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September 6, 2018   4 mins

The United States and the wider western world do not understand China. Two centuries of economic, political, and military domination of the globe, first by Europe and later the US, have left the West ill equipped to understand the thinking and behaviour of the People’s Republic. This has potentially huge implications for world order.

China, like the US, sees itself as the bearer of a universal civilizational concept – an approach to life applicable to all humans on the planet. Unlike the US, however, China has seen itself thus for several thousand years, rather than several hundred. This shared view of their own universality is one reason why the next two decades will be defined by competition between China and the US. But what is China’s strategy? And does the West understand it?

To understand these two questions, we must first look to how both the West (mostly maritime powers) and China (a land power) approach military strategy. Broadly speaking, America, and the wider western world, tends to seek decisive engagements and clear decision points in its politics, strategy and approach to warfare. On the battlefield, the enemy’s strong points and command nodes need to be destroyed conclusively. War, philosophically, is seen as binary – there is peace, or there is war – and linear, with front lines and zones of control.

China, on the other hand, places a much higher emphasis on deception, circumlocution and ambiguity to conceal the eventual goal.

These differing approaches to strategy can be encapsulated in two phrases from the greatest, or at least the most well-known, military thinkers on either side: Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz. Sun Tzu’s statement that “to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill; to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill”, stands in stark contrast to von Clausewitz’s “pursue one great decisive aim with force and determination”.

These approaches represent completely different ways of utilising military force to achieve political aims. And there is a danger that each side views the other through its own behaviours and paradigms. This projection of one’s own mind-set, values and beliefs onto the actions of an opponent is the greatest sin, and the most common, in the analysis of foreign affairs.

Take China’s ‘near abroad’, particularly the South China Sea, as an example. Arguably, the United States views the disagreements in the South China Sea as a line to be drawn. Maritime law must be respected and protected. And most seriously for their architect, the US, the international rules-based order must be upheld. The South China Sea is a battle that must be won.

But the West would be mistaken in thinking China sees it that way. Yes, the South China Sea, and China’s own view of its historical role there, is extremely important to current Chinese thinking. But is control of the South China Sea an immediate strategic goal for China? I would argue not. As a power that sees its strength as land-based rather than maritime, China’s overall strategic objective is to link Europe to China, and to bring everything in-between into its sphere of influence.

Strategy ultimately comes down to outthinking your opponent, and here the West’s misunderstanding of China’s aims is a strategic fail

Viewed like this, the South China Sea is a useful distraction: something to tie up American military assets, and, more importantly, her thinking. Strategy ultimately comes down to outthinking your opponent, and here the West’s misunderstanding of China’s aims is a strategic fail.

And as the South China Sea provides the distraction, China is getting on with its ultimate goal – via the One Belt One Road initiative – while still leaving time and space to achieve its strategic aims in its near abroad. This includes the reabsorption of Taiwan into China. But crucially, this will occur when China’s power is undisputed, and America and her allies will not be able to respond. Taiwan will be America’s Suez.

Following this line of thinking: how might China view Russia? Ostensibly, China and Russia share many of the same goals, and characteristics. The two countries often support each other at the United Nations Security Council – usually against the three western powers, and often voting against the ‘universal’ human rights of the post World War Two era.

But China does not view Russia as an ally, rather a source of future resources: Russia’s far east is resource heavy and population light, while China is population heavy, and increasingly becoming resource light. For now, this means that Chinese investment is helping Russia develop its far east. In time, this could mean that Russia becomes a client state of China ­– it could even mean Chinese annexation of Russia’s far east, whether de facto or de jure.

Russia – which views itself as a European power more than an Asian one – will thus end up being a western ally. In the meantime, encouraging and supporting Russia in its tactically-sensible-yet-strategically-stupid posturing allows China to tie up its real competitor – America – yet further, while soothing Russian fears of forthcoming competition with China.

And China is playing a similarly long game with India. Much is made of the coming geopolitical competition between China and India – as the world’s two most populous states, and right on each others’ doorsteps. But why would China overtly compete with India now? Much better to peel away the surrounding states – Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh – and come back to India when China’s position is unassailable.

The West is dangerously misinterpreting China’s approach to geopolitical strategy. It is also likely that China understands this, and its strategy is to lure the West into the battles that it does not need to fight now – North Korea, or the Spratly Islands, or China’s ally-building among the Island states of the Pacific Ocean.

Looking at it like this, Obama’s Pivot to Asia – specifically rebalancing US forces from the Atlantic and the Middle East to the Pacific and Asia – and the subsequent attention that Trump has paid to the region in contrast to Europe, the US’s traditional security focus, seems utterly misguided: the road to China does not run across the Pacific, but through Eurasia.

Mike Martin is a former British army officer and War Studies Visiting Fellow at King’s College London. His latest book is Why We Fight.