‘The Great Wall in northern China was the most magnificent and largest strategic defence project in ancient China. It is the materialization and epitome of strategic defensive thought of the Chinese nation, as well as the symbol of China’s defensive national define policy. China’s defensive national defence policy is deeply rooted in the country’s outstanding strategic cultural heritage . . .’
– Peng Guanqian, Zhao Zhiyin and Luo, China’s National Defense (Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 2010), p. 23.
China has now developed what some are referring to as a Great Wall of Sand while others call it the Great tunnel of China (1). This new initiative has caused concern among some of China’s neighbours, notably the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as the United States. A recent US military report states that China poses one of the largest security threats. “China’s actions are adding tension to the Asia-Pacific region,” the document states, in reference to China’s recent land reclamation efforts to build islands in the contested South China Sea to boost its military and civilian presence (2).
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying has said the US should “throw away the Cold War mentality, and take an unbiased perspective of China’s strategic intention.” (3) How can this be done? One way is to examine how strategic culture was expressed throughout imperial China. Another, complementary, method is to observe China’s 21st century strategic focus on developing new “silk roads”. In this way, a better perspective can be gained on assessing Chinese strategic intentions.
Andrew Scobell, a specialist on Chinese military affairs, notes that culture influences the way strategists think about matters of war and peace. Culture is especially influential in a country like China, with an ancient civilization and strategic tradition dating back thousands of years (4).
How does Confucianism influence Chinese strategic thought?
Confucius was concerned with the problem of how to build a just and stable society. Strategies for creating a virtuous society involved a way of force (wu) versus a way of culture (wen). Confucius put a significant importance on the way of culture as being the “best” strategy, however he also never denied the validity of force. When the Master was asked, who he would take with him if he were leading the armies of a great state, he replied as follows: ‘If I took anyone it would have to be a man who, when faced with a task, was fearful of failure and who, while fond of making plans, was capable of successful execution’ (Analects 7.11). This shows Confucius viewed the way of force – wu – as a serious matter that needed competence in theory and practice.
Wu , however, could not be one sided. Confucius taught that force had to be in the service of culture and in an effort to defend and protect the people. Scobell believes China’s actual strategic culture is one that is the result of interplay between Confucian and Realpolitik strands. He explained in his article titled, “China and Strategic Culture,” that because of Confucianism, China tends to favour harmony over conflict and defence over offense.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Great Wall of China represents a major historic and strategic defence project of ancient China. For many outsiders this wall seemed to serve as China’s deliberate isolation from the world. China is no longer using the wall as a barrier between itself and the rest of the world, but instead creating new opportunities that represent strategic cooperation. Indeed, in their book, China’s Quest for Global Order, Bond University academics Dr Rosita Dellios and Dr R. James Ferguson spreak of “strategic theatres of cooperation” where a Confucian-style soft power prevails (ch. 6).
They are not alone in their view: “A more reasonable perspective is that [China] the world’s second largest economy is trying to play its part. It has not only taken on the responsibility in economic issues such as international trade and investment but also contributed new ideas and strategies to global governance. Promoting the Belt and Road Initiative, founding the Silk Road Fund, hosting the APEC summit and pushing forward the AIIB, the country is not only pulling down ‘the Great Wall’ but also building a wide bridge to the world.” (4)