of Boju,[3] where numbers were significantly lower than the Chu army, but the accuracy of this is widely contested.

While the Art of War is certainly the most well known Chinese text on military strategy, it was canonised among other military doctrines during the Song Dynasty, entitled as the Seven Military Classics.[4] Notwithstanding the tactical practices and other systematic components of warfare that embody strict commandment through lessons that deliberate victory or defeat, the Seven Military Classics is a historical illustration that exemplifies the influence of analytical ruminations on Chinese military science. The texts including The Art of War are T’ai Kung Liu-t’ao (Six Secret Teachings), Ssu-ma Fa, Wu-tzu, Wei Liao-tzu, and Huang Shih-kung San-lueh (Three Strategies).[5] They broadly encompass a variety of warfare operations that attempt to understand the nature of war and strategies that include a variety of topics such as leadership, cavalry and infantry, as well as weaponry. For instance, the Six Secret Teachings attributed to T’ai Kung covers tactical advantages of employing disinformation and psychological manoeuvring through manipulation and deception that would enable victory without actual fighting.[6]

The bloody wars during the Warring States Period and continued through the Imperial Era of China combined complex tactical strategies that innovated armament. It was a period where the sophistication of the instruments of war propelled by the continuous hegemonic struggles that elicited the continuous advancements of military equipment. Ancient China soon invented semi-automatic crossbows, multi-phase rockets, naval fortresses with catapults, and the use of gunpowder that bear a striking resemblance to modern lethal weaponry. And what would advanced lethal weaponry look like today? The Aero Vironment Nano Hummingbird is an unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV] and as an ornithopter drone appears like the bird in flight only it carries a video recorder that feeds back aerial information. This spybot has a wingspan of only sixteen centimetres. Further still, the Northrop Grumman X-47B UCAS-D (Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator) currently being tested by the US Navy is a lethal drone that has the capacity to work automatically, which changes naval aviation activities considerably. If a machine made autonomous decisions, who would be accountable for the deaths caused by it? With increasing technological advancements, automaton lethal weaponry and the utilisation of artificial intelligence for killing, questions about the scope of violence and how international humanitarian law will adapt to these sweeping changes has been raised a focus on weapons and tactical strategy since tens of thousands of people are being killed with no chance of even being remembered or buried. The United States since the Obama Administration increased its covert activities in several key states including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen utilising drone weaponry that has resulted in a huge number of civilian deaths, including women and children.[7] The administration has failed to adequately answer how the numbers differentiate between sources and the scope of the strikes.

The territorial disputes and strategic rivalries continued in China well into the twentieth century, clearly accountable for the invasion of Tibet along with numerous campaigns in Korea, Vietnam, India and the Soviet Union. But a new strategy of warfare developed in the late 70’s that intended to win the war for economic power. These reforms began through the statesmanship of Deng Xiaoping that changed the staunchly critical China as a closed economy to one that opened the doors toward a global reach through foreign investments.[8] As such, the China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has steadily increased since then and the balance of power is now starting to shift in China’s favour, forecasted to increase and surpass that of the United States. This economic strategy was followed by changes to its military strategy, particularly visible when they witnessed the advances of US military power during the Gulf War, which displayed the advanced technology in modern warfare. As visible in China’s historical battles between warring states, strategic victories were possible when economic strength enabled advantages in military might and weaponry. Decisive changes to China’s economic approach matched with the growth and expenditure to their combat capability.

Disclosure on military matters in China remains well guarded and though difficult to ascertain the exact defence budget, in 2015 defence spending was at $146 billion. Though, they cannot hide the sheer size of the Peoples Liberation Army [PLA] whereby the active reserve personnel and perceived fighting strength is totalled at over 2.3 million in manpower.[9] Tactical efforts to change China’s aviation capabilities is clear including very discomforting advances in weaponry such as the DF-ZF [formerly Wu-14] hypersonic glide vehicles[10] that project missiles out of the Earths’ atmosphere and overcome defence shields before re-entering at much faster speeds. Other weapons include the Xian H-6 Bomber capable of long-range and anti-ship missiles and maritime powers through investments in cruisers such as the Type 055 Destroyer.[11] This is amalgamated with a strengthening space program and the interest is certainly not scientific with satellites boosting radar and electronic capabilities that strengthen intelligence and counter-offensive navigation among other tactical advantages.

More than just weaponry, military strategy also includes a range of other factors including battle logistics, geographical values, and resources such as petroleum and nuclear power. This begins to raise questions about the recent changes between China-Russia relations and their steadfast position to support Iran and Syria. Improved relations particularly during the late 90’s between Jiang Zemin and Boris Yeltsin[12] that developed corporation particularly around common geopolitical interests along with changes to improve offensive military technology through arms sales, clarifying that there is indeed an invisible war and one that would determine who the global superpower will be.

The Warring States period exposed China as a practitioner of merciless strategies for power and expansion, an adaptation that continues in contemporary Chinese politics as seen during the Warlords Period between 1916-1928 where bandits, cliques and militias plagued the country with wars until the People’s Republic of China (PRC) following the Chinese Revolution of 1949 unified the country under the leadership of Mao Zadong. The ruthlessness of the political system, brutality toward dissenting opinions, and authoritarian leadership is markedly influenced by the political history and cultural attitudes that has stretched for hundreds of years and defined by the philosophies in the Hundred Schools of Thought that continue to inspire the attitudes and social consciousness present until this day. China has an extensive population and resources that may ensure the continued management of economic growth despite the size of the country raises concerns of territorial claims. Though it is clear that the international community believe that China is far behind the military prowess of the United States with comparatively feeble technology… is it really?

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away… If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.”

― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

[1] Charlene Tan, Confucius (2014)
[2] 13:30, The Analects of Confucius
[3] Jann Tibbetts, Fifty Great Military Leaders of All Time (2016)
[4] Sarah Foot, Chase F. Robinson, The Oxford History of Historical Writing: Volume 2: 400-1400 (2012)
[5] Ralph D. Sawyer and Mei-chün Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (2007)
[6] Ralph D. Sawyer, D Sawyer One Hundred Unorthodox Strategies: Battle And Tactics Of Chinese Warfare
[7] See more information at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism
[8] M.Y.M. Kau, Susan H. Marsh, Michael Ying-mao Kau, China in the Era of Deng Xiaoping: A Decade of Reform: A Decade of Reform (2016)
[9] Michael Codner, Michael Clarke, A Question of Security: The British Defence Review in an Age of Austerity (2011)
[11] Anthony H. Cordesman, Steven Colley, Chinese Strategy and Military Modernization in 2015: A Comparative Analysis (2016)
[12] Jeanne Wilson, Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era (2015)