Mapping Sun Tzu to Today’s China
Sun Tzu’s Art of War may be on the syllabus at West Point, but little has been written on grand strategy in modern China. Sulman Wasif Khan tries to fill the gap by tracing the evolution of strategic thinking by China’s top leaders since 1949.
Styled as an essay, Khan’s book brings a historian’s concern for original sources on which to base his narrative. But he ends up focusing overwhelmingly on continuities, going so far as to dismiss critical episodes like the Cultural Revolution as a “great aberration.” Khan constructs a tradition of grand strategy that changes in means but hardly at all in terms of ends. Haunted by the chaos of the early 20th century, each Communist Party leader sought nothing more than “securing the state,” and pursued a defensive and pragmatic approach to war and diplomacy. Mao Zedong comes across as a Chinese Bismarck, and everything done by Deng Xiaoping, from invading Vietnam in 1979 to crushing student protestors in 1989, aimed to “secure the state” (or was it “securing the Party”?). His successors stuck with the program of reform and opening, military modernization, and power balancing, all to the same end.
Khan sees Xi Jinping as no different — his goal is “keeping the state intact.” Khan detects insecurity behind his vigilance, which keeps China, as Susan Shirk put it a decade ago, a “fragile superpower.”
Khan constructs a tradition of grand strategy that changes in means but hardly at all in terms of ends.
Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy fromMao Zedong to Xi JinpingBy SulmaanWasif KhanHarvard University Press, 2018, 320 pages, $29.95 (Hardcover)