Chapter 8. The Eastern Approach to Strategy

At the time of writing Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is number 4 on Amazon’s ‘Strategy & Competition’[⁠1] bestseller list. The answer as to why many modern strategists are seeking insights from a military text that’s 2,500 years old may be that both war and business share two essential characteristics:

  1. Competition with rivals
  2. Uncertainty (due to not knowing the intentions of rivals or how they will act next).⁠[2]

Yet many of these business strategists are using Sun Tzu’s famous treatise as little than a source of pithy statements to sprinkle their presentations with. This is because The Art of War, despite being “often heard of and read [is] seldom understood in the West; despite its popularity”.[⁠3] What’s missing for modern readers in the West is a knowledge of the Chinese philosophical tradition it came out of.

The first line of The Art of War states that: “War is a vital matter of state” but, paradoxically, this work emerged out of “a culture in which warfare is neither celebrated nor glorified, and in which military heroism is a rather undeveloped idea”[⁠4]. The Chinese learned that all wars, even victorious ones, were devastating as they drain resources from those areas on which future prosperity depends: Infrastructure, education and culture. War therefore was seen as an act of last resort. However, China’s endless history also taught them that war was often unavoidable, so any leader who did not study warfare was considered irresponsible. This pragmatism explains why “many if not most of the classical Chinese philosophical works contain lengthy treatises on military thought”[⁠5]. Importantly though the Chinese study of warfare was less about how to win on the battlefield and more about winning without needing a battlefield. The Art of War is considered a high-point of this approach:

“To win a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the highest excellence; the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all”.

The Art of War, chapter 3

As the world’s longest continuous civilisation China retains an “intimate link to its ancient past and classical principles of strategy”[⁠6]. Chinese leaders today can invoke “strategic principles from a millennium-old event” and feel confident colleagues will “understand the significance of [these] allusions”. When Mao Zedong felt threatened by a hostile Soviet Union to the North and an ambitious Vietnam to the South he addressed his country’s peril by invoking a classical Chinese principle of “defeating the near barbarians with the assistance of the far barbarians”[⁠7]. Rapprochement in 1972 with the ‘far barbarians’ to the West (the USA) helped reduce the threat of the ‘near barbarians’ in the North and South (the USSR and Vietnam) as Mao adroitly used their mutual antagonisms to keep them focused on each other, which helped create the more stable conditions China needed to re-emerge as a great power. Mao’s openness towards the US had surprised many externally but, by invoking a well-known and successful stratagem from Chinese history, he had clearly and succinctly communicated his intention internally. The question for modern strategists therefore is how can they gain strategic advantage from reading The Art of War if they are ignorant of the historic-philosophical traditions it emerged from? The long answer is to learn Chinese and study their classics. A more pragmatic answer is to take a closer look at the key principle in The Art of War and explore how it shapes the Eastern approach to strategy to this day.

Shi (勢)

Shi has been described as the “key and defining idea”[⁠8] in The Art of War. Like many concepts in Chinese — a highly-contextual language where meaning depends on the situation — shi has no direct translation. To aid understanding of such concepts Chinese philosophers used metaphors: Comparing something unknown to something known, often from nature. Laozi, (a contemporary of Sun Tzu) used water metaphors: “Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it”[⁠9]. Shi — like water — adapts to the terrain and takes no permanent shape therefore it’s impossible to resist as it can’t be attacked directly. When sufficient shi is accumulated upstream, the force of its flow downstream creates inevitable, irresistible outcomes:

“the velocity of cascading water can send boulders bobbing about is due to its strategic advantage [shi]”.

The Art of War, chapter 5

Shi may be described as unleashing the accumulated potential inherent in a situation. As water adapts to its terrain so one accumulates strategic advantage by working with the potential in a situation. An old Taoist story perhaps explains this best:

An old man fell into a river’s rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall.

Onlookers feared for his life.

Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls.

People asked him how he managed to survive.

“I accommodated myself to the water,

not the water to me.

Without thinking,

I allowed myself to be shaped by it.

Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl.

This is how I survived”.

This story reveals two key concepts needed for harnessing shi:

  • Awareness, seeing the inherent potential (threats and opportunities) in a situation
  • Adaptiveness, having the ability to respond with (rather than against) this potential.

In Chinese philosophy even highly-uncertain situations are considered to unfold “according to a general pattern that can not only be anticipated, but can be manipulated to one’s advantage”[⁠10]. It requires ever-improving awareness — adaptiveness: One actively waits for favourable conditions to form (awareness) and then exploits the potential with right timing and action (adaptiveness) to unleash beneficial consequences. This is the source of competitive advantage at the heart of Eastern strategy.

Intelligence

In the Chinese philosophical tradition no two situations are considered identical as “minute fluctuations can amplify into dramatic changes”[⁠11] — therefore there are no universal recipes to follow. Wise commanders therefore must continually improve their awareness of the current situation to extract the rich sources of information from it. Commonly recurring patterns can be detected (troops leaning on weapons is a sign of tiredness meaning they’re ripe for being attacked, while birds gathering in trees can point to unoccupied positions in enemy lines that can exploited⁠).[12] Yet the wise commander is also aware of deception (the enemy making you think they’re far when they’re near, or tired when they’re rested) for:

“Warfare is the art of deceit”.

The Art of War, chapter 1

The uncertainty of deception is why wise commanders do not allow those far from the situation — political leaders or advisors (able only to re-fight the last war as they lack up-to-date information) — to influence decision-making on the frontline. Success comes from being close to the action and seeking intelligence “directly from the specific situation”. This is how the wise commander increases “his capacity to thus control events”[⁠13]:

“Intelligence is of the essence in warfare — it is what the armies depend upon in their every move”.

