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The “Art of War” in the 21st Century

Mar 27 , 2013

Is China still following Deng Xiaoping’s axiom, “Hide your strength, bide your time?

Perhaps China’s true strategy goes back a few centuries and more closely follows Sun Tzu when he says in The Art of War, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.” If so, it may be a good time for Americans to read Sun Tzu’s 6th century Chinese military treatise. Sun Tzu’s philosophy is to make fighting a war unnecessary, to instead accomplish the most with minimal risk — essentially, to win without fighting.

The economic rise of China is well documented. Kevin Rudd, a member of the Australian Parliament and former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Australia captures this rise when he says ” The speed, scale, and reach of China’s rise are without precedent in modern history. Within just 30 years, China’s economy has grown from smaller than the Netherland’s to larger than those of all other countries except becomes the United States. If China soon becomes the largest economy, as some predict, it will be the first time since George III that a non-English-speaking, non-Western, nondemocratic country has led the global economy.” He continues, “History teaches that where economic power goes, political and strategic power usually follows.”

Perhaps a bigger global fear is not simply China’s rise, but America’s decline. This ‘see-saw’ (China rises as the U.S. declines) is making many of China’s neighbors nervous.

The New York Times reports that with President Xi consolidating power China’s new foreign policy team “includes officials whose records suggest the government will concentrate on consolidating what it considers the country’s rightful place at the center of Asia.” In the same article it says, The White House states “despite cuts in military spending it will pursue its ‘strategic pivot’ to Asia, a policy that is interpreted in China as containment of its economic and military gains.”

“Military Industrial Complex”

A Chinese wave of military expansion has the potential for a build-up that may ultimately swamp America, but perhaps not in the way some expect. According to Pentagon officials, China is not yet capable of competing militarily with the U.S. and is at least a generation or more behind the United States in military technology.

Perhaps the real threat is what former World War II hero, general and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower foresaw in his farewell presidential speech nearly 50 years ago. Eisenhower warned the nation to beware of the “Military Industrial Complex” — an “iron triangle” of intertwined relationships between government, the armed forces and the industrial sector that manufactures arms and profits from them.

Americans must be careful that we do not allow recent China saber rattling, evidenced by a testing of their first stealth jet and the construction of their first aircraft carrier as well as excursions into the South China Sea, to draw the US into an extended arms race that we can ill afford.

Should we protect our national interests? Absolutely! However, the policy question moving forward will be: At what cost? And do we win the battle only to lose the war?

Our military budget, like all aspects of U.S. spending, has recently come under fire in this new era of budget austerity and is seeing forced or automatic cuts due to the “sequester.”

China has used its evolving economic strength to gain enormous strategic geopolitical advantage in a number of areas, spending the better part of its stellar economic rise to build its country: roads, bridges, air and seaports, bullet trains, schools, universities — not to mention its internal domestic security apparatus. All the while, the U.S. has disinvested in our people and domestic priorities, allowed our infrastructure to decay and building up our military only to police the world, spending trillions overseas. It shows, too, as we struggle economically — we are also crumbling, literally, from within.

Clearly, China is also spending militarily as well as on domestic needs. If we try to keep pace with an arms race with China could we, like the USSR, go broke? The Soviet Union spent its focus and economy on an arms race with the West (primarily the U.S.). Economically, communism was part of the problem but the spending on arms ultimately brought down the former USSR.

Can we afford our new “pivot to Asia” when we have a deficit in excess of $14 trillion, borrowing 40 cents for every dollar spent and owing China a trillion dollars? When it comes to the U.S. spending wishbone, domestic vs. military spending going forward, who will be the ultimate winner? By now China’s economic waves have been rolling up on our shores for sometime. Their military wave is just beginning to build.

Nationalism As The Glue

China has been a preeminent world power with the exception of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Recent flexing of China’s economy, education and military now represents to China’s nationalistic masses a historical norm, not an abnormality. Today, Chinese Netizens are abuzz with China reclaiming its historical mantle.

China’s nationalism will be the glue that will bind the country together. Riding high historically, China has seen no limit to its power and influence. The country has also shown tremendous restraint as an underdog, curling up like a pill bug until the environment is safe to emerge again.  The 21st century will witness the continuous uncurling of China.

Will China drag the U.S. into greater military spending, borrowing money from China to do so, enabling them to stoke both their domestic and military spending thus accelerating the economic see-saw, with America occupying the declining position? Our national leaders need to watch this building storm, protect our interests, and be careful that our own preparation for the coming waves does not become our undoing.

Sun Tzu, reminds us: “The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.” Chinese and US leaders vowed to build “a cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit,” now only time will tell how this will play out.

Tom Watkins serves on the University of Michigan Confucius Institute board of advisors and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation international advisory board.  He is the former Michigan state superintendent of schools, President and CEO of the economic council of Palm Beach County, FL. and is currently a U.S./China business and educational consultant.

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