The Perils of Strategic Narcissism: China


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

China’s rise has powered an impulse to military growth and unilateral intervention which in turn evokes anxieties and resistance by players in the same strategic milieu. The paradoxical effect is to undermine its own strategic standing.

 Keywords: Franco-German War of 1870, Globalization and China, State Controlled Capitalism, China as a Revisionist Power, New Strategic Alliances in Asia, Cooperative Security Strategies, Third Island Security Chain

Historical Similitude

            The Franco-German War of 1870 forms a watershed in strategic thought. After the annexation of the North German Confederacy in 1866, Bismarck sought the Southern German States.[1] He deceived the French into believing that a Prussian Prince would rule from the throne of Spain as a larger strategy of encirclement. By July 1870, France[2] was conned into a seemingly ‘inevitable’ war. Germany through superior military craft and technology inflicted a crushing defeat on the host. In the process the balance of power in Europe was upset.[3] The War, from deception, to alliances, provocation of crisis and defeat of the enemy forcing a one-sided negotiation could well have been scripted by Kautilya[4] or, more significant to our narrative, Sun Tzu.[5]

German victory ushered a strategic orientation to compete with the principal imperial power, Britain.[6] Three strategic objectives swayed the rivalry: military dominance over land and sea; global economic and technological ascendancy in tandem with unimpeded access to primary resources; and thirdly, diplomatic and political pre-eminence. By 1890, Germany had established continental military dominance and a warship-build programme that would challenge British command of the seas. Economically, Germany had already overtaken Britain in heavy industries and innovation, capturing global markets and amassing capital. This in turn muscled influence and superiority in one sector after another.

A thirty-year projection in 1890, suggested that Germany, home to the most advanced industries having unimpeded access to resources of the earth, best universities, richest banks and a balanced society would achieve her strategic goals and primacy. Yet precisely thirty years later, Germany lay in ruins, her economy in shambles, her people impoverished and her society fragmented. By 1920, her great power aspirations lay shamed between the pages of the Treaty of Versailles. The real lesson was that Germany’s quest for comprehensive power brought about a transformation amongst the status-quo powers to align against, despite traditional hostility (Britain and France; Britain and Russia), to contain and defeat a rising Germany that sought to upset the existing global order.

China in Perspective

Historical analogies are notorious in their inability to stage encores, yet they serve as means to understand the present. Contemporary fears of nations are driven by four vital traumas: perpetuation of the State; impact of internal and external stresses; reconciliation with the international system; lastly the conundrum of whether military power produces political outcomes. The paradigm of the day is ‘uncertainty’ with the tensions of multi-polarity, tyranny of economics, anarchy of expectations and polarisation along religio-cultural [7] lines all compacted by globalization [8].

If globalization is a leveller to the rest of the world, to China, globalization is about State capitalism, central supremacy, controlled markets, managed currency and hegemony. The military was to resolve fundamental contradictions that threatened the Chinese State. Significantly globalization provided the opportunity to alter the status-quo.[9] Against this backdrop, is the politics of competitive resource access and denial, which rationalized the use of force.[10]

China’s dazzling growth is set to overtake the USA. Its rise has been accompanied by ambitions of global leadership. This has in turn spurred an unparalleled military growth. In this circumstance the race to garner resources by other major economies is fraught. But the real alarm is, China seeks to dominate international institutions without bringing about a change of her own morphology. China’s claims on the South and East China Sea; handling of internal dissent; proliferatory carousing with North Korea and Pakistan are cases in point.

The emergence of China from its defensive maritime perimeters into the Indian Ocean is seen as the coming ‘Third Security Chain’. Gone is Deng’s ‘power bashfulness’, in its place is the conviction that the-world-needs-China-more-than-China-the-world.Its insistence on a bi-lateral policy to settle disputes even denies the natural impulse of threatened states to seek power balance in collective security. 

The Sense in Cooperative Security Strategies

            The standpoint that provocation and intimidation can benefit China by persuading the victim to negotiate outstanding issues from a conciliatory position is a strategically mistaken one. India, Japan, Vietnam and the South China Sea Littorals have demonstrated so. Far from acquiescing they have chosen to resist, adopting (in trend) a cooperative security strategy. This includes deliberate negative response to favour Chinese economic monopoly even when the benefits are obvious. While individual action may be insignificant, the aggregate of combined action may impede China’s growth which in turn question’s strategic stability of dispensation.

The parallels with the rise and fall of Germany is complete when we note that China’s Defence White Paper of April 2013 underscores the will to expand offensive military capability in pace with economic growth. Internationally this can only be viewed as acutely threatening. The delusion that menaced States will not align to contend and defy China’s grand design is a strategically misleading notion.


End Notes

[1] Séguin, Philippe. Louis Napoléon Le Grand, Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1990, Pg 390-394.

[2] Encyclopaedia Britannica, updated December 2013, Franco-German War, retrieved 30 May 2014.

[3] Lowe, John. The Great Powers, Imperialism and the German Problem 1865-1925. Taylor and Francis, Routledge, London, New York 1994. Pgs 13, 26, 34.

[4] Kautilya. The Arthashastra, translation by Rangarajan LN, Penguin Classics New Delhi 1990, Part IX pg 498 to Part XI pgs 625-644, 676-679 & 727.

[5]Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Griffith, Samuel B. Oxford University Press, London 1963. Chapter V, pg 39-44.

[6] Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Vintage Books, New York 1987, Chapter 5 pgs 194-274, deals with the crisis of the rise of ‘Middle Powers’ such as Germany (1885-1918).

[7]Fukuayama Francis. “The End of History.” The National Interest, 16 (Summer 1989), pp 4, 18.

[8]Huntington. Samuel, P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of  World Order, Penguin Books, India 1997, pp 30-39.

[9] The World at War United Nations defines “major wars” as military conflicts inflicting 1,000 battlefield deaths per year. In 1965, there were 10 major wars under way. The new millennium began with much of the world consumed in armed conflict or cultivating an uncertain peace. Between 1989 and 2010, forty nine wars erupted. As of mid-2005, there were eight Major Wars under way [down from 15 at the end of 2003], with as many as two dozen “lesser” conflicts ongoing with varying degrees of intensity.

[10] Security analysts  have examined China’s efforts to develop weapons systems that can retard or even stop a potential adversary from entering an area of interest. Dubbed “access-denial,” the aim of such a strategy is to use weapons that deter and should the need arise challenge or indeed prevent inimical forces from operating in conflict zones or oceanic areas of interest . The teeth of this strategy is an anti-ship missile. Such a missile, fired from land, sea, underwater or air can cause tremendous damage to an enemy surface vessel. While such technology isn’t new, the effective ranges of such weapons have increased tremendously, along with their accuracy, speed of delivery and precision. Defending against such systems is therefore a major problem for planners.


6 thoughts on “The Perils of Strategic Narcissism: China

  1. The use of the word, “narcissim” in the context of China rings true far beyond its strategic thinking. I agree that the logic of strategy would make neighbors of China cooperate to seek a form of collective security faced with its increasing assertiveness. Such behavior is yet another example of mistakes which they are capable of making. For years I have challenged views on China’s so called infallibility!

    • Perhaps only time will tell; but the symptoms are there. As Mr Ranganathan (former Ambassador to China) has pointed out in the earlier comment, it is the logic of strategy that will drive neighbours to seek cooperative security. You can see that happening too. Whether China will falter is a moot question, but it would be best for the order of things if she were to find the impulse to cooperate and drop the urge to rewrite the rule books!
      Thanks for your comment. Vijay

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