Last week's post "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order" created a stir. Many who read it were inspired to write up their own view in response; some of these have been posted in the comments thread to the original post, others on Twitter, and yet others have been sent to me in more private forums. I have not had time to properly respond to this flood of commentary, and I doubt I will ever have time to respond to it all. However, a few of the critiques I have seen are too good to languish in comment threads unnoticed. I have collected the best of these here, along with a few of my own thoughts in response.

First off, multiple readers have pointed out that my post makes essentially the same case Peter Mattis made a year ago in a National Interest essay titled "Stop Saying China is at a Crossroads." [1] I was unaware of Mattis's column. Had I known of it I would have cited it, for its message is almost exactly the same as mine, just stated in far less sensational language. This stylistic choice on my part has been criticized by some, but this sort of criticism misses the mark. There is a purpose behind the pungency. Americans have been declaring that China is at a crossroads for three decades now. This is the default setting, a frame of thought that Americans conjure up effortlessly even when (perhaps especially when) the distractions of a busy world press upon them. It also happens to be wrong. Simpy stating that is not sufficient. It is not enough whisper that the emperor has no clothes. The truth must be shouted at him.

This brings me to Nick Prime's critique of my argument, sent to me in a private message. Prime has one of the most interesting research programs in the field of strategic studies, and if strategic theory is your thing his research is worth delving into. His comment here is typically astute:
I think your assessment of everything here is pretty accurate, but I'm not sure you're viewing the significance of it in the appropriate mindset. I don't question the idea that China has chosen its path, and that that path runs perpendicular to the liberal rules based order for which the US has been the guarantor for more than half a century. The evidence at this point is consistent and pretty much irrefutable.

That being said, the choices they've made make this something of a Mexican standoff, if not now then something that is quite clearly headed in that direction. The constant reminder of choice is thus not naive or ignorant of the path China's pursuing but is instead a very tactical form of positional bargaining. The US will not *choose* to break international norms and start a war with China. But the US will, I believe, stand firm and watch as China creeps towards that precipice and it doesn't hurt us at every stage to remind China that each choice is bringing that eventuality ever closer. One can justify the rhetoric you're criticising even if they except your premise because if what you say is true then the courses are set and the game is now about credibility and legitimacy. By calling out every choice China makes we highlight their illegitimacy and strengthen ours. Ideally this would amount to (if not an actual deterrent, than at least) a effort towards compellence.

This all goes hand in hand with countering China's broader regional strategy of trying to forestall attempts at collectively counter-balancing their rise through multi-lateral regional alignment and engagement. China's long running dismissal of, and their subtle attempts to undermine, ASEAN also make this pretty clear. We need to be standing firm behind some sort of line in the sand that shows we're not going to let them dismantle the international system we've built. It's both the right thing to do and in our national interest, at a grand strategic level it also seeks to provide the bulwark around which that counter-balancing can solidify and set in its heels.
Prime's argument is expressed in the language of conflict bargaining, and his main ideas should be familiar to anyone who has read Schelling's Arms and Influence or The Strategy of Conflict.[2] Prime asks the first question anyone should ask when an international actor tries to signal its intentions in an incomplete information scenario: do the things said genuinely reflect the beliefs of those saying them, or are they simply rhetorical tools in a bargaining game? Does all this talk of choice reveal actual American sentiments, or is it a more cynical attempt to maneuver the Chinese into having the "last clear chance" to avert war?

Readers who do not regularly delve into the tomes of strategic theory can be forgiven for not knowing what this 'last clear chance' business is all about. Schelling introduces the idea by asking us to imagine a special game of chess:
A chess game can end in win, lose, or draw. Let’s change the game by adding a fourth outcome called “disaster.” If “disaster” occurs, a heavy fine is levied on both players, so that each is worse off than if he had simply lost the game. And the rules specify what causes disaster: specifically, if either player has moved his knight across the center line and the other player has moved his queen across the center line, the game terminates at once and both players are scored with a disaster. If a white knight is already on the black side of the board when the black queen moves across to the white side, the black queen’s move terminates the game in disaster; if the queen was already across when White moved his knight across the center line, the knight’s move terminates the game in disaster for both players. And the same applies for the white queen and the black knight.  
What does this new rule do to the way a game is played? If a game is played well, and both players play for the best score they can get, we can state two observations. First, a game will never end in disaster. It could only terminate in disaster if one of the players made a deliberate move that he knew would cause disaster, and he would not. Second, the possibility of disaster will be reflected in the players’ tactics. White can effectively keep Black’s queen on her own side of the board by getting a knight across first; or he can keep both Black’s knights on their own side by getting his queen across first. This ability to block or to deter certain moves of the adversary will be an important part of the game; the threat of disaster will be effective, so effective that the disaster never occurs. In fact, the result is no different from a rule that says no queen can cross a center line if an opponent’s knight has already crossed it, and no knight can cross the center line if an opponent’s queen has already crossed it. Prohibitive penalties imposed on deliberate actions are equivalent to ordinary rules.  
The characteristic that this chess game shares with the tripwire diplomacy, and that accounts for its peculiar safety, is the absence of uncertainty. There is always some moment, or some final step, in which one side or the other has the last clear chance to turn the course of events away from war (or from disaster in our game of chess) or to turn it away from a political situation that would induce the other to take the final step toward war. The skillful chess player will keep the knight across the center line or near enough to cross before his opponent’s queen can get across, with due allowance for the cost of having to devote resources to the purpose. Skillful diplomacy, in the absence of uncertainty, consists in arranging things so that it is one’s opponent who is embarrassed by having the “last clear chance” to avert disaster by turning aside or abstaining from what he wanted to do (emphasis added)[3]
Is this the aim of American rhetoric on "China's choice?"

Possibly. It is likely that statements by Senator McCain, Secretary Carter, et. al. are a bit of bargaining and a bit of honest belief rolled together into one. However, if one part dominates, it is the second. I say this because the "China is at a crossroads" meme is not just rhetoric that rings from the pronouncements of America's highest policy makers or the podium's of her official spokespeople and press secretaries; it is a way of thought that permeates American officialdom. Talk to think tank fellows, naval officers, congressional aids, even grad students, and you will hear these same notes repeated. I believe this accounts for the popularity of the original post. The analysts and reporters who have reached out to me after I published it all had similar stories to tell: they thanked me for saying what I did because they feared their colleagues genuinely believe China is still waiting "at the crossroads." This is a deeply ingrained belief, not a carefully chosen bargaining position.

However, even if it this sort of rhetoric is a carefully designed signal, it is not effective at reaching its aims. To return to Shelling:
But off the chess board the last chance to avert disaster is not always clear. One does not always know what moves of his own would lead to disaster, one cannot always perceive the moves that the other side has already taken or has set afoot, or what interpretation will be put on one’s own actions; one does not always understand clearly what situations the other side would not, at some moment, accept in preference to war (emphasis added). [4]
Deterrence and compellence only work if the rules of the game are known and understood by both parties. On this count the Americans have been sloppy. They have never clarified the rules of their game. The constant talk of choice is never coupled with clear descriptions of the exact consequences of choosing wrongly. Mostly American officials frame the choice in ornate and abstract language; if China chooses to disrupt the ruling order, they say, China will "create a future that resembles Asia's darker past." How are the Chinese supposed to interpret this kind of rhetoric? Is not a return to the dynamics of Asia's past the entire purpose of their project?

