Sun Tzu and the Art of Soft Power?

Sun Tzu- The Art of War

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is the oldest known strategic manual about war fighting, with estimates about time of authorship ranging from the third to fifth century.[1] Sun Tzu’s work has been a key part of Chinese military thinking from ancient to modern history. The Shang dynasty incorporated the Art of War with six other strategic manuscripts, circa A.D. 1078, to form the seven military classics that became the foundation for government examinations in military affairs as well as for strategic thinking.[2] Sun Tzu has not lost its relevance, during the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950) Communist leader Mao Zedong read and based much of his strategic thinking on The Art of War, despite the Communist party fighting against most of Chinese traditional culture.[3] Sun Tzu’s language is sparse and contains lines that can easily convey ideas independent of the rest of The Art of War. This style allows for multiple interpretations, and for the independent use of key lines to convey meanings unrelated to war and strategy. However, at its core, the book is about using grand strategy and deception to win military victories with the minimum necessary application of force.  In modern times, there has been a trend to reinterpret The Art of War’s warnings against excessive force as in line with China’s peaceful development strategy. However, this reading ignores the existential nature of war that Sun Tzu writes about as well as the fact that The Art of War instructs generals to exploit enemy weakness to gain victory rather than advising them to peacefully co-exist.

Chinese Thinking on War in the Spring and Autumn Period

Before about 500 B.C. warfare in China was ritualistic, only fought during specific seasons, and involved relatively small armies of a few thousand men. By the time Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War technology had changed allowing for the use of iron weapons, and agriculture had become more efficient allowing for a stronger concentration of state power and armies ranged from 100,000 up to nearly a million men. The Art of War was written to advise rulers during a time when war was an ongoing and existential concern for Chinese states. Sun Tzu highlights the existential nature of the warfare in this period saying, “For while an angered man may again be happy, and a resentful man again be pleased, a state that has perished cannot be restored, nor can the dead be brought back to life.”[4] For many states, being proficient in warfare was the only way to ensure survival in the Spring and Autumn period, during which more than one hundred independent Chinese states were exterminated.[5]  The Art of War’s strategy based on deception reflected an evolution from earlier periods of warfare and represented a new way to achieve victory.[6]

The type of traditional rules of warfare that stand in contrast to the deception advised by Sun Tzu are described in The Methods of the Ssu-ma, another one of the collected seven military classics collected by the Shang Dynasty. Like The Art of War, The Methods of the Ssu-ma is of uncertain origin, but is thought to date back to the fourth century and contain materials dating back into antiquity.[7] The difference between the two works is made clear on the first page of The Methods of the Ssu-ma, which offers advice like “Neither contravening the seasons nor working the people to exhaustion is the means by which to love our people. Neither attacking a state in national mourning nor taking advantage of natural disaster is the means by which to love their people.”[8] While Sun Tzu advises generals to treat captive soldiers well, he does not do this out of love for the enemy’s people, but to gain advantage over the enemy. Also, Sun Tzu’s strategy depends on shaping the enemy’s moral strength and taking advantages of weaknesses, so he would be more likely to advise using natural disasters or national mourning as an opportunity for a victory rather than urging restraint.

During Sun Tzu’s time, there were also several important political and moral thinkers in China whose work considered warfare from a moral and political perspective rather than a strategic one. The two most famous Chinese thinkers that were roughly contemporary with Sun Tzu are Guan Zhong and Confucius. Confucius’ view of warfare is more similar to the attitudes described in The Methods of the Ssu-ma than Sun Tzu’s reliance on deception. For example, rather than rely of clever stratagem, Confucius advises leaders that “If distant people do not submit, then cultivate benevolent virtue so as to attract them.”[9] Confucius acknowledges that war has existed as long as humanity, but unlike Sun Tzu, he stresses the importance of a superior morality rather than strategic victory as the necessary factor to become a hegemon.[10] Guan Zhong saw war as being unvirtuous, but also as a tool a leader could use to become a hegemon. Guan Zhong shares a similar existential view of war with Sun Tzu, writing that “If war is not won and defense is not firm, then the state will not be secure.”[11] However, like Confucius and unlike Sun Tzu, Guan Zhong stressed the importance on leaders practicing virtue among feudal lords to gain trust and employ political authority.[12] In ancient China, warfare and the use of force was generally disdained and bureaucrats and leaders often preferred to believe in the idea of cultural superiority as an attractive force, however the ubiquitous warfare of the Spring and Autumn period made skilled generals and strategists valued personnel.[13] Sun Tzu’s The Art of War was unique for its focus on the necessity of the use of strategy and deception rather than superior morality to ensure state survival and victory.

