Following Sun Tzu’s Strategy

At the West 2014 conference of the United States Naval Institute in California on February 13, 2014 Captain James Fanell, US Navy, analyzed last year’s Chinese military exercise which was called China’s Mission Action 2013. According to his analysis, this exercise included the training for taking the disputed Senkaku islands and maybe even some of the southern Ryukyu islands. The growing concern regarding China’s increasingly aggressive military actions in an area called Nine-Dash Line which covers almost the whole South China Sea was also mentioned.[1] The 9-dash line encompasses China’s perceived marine rights in the South China Sea, which of course its neighbors object to.

China’s military actions are expanding and aggressive, while the US military is suffering under budget cuts (sequestration) and forced to reduce its size/scale. The US’s allied nations in East Asia, South Korea and Japan, are facing difficulties in diplomatic relations due to their historical mistrust and antagonism. America should have avoided commenting Prime Minister Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visit last December. The US comment, “disappointed”, is seemingly backing up South Korea’s campaign against Japan. China is also joining this campaign. The largest export partner for South Korea is China, not Japan nor America. China’s military strategy can be well understood by referring to the strategy of the Chinese Taoist philosopher, Sun Tzu (ca. 500 BC).

Sun Tzu explained that the most important thing in a war is attacking the enemy’s strategy. The second best strategy is obstructing an enemy’s alliance, and the least recommended tactic is attacking the enemy’s armed forces.[2] The Defense White Paper of Japan in 2011 said that in 2003 China revised its Regulations on the Political Work of the People’s Liberation Army and added three important tactics: Media Warfare, Psychological Warfare and Legal Warfare.[3] China strives to attain its aims by means of building up public and international support for China (media warfare), undermining the enemy’s operational ability to fight through psychological actions (psychological warfare), and gaining international acceptance by applying domestic and international laws (legal warfare).

The relationship between the United States and Japan has been as strained as the one between South Korea and Japan. The US is trying to urge Japan and South Korea to improve their ties as could be seen during US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Seoul visit on February 13, 2014.[4] Before the Congress midterm elections this November, US President Obama might also wish to conclude the TPP agreement (Trans-Pacific Partnership) between the TPP member countries. However, these negotiations were adjourned until May.[5] Obama could find himself in a difficult situation with Congress since TPP negotiations might strongly impact the midterm elections. His own Democratic Party is a divided lot with widely different opinions.

The US allies in Asia more likely wait for a strong initiative from the United States. Unfortunately, Obama’s security politics is as vague in Asia as in the Middle East while China is expanding aggressively. China and South Korea seemingly found common ground in isolating Japan by way of media warfare using history. South Korea’s current diplomacy is outstanding for gaining the best position among China, Russia and the US; still, this stance should not be stretched too far. Japan should also use media warfare to showcase its contributions to the world after the Second World War. It is a good opportunity for Japan to reconsider now its security politics and its role(s) in this region in order to build a peaceful and stable situation.

Regardless of the US political directions, the American allies in the Asian and Pacific regions need to cooperate and maintain their ties against China’s psychological warfare (complemented by China’s legal warfare as exemplified by the establishment of an extended ADIZ in the East China Sea). Sun Tzu emphasized that the best strategy is to subdue enemies without a fight. This means – reversing China’s ambitions – that China would not remain aggressive if its opponents were strong and determined enough. China’s neighbor nations need to convince China that provocations do not help much whereas China tries to divide its neighbors.


[1] US Naval Institute News: Navy Official: China Training for ‘Short Sharp War’ with Japan, February 20, 2014. [accessed February 22, 2014]

[2] Hirama, Yoichi: Chiseigaku to kokusaiseiji – Chiseigaku karamita nichibeikankei [Geopolitics and international politics – the relationships between America and Japan from geopolitical aspects]. Hatou, No. 115, November 1994. [Accessed February 23, 2014]

Stahel, Albert A. (2003). Klassiker der Strategie – ein Bewertung. Vorwort von Dr. Bruno Lezzi. Strategie und Konfliktforschung, vdf Hochschulverlage an der ETH Zürich. Zürich, 3. Auflage, p-13-35.

[3] Defense of Japan 2011. The Ministry of Defense of Japan.

[4] Korean Joongang Daily: Park and Kerry talk on North, Japan’s attitude, February 14, 2014. [accessed February 23, 2014]

[5] Nikkei, Asian Review: TPP members give up agreement in Singapore, new goal eyed in May, February 25, 2014. [accessed February 25, 2014]

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