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The Tao of China: Martial Arts Philosophy at the Geopolitical Level

I have been following the recent activities of China regarding the Senkaku Islands with great interest. With the establishment of the wide-spanning Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), China continues to gently, yet firmly, flex its muscles in challenge to the powers around it. However, when I hear politicians and military personnel calling for war preparations or imagining how a hypothetical conflict with China would play out, I cannot help but think that they are misunderstanding China’s tactics.

Make no mistake, I am no expert on China. The extent of my experience is limited solely to the study of some of China’s great philosophical and military texts: Tao Te Ching, Sun Tzu, and Zhuge Liang’s commentary on the latter. Yet the study of these works has led me to regard China’s activities of late, militarily and diplomatically, with a certain degree of understanding and, dare I say, familiarity.

Anyone who has had any tai chi training is familiar with the exercise known as ‘sticky hands’. Two (or more) people face off and, while maintaining gentle contact with the others’ hands, attempt to manipulate each other into an off balance position. Neophytes learn very quickly that applying too little force or resistance will get you knocked over as your partner simply blows through you, while applying too much will find your own momentum used against you, again sending you to the floor. The ideal approach is just enough force and resistance to redirect your partner’s advances while not committing so much as to make you prone to being led off balance. Notice that I said ‘led’, as this is frequently what happens. The defeated one brings their fate upon themselves, either allowing themselves to be overpowered or coming on too strong and finding their own force re-directed against them.

China’s geo-political activities boil down to a nation state practicing tai chi.

Actions such as the border disputes with India and the ADIZ in the face of Japan and Korea are hands extending gentle pressure outwards.  Do nothing, and the targets will eventually find themselves bent over backwards beyond their center of stability. Push back too hard (as the US would very likely do if it came to it), and they’d suddenly find themselves face-planted on the grass six feet away.

China has placed itself in a brilliant position. It can continue its slow, subtle expansion of influence, geographically and politically, in such a way that makes it difficult for any rival power to legitimately escalate matters without appearing to be the aggressor themselves.  They would also be in a place to assume an effective defensive stance, since beach-heads in contested areas, again either geographically or politically, will be already established.

The best course of action, then, is to play ‘sticky hands’ right back. To redirect attempts at force, however seemingly gentle, while preventing head-on conflict at all costs. We can expect the same reaction in kind, creating a dynamic stasis where nobody is moved forward or backward. What this could look like on the ground is not dissimilar from the practice of containment employed on the USSR during the Cold War. But ‘sticky hands’ does not last forever. Eventually one side will misstep. If the other side is observant, they will be able to engineer a gentle yet decisive take-down. Alternatively, one side will become impatient and make a press for rapid advantage which, if caught correctly by the other, will bode ill for the aggressor.

I cannot say which way this will play out. I can say that the US has historically been rubbish at tai chi, favoring the bruiser approach (and we all know how that turns out), Korea is little better as a result of being perpetually on the balls of its feet while looking northward, and Japan is long out of practice.

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One foot in the grave: America in Afghanistan

I’ve talked about this with my friends and colleagues for quite some time, so now I’ve finally decided to put pen to paper (digitally-speaking).

A few years ago I had the honour to meet HM George Tupou V, King of Tonga. He’s an old Sandhurst gent, so the military anecdotes flew fast and furious between us. There was one particular thing he told me that remains with me to this day: ‘The Rules of War is a book with only two pages,’ he said. ‘Page one says “The enemy can always be relied upon to attack on two occassions: 1) Whenever they are ready and 2) Whenever you are not.” The second page simply says “Never attempt to invade Moscow.”‘ If I may, I would propose a third page to this book. It would read: ‘Or Kabul.’

There does not seem to be any hyperbole to the old saying ‘Afghanistan: the graveyard of empires.’ Without exception, every foreign power that has attempted to invade and hold that place has either failed miserably, or achieved what can barely be called a limited success, and that at a massive cost in men and resources.