Offering China a choice to join the international order does not bolster American credibility, nor does it pass the last clear chance to jump off the escalation escalator to Beijing. The Chinese who listen to American lectures about the choice they face are most likely to conclude that Americans are either 1) too foolish to realize that they made their choice long ago, or 2) are smart enough to realize this, but lack the gumption to do anything meaningful about it.

The second interpretation is strengthened by an uncomfortable fact: the Chinese are far more committed than the Americans are or ever can be to the narrow disputes at the fringes of the American led order. There are many theories for why China does what it does in its near abroad, but I am particularly partial to explanations that focus on the narrative the Communist Party of China pitches to its cadres and its subjects to justify its rule. Here Bilahari Kausikan is eloquent:
China's use of history to legitimise CCP rule and justify sovereignty claims gets us, I think, to the crux of the matter. For the past century, the legitimacy of any Chinese government has depended on its ability to defend China's sovereignty and preserve its borders. But what are those borders? Can the CCP meekly accept the borders imposed on a weak China that has now, to use Mao Zedong's phrase, "stood up" under communist leadership? China is not reckless but the CCP must at least give the appearance of recovering lost territory. Revanchism is an intrinsic part of the story of China's "Great Rejuvenation". 
The lands lost to a weak China include what are now parts of Siberia and the Russian Far East, Mongolia, Hong Kong and Macau, and Taiwan, as well as the Paracels and Spratlys in the SCS. Siberia and the Russian Far East and Mongolia are now beyond recovery. Hong Kong and Macau reverted to Beijing's rule almost 30 years ago. The US has made clear it will not support independence for Taiwan. Without US support, independence is impossible. With that core concern assuaged, Beijing can multiply the economic threads binding Taiwan to the mainland and bide its time, confident that irrespective of internal changes and how the people of Taiwan regard themselves, Taiwan's long-term trajectory cannot run counter to China's interest. Changing the status quo is not an immediate possibility but is no longer an urgent issue, although China still eyes Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party distrustfully and will never entirely forgo the option of forceful reunification. 
That leaves the SCS territories to put some credible shreds of meat on the bare bones of the CCP's version of history as it navigates a second and more difficult phase of reforms and tries to manage social and labour unrest at a time of moderating growth and a future when slower growth will be China's "new normal". The very insignificance of the territories in dispute in the SCS may well be part of their attraction to Beijing for this essentially domestic political purpose. 
The costs and consequences of chest-thumping and acting tough in the SCS are minimal. Deterrence or its lack works both ways. If the Chinese cannot deter the US from operating in the SCS because the risks of doing so are too high to be credible, by the same token, neither can the US deter or reverse Chinese activities in the SCS. China is not going to dig up the artificial islands it has constructed and throw the sand back into the sea or give up what it says was Chinese territory since "ancient times". Critical statements by the US, Europe or other countries from around the world calling on China to respect international law - even Botswana has issued a statement on the SCS - can be brushed aside. On the SCS, the only opinion that really matters to the CCP is that of its own people.  (emphasis added). [5]
Kausikan is more sanguine about all of this than I am, but the take away is the same. For the Communist Party of China, territorial disputes over God-forsaken atolls in the middle of the ocean are an existential question. These islands are directly related to the legitimacy of the Party, and thus the survival of the Party itself. Whether or not 'legitimacy' as a concept makes much sense does not matter here. What matters is that the Chinese think it does and they act accordingly. The United States simply does not have that level of commitment to these atolls. It cannot have that kind of commitment—no matter what any American says, everyone in the region knows that America could withdraw entirely from Asia (and for that matter, Europe) without fear of domestic revolution or external invasion. The American republic is blessed with enormous privilege: for her, international politics does not mean walking the knife's edge between survival and extinction.

The world looks different when viewed from Beijing. China's ruling regime occupies a precarious position, and the dangers they face are reflected in the policies they pursue abroad. This emerges as a recurring theme when the different points of contention that divide China from the West are examined. Most the aspects of the 'rules based order' that China rejects are things they view as an existential threat to the rule of Party. The root problem then is not China's rise, but the nature of the Chinese regime that guides it. As much as we may like to talk about making China a "responsible stake holder" in our order, the brightest minds in Zhongnanhai know that full participation in the American system means relinquishing their grip on power. The Arab Spring was a horrible shock to the Chinese leadership for just this reason. The speed with which long respected, rule-abiding members of the liberal order were abandoned by the United States once the street protests began convinced Beijing that American promises about the benefits of "responsible" participation in the American system were lies. Nor could the Chinese ignore that cherished aspects of that order, such as technological integration with the wider world, the free flow of information between borders, and an international network of activists and journalists, were critical to the collapse of governments across the region. Our rules based international order is a liberal one, and full participation in it will ultimately be fatal to any illiberal regime that joins it. The Communist Party of China recognizes this. The Party's real choice has always been to either give up their control over China in order to join the existing order or to try and create a new order more friendly to their continued hold on power. 

Given these existential stakes at play, I am extremely skeptical that our rhetorical nicties will make any difference in the Party's calculations. They have decided that our order and their regime are fundamentally incompatible. This judgement is probably correct. Our choice then, is simple: we can change the nature of the international system we have built so that it has space for illiberal regimes within in it, or we can try to actively oppose the rise autocratic powers who wish to overturn the order. Compromise or containment. 

From the perspective of Asia, the "China choice" rhetoric furthers neither end. Where it might make a difference is inside the United States itself. As mentioned earlier, America could lose her entire alliance system in East Asia and still live without fear of foreign invasion, and Chinese salami slices in the South China Sea are far less dramatic than a disaster of that scale. Thus even without the growing isolationist sentiment in American politics, regional allies have good reason to doubt whether America is actually committed to the international system she has built. This doubt substantially strengthens the Chinese position.  If United States wishes to maintain a credible presence in the Western Pacific, then its own people need to be sold on the project. The pageantry of declaring that the Chinese have to choose between a rules based order of the present or a return to the dark anarchy of the past might just be necessary to get the American people on board. 

I am going to stop with that for now. There are a few other comments and reactions I want to respond toespecially Andrew Chubb's comment on the original post, and Mark Safranski's response post at Zenpundit—but this piece is already long as it is. I will have to save my thoughts on their comments for a separate post later this week.  


[1] Peter Mattis, "Stop Saying China is at a Crossroads," National Interest (7 August 2015).

[2] It is possible that he is pandering to my biases here; I have said before and affirm now that Schelling is the most important thinker we have for understanding U.S. and Chinese decision making in the South China Sea, and that you will be better prepared to analyze what is happening there after you have read him than if you had the Sunzi or Clausewitz.

[3] Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 100-101.

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Bilahari Kausikan, "Pavlovian Conditioning in the South China Sea," The Strait Times (1 April 2016).