The Art of War, chapter 13

Five Factors

Sun Tzu provided commanders a framework of ‘Five Factors’ to enable them to asses the potential in a situation and ‘anticipate victory⁠’[14] in advance. He was clear about its importance:

“All commanders are familiar with these five factors, yet it is he who masters them who takes the victory, while he who does not will not prevail”.

The Art of War, chapter 1

The First Factor is what Sun Tzu called tao — or the way.[⁠15] This is concerned with how well aligned the troops and the commander are around a common direction or purpose.

The Second Factor is climate. This is concerned with the rotation of days and seasons.

The Third Factor is the terrain. This is concerned with the physical landscape and distances involved. It is affected by changes in the climate.

The Fourth Factor is command. This concerns decisions a commander makes (after considering tao, climate and terrain) and their “wisdom, integrity, humanity, courage, and discipline”.[⁠16]

The Final Factor Sun Tzu called regulations — “organisational effectiveness, a chain of command, and … logistical support”.[⁠17] This is concerned with how well forces can respond to different situations.

Strategic advantage is gained from a correct consideration of these Five Factors for the situation:

  1. Which side has the more compelling mission
  2. Which side benefits most from climate changes
  3. Which side does the terrain favour more
  4. Which side makes the better decisions
  5. Which side has the more effective force.

The wise commander uses these factors to seek strategic advantage from the conditions:

Facing a numerically superior army, the wise commander manoeuvres forces to where the terrain is narrow, so it can be defended with few men. This is seeking shi from the terrain.

Using changes in overhead conditions, such as darkness or heavy rain, the wise commander conceals the movement of forces so they can act undetected. This is seeking shi from climate.

The wise commander cultivates the morale of troops so they fight with energy, while taking every opportunity to disturb the equilibrium of rival troops, so they’re disheartened. This is seeking shi from the effectiveness of forces.

And knowing that bravery and cowardice do not come from the troops themselves, but from how wisely they’re deployed the wise commander seeks shi from making better moves:

“the expert at battle [is one who] seeks his victory from strategic advantage (shi) and does not demand it from his men”.

The Art of War, chapter 5

Victory doesn’t come from daring or courage but from shi. This is The Art of Strategic Advantage:

“Thus the battle of the expert is never an exceptional victory, nor does it win him reputation for wisdom or credit for courage. His victories in battle are unerring. Unerring means that he acts where victory is certain, and conquers an enemy that has already lost”.

The Art of War, chapter 4

Conclusion

Chinese philosophers recognised that “unforeseen circumstances may arise” in any situation, meaning “it is not always possible to draw up a plan in advance⁠”.[18] Therefore they encouraged leaders to develop superior awareness-adaptiveness in order to detect and exploit the potential (shi) in situations. Wise commanders can further tip the scales in their favour by using deception to hinder their rivals’ awareness. By creating a mis-match between reality and a rival’s perception of it the wise commander can start to shape the potential of the situation to his advantage. The wise commander makes moves that confuse rivals (as they lack sufficient awareness) and reduces them to guessing what’s going to happen next. As long as the commander has cultivated sufficient adaptiveness in his own troops (the ability to respond effectively) in parallel he can now unleash their full force in an attack that comes like a raging torrent crashing down a gorge, making it impossible to resist:

“… the strategist mastering shi is akin to water flowing downhill, automatically finding the swiftest and easiest course. A successful commander waits before charging headlong into battle. He shies away from an enemy’s strength; he spends his time observing and cultivating changes in the strategic landscape. He studies the enemy’s preparations and his morale, husbands resources and defines them carefully, and plays on his opponent’s psychological weaknesses — until at last he perceives the opportune moment to strike the enemy at his weakest point. He then deploys his resources swiftly and suddenly, rushing “downhill” along the path of least resistance, in an assertion of superiority that careful timing and preparation have rendered a fait accompli⁠”.[19]

1 https://www.amazon.com/Best-Sellers-Books-Strategy-Competition/zgbs/books/2553

2 International Relations (IR) is an arena of radical uncertainty, perhaps best described by the five assumptions of the realist view of IR:

i. States are main actors in an anarchic system (opposite of hierarchy)

ii. They have (offensive military) capabilities (of greater or lesser degree)

iii. They have intentions and we can’t be certain what they are now or will be later (uncertainty)

iv. Principal goal of states is to survive (as without they can’t have any other goals)

v. States are rational (able to come up with reasonable moves to survive).

This results in fear (of others capabilities and intentions which are uncertain). States then have to rely on self-help as there is no-one they can call. The rational approach is then to become so powerful that no other state can threaten you.

source: John Mearsheimer

3 Yuen, Derek M. C.. Deciphering Sun Tzu. p.3

4 Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare (Introduction by Roger Ames) p.31

5 Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare (Introduction by Roger Ames) p.31

6 Henry Kissinger. “On China”. P21

7 Henry Kissinger. “On China” p93

8 Sun-Tzu The Art of Warfare (translated by Roger Ames) p.50

9 Tao Te Ching (Chapter 78)

10 Yuen, Derek M. C.. Deciphering Sun Tzu. p.53

11 Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare (Introduction by Roger Ames) p.62

12 The Art of War, chapter 9

13 Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare (Introduction by Roger Ames) p.63

14 The Art of War, chapter 3

15 Again, another very difficult concept to translate simply.

16 The Art of War, chapter 1

17 The Art of War, chapter 1

18 Yuen, Derek M. C.. Deciphering Sun Tzu. p.82

19 Kissinger, On China p54

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store