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The infamous Art of War, by the legendary military theorist Sun-tzu, dates back nearly 2,500 years, yet its teachings still pervade every realm of Chinese endeavor. Despite dramatic changes brought about by mechanization, air power, nuclear missiles and computerization, Sun-tzu’s precepts remain central to contemporary military doctrine in the People’s Republic of China.

Art of War initiated rational analysis of martial experience, transforming combat from a blind exercise in brutality into a proto-science. In China, it has never relinquished its role as the progenitor of operational and strategic thought. Military commands and governmental think tanks now ponder Art of War’s concepts as part of China’s quest to develop geostrategic doctrines with uniquely Chinese characteristics. Even today, Sun-tzu’s writings provide content for such major Chinese journals as China Military Science, Contemporary Military Affairs, Defense Technology Today, Air Force Journal and Today’s Navy. China’s prestigious Academy of Military Science holds both classified and international conferences on the application of Sun-tzu’s thought.

Art of War’s dark vision can be summarized as the “ruthless practice of efficient warfare.” Sun-tzu opens with the statement, “Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Tao [way] to survival or extinction.” Conflict is unavoidable, and victory must be achieved before initiating combat. If the enemy is engaged in battle, every action must be devoted to achieving victory. In China today, those statements translate to advocacy of a strong national defense that features modern technology, integrated commands, advanced training, reliable communications, an enlarged defensive perimeter, and forays into space and deep sea weaponry. Sun-tzu’s dictum that “subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the pinnacle of excellence” serves as the impetus for various forms of cyber-warfare.

Information warfare is a major study in contemporary Chinese military thought, and it draws upon several concepts from Art of War. In addition to achieving victory without engaging in battle, the most commonly cited concepts include the need for extensive and accurate intelligence (as advocated in Sun-tzu’s groundbreaking chapter on spies); being unfathomable, even to one’s own troops; continually varying tactics; and manipulating the enemy.

Does it work? Consider a recent news story in The New York Times: “China’s recent test of an antisatellite weapon sent a confusing message to the world about its military intentions, but the United States and China are slowly building stronger military-to-military ties, the top-ranking United States military officer said Friday.” (March 24, 2007). Then consider the response of General Peter Pace, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff: “I used the example of the antisatellite test as how sometimes the international community can be confused, because it was a surprise that China did that, and it wasn’t clear what their intent was.”

Overall, China’s strategic intent seems clear: to end worldwide U.S. hegemony. Cyber-war, for China, could meet Suntzu’s objective of keeping the enemy’s forces from physically combining. That translates as confusing their communications and disrupting coordinated activity. Cyber-warfare could provide the means to incapacitate otherwise lethal field forces. Evidence of the possibilities can be seen in the frequent targeting of U.S. computer facilities, both military and civilian. Over the past year, Department of Defense computers were reportedly attacked at least 100,000 times, with one autumn onslaught forcing the Naval War College to shut down its system.

Information warfare could go well beyond simple hacking. It could also facilitate manipulating the enemy, particularly if data, like missile-guidance algorithms, could be altered or corrupted without detection. Disinformation could then be sown and forces lured into wasteful deployments. In accord with Art of War enunciations of strategic issues and operative principles, the enemy’s populace could be targeted in order to foster divisiveness.

Several hardcore ideas derived from Art of War play a key role in China’s efforts to reformulate its military science, particularly for unorthodox warfare. From Sun-tzu onward, China has always had confidence in the ability of strategy, deceit and manipulation, wisdom and the unorthodox to enable inferior forces to vanquish stronger foes. Now, thanks to their burgeoning economy, the Chinese realize they have an alternative to aggressive military actions. By encompassing economic strength, traditional wisdom, modernized forces and military doctrine with Chinese characteristics, their leadership is confident China’s resurgence will ultimately result in world domination.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.