While the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good. 
—A.E. Housman, "Terence This is Stupid Stuff," (1896)

The words of Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, delivered on the 3rd of June to the assembled leaders and representatives of the Southeast Asian nations then gathered in Singapore:
The choice for Southeast Asia in the 21st century is not between the United States and China, as some would make it out to be. Instead it is a choice between two futures—one in which the rules-based order is upheld and its benefits expanded to ever more people in Asia, or a darker future that resembles the past in this region and the world, where might makes right, and bullies set the rules and break them. 
The rules-based order has not and will not enforce itself here in Southeast Asia. Nor can America, despite its great power, achieve this feat alone. It requires its stakeholders, including the nations of Southeast Asia, to uphold its principles, especially when they are challenged. America and the world are counting on the nations of Southeast Asia to recommit their power and resolve to upholding this system on which our shared security and prosperity depend. 
...Like Southeast Asia, China also faces a choice. No nation has benefited more from the rules-based order than China. In just a single generation, China has become an economic superpower and a major player in international affairs. No nation in history has risen so high, so fast, and in so many different dimensions. And no nation has been a greater advocate for China’s success than America. Let me repeat: No nation has done as much to contribute to what China calls its “peaceful rise” as the United States of America. 
...Regrettably, in recent years, there have been disturbing signs that China is maneuvering toward a policy of intimidation and coercion—harassing fisherman from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia; using trade as a weapon in disputes with its neighbors; using cyber to steal intellectual property from foreign businesses to benefit its own industries; conducting dangerous intercepts of military aircraft flying in accordance with international law; and in the South China Sea, shattering the commitments it made to its neighbors in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct, as well as more recent commitments to the U.S. government, by conducting reclamation on disputed features and militarizing the South China Sea at a startling and destabilizing rate. 
The choice for China is how it uses its growing power and position. China could continue to coerce and intimidate its neighbors and unilaterally enforce its territorial claims. It could pursue mercantilist economic policies. And it could engage in a zero-sum game for regional power and influence. China could do all of this, and it would harm the interests of every nation in this region, including its own. 
Alternatively, China could choose a better path. It could cooperate with its neighbors and manage disputes peacefully, consistent with the same international rules that have benefited China so greatly. It could expand free and open trade with the region and the world. And it could expand cooperation with other Pacific powers on regional security challenges, from piracy to stability on the Korean Peninsula. 
...In short, China can choose to disrupt the rules-based order. Or it can choose to become a vital partner in maintaining it. I fear the consequences if China chooses the path of disruption. But I am confident that if China chooses the path of partnership and cooperation, China’s growing influence will be welcomed by the international community. And the benefits of greater security and prosperity will extend to more citizens of this region than ever before, China’s included. [1]

McCain's words echo those spoken by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to the graduating midshipman at Annapolis. Read them both. Compare what they say. Behold the quickly crystallizing American narrative on China. This is a bipartisan message. It will be the starting point of a President Clinton's policy. Whether a President Trump will endorse it is hard to say. In either case, it is a narrative whose momentum is building.

There is much that is good in this narrative. McCain proclaims that "no nation has done as much to contribute to what China calls its “peaceful rise” as the United States of America." He is right to do so. No nation has done more to enable China's rise than America has. No country's citizens have done more for the general prosperity of the Chinese people than the Americans have. This is true in ways that are not widely known or immediately obvious. For example, the role American financiers and investment banks played in creating the architecture of modern Chinese financial markets and corporate structures is little realized, despite the size and importance of their interventions. Behind every great titan of Chinese industry--China Mobile, the world's largest mobile phone operator, China State Construction Engineering, whose IPO was valued at $7.3 billion, PetroChina, the most profitable company in Asia (well, before last year), to name a few of hundreds--lies an American investment banker. I do not exaggerate when I say Goldman Sachs created modern China. [2] China has much to thank America for.

However, I cannot endorse all that is included in this emerging narrative, for part of it is deeply flawed. The flaw may be by design; if the purpose is to stir cold hearts and gain moral admiration of others, such flaws can be excused--that is how politics works. But this sort of things can only be excused if those delivering the speeches do not take the implications of their own words seriously when it is time to make policy. 

I speak of  China's "choice." The thread that runs through all of these talks is that the Chinese have yet to choose whether they aim for order or disruption, the existing regime or the chaos beyond it. The truth is that the Chinese have already chosen their path and no number of speeches on our part will convince them to abandon it. They do not want our rules based order. They have rejected it. They will continue to reject it unless compelled by overwhelming crisis to sleep on sticks and swallow gall and accept the rules we force upon them. 

China has made its choice. The real decision that will determine the contours of the 21st century will not be made in Beijing, but in Washington.

Observers of Chinese affairs have come to recognize two uncomfortable truths. The first is that China is a growing power whose might will continue to grow in every dimension we can measure for decades. The second is that the Chinese system of government is a fundamentally illiberal one, and the system of international relations the leaders of this system prefer reflects their illiberalism. These two things are not determined in the stars; either may change, and may change quite suddenly. But Americans will be better served if we plan as if both of these truths will remain true to the end of our lives.

This is not what we have been doing. For the most part Americans were able to accommodate themselves to the first of these realities by pretending that the second was not true. China could become more powerful, we said, because it will not be illiberal for long. After all, on this Earth the arc of history bends towards justice. Those on the 'wrong side' of history do not last long. How can the illiberal hope to endure? 

Last spring it finally sunk in. Chinese illiberalism not only can endure, it is enduring. The old consensus cracked apart. No new consensus on how to deal with China has yet formed to take its place.

But old habits die hard. We see this at the highest levels of policy, as in the McCain speech, where American policy is justified in terms of giving China a chance to choose the right. The same spirit is invoked further down the line. Ash Carter, for example, recently described American tactics in the South China Sea as a "long campaign of firmness, and gentle but strong pushback... [until] The internal logic of China and its society will eventually dictate a change." [3] In other words, American policy is a holding action until the Chinese see the light.

What if they never do?

The Chinese believe that our international order is a rigged system set up by the imperial victors of the last round of bloodshed to perpetuate the power of its winners. They use the system, quite cynically, but at its base they find it and its symbols hypocritical, embarrassing, outrageous, and (according to the most strident among them), evil. In their minds it is a system of lies and half-truths. In some cases they have a point. Most of their actions in the East or South China Seas are designed to show just how large a gap exists between the grim realities of great power politics and soaring rhetoric Americans use to describe our role in the region. Murphy Taggart describes how the Chinese were able to exploit tensions over the Senkakus to manipulate the Japan and America's relations:
Beijing saw what happened in the wake of Ozawa’s comments to Hillary Clinton on her February 2009 visit to Japan, not to mention the coincidence of the ersatz “investigation” into Ozawa’s finances that destroyed his chances of becoming prime minister. Chinese leaders noted the spasms of hysteria that shook the American foreign policy establishment after Ozawa led his 600-person delegation to their country. They understood how the Hatoyama administration had been deliberately sabotaged by a de facto alliance of Pentagon functionaries, the establishment press in Japan, and Japanese spokesmen in the United States committing what amounted to treason against their own government. And they decided to call Tokyo’s— and Washington’s— bluff. [4]
 Another example was the crisis started when Beijing moved the oil rig HYSY981 into Vietnamese waters:
“The deployment of the CNOOC mega rig was a pre-planned response to President Barack Obama’s recent visit to East Asia. China was angered by Obama’s support for both Japan and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with Beijing. Therefore China manufactured the oil rig crisis to demonstrate to regional states that the United States was a “paper tiger” and there was a gap between Obama’s rhetoric and ability to act.”  
President Obama’s tour, which ended shortly before the whole HYSY-981 fiasco began, brought the President to Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Tokyo, and Seoul. One wonders if it was wise to exclude Beijing from this list—particularly seeing as the President’s agenda included signing a ten year military pact with the Philippines, declaring that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are under U.S. military protection, and cajoling South Korean and Malaysian government officials and corporate bigwigs into joining the Trans Pacific Partnership. From the Chinese perspective it is hard to look at this trip as anything but a hostile attempt to draw tight the noose and solidify a regional alliance to contain it.