Sun Tzu’s Core Concepts

One of Sun Tzu’s most famous aphorisms is “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”[14] Rather than a call for peace, Sun Tzu recognized the inherent risk of armies entangled in protracted war fighting that depresses soldier’s willpower, drains state resources, and presents third party states with an opportunity to take advantage of your weakness. According to Sun Tzu, even if a state is able to win many battles and master tactics, if it engages in protracted warfare it will not benefit.[15] In order to win with a minimal use of force, The Art of War encourages generals and princes to use deception to shape circumstances so that they are able to win the war before the first battle. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu describes four offensive tactics in order of effectiveness. The first tactic is to attack the enemy’s strategy, the second tactic is to disrupt an enemy’s alliances, the next tactic is to attack the enemy’s army, and the least preferred tactic is to attack the enemy’s cities.[16] In Sun Tzu’s list, the two most effective strategic choices do not depend on the use of force, but instead rely on adroit diplomacy and deception.

To carry out Sun Tzu’s higher order offensive tactics, it requires a deep knowledge of both the enemy and of one’s own capabilities. Sun Tzu makes the vital importance of such knowledge clear, warning, “If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.”[17] Unlike Clausewitz, perhaps the only equally renowned strategic thinker, Sun Tzu puts high value on the gathering of intelligence and the use of spies.[18] The importance of intelligence gathering is so high that Sun Tzu devotes the whole last chapter to the use of secret agents, and delineates a variety of agents by purpose and origin. For example, some agents are to be used as traditional spies that gather information and return it to the general, inside agents who are enemy officials, enemy spies which are bribed into becoming double agents, and expendable agents which are unknowingly given false information that they give up to the enemy after being captured. With knowledge of the enemy, and knowledge of one’s own capabilities, the general and the sovereign are able to make plan carefully and shape the enemy’s perceptions so that they weaken themselves through their own actions. In this way, secret agents are vital, and akin to an army’s eyes and ears.[19]

Sun Tzu clearly put deception above the use of force in warfare, but The Art of War also includes instruction about the best manner to fight a war. Sun Tzu advocates an indirect form of warfare that is dependent on maneuver rather than focusing on attacking and destroying the enemy’s army like Clausewitz advocates.[20] This strategy depends on restraint and timing, shaping the situation so that when the enemy makes a mistake or presents a weakness it is possible to strike so that the battle is won as soon as it starts. Even when engaged in fighting, the actual outcome depends on the use of deception and psychological factors.  In this way, it is more important to attack an enemy’s will power than to win a tactical battle. Sun Tzu describes this as the moral factor, and advises to “avoid the enemy when his spirit is keen and attack him when it is sluggish and his soldiers homesick.”[21] Of course as a corollary to this point, it is necessary to maintain the moral of your own troops through fair treatment and proper administration of rewards and punishments to maintain loyalty.[22] The attention to moral factors, deception, timing, and diplomacy are necessary to preserve the state and to prevent prolonged war that is costly and enervating and threatens state survival is the core of Sun Tzu’s strategic thought.

Sun Tzu and the Art of Soft Power?

In China, there has been a recent trend to use Sun Tzu and The Art of War as a source of soft power and an explanatory tactic for China’s peaceful development strategy. This trend is present in the 2014 9th International Symposium on Sun Tzu’s Art of War hosted by the Chinese Academy of Military Science titled “Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Peace, Cooperation and Development.”[23]  According to the conference description, “Sun Tzu’s Art of War show us that seeking safety through development, cooperation and win-win growth is the right way toward world peace.”[24] From this description, it would be easy to imagine Sun Tzu as a modern day CCP official describing China’s peaceful development policy. Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, also sought to use The Art of War to explain Chinese strategic thinking and to build trust during a 2012 speech to UK Joint Services Command and Staff College, saying “China has the deterrence and wisdom to win without fighting. But if needed, China has the courage and capability to win through fighting. This is the essence of The Art of War and the soul of China’s military strategy today.”[25] Perhaps it is this image Hu Jintao had in mind when he gave President George W. Bush a silk copy of The Art of War in 2006, or when Beijing’s Renmin University gave a copy of the book to Admiral Michael Mullen during his visit in 2011.[26]

The Chinese are not the only people who have sought to portray Sun Tzu as a source of soft power. In his book The Powers to Lead, Joseph Nye describes Sun Tzu as a smart warrior who understood the importance of the soft power of attraction.[27] Another example comes from former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who gave a speech at the 2014 Sun Tzu conference in Qindao. In his speech, Rudd urged China and the U.S. to avoid the Thucydides’ trap of rising power-status quo power conflict and to form a new kind of great power relationship based on common interests, cooperation and building trust over time. In order to tie this call for trust and cooperation between the U.S. and China with The Art of War, the closing lines of the speech references Sun Tzu’s warning that “The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry that can on no account be neglected,” and then subsequently suggested that in modern times the word “state” should be swapped with “world.”[28] While Sun Tzu did believe that war was a risky proposition that could imperil a state, Rudd’s substitution overlooks the fact that Sun Tzu was not an internationalist, but someone who clearly believed in the importance of achieving decisive victory over enemies.

