Sun-Tzu and China’s Preemptive Strategy

“Again, using new and unexpected technology, they cripple the US in a lighting fast war that subjugates the enemy army without fighting, and without a single death.”

In addition to following the daily news, it’s important to keep track of larger trends, history, and theoretical military writing. In this regard China, offers a relative abundance of sources with which to analyze.

I’ve taken this relative abundance and, through years of study, have included  it into a book that will be coming out soon. Decisive Battles in Chinese History overcomes the barriers to the study of Chinese history by covering the wide span of Chinese past, from their semi-mythical beginnings to the 21st-century Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. Using the best of modern scholarship, with a keen eye for military history and strategy, the text penetrates the fog of Chinese history using an accessible writing style.

Each chapter highlights an engaging battle that selectively focuses on unique Chinese characteristics, including their major belief systems, ruling ideology, connection between technology and warfare, Chinese military theory, major political events and key rulers, foreign policy with their neighbors, cultural developments, and interaction with the West.

The text pushes back on a variety of ideas and stereotypes, including the Chinese use of gunpowder, their supposedly weak reaction to the West, the viability of the Dynastic Cycle in studying history, the context of their military theory, the exclusivity of martial and cultural spheres, and the uniqueness of Western imperialism. It offers a groundbreaking reassessment of Mao Zedong’s leadership and his impact on the development of guerilla warfare.

An aggressive China is often listed as one of the biggest foreign policy challenges, and tension with them often generates clickbaiting headlines. The study of history offers perspective with which to judge events of the present and better analyze possible developments. The most pressing question is when and how the next war will come. The study of recent Chinese history, classic military texts like the Art of War by Sunzi (Sun-Tzu), and published military doctrine suggest a credible threat of preemptive war from China using decisive and unexpected means such as cyber warfare.


China’s history since 1949, when the Communists won the civil war, is particularly concerning. Simply put, they have fought offensive preemptive wars with every one of their neighbors. Even though they were only one year removed from a devastating civil war in 1950, they launched a preemptive sneak attack on American forces in Korea.

A few years later they seized islands that belonged to Taiwan in what is now called the Taiwan Crisis. It was only the timely intervention of American forces in the Taiwan Strait that prevented China from seizing the rest of Taiwan. Just a few years after that, China sought to readjust its borders with India in a short offensive strike in 1962. They targeted their allies, the Soviet Union, in 1969. In this case, there was another border dispute, and the area was militarized by both sides when Chinese commandoes preemptively seized disputed islands in the Ussuri River.

Finally, they fought a short but inconclusive war with Vietnam in 1979. Again, this was an offensive preemptive strike that ended with China confirming the transfer of key territory along its border. In addition to actual wars, China has used force to intimidate their neighbors in the South China Sea.

In short, China has often fought offensive wars with each of its neighbors utilizing a key strategic signature. They often initially assumed a defensive posture, but then used preemptive offensive strikes at the operational and tactical level to achieve victory. While there are significant differences among East Asian powers, they share a historical tendency to use strategic surprise.

Japan used preemptive assaults to neutralize Western power. They struck Western fleets in the Russian Japanese War of 1904–1905, and of course the infamous assault at Pearl Harbor during World War II. While the Japanese army excelled in using their highly trained and well-equipped armies for quick preemptive strikes against their Chinese and Western enemies, they often had little strategy beyond that. You might even say they relied on shock and awe to win quick and decisive wars.

Their land army fighting Russia, for example, had begun to run out of steam when the war ended and relieved them of any further operations. The Chinese forces that fought the Chinese Japanese eventually learned to retreat in the face of Japanese thrusts and counter-attack at the time and location that the offensive almost literally ran out of gas. But an argument can be made that this stretches even further back in time using classic Chinese texts.

As I discuss in my book, Decisive Battles in Chinese History, there is a strain of preemptive thought going back to Sunzi’s warnings. His writing is the most accessible of Chinese military thought, and it suggests that an overwhelming attack that induces a psychological collapse of the enemy was a preferred form of warfare. Sunzi admonished that the “highest realization of warfare is to attack the enemy’s plans.” And “subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”

When the army unleashes its plan, it should be successful and as easily victorious as a torrent of water unleashed from a dam, a bolt released from a crossbow, or a stone rolling down a mountain. He concludes that “one who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.”

One of the problems with the Seven Military Classics and Sunzi’s Art of War is that much like the Bible, it is a collection of writings that have been redacted over time that can be used to support different positions. This leads to a good deal of debate about the exact nature of Sunzi’s advice. But a later book clarified that knowing the enemy was attacking their mind, and this phrase was the “essence” of Sunzi’s strategy that nobody should “dare to neglect…even for a moment” (Ralph Sawyer Trans., Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. 161–161, 353–354).

China has not forgotten this heritage in their modern objectives and training manuals. China’s National Defense emphasizes “rapid assaults” using a variety of orthodox and unorthodox methods such as cyber-attacks or using new technology in drone swarms. US defense analysts warn that the “PRC continues to pursue [the ability] to fight and win short duration [conflicts].” The first principle of the Chinese Air Force is securing initiative through offensive operations.

Next Attack

It’s great that we’ve studied history, the classics, and their military doctrine, but what might that look like in the next war? This conflict could look like several different things. Using the new “carrier killing” and hyper sonic missiles launched by more advanced fighters, Chinese forces could overwhelm and surprise American forces, such as US 7th fleet stationed in Japan.

The launching of hundreds of missiles within mere minutes to a theater with forces at fewer alerts than those in the South China Sea could be decisive. The new risk-averse public who elected the most isolationist Republican since Taft and a military hurt by sequestration could then look for a quick settlement and resolution. This essentially means China would win a conflict in one strike. Like the advice of Sunzi, the attack would show a knowledge of Chinese forces, American disposition, and the ability to deliver a quick, stunning blow that “attacks the mind” and the enemy’s plans (by striking a ship in port) and could win a war without a single soldier firing a bullet.

In a fictional global war of 2030, the attack would begin after tension in the South China Sea through Chinese malware and cyber-attacks at the stroke of midnight on Black Friday. Chinese supercomputers then black out American satellites; American counter-measures such as drone strikes fall harmless into the sea as their navigation systems are corrupted. Starting to panic, the navy tries to counter-attack, but launch codes on Zumwalt-class Destroyers tasked with destroying Chinese satellites no longer work.

The navy then has difficulty sailing through the narrow passages in the South China Sea without their navigational computers. By this point, the Chinese start sending missiles to knock out communication satellites and ground the high-tech fighters like the F35 that rely on complex data. With American fleets rudderless, flights grounded, and communication in disarray, Russia and China assume direct control of disputed territory across the world, and by the time the US gains its war footing, they are presented with a fait accompli from China.

Again, using new and unexpected technology, they cripple the US in a lighting fast war that subjugates the enemy army without fighting, and without a single death.


The United States has significant advantages in technology, training, and counter-measures that suggest a need to avoid over-stating the Chinese advantage. But the Chinese have a history and doctrine of preemptive attacks that make it worth considering and preparing for. Every weapon in history meets its nemesis. Bronze weapons gave way to iron. Gunpowder weapons made medieval fortifications and armor obsolete. Carriers supplanted the battleship, and the tank replaced the rifleman as king of the battlefield. While the US has many advantages, as Sunzi said, warfare is the way to life or death, the way to life or ruin, and should be thoroughly examined.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Morgan Deane

Morgan Deane is a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming book Decisive Battles in Chinese history, as well as Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon.

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