Tag Archives: Politics

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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Fictional States: Understanding Real Political Boundaries

Certain nation-states, functionally speaking, do not actually exist. This has been argued with respect to former colonial territories or former Soviet states, whose modern political boundaries rarely reflect the cultural/ethnic/tribal boundaries that existed previously. The Western nations have yet to be examined in this light, but there is every reason to do so.

The idea of the ‘nation-state’ is rather a new one, perhaps a few hundred years old at most. Previously, Europe was divided into duchies, counties, and other feudal holdings, most (but not all) of which tipped their hat to a monarch. Even if the king was said to have ruled a kingdom, frequently it was these regional structures that did the legwork. To a farmer living in Northern France in the 14th century, the actions of the Duke of Brittany mattered far more in day-to-day life than those of the King of France.

Some peoples made the transition to nation-state better than others. William the Conqueror laid a fairly solid groundwork for a unified England/Britain, and France has its Revolutions and Napoleon to thank for its strong national identity. But notice that both of these ‘unifications’ were enforced, William by conquest and Napoleon by an active campaign of stomping out regional differences (local French dialects were actively suppressed under his rule). This suggests that something extraordinary needs to take place to unite nation-sized populations under a single banner. Left to their own devices, people will happily stick with local or regional governments.

Take, for example, Italy. This ‘nation’ was only created about 150 years ago. The struggle for Italian unification was not a grass-roots movement, but rather a series of attempts by the power brokers of the many duchies and city-states to join up the peninsula, each wanting a go at unifying Italy under them. Yet the regional identities continue to run deep. One rarely meets an Italian, although there are plenty of Milanese, Romans, Sicilians, or Neapolitans. Italy, quipped Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternic in the 19th century, is ‘a geographic expression.’ Thus when we hear the Italian Deputy Prime Minister talking about a split between Northern and Southern Italy, it is not hard to imagine such an arrangement working out fairly well when we remember that, for centuries, the Duchy of Milan and the Republics of Venice, Florence, and Genoa ran just fine on their own while the Pope and the King of Naples ruled much of the south.

Belgium remains the unexpected poster-child of this phenomenon. It was ‘founded’ in the 1830s after a popular revolt resulted in five of the seventeen provinces of the Low Countries, composed of both French and Dutch/Flemish-speaking peoples, were grouped together and given by the Congress of Vienna (literally created to re-draw the boundaries in Europe after Napoleon) to the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I. These regions, once duchies and counties and now Belgian provinces, still exist, flags and all, within the greater fabric of Belgium. Consequently, these local identities are rock solid, dating back to the Middle Ages and earlier. Thus when Belgium became the ‘world’s most boring anarchy’ earlier last year, it was these local levels that allowed the country to continue to function on the local level such that people on the ground feel little, if anything, of the lack of federal government at the top. I repeat: Belgium does not have a functioning centralized government, but the local and regional governments, divided along linguistic and cultural lines that pre-date Belgium itself, have allowed life to continue there with almost no disruption.

But even the US could be so examined. When factoring in the past of these former colonies and territories, where groups were forced to go it alone in a hostile environment far from established centres of power, is it so hard to imagine a New England Confederation, a Free City of San Francisco, or a Second Republic of Texas emerging from an impotent United States?

This viewpoint can also be applied to supra-state bodies. We can find earlier success stories from such organisations as the Hanseatic League, the international mercantile collective of the major cities along the coast of Northern Europe and the Baltic. As an economic powerhouse in Europe from the 13th to the 17th centuries, the past decade has seen attempts to revive this economic alliance as a regionalized alternative to the EEA.

On the flipside of the coin, we can see precedents for the difficulties of the EU in the ultimately unsuccessful Pax Dei movement which attempted to unify and quell disputes within medieval ‘Christendom’. Inter-European warfare continued, and the idea of ‘Christendom’ only served to polarize Europe against the Muslim East during the Crusades. While direct parallels cannot be drawn, this latter point should be kept in mind with respect to the current climate of Western/Muslim relations. In both of the above instances we see people returning to older loyalties where new ones are proving inadequate, in the case of the latter, to our peril.

The lesson here is simple: examining the pre-nation-state boundaries and allegiances of countries, both cultural and political, will provide valuable insights into a) the lines along which things will fracture if the nation itself begins to decay and b) the ‘banners’ that people will flock to should the nation-state fail to provide support.


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A Defence of Feudalism

Do not adjust your sets. You’ve read that right. I plan on getting into further detail about this at some future point, but for now here’s some basic thoughts.

Even when you factor in my perhaps inherent bias as a Medievalist, the more I think about the basics of Feudalism, the more I find myself concluding that it can be regarded the same way as many other forms of government.

Namely: When it functions the way it is supposed to, it is quite workable. The trouble comes when it doesn’t.

When you boil it down, Feudalism is essentially a reciprocal arrangement between specialists for mutual benefit. Let’s use the medieval model just for a case study. The ‘lord’ specializes in war and administration. What he needs is abundant time and resources. This allows for his extensive training in personal combat, leading others in combat, implementing effective defensive infrastructure, economics, and governance to name a few. None of these are quick to acquire or cheap if they’re being done right. Consequently, there’s not a lot of time for growing food and other such necessaries. The lord may govern the land, but he is not always able to live off of it.

The ‘peasant’  possesses specialist knowledge in agriculture and certain other crafts; tending to the land and surviving off of it. What they lack is the ability to defend themselves against anything significant. Small scale raids can potentially be dealt with within the village, and this is basically where militias come from. But anything larger, and the peasant simply doesn’t have the skills or resources to put up much of a fight. The Battle of Visby in 1361 is a good example of what happens when peasants go up against a substantial military force.

So a symbiosis is reached. The ‘peasants’ agree to tend the land and provide a share of their products for the ‘lord’ in exchange for his protection and governance of the territory. Both have skills the other requires, and providing both sides hold up their ends of the bargain without ‘taking the piss’, things work out alright.

I have to think that there were more cases of this working than those of oppressive lords sucking the peasantry dry while they cower in fear. The trouble, as with all things, is that the bad cases tend to be ‘louder’ in the historical narrative than the normal, functioning ones. We hear more about greedy and corrupt barons than the lord of the manor that acted justly and was generally respected by his people. More research is required before I can make any substantial claims to this, but I still think it’s a strong hypothesis.

Let me make this clear: I am suggesting that this may be a workable form of government in some circumstances, not the one type that will suit all circumstances. I think we’re getting beyond the ‘one government fits all’ view these days, and if we haven’t, we’d best start to.

I’m hoping that this will manifest in a more fleshed-out form in the book of essays. In the meantime, let’s chat about it, shall we?




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