It is easy to make the case that Sun Tzu rejected the use of force if you take lines from The Art of War out of context. The line most commonly used to this effect is “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”[29] It is true that force plays a much lesser role in Sun Tzu’s strategy than Clausewitz or other comparable writers, but this usage mistakenly puts the stress on “without fighting,” and ignores that the objective is to subdue an enemy. Another issue with this interpretation is that deception is the most frequently discussed theme in The Art of War. [30] With the context added back in, claiming that Sun Tzu’s The Art of War shows a path to cooperation and win-win solutions actually has an ominous overtone. Claiming to be peaceful while preparing for war is a tactic that follows Sun Tzu’s advice that “when capable, feign incapacity; when active, inactivity.”[31] Recent assertive Chinese maritime actions in the South and East China Seas have caused doubt about China’s professed peaceful intent. Atlantic Council senior fellow Robert Manning has admonished Beijing to follow The Art of War’s counsel to “appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”[32] As Manning points out, rather than hiding their strength, China’s expansive territorial claims and maritime harassment of other powers has resulted in other countries in the region bandwagoning with the United States to contain China’s rise.

Sun Tzu for the Modern Age

Throughout The Art of War, Sun Tzu emphasizes that mastering strategic warfare is a matter of survival for states. This perception is shaped by the constant warfare during the Spring and Autumn period during which The Art of War was written. Rather than a book of philosophy or international relations based on moral attraction like other works from that period, The Art of War is about how to win decisive victories over enemies with deception, secret agents, and well-timed uses of overwhelming force. While Sun Tzu advocates using force sparingly, The Art of War is not a good choice of a vehicle to promote Chinese soft power or to advocate for cooperative great power relationships. This does not mean that Sun Tzu is not applicable to the modern world, as former Naval War College professor Michael Handel noted, Sun Tzu’s grand strategy approach to warfare is more relevant today then Clausewitz’s tactical approach to warfare.[33] Considering the costs of modern protracted wars undertaken with poor or incomplete intelligence, Sun Tzu’s emphasis on knowledge, caution, diplomacy, and strategic patience and efficacy in the use of force are still highly relevant.

[1] Richard D. Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993), 150.

[2] Ibid, 2.

[3] Samuel B. Griffith, The Art of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 45.

[4] Griffith, 143.

[5] Sawyer, 9-11.

[6] Derek M. C. Yuen, Deciphering Sun Tzu: How to Read the Art of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 52.

[7] Sawyer, 111.

[8] Sawyer, 126.

[9] Yan Xuetong, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 37.

[10] Ibid, 34.

[11] Ibid, 34-37.

[12] Ibid, 43.

[13] Sawyer, 2.

[14] Ibid, 77.

[15] Ibid, 73.

[16] Ibid, 77-78.

[17] Ibid, 84.

[18] Michael I. Handel, Masters of War: Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and Jomini (Portland: Frank Cass, 1992), 111.

[19] Griffith, 149.

[20] Handel, 42.

[21] Griffith, 108.

[22] Griffith, 66.

[23] “9th International Symposium on Sun Tzu’s Art of War kicks off,” China Military Online, August 26, 2014,

[24] Ibid.

[25] Liu Xiaoming, “Sun Tzu’s Wisdom Behind China’s Diplomacy and Defence Policy” (Speech, UK Joint Services Command and Staff College, Shrivenham, UK, February 2, 2011),

[26] Sun Tzu and the art of soft power,” The Economist, December 17, 2011,

[27] Joseph S. Nye, The Power to Lead (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 11.

[28] Kevin Rudd, “How Ancient Chinese Thought Applies Today,” Huffington Post, February 6, 2015,

[29] Griffith, 77.

[30] Handel, 102.

[31] Griffith, 66.

[32] Robert A. Manning, “Sun Tzu Would Disapprove of China’s Strategy,” The National Interest, August 3, 2013,

[33] Tony Corn, “Peaceful Rise through Unrestricted Warfare: Grand Strategy with Chinese Characteristics,” Small Wars Journal, 2010, 14.


About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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