Prompting a crisis was an adroit way to show that the PRC cannot be contained. Washington will not crusade against Moscow and Beijing at the same time. Beijing has forced the Americans to choose between the two. To the chagrin of our Asian allies, Washington’s priorities are not those proclaimed in the President’s speeches last month. ASEAN’s inability to stand as a united front against China’s actions is icing on the cake. Reports from the ASEAN negotiations have been more muted than the last time China was able to sow disunion in ASEAN’s ranks, but it is a safe guess that Chinese diplomats were able to pull many of the same strings they did in 2012. One suspects that China specifically timed the crises to display ASEAN’s disunity, showing the region’s middle tier powers that attempts to use ASEAN to stifle China’s ambitions are nothing but a pipe dream. [5]
A similar story can be told for numberless Chinese diplomatic and military initiatives, from 2012's failed ASEAN summit to the seizure of Scarborough Shoal. This is what the Chinese do. I am convinced that the Chinese are so adept at doing this—finding the places where one small push is all that is needed to display American impotence or indifference—because they are trained from the beginning to see the entire edifice as a lie, and thus are aware in a way most Americans are not of the gap between the way we talk about our alliance system and the way Asians experience it. 

Wedded to this cynical vision of the current arrangements is an equally cynical take on the history of America's imposed order. Beijing is well aware that if it decided to do to Tonga now what the United States did to Hawaii more than a century ago it would mean war. At the time the United States suffered nothing of the sort. Not that American wars were without their own rewardsthe Americans claim island bases like Guam and Saipan as prizes won through conquest. China is not allowed to conquer its own prizes. It cannot fight wars to give its forces a new ports and bases; it is not even allowed build little artificial islands for the purpose.

Never mind that all of that strikes the Chinese's ire happened generations ago. Anything this side of the Taiping is modern history for the Chinese. American attempts to deny that, to claim that the world should work differently now than it did when the American star first began to rise, simply prove that morality and sweet sounding words like ‘international norms’ are for the winners. All of that talk about being a responsible stakeholder is just a nicer way to say we plan on kicking down the ladder now that we have finished climbing up it.

In simpler terms, the Chinese equate “rising within a rules based order” with “halting China’s rise to power.” To live by Washington’s rules is to live under its power, and the Chinese have been telling themselves for three decades now that—after two centuries of hardship—they will not live by the dictates of outsiders ever again.

The Chinese will never choose our rules based order. That does not necessarily mean they want to dethrone America and throw down all that she has built. The Chinese do not have global ambitions. What they want is a seat at the table—and they want this seat to be recognized, not earned. That’s the gist of it. Beijing is not willing to accept an order it did not have a hand in creating. Thus all that G-2 talk we heard a few years back. The Chinese would love to found a new order balancing their honor and their interests with the Americans. It is a flattering idea. What they do not want is for the Americans to give them a list of hoops to jump through to gain entry into some pre-determined good-boys club. They feel like their power, wealth, and heritage should be more than enough to qualify for  automatic entrance to any club.

The decision then, lies not with them, but with us. An illiberal China is rising. No matter how nuanced our negotiation or how righteous our indignation, the Chinese will always feel that any attempt to get them to play by rules they did not have a hand in making is 1) morally wrong and 2) damaging to the Party's domestic power. They are interested in making a new order for the 21st century. In this the Chinese of today are not too different from the Americans of yesteryear. We forget that sometimes. There was once an era where Americans were the ones demanding that the shape of the world change to better match their values and interests.

The question before us then is whether we can compromise with the Chinese on this, and if so where those compromises can be made. What form that compromise might take—spheres of interest are the classical model here, though others exist—is still up for discussion. If this is our path then these discussions must be had with fierce urgency.

The alternative to compromise is containment. If we decide that any compromise with illiberal China would poison the international order beyond repair then we must move swiftly to contain China before its power grows further still. Our aim will not only be to restrain but also to reduce Chinese power when and where we can. This too will require spirited discussion, for containment is fraught with danger. We must ponder long and hard how we might go about limiting Chinese power without making the Party's domestic position so vulnerable that they see no alternative but war before them.

Both paths before us require careful thought and vigorous debate if we hope to traverse them safely. These discussions are not happening. As long as we cling to the illusion that China has not made her choice they will not happen. The fruits of this foolishness are not hard to see: we do not contain yet we refuse to compromise, suffering the costs of both choices while reaping the benefits of neither.[6] The hope that the Chinese will admit their wrongs and ask to join our rules-based club is a mirage. It must be given up. We hold to it only because we fear the responsibility the truth would force upon us.  The Chinese have made their choice. The ball is in our court now. 

"China--Shaded Relief," (1996), University of Texas Perry-Castaneda Map Collection.
Image Source.

[1] John McCain, "The Choice for Asia in the 21st Century," War on the Rocks (3 June 2016).

[2] Carl Walter and Fraser Howie, Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundations of China's Extraordinary Rise (New York: Wiley, 2011), passim, but see esp p. 159.

[3] Bradley Peniston, "Pentagon Playing the Long Game in the South China Sea, Carter Says," Defense One (26 May 2016).

[4]  Murphy, R. Taggart. Japan and the Shackles of the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 352. 

[5] T. Greer, "A Few Comments on China, Vietnam, and the HYSY981 Oil Crisis," The Scholar's Stage (22 May 2014).

[6] The way the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank hullabaloo went down is a perfect example of all this. American incoherence and tone deafness, refusal to compromise or properly contain, wishful thinking instead of clear vision--it is all there.

The Tropical MBA podcast is one of the few I listen to religiously. Theirs is the premier podcast produced by and for 'location independent entrepreneurs,' which I'll define here as entrepreneurs who have built businesses that allow their owners to operate from just about anywhere on the planet--or at least anywhere on the planet with an internet connection. Everything from business strategy and branding to partnership and personnel woes are discussed on the podcast, along with the occasional episodes on the philosophy behind location independent lifestyle. Earlier this month the podcast invited Shayna Oliveria,  founder of Espresso English, whose business model turns on transforming standard ESL lessons into a scalable, productized service. The interview was mostly about building successful Info Products in crowded markets (like English as a second language), but early on in the interview they ask Oliveria a question she did not have a solid answer for: how long should it take a person to learn a new language?

