Sun Tzu, Nuclear Weapons and China’s Grand Strategy

Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.

What is the Role of Nuclear Weapons in China’s grand strategy? The paper will also discuss how the ancient writings of Sun Tzu have informed China’s current strategy.

Concomitantly, concerning the role of nuclear weapons in Chinese grand strategy, Ronald N. Montaperto wrote:

. . . it is not in China’s strategic interest to be transparent about most aspects of its nuclear posture and strategy. No amount of strategic dialogue is likely to be sufficient by itself to overcome Beijing’s incentives to remain as opaque as possible. This is likely to be a major issue in future development of bilateral relations.

An examination of open source documents on China’s grand strategy reveals an intriguing thread that weaves its way through the corpus of thought on its grand strategy and the role of nuclear weapons within it. The result is, not surprisingly, ambiguity! The Chinese would like us to believe that even their leadership has not fully decided which path to pursue. TheScience of Military Strategy, written by two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) MajGens, announced that:

At the most important position of the strategic structure is China’s national strategy. While no national strategy has been formally issued so far, its contents are embodied in a series of general and specific policies worked out by the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese government.[23] (Emphasis added)

With all due respect to Drs. Perry and Carter, however, it is also possible that their perceptions have been shaped by clever deceptions (e.g., Sun Tzu said: All warfare is based on deception) which were implemented through an intentional Chinese strategic information and deception campaign. Denial and deception are integral components of Chinese nuclear strategy. Military Power stated that: “Whole departments of military academies teach moulüe, or strategic deception, derived from Chinese experience through the millennia.

“The Inferior Defeats the Superior,” “Assassin’s Mace,” and Fait Accompli

Chinese leaders know that they cannot defeat the United States in a face-to-face encounter. They have studied the results of the Gulf Wars. They also know that the United States, whose forces would confront theirs in a face off over Taiwan, would somehow have to be neutralized in a short-term conflict to achieve the desired results, or face defeat in a long-term conflict. The CMC knows that the U.S supply lines are long, that U.S. forces require enormous amounts of fuel and ammunition, and that they require intricate communications paths—both terrestrial and space-borne. This issue received detailed attention in The Science of Military Strategy:

In regard to information systems, we should firmly destroy their surface facilities, jam and cut the enemy’s information feedback transmission circuits first, and then try our best to knock off his awareness platforms and damage his information flow which can form capabilities, so as to achieve the effect of “decapitation.”[28]

The Chinese have adapted Sun Tzu’s ancient stratagems to today’s strategic requirements. In this particular case, the doctrine is called “The Inferior Defeats the Superior.” Michael Pillsbury has culled Chinese open source writings and described the process by which the Chinese will implement this assassin’s mace program.

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In order to be successful at the doctrine of “The Inferior Defeats the Superior,” China assumes it can initially lull the opponent into complacency, or deceive him to take steps that will help China win. The premises here are quite elaborate . . . These concepts of how “The Inferior Defeats the Superior” are claimed to be unique to China, and to have [sic] developed by Chinese strategists over thousands of years. For this reason, PLA authors employ extensive examples from Chinese ancient military campaigns which they claim are the heart of Mao’s military doctrines. Westerners are presumed to be ignorant of these Chinese “lessons learned” about Assassin’s Mace employment concepts and the doctrines of “The Inferior Can Defeat the Superior.

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 Read more fascinating articles from Strategic Insights:

Strategic Insights: Summer 2008 Edition

Feature Articles

I. War and Strategy

Countering Asymmetrical Warfare in the 21st Century
by David E. Long

Sun Tzu, Nuclear Weapons and China’s Grand Strategy
by James Rickard

The Strategic Landscape: Avoiding Future Generations of Violent Extremists
by Kathleen Meilahn

II. Foreign Policy and National Security

A Turkish al-Qaeda: The Islamic Jihad Union and the Internationalization of Uzbek Jihadism
by Guido Steinberg

India’s Persian Problems
by P. R. Kumaraswamy

III. Energy Security

Is the Sky Falling? Energy Security and Transnational Terrorism
by Michael Mihalka and David Anderson

The Militarization of Energy Security
by James A. Russell


Fear and Dread in the Middle East
by Michael Brenner

Islam and the West: Issues of Diversity
by Muhammad Rizwan

Arab Education: The Front Line on the War on Terror
by Michael J. Hillyard

Student Thesis