The first recorded attempt was Alexander the Great in around 327 BC.  While his steamrolling across the Near East toward India seemed almost unstoppable, he encountered enough resistance by the locals in this area (the early ancestors of what are today the Pashtuns) that, although he was moving ahead, he saw fit to erect a series of fortifications behind him in order to reduce the possibility of further trouble. Granted, he was in a rush to get to India, so completely pacifying the territory he was passing through may not have been his main priority. But nonetheless, this suggests that his usual practice of leaving a decent chunk of troops behind him to maintain his hold was not enough in this situation. Some historians say that his delays dealing with present-day Afghanistan sufficiently took the momentum out of his campaign to ultimately foil his attempts at conquering India.

Over 2000 years later, we have the British Empire taking a crack at it, this time as part of the continuing rivalry with the Russian Empire in the East that came to be known as the Great Game. Dominance over Afghanistan was seen as vital to creating a buffer between the slowly southward-moving Russians and British India. They tried not once, not twice, but three times to assert their will over the country. Time and again they were chased out and decimated, not so much by the ‘regular’ Afghan army, but once more by the tribesmen who were armed to the teeth and had a mean streak a mile wide. The last attempt was the only one that could technically be called a success. But even then, as I mentioned earlier, it came at a tremendously heavy cost and was not ultimately long-lasting.

About sixty years later, the Soviets decided to have a go. This is probably the previous attempt most of us are familiar with. And we all know how that turned out. Granted, the mujahideen got a lot of support from the West (particularly the US) in the form of arms and money. But I’m willing to bet they’d have given the Russians a run for their money armed only with obsolete rifles and knives. It’s the innate fighting spirit of the tribesmen that beat the Russians, the modern kit just helped it along a little.

So why on earth is the US trying to do essentially the same thing? Surely anyone would have looked at how this tends to go and thought better of a full-scale occupation.

The answer of course, as it so often is with cases like this, is that old cliché ‘This time it’s different.’

Yes, the reasons may be different (may be). Why the US is there seems to vary depending on who you ask. Some say it was to get bin Laden. OK, mission accomplished then, so why are they potentially looking to stick around until at least 2024? Others claim it’s a resource war; that the US is interested in Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth. Others still say it’s an ideological war; that the US is committed to the ‘War on Terror’ and is determined to thug it out with any nation or people that they see as promoting terrorism or any other view or practice that it anti-democracy. If the last is true, then this war is more dangerous than many realize. That would make this a war of saving face, meaning that a US withdrawal would represent the invalidation of the very reason they went there, and arguably part of the general American MO at the moment (that everyone wants western-style Democracy and that the US can help everybody get it).

And yes, the tech is vastly different (Alexander didn’t have Predator drones). But rather than thinking of modern weapons versus earlier weapons, it’s better in these situations to think of comparability of kit at the time, which has arguably remained constant. Every time the invading force had slightly better arms than the Afghans. And while it meant they packed a heavier punch, in the long run that advantage meant absolutely nothing.

I think there is one key lessons we can take away from an examination of how Afghanistan has dealt with invaders in the past.

1) The Pashtuns and other Afghan tribesmen are scary. Do not mess with them.

Time and again we’ve seen armies with vastly superior numbers and equipment sent running tuck-tailed by Afghanistan’s tribesmen armed with inferior weapons, small numbers, and cold, hard will. Do not attempt to engage these people on their home ground. You will lose. Badly. They will dig themselves into their mountain passes, which they know intimately since they’ve spent all their lives there, and you will lose hundreds, if not thousands of troops attempting to root them out. This type of war is cultural to them. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years. You will not beat them at their own game.

So pay attention, America. Your funds and support from home are both dwindling, and the locals are patient and clever. This is new territory for you, but they’ve done this many times before.

You’re marching through the graves of your predecessors. Best get out before your marker is finished.




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