China wants to achieve its goals short of war while reaping the propaganda harvest it would get from war.
There’s a hidden dialogue between Clausewitz and Sun Tzu that may help clarify the lordly attitude China takes in quarrels with Asian neighbors that defy its will. It’s all about the narrative spun for target audiences, the Chinese populace most of all. Think about it. Negotiating with ‘furriners’ entails more tedium than glory. Diplomacy is dull and drawn-out and produces gradual, amorphous results. It fires few passions among those who matter. Combat is brief and exciting and, when done right, yields immediate, concrete results. It’s a focal point for national pride. China thus appears conflicted. It wants to achieve its goals short of war while reaping the propaganda harvest it would get from war.
It’s not enough, then, for Beijing to get its way quietly in international controversies. It wants to be seen compelling others to do its bidding. For dramatic value, that’s the best substitute for victory.
It’s also a slipshod way to get to yes. Going out of your way to embarrass others is bass-ackwards from normal diplomatic practice, where the Golden Rule is never to humiliate your opposite number. Corollaries include keeping things private and non-confrontational. Following these rules, though, demands a modicum of empathy. CCP leaders either don’t grasp, or don’t care, that putting foreign officials on the spot before their constituents is a tactic sure to backfire. Unfortunately, Professor Zod seems to have been teaching Negotiations 101 when Xi Jinping & Co. took the class. Neither empathy nor tact are hallmarks of Chinese foreign relations.
The classics suggest why officialdom deliberately makes things tough on itself in dealings with China’s neighbors. Sun Tzu, for instance, opines that the sovereign or commander who prevails through non-violent means rather than feats of arms has reached the zenith of skill. To be sure, not everyone buys this logic. History vomits forth the occasional Hitler who longs to fight. In effect the Nazi supremo was a bizarro Immanuel Kant. The 18th-century German philosopher wrote a treatise aimed at perpetual peace. The 20th-century German tyrant saw perpetual war as a source of cultural nourishment and renewal. Winning-without-fighting wasn’t in Hitler’s lexicon.
Sane leaders, however, prefer to accomplish their goals without armed strife. Who’s to gainsay Master Sun? Not CCP grand poobahs, and not Clausewitz. While he’s more skeptical about the prospects for non-violent victory, Clausewitz agrees with Sun Tzu that even aggressors — even a Napoleon — love peace. Any self-respecting despot hopes his opponents will submit without resisting, saving him the effort, resources, and dangers of defeating them. So it’s true, but trivial, to observe — as China-watchers ritually do — that Beijing has no desire for war. (It’s equally true that aggressors, perhaps including China, prefer war to eschewing their dreams of fame, fortune, and conquest. The domineering have their priorities.)
Yet for Sun Tzu, there’s a catch to winning without fighting. No laurels bedeck the commander who never does battle, no matter how successful his strategies may prove. Blessed the peacemakers may be, but nations seldom hold ticker-tape parades for them. There’s a reason the Prussian Army wanted to occupy Vienna after vanquishing Austria in 1866. Commanders wanted more than the limited political aims ordained by statesmen in Berlin. They coveted the renown their soldiers had bought with blood and sweat, complete with entry into the enemy capital. That’s drama. Treaty-making is a milquetoast affair by contrast. It doesn’t deliver the same political goods.
Power politics, then, is a perverse business for Beijing. Attaining the supreme excellence in statecraft yields few incremental political gains, whereas winning through riskier, more costly methods such as combat elicits acclaim from the Chinese people. And popular accolades help the Chinese Communist Party reaffirm the legitimacy of its rule. Hence, China’s effort to have things both ways.
Roman emperors had bread and circuses to occupy the masses. CCP leaders have the Senkakus and Scarborough Shoal. One suspects the highhanded strain of Chinese diplomacy is here to stay.