While Oliveria did not have a ready answer for this question, a ready answer to it does exist. It is even available as an infographic:

I have not been able to find the original source for this infographic. It has been floating around the web for several years. It is based on data collected by the Foreign Service Institute, which is where members of America's diplomatic corp learn new languages. It is obviously designed with the native English speaker in mind; the languages which are easiest to learn are those whose grammar, vocabulary, and writing systems are closest to English. What this infographic labels 'Language Proficiency' the State Department calls 'Minimum Professional Proficiency." The minimally proficient individual can listen to a song and understand its meaning, watch a film without subtitles, converse freely on most topics without preparation, and read a newspaper aimed at a general readership and understand most of what it means. They can talk well enough to make their meaning clear in most situations, though they cannot do this elegantly, and speak with a strong accent. They could probably take a college course in the language in question, but it would be mentally taxing in the extreme. You would not want this person interpreting for you in a legal setting. Writing an essay in the target language would require triple or quadruple the amount of time a native speaker would take to write the same amount. The end product would be readable, but obviously the product of a non-native writer.

The infographic has two measures of time: weeks and class hours. The second is the more important of the two. Students at the Foreign Service Institute are paid to learn the language they have been assigned; they spend close to five hours every day (except weekends) in class using the language. On the face of it it seems that most people cannot commit that sort of time to learning a new language. But that is not quite true--with a few brilliant savants excepted, everyone who becomes fluent in a new language spends just as much time learning their language of choice as the folks in the State Department do. To become fluent in Spanish you must actively use Spanish for more than 600 hours. Diplomats just pack those hours into fewer days than most people are willing to do.

Think of it as an equation. If the person studying Spanish wants to know how long it will take them to become professionally proficient in the language, all they need to do is figure out how many hours a week they are using their Spanish, and then divide the 600 hours needed for fluency by that number. This will leave them with a fair estimate of the number of weeks they will take to reach 'fluency.' Thus:

If you use Spanish for 25 hours of every week, you will become minimally proficient in 24 weeks, or a bit less than 6 months.  
If you are using Spanish for 10 hours every week, you will become minimally proficient in 60 weeks, or a little bit more than a year. 
If you are using Spanish for 4 hours every week, you will become minimally proficient in 150 weeks, or about three years. 

I should be clear here what I mean by "using" a language. Any situation where the language learner must actively work to communicate or understand the target language counts. Conversation counts. Reading a book counts. Actively listening to a speech or a film or the radio--as opposed to letting it passively play in the background--counts. I submit that even the rote memorization of vocabulary lists and grammar structures counts, with the caveat that this will not be sufficient if it is all the language learner does. Class can count, if classes are structured to force the learner to actively use the language the entire class period. A new language is an alien intrusion on the brain. Your brain does not want to deal with it. Any activity that forces your brain to do so will help you here.

This is the hidden secret to language learning. Someone who spends 600 hours using cruddy textbooks and old fashioned methods will learn to speak a language better than someone who spends 100 hours with the world's best tutors, textbooks, and software. There are no real short cuts here. Yes, advances in cognition and linguistics can and should inform your language learning journey, and yes, it is easier to learn a new language with proper study materials than without them. However, nothing can replace being forced to speak, read, write, and listen to the language for hours on end, and real progress cannot be had without that. The temptation to over optimize your language learning process--to spend hour after hour clicking through blogs and websites on language learning, or reading review after review of different textbooks on be fought. In most cases you will be better off spending those precious hours simply studying the language and figuring out what works best for you as you go along.

Add all this together and you'll realize that the most important trait of the ideal language learner is discipline. It takes discipline to devote all of these hours to learning a new language, especially in its early stages, when speaking is embarrassing, reading seems pointless, listening destroys confidence, and memorizing new vocabulary is unbearably tedious. Occasionally you will meet people are so passionate about a language or a culture, or perhaps just so in love with language learning as whole, that they rush to their drills and their study lists like sailors on leave rush to shore. These people are found few and far between. For most people grit is what carries them through--or cheap replacements for grit, like fear of a failing a final. 

"Immersion" is another common replacement for grit. Immersion is by no means a requirement for learning a second language. But for most people immersion is the best way to learn a language, and by now you should see why: in an immersive environment you do not have to rely on discipline and self control to force your brain to use the new language, because circumstances do that for you. If you do not learn how to buy food in the target language, you will go hungry. If you do not learn how to withdraw money from the bank, you will be penniless. If you do not learn how to find a bathroom, you will... well, you get the idea. A fully immersive environment can force you to use your new language every hour of the day. Most people go through their 600 hours quite quickly in such circumstances.

But not all people do. Occasionally you will meet expats who wonder why their language skills are barely any better now than when they arrived in the country, and the answer is almost certainly that they have figured out how to survive without speaking the target language. They usually spend all their time reading English language websites or hanging out with English speaking friends. The number of hours they spend using the language is hardly any different than the number of hours they were spending back at home. This is the story behind those old migrants you meet in the back alleyways of America's Koreatowns and Little Haitis--they live in America, but have given up on speaking better English, and thus have arranged their life in such a way they don't have to use it much. In contrast, I regularly meet people here in Taipei who speak excellent English, despite never having visited an English speaking country in their life. They've spent the hours needed to drill English into their heads and now enjoy the fruits of their labors.

So to sum all this up:
  • Second language learning is for the most part a function of the amount of time you spend actively using the target language.
  • How you study a language is less important than the amount of time you devote to actively using it.
  • The only way to gain fluency in a second language faster is to increase the proportion of your time where you use the language in question.
Which brings us to Chinese. 

The title of this post is a riff on a famous essay by David Moser titled "Why is Chinese So Damn Hard." It is a funny and well written essay, so if you have not read it before, go do so now. He offers a buffet of arguments, each contending that Chinese should be considered the most difficult language on Earth, and each is supported with a humorous anecdote or two. I do not think any of these arguments are incorrect, but taken together they offer a picture that is far more complicated than it needs to be. The real reason Chinese is so difficult is pretty simple, and it is best understood in terms of the language-study equation I laid out above. 

That problem is the characters. 

Now this is not the only hard thing about Chinese. As Moser points out, Chinese has few English cognates, and the cultural gap between Chinese speakers and English speakers is enormous (these are people who don't recognize references to Elvis, Darth Vader, or Santa Claus; most Westerners are just as blissfully unaware of the Chinese equivalents). But this is hardly unique to Chinese. I faced similar challenges when I learned to speak Khmer, but Khmer is still only considered a Level 3 language. Khmer and Chinese also both have relatively simple grammar systems--French conjugations are more complex than anything Khmer has to throw at you, and on the balance Khmer grammar structures are slightly harder to to use, if only because the pronoun system is so much more complicated than in Mandarin (and the consequences for using the wrong pronouns so dire), and Chinese  syntax is usually a little less busy.

 Unlike Khmer, Chinese is a tonal language, and this really is a significant difference. Tonality makes a language much harder to learn. But even tones do not automatically make a language one of the very hardest. Thai and Vietnamese, both tonal languages, are only considered Level 3 languages. The comparison with Vietnamese is particularly apt, for it is very much like Chinese. In addition to tones, the lion's share of Vietnamese words are of Chinese origin, both are an analytic languages that use SVO word order, neither has much in way of consonant clusters, and Vietnam shares most of China's cultural heritage. But Vietnamese takes several hundred class hours less to master. [1] 

The difference is that Vietnamese no longer uses Chinese characters. 

