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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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