Peter Mattis Talks Chinese Strategy at Paulson Institute

China’s security strategy has been compared by some to the ancient game of weiqi, or Go, which prizes encirclement of the opponent—unlike chess, which rewards total destruction of the opponent. At the recent Paulson Institute’s Contemporary China Speakers Series, however, Jamestown Foundation Fellow Peter Mattis argued that Chinese military history often contradicts this premise. On several instances, including the Battle of Wuhan in 1938, China has sought to annihilate its opponent rather than encircle them. As the story goes, during the Chinese Civil War Marshall Chen Yi threw his weiqi board into the river, proclaiming, “If you fight a war the way you play weiqi, you’re never going to win.”

Peter Mattis, Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, speaks at the Paulson Institute’s Contemporary China Speakers Series.
Peter Mattis, Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, speaks at the Paulson Institute’s Contemporary China Speakers Series.

Chinese strategy is often described in broad strokes as one of two extremes, said Mattis. While some view Beijing as adept and calculating in its security strategy, others find China’s blunt intimidation of its East Asian neighbors baffling. “Either [China] is this master of strategy because 2,500 years ago Sun Tzu wrote down these characters that really were the first guide to strategic thinking, or…China is so incoherent and not the monolith that people have described it.” In reality, Mattis reasoned, the Chinese Communist Party is rather similar to the U.S. Navy’s operations around the globe: “It isn’t everywhere, but when it decides to come and sit somewhere and pay attention…no one can move them away.”

Too often, Mattis argued, observers use “images, rather than what China does or the documents themselves, to describe Chinese strategy.” “We’re letting the image—the public relations side of it—decide what is the problem.” One example of this theory was the frenzied verbal response following China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea in November 2013. While the comments from the United States, Japan, and others were accusatory at the time, the ADIZ wasn’t actually such a destabilizing move, argued Mattis. Nearly three years later, all countries have quietly complied with China’s declaration. Therefore, observers can gain a better understanding of Chinese strategy by focusing on the action itself rather than the outsized public debate that inevitably follows.

Mattis closed by reiterating the importance of looking past the extreme characterizations of Chinese strategy. “We have to ask a lot more questions about how the Chinese leadership thinks and how they act.” Chinese strategy is not always easy to “figure out” in an absolute sense, said Mattis. Instead, observers have to “connect the thinking to the organizations, to the actions, and to the results that they achieve.”