Characters are difficult for all the reasons Moser describes. But again, I think he over-complicates things. The real difficulty with learning Chinese characters is fairly simple: they must be memorized. All words you learn in a foreign language must be memorized, of course, but in Chinese you must memorize each word twice. You memorize a word once for its character, and once for its pronunciation. It is quite possible to memorize all of the characters without knowing the proper Mandarin pronunciation of any of them. This is how Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese have memorized Chinese characters for the last few millennia, and it is how books like Remembering the Traditional Hanzi teach you to do it today. 

Memorizing characters is not particularly hard. It is just time consuming. This is what pushes Chinese into the 2,000+ class hour range. It is not because its grammar is more complex, phonology more difficult, or culture more alien than that of the 1,000 class hour languages. It is simply because the person learning Chinese must spend an obscene amount of time on characters. I estimate that I spend around 60% of my Chinese study time memorizing and reviewing characters. An informal survey of other intermediate and advanced learners I know revealed that they do the same. How much better would our Chinese be if we could take that time we spend on character study and use it practicing any other language skill? Characters literally double the amount of time it takes to master this language. 

Which is why those who want to learn Chinese fastest skip them. This is what Benny Lewis did when he studied Mandarin in for his Fluent in 3 Months challenge. This is also what Mormon missionaries do when they come to serve here in Taiwan. Unless they studied the language before they served, the best can only write around 500 or so characters by the time they leave, though they can speak, very, very well. Which makes sense. They spend two years speaking the language day in and day out. They cram thousands of hours of speaking and listening into the first year and half of their service. By ignoring the characters altogether, they learn to speak more fluently than many foreigners who have been studying here for years, and in only a fraction of the time. 

The downside to this is that they can't read anything, including the Bibles and Books of Mormon they carry around! But that is the trade off built in to any attempt to master a language that is so damn hard.


[1] I recently talked with an American FSO here in Taiwan who last was stationed in Hanoi. He reported that the FSI actually recognizes that Vietnamese is more difficult than most other Level 3 languages, and says that it would give the language a 3.5 rating were it possible to do so. In light of this, it is the only Level 3 language where the FSI has a language learning center in country so that students can take advantage of an immersive environment. All other Level 3 languages are taught in Washington DC.

The Old G-2  

Posted by T. Greer in , , ,

Image Source.
On the recommendation of Tyler Cowen I picked up Taggart Murphy's book  Japan and the Shackles of the Past. This book has impressed me; there are enough interesting ideas in it to make up several different posts. But today I'll limit myself to one thought provoking excerpt:
By the fall of 1989, all this seemed in place. The 1988 presidential campaign in the United States had unnerved many in Tokyo; it looked as if the Democrats might nominate Richard Gephardt running on a protectionist, anti-Japanese platform. But the election was won by George H. W. Bush, the kind of moderate Republican with whom the Japanese political elite had long been the most comfortable. It seemed that after all there would be no significant political opposition in the United States to the emergence of what scholars and analysts on both sides of the Pacific were increasingly calling the “Nichi-Bei” or “G-2” global economy— that is, a global economy where the really significant decisions would be made by the two economic superpowers, the United States and Japan. 
The Americans would continue to provide security and a global currency while supplying commodities (wheat, corn, soybeans) and certain “soft” economic goods (movies, for example, or popular music). Japanese companies such as Sony and Matsushita could acquire major stakes in Hollywood, the global capital of popular culture— thus guaranteeing streams of content for their televisions, VCRs, and Walkmen— while other industrial companies were assured that when necessary they could buy up the emerging technologies that the Americans still seemed to be so good at spawning, allowing Japan to play to its core competency in commercializing them. Enough Japanese plants would be located in the United States to keep employment levels at politically acceptable levels in America, and the Japanese would leave to the Americans a couple of key manufacturing sectors such as commercial aircraft that had extensive overlap with defense industries, although Japanese suppliers would provide much of the value-added in these sectors. Tokyo and Washington would work together to manage global currency and trading frameworks while Washington would continue, with extensive Japanese financial support, to act as the global policeman. [1]

Today it seems laughable to imagine a future global order divided between Japan and the United States but when Bush I was entering office this seemed not only possible but probable. There was more to this prediction than the size of the economies involved; Taggart relates in detail how intertwined the political economy of both countries were, and argues that the economic strategies each employed during that era were not possible without the active cooperation of the other. In fact, if you were one of those people who passed along that silly Foreign Affairs essay claiming that the United States has not "employed economic means to achieve strategic ends" since the days of Kennedy and Eisenhower, this might be a necessary read for you. [2] Japanese foreign policy in the post war world is the example of "economic statecraft" par excellence and this book will give you a flavor of what terms like 'economic statecraft' ought to mean. American statecraft is not given the same weight (this is, after all, a book about Japan), but Taggart narrates enough about how American statesmen decided to respond to Japanese maneuvers to expose the 'American economic policy hasn't been geopolitical enough' crowd as fools.

However, the world of international policy abounds in fools. As the passage quoted above suggests,  even the bests analysts play the fool sooner or later. Knowing what we know now, it is obvious that visions of a "Nichi-Bei" global order were fantastical. But foolishness is never seen as such in the moment, at least not by those caught up in it. This is the problem with futuristics and forecasting as a whole: it is too easy to project the zeitgeist of the moment onto an uncertain and unknown future. Analysts must have the humility to declare that this is what the future really is: uncertain and unknown. It is true, there are a few factors, like demographics and the like, who move so slowly that the flower's shape may be known long before it blooms. But these are the exceptions. Wars and contentions, discoveries and inventions, the wild chase of the animal spirits--none of these can be seen decades before hand. Praise the pundit who has the humility to admit this.


[1] Murphy Taggart,  Japan and the Shackles of the Past (What Everyone Needs to Know) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 186-187.

[2] Robert D. Blackwill and Jennifer M. Harris, "The Lost Art of Economic Statecraft," Foreign Affairs, March/April 2016 Issue.

I have not had much time to devote to blogging this week, but I would like to forward a report I suspect most readers will find as fascinating as I have: the Asian Productivity Organization's APO Productivity Databook 2015. I have been slowly leafing through it over the last month; on every page there is a graphic worth pondering. To give you just one example, here is the graphic presented on page 46 of the report:

The authors use this figure to illustrate Engel's Law: as incomes rise households spend a smaller proportion of their income on foodstuffs. The figure demonstrates this point excellently. More interesting than this broader trend, however, are the quirks in consumption unique to each country. The high cost of American health care is easy to spot here, as is the high proportion of income South Koreans spend on education. What sticks out most to me, however, is Hong Kong. People in Hong Kong devote a whopping 17% of their annual consumption on clothes and shoes, This is not only five times what other developed countries are spending on apparel; it is also more than Hong Kongers spend on housing, health care, or transportation! 

I encourage you to page through the report and find your own favorite figure from it.

EDIT: 15/05/2015 - Trey Menefee was able to track down a similar data set from a different source:

Trey suggests--as did the commentator "Bormington" below--that the APO numbers probably come from sloppy compilation of data that counted tourist purchases along with regular household consumption. I agree that this is the most plausible explanation for the discrepancy. 

