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Sun Zi and his Art of War – Always in the Smell of Holiness ?

Sun Zi and his Art of War – Always in the Smell of Holiness ?

Panda, Rice Alcohol and PCC

Panda, Rice Alcohol and PCC is a column of Camille Brugier, aimed at introducing scientific articles to a wider audience. His publications can be found on his thread Twitter.

The famous book The Art of War, by Sun Zi (Sun Tzu ; Sun Tsi of his nicknames), is seen in the West as a major source of inspiration for the People's Liberation Army (APL) – the Chinese army – and Chinese elites. But what about today, presque 2500 years after Sun Zi's death ?

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For Andrea Ghiselli, author of the article under the magnifying glass this week, the answer is clear : Sun Zi still wields significant influence over Chinese officers.

This article questions the notion of strategic culture, defined as the elements of what war is and how it is fought (to win it !) in a given culture. Over the course of military successes and defeats, the elite will promote certain concepts and dismiss others ; and even sometimes take out old dusty trunks an idea, a scheme, an author who allow us to conceptualize war as it is experienced or as we now wish to wage it.

Ghiselli shows that Sun Zi is still the most cited author in Chinese military journals. For instance, the military believe that the fragmented structure of the contemporary international sphere is similar to China in the Spring and Autumn periods (441-481 of. JC). This would justify for them to resurrect the old adage “不战而屈人之兵” – “subdue the enemy without fighting”. In effect, many tools available – economic, diplomatic, or military – remain below the threshold for the use of violence and allow the fulfillment of military objectives without shedding a drop of blood. There is therefore among the contemporary Chinese military elite, like at Sun Zi, a clear preference for the use of means other than force. However, in a situation where the use of force would be perceived as unavoidable, there would be, always in line with the precepts of Sun Zi, a shared preference for the pre-emptive and massive use of force to deter the enemy from engaging in war.

Of these elements, Ghiselli concludes, like the researcher Johnston before him, that Chinese strategic culture (in any case that of the APL) is “realistic” in the sense of the different schools of thought of international relations. And bref, the PLA believes that competition between great powers in the absence of an international "policeman" leads inexorably to conflict.

Seen thus, our future is quite dark. However, the lessons that Ghiselli draws give some hope. The author shows us that strategic culture can come and go. First 1) following military defeats that call for an adjustment in the way of waging war (because we lose it) after that 2) because the elites socialize (through cooperation with other foreign elites, within the framework of international organizations or bilateral cooperation, for example).

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Ghiselli explains that instead of distancing himself from the “belligerent” PLA, we should cooperate more with her., particularly on subjects that Chinese strategic culture does not deal with. Because we often forget : China is very much inspired by what others are doing. However, the author indicates that Western countries must adopt a realistic vision and a more nimble attitude towards China – in other words, do not treat it as a problematic state, undemocratic and generally "bad". But simply to consider it as an increasingly powerful state, like other states before it.

For now, this is not the path that Westerners have chosen.

Reference: Giselli, Andrea (2018), «Revising China’s Strategic Culture: Contemporary Cherry-Picking of Ancient Strategic Thought”, The China Quarterly, Vol. 133, pp. 166-185.

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