Masters of ‘Shi’: An Analysis of China’s Nuclear Capability

Key words: China’s Nuclear Capability and Doctrine, Mao’s “paper tiger,” North Korea’s Nuclear Weapon Program, China MRBM and ICBM strike range, SSBN and Sino-South Asian regional security

Download full article here: Shankar, Masters of “Shi,” An Analysis of China’s Nuclear Capability

Excerpts:

To Attain a Dominant Political, Psychological and Military Posture

In Chinese strategic parlance ‘shi’ is an all encompassing concept that sees in any strategic contest the relevance of every factor and every event and their correlation to the context within which they occur. It implies grasp of strategic trends and the ability to countenance the dynamics presented by these trends through the attainment of a posture that is superior not just in form, but also in substance. Statecraft then becomes the means of “combative coexistence” with adversaries. The aim being to manipulate the opponent into weakness while consolidating ones own strategic position or mastering ones own ‘shi’[i].

“Subtle and insubstantial, the expert leaves no trace; divinely mysterious, he is inaudible. Thus he is master of his enemy’s fate.”[ii] What distinguishes Sun Tzu from other strategists of the classical period through contemporary times is his ability to lift strategic thought from the purely military and present it as an all-embracing dictum that merges the political and psychological with the military. Western strategists have persistently pondered on the means to marshal superior force at the decisive point and Kautilya in the ‘Arthashastra’ saw diplomacy as a subtle act of war and the “Mandala’ as the a priori of strategic planning[iii]; and yet neither of these schools of strategic thought hit upon a theory to put together a pre-eminent political, military and psychological position that made the outcome of a conflict a foregone conclusion.

Ever since the 1950s it was amply clear and comprehensively demonstrated that China would use all stratagem at its disposal to not just embarrass but also to nip any perceived challenge that may emerge from India. The exasperation that they have caused on issues ranging from Tibet to the festering territorial differences in the North and North East; the irksome opposition to any opportunity that the international system may concede to India; their reaction to the recent Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver and their persistent rejoinder to Indo-Russian relations are cases in point. All this is despite the galloping trade links between the two ($60 billion in 2010).

A keen observer of international relations in the South and East Asian region soon comes to the conclusion that, no endeavor to achieve deterrent stability or to bring objectivity in an analysis of China’s nuclear capabilities and it’s strategic underpinning, is intelligible without perceiving the role of its nuclear alliance partners as represented by Pakistan and North Korea viewing them at first as one; and then as separate. This virtual dichotomy challenges leadership at every step in bringing about equilibrium in strategic relationships. Unique to this tangle is its collusive nature and doctrinal linkages. Interestingly, the strategist cannot but help noting SunTzu’s thoughts behind it all, whether it is the evolution of the concept of ‘shi’ in the relationship; puppeteering the fate of the adversary; combative coexistence or the strategic exertion to make the outcome of the eventual correlation a foregone conclusion, the shadow of the classical sage looms large.

With these distinguishing strategic traditions to provide a theory for development and action to establish China’s stated goals of a “peaceful rise” (since changed to “peaceful development”) and building a “harmonious world”[iv], it would now be in order to scrutinize what exactly is implied by and the nature of China’s nuclear capabilities besides it including the political, the psychological and the military dimensions.

[…]
Prognostications
  • China’s Nuclear Arsenal will remain small but credible and survivable, numbers operationalized are likely to be less than 200 warheads (author’s estimate).
  • US deployment of BMD in the South China littorals and Japan:-

If Yes, would bring qualitative and quantitative changes to the arsenal. Warheads are likely to be MIRV’d.

If No, stability of deterrence would remain.

  • Third possibility, US BMD targets rogue states; this would in effect amount to deployment with its impact on China’s arsenal.
  • If Taiwan and the South China Sea Islands problem are resolved with finesse then China’s ‘aspirations – capabilities’ gap will reduce, if not the gap will increase.
  • Technology intrusions affecting range, mobility, precision, C4ISR and penetration will be invited.
  • Reducing vulnerability of nuclear arsenal will remain an on going process bringing to fore the SSBN.
  • Arms race in the cold war mould will be abhorred (dangers of the Soviet Model).
  • Internal stability, economic growth, social development and global image will retain primacy.
  • Strategic orientation will include nurturing a first nuclear strike capability in Pakistan providing doctrinal dynamism when relating with India and a nuclear weapons capability in North Korea to keep the USA and Japan in a state of strategic imbalance.

Conclusion

We began with an understanding of the phrase ‘shi’ in Chinese strategic parlance as an all encompassing concept that sees in any strategic contest the relevance of every factor and every event and their correlation to the context within which they occur. It implies grasp of strategic trends and the attainment of a posture that is superior. Statecraft then becomes the means of “combative coexistence” with adversaries. The aim being to manipulate the opponent into weakness through denials and brinkmanship while consolidating ones own strategic position. Examination of the Chinese nuclear arsenal in this context have made apparent the Janus faced approach that it has adopted — the one face that it presents to the world at large is that of the No First Use, minimalistic, rigid, controlled nuclear power while the other face, to retain the First Use alternative through alliances and pursue the aims of combative coexistence. All this makes for ambiguous and unpredictable intentions which in the nuclear dimension, compel planners to respond in like. The probable nuclearization of Japan, if and when it should occur, would in large measure be on account of the need to bring about balance in the regional power calculus.

The ‘shi’ concept owes its origin to a board game based on seizing and denying space till the opponent is maneuvered to a position of weakness. Whether a globalized world will be accommodative of such dangerous self centered power politics is a moot question but what is becoming increasingly apparent is the growing strategic gap in perceptions of what China’s intentions with the probable portents of friction that is intrinsic to such discernment. Another sage voice from the classical orient, that of Kautilya, reminds us that the power of a state is not just the counting and deployment of armed physicals, but also of ‘mantra yuddha’; the impact of good policies, sound judgement, searching analysis and wise counsel. Ironically the very Sino-centricity of contemporary developments may hasten the maturing of a countervailing Asian bloc centered on American capabilities.

Download full article here: Shankar, Masters of “Shi,” An Analysis of China’s Nuclear Capability


End Notes

[i] Sun Tzu “The Art of War” transalated by Samuel Griffith Oxford University Press 1963, Chap V. Learning from stones David Lai May 2004 Strategic studies institute monograph.

[ii] ibid, p 97.

[iii] Kautilya,Arthashastra, Rangarajan LN, Penguin Classics 1990, p 546-549.

[iv] Kissinger, H. On China, Allen Lane Penguin books New York 2011, p 490.

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One thought on “Masters of ‘Shi’: An Analysis of China’s Nuclear Capability

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