ISIS fighters near Mosul, in the 2014 advance against the city. 

Image source: "ISIS in Mosul, thousands of Refugees Flee," (9 July 2014).
Last week Strategy Bridge published an interesting piece by Sebastian Bae. In it Bae analyzes the United States' strategy to defeat ISIS through the lens of the Sunzi and its precepts. I have a few comments on its prescriptions, so I recommend you read the full thing before reading any more of this post. [1]
In a general sense, I am a fan of Bae's approach towards the Sunzi. Recently I read a creative take by Xavier Marquez on the different reasons today's political theorists might study and read the works of 'old' political philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, Hobbes, Locke, et al. As I am quite certain that most of you will find that post more entertaining and intellectually stimulating than this one, I recommend you read that post in full as well. [2] However, I think Marquez missed a major strain when detailing his 'map' of the modern uses ancient political thought, and it is this approach that Bae practices here. It is also one that I favor. It is a method particularly common in the field of strategic studies (which would explain why both Bae and I embrace it), but others outside the field occasionally adopt it as well. Indeed, I think it was best articulated by a complete outsider to the field. Here is journalist Joseph Sobran explaining why he is so fond of quoting Shakespeare in his columns:

Dogged readers of my columns will observe that I habitually quote a handful of classic writings, chiefly the Shakespeare works, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and The Federalist Papers. If those readers suspect that these few masterpieces pretty much exhaust my learning, they are correct.... In Mark Twain’s famous definition, a classic is a book everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read. Gulp! But those daunting all-time must-reading lists are a little misleading. It can take years to master a single great author. Much of what we “know” about the classics is what we’ve heard about them in advance, and we may not get beyond their reputations until we’ve read them several times. 
Yet the few classics I know thoroughly have been invaluable, even in my work as a journalist. To know a single old book well, even if it hasn’t been canonized as a “classic,” is to have a certain anchorage you can’t get from most contemporary writing.
There are no particular classics, not even Shakespeare, that you “must” read. But you should find a few meritorious old writers you find absorbing and not only read them, but live with them, until they become voices in your mind — a sort of internal council you can consult at any time. 
...When confronted with a new topic or political issue, I often ask myself what Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, or James Madison — or, among more recent authors, George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, or Michael Oakeshott — would have thought of it. Not that these men were always right: that would be impossible, since they often disagree with each other. The great authors have no specific “message.” 
But at least they had minds of their own. They weren’t mere products of the thought-factory we call public opinion, which might be defined as what everyone thinks everyone else thinks. They provide independent, poll-proof standards of judgment, when the government, its schools, and the media, using all the modern techniques of manipulation, try to breed mass uniformity in order to make us more manageable.[3]
To state this idea in another way, we do not read the Sunzi Art of War or Clausewitz's On War (or Plato and Aristotle's works, for that matter) because their authors were infallible, or because they provide theories of politics that have the same sort of scientific validity that the economic theories of folks like Kenneth Arrow or Ronald Coase do, or even because they offer insights into the nature of war and man that cannot be found anywhere else. They were not infallible, their theories have no relation to modern scientific methods, and in a world that has seen wars uncountable fought and talked about by men innumerable, no insight they provide is unique to them alone. However, each offers a coherent conceptual framework that has withstood the test of time. The works produced by this framework can be used as a lens through which any issue can be analyzed. Asking "what would Clausewitz make of this quandary?" is a powerful analytic frame that forces the questioner to consider hard questions about the political context, strategic aims, available means, and enemy intent of the conflict in question. Even if not all of the solutions Clausewitz would submit to his interlocutor are the best ones, the process of thinking through his worldview and adapting it meet the demands of a current crisis will uncover hidden assumptions and point to new possibilities the modern day strategist may not have considered.

The other benefit of this approach is that it combats the tendency to downgrade 'great books' to a series of detached and shallow maxims. Memorizing such maxims is easy, but usually useless. Connecting the famous phrases of any given thinker to the wider web of assumptions, intentions, and arguments found within their corpus requires more work; assessing which of those assumptions and arguments are valid in the context of a contemporary conflict requires even more of it. In my experience this work pays off. However, even if you go through the process and conclude that  the framework presented in a great work like the Sunzi has nothing valuable to add to your analysis of a given issue, you will at least walk away with a deeper appreciation for the depth and sophistication of the thinker in question than his popular image as a collection of proverbs  would suggest. 

This brings us to Bae's treatment of Sunzi. There are some parts of Bae's analysis I agree with wholeheartedly. On other points I am ambivalent. There is one point, however, in which my interpretation of the Sunzi differs strongly from his. To quote:

Sun Tzu believed warfare was incredibly costly, both in terms of wealth and men. Therefore, he sought to leverage the minimum force to win key decisive engagements, striving to mitigate the heavy price of open warfare. Therefore, Sun Tzu would never approve of the U.S.’s plans to retake Mosul from ISIS in a bloody, direct offensive. When U.S.-Iraqi forces retook Ramadi in January 2016, the city was completely devastated by the ensuing battle. The campaign involved house-to-house engagements and was bogged down by bobby traps and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Although Ramadi was nominally liberated, the city was essentially decimated. Sabah Karhout, the head of the Anbar provincial council, told The New York Times that “Ramadi is a city of ghosts” and the reconstruction would cost roughly $12 billion. Similarly, a direct offensive on Mosul would be another bloody rendition of a previous strategic mistake. U.S.-Iraqi forces may win on the battlefield, but the wholesale destruction will only feed the narrative of grievance advocated by ISIS. Therefore, Sun Tzu argued, “In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good.” He understood post-war reconstruction would only incur additional costs for the state. One has only to look at the U.S.’s interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which total roughly $1.5 trillion in reconstruction efforts, to see the wisdom in his words.

Hence, instead of a direct offensive, Sun Tzu would advocate to “hold out bait to entice the enemy” and then “attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.” At the moment, ISIS’s growth and appeal is rooted in the perception that the group is winning the war—fueled by grotesque public displays of violence and a savvy use of social media. Consequently, ISIS has dictated the terms of the war in every aspect, whether in the realm of public opinion or on the battlefield. Therefore, like Clausewitz, Sun Tzu would advise the coalition to attack softer yet strategically important targets such as the ISIS-controlled Omar oil field, which generates roughly $1.7 million to $5.1 million per month for ISIS. By recapturing ISIS-controlled assets, coalition forces would slowly, but steadily apply both political and military pressure on ISIS. Eventually, ISIS would be forced to seek new initiative in an offensive campaign of its own, whether out of logistical desperation or an ill-fated effort to regain its prestige. At that moment, coalition forces can dictate the terms of the engagement in terms of time, place, and manner. Therefore, instead of attacking headlong into a well-defended city, laden with traps and IEDs, the coalition can coax ISIS into a decisive engagement on its terms, best playing to its strengths instead of those of ISIS. [4]
Perhaps tthe writers of the Sunzi would argue against a direct assault on Mosul, but I do not think this is necessarily true.

Let's look at the full context of the 'take the country whole and intact' quotation to understand why I say this. As every edition of the Lionel Giles translation should be ripped apart and then burned before a large crowd the Lionel Giles translation is a bit dated, we shall consult a more recent translation. Here is Victor Mair's translation of the passage in question:
The method of waging war holds that it is always best
to take the opposing country intact,
whereas destroying the opposing country is next best.

Taking an opposing army intact is best,
whereas destroying it is next best.

Taking an opposing regiment intact is best,      
whereas destroying it is next best.  
Taking an opposing company intact is best,      
whereas destroying it is next best.  
Taking an opposing squad intact is best,     
whereas destroying it is next best. [5]
For comparison's sake, here is Ralph Sawyer's rendering of the same:
In general, the method for employing the military is this: Preserving the [enemy's] state capital is best, destroying their state capital is second best. Preserving their army is best, destroying their army second best. Preserving their battalions is best, destroying their battalions second best. Preserving their companies is best, destroying their companies second best. Preserving their squads is best, destroying their squads second best. [6]

In the piece "The Radical Sunzi" I argued rather forcefully that the key to understand the Sunzi is realizing that it was not written in a vacuum. Much of it was written as a direct response to common attitudes of the time, which depicted war as a ritualized contest of heroes, and the conquest and conduct of war were treated as religious rites. Less time separated the China of the Sunzi from the China of Aztec-style human sacrifice than separated the Greece that produced Thucydides's rationalist vision of war from the Greece that created the honor-driven duels of the Homeric epics. It is difficult to say if the Sunzi simply reflects a change in norms that was sweeping through ancient Chinese society, or if it was actually one of the causes of it. In any case, the change itself is clear. Before the Sunzi violence was justified as a sacral act, and it was employed mostly on for the purpose of personal honor; after the Sunzi violence was justified as a central pillar of statecraft, used mostly on the grounds of cool realpolitik. [7]

That is the context for the quotation above. When the Sunzi says that the best victory is the victory achieved without recourse to warfare at all, it was attacking the idea that victory and it's glories were the purpose of war. When it says that a country conquered intact is better than a country ravaged by conquest, he is suggesting that ravaging is not a worthy end in and of itself. The unspoken subtext of this passage is that decisions in war should all be judged on the basis of interest (or 'profit,' the Chinese word used here is li 利) of the ruling house. The Sunzi may well have been the earliest voice in recorded history to argue that generals must use cost-benefit analysis to decide on whether or not to embark on any new campaign. 

The idea that military force should be used rationally to accomplish national interests; that if possible it is better to achieve those same aims without war; and that every campaign should be subjected to a rigorous calculation of potential costs and benefits are so obvious to modern military planners that most of these ideas are simply assumed, not argued. They do not need to be argued because everyone already accepts them as the baseline for new discussion. When the Sunzi was originally etched into bamboo, however, this was not true. The idea that violence should be used as a rational instrument of policy was a new and radical idea. 

The trouble of course with applying Sunzi's advice to measure the costs and benefits of a campaign to our wars today is that the means by which these things are calculated has changed tremendously over the last 2,500 years. The Sunzi argues for capturing territory whole because in the context of the Warring States era it was fairly easy to incorporate territories stolen from other kingdom's into the administrative structures of your own. This was not unique to China; it was true for population-dense, agrarian empires just about everywhere. Before the industrial revolution the fastest way to increase your tax revenue and national wealth was to take it from others. Conquest paid--if you were careful about how you went about conquering. The Sunzi implores its readers to ensure that their conquests are paying more to the treasury than they are sucking from it. 

The rest of the passage--which Bae does not quote--develops this theme. Enemy soldiers should not be captured and sacrificed, nor killed en masse. Why? Because they could be incorporated with ease into the armed forces of their conquering enemy, or barring that, sent home to work their farms and contribute to the tax base. 

You can probably see how difficult it is to apply the Sunzi's advice directly to operations in Iraq. Iraq is a money sink. For the United States of America this would be true even if Mosul was taken without a brick out of place. Likewise, the men fighting for ISIS are not likely to become recruits in the American military machine. This will be true regardless of how many of them survive the coming battle for Mosul. In other words, the Sunzi's economic calculations simply don't work in this context, and it is not useful to apply them literally to the campaign against ISIS. 

The broader principle behind the Sunzi's calculations may prove more useful. The Sunzi's advice, when boiled down to its essence, is that no armed power should squander its resources on campaigns that do not materially advance its interests. The writers of the Sunzi would thus have little patience for the "bomb the sand till it glows" types, correctly seeing such a policy as a form of armed virtue signaling, the very attitude the Sunzi was originally written to combat. But this does not mean the Sunzian strategist would shy away from massive destruction and violence. What matters to the Sunzian thinker is greatest return for smallest investment. [8] The only reason the Sunzi argues against laying waste to your enemies lands is because it recognizes that doing so usually reduces the material advantages a commander might gain from waging war in the first place.

But what if the amount of destruction wrecked did not reduce or increase the material gains the victor could claim? In such a scenario, there is nothing in the Sunzi's philosophy that prohibits bloody, costly battles. The Sunzian strategist looking to maximize America's profit (li) in Iraq might conclude that it is in the United State's best interest to fight in such a way as drag as much of ISIS's manpower into the battle as possible. The goal of such a campaign would be to 1) leave ISIS's millenarian ideology and sense of "spirit" broken and discredited 2) exhaust and deplete the groups that give active support to ISIS so that even if Salafi-Jihadist thought doesn't lose its luster in defeat, the groups in question will not have the material means to support it in the future. If a drawn out siege of Mosul could accomplish those things then from a Sunzian perspective it would be worth it. This is because for the United States, maximizing profit in the cold realist sort of way the Sunzi advocates means using force so effectively that the United States does not have to return to Iraq again. If it is not possible to use military force to this effect in the fight against ISIS, the Sunzian strategist would likely advocate leaving the region entirely, using force only where there are clear material benefits for doing so. 
I do not know if I fully agree with the Sunzian approach here. I've laid out my preferred course of action in the post "The Fight Against ISIS--a Few (Unorthodox) Points For Discussion," and refer readers curious about my views on the question there. However, the purpose of this post is discuss the Sunzi. Whether or not you agree with the policy options presented above, this is probably the closest articulation of a true Sunzian approach we can get to.


[1] Sebastian Bae, "In the War With ISIS, Don't Forget About Sun Tzu," Strategy Bridge (15 April 2016).

[2] Xavier Marquez, "Does the History of Political Thought Matter," Abandoned Footnotes (11 July 2011).

[3] Joseph Sobran, "Reading Old Books," Sobran's Real News of the Month (or. published 6 April 1999).

[4] Bae, "War With ISIS,"

[5] Victor Mair, trans., The Art of War: Sunzi's Military Methods  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 84-85.

[6] Ralph Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, 2nd ed (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 159.

[7] For more on this see the post referenced, T. Greer, "The Radical Sunzi," Scholar's Stage (2 January 2015) and Andrew Seth Meyer, "Introduction," in The Dao of the Military: Liu An's Art of War, trans. Andrew Seth Meyer and John S. Major (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012),

[8] The Sunzi generally recommends manipulating shi (势), usually translated as 'the configuration of power,' or 'strategic momentum,' in order to do this. Indeed one could argue that shi is ultimately about being able to do the most with the least force available. That is a topic best reserved for its own post, however.