Vas Shenoy

Only by deception thou shalt win wars: Sun Tzu


When a friend of mine asked me for a few remarks at a gathering at the Italian senate on Sun Tzu’s Art of War, I was surprised. But I went back to reading the Art of War after a long time, hoping to find something that had probably escaped me.

Photo Vas Shenoy at a Symposium on Sun Tzu and the Art of War at the Italian Senate on the 1st of June 2023

The norms of modern warfare have changed, war has moved from simple placement of troops or battlefield maneuvers to virtual wars, disinformation, misinformation. Has modern warfare changed or have the tools just become very efficient? We live in an information society, after the information revolution today warfare has also evolved to warfare 4.0. Conventional or non-conventional warfare, including jihad, are first fought on the battlefield of opinion.

Today Russia has brought war back to Europe by attacking Ukraine. Putin’s attack on Kyiv does not subscribe to Master Sun’s maxim of subduing the enemy without fighting, but China continues to favor cold wars to hot wars.

For me the technology of war is in itself art, Master Sun’s magnum opus which makes war an art form.  

Phrases such as indirect strategy, maximum profit with minimum effort, avoiding combat, bring to my mind a simple construct. Smoke and mirrors, deceit. Only by deception you shall win wars. This isn’t the motto of the Mossad, or from the old testament, this is Sun Tzu.

The modern people’s republic of China(PRC), the China of Xi Jinping has not only adopted Sun Tzu’s philosophies but all Chinese military personnel seem to memorise the master’s work. All Central Military Commission members except Xi Jinping are generals and admirals who have memorised the “Art of War” completely. 

In 2003 the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and the Central Military Commission endorsed the “three warfares” doctrine, reflecting China’s recognition that as a global actor it would benefit from learning to use the tools of public opinion, particularly during the early stages of a crisis, as these tools have a tendency to bolster one another. The PLA issued 100 examples each for psychological, media, and legal warfare. Psychological warfare examples cited Sun Tzu 30 times, media warfare examples cited him 6 times, and legal warfare examples cited him 3 times. The most cited phrase (from chapter 3) is “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill,” which appears 10 times. The next most repeated phrase (from chapter 1) is “All warfare is based on deception,” appearing half a dozen times.

This translation breaks from tradition and puts the last chapter “The use of agents” as the first. With Xi Jingping’s China the use of espionage and non-traditional warfare is the first precept. China’s hackers (live agents) are more active than most other countries. It is these spies that are most active, not only sowing disinformation in the world but actively seeking economic, technological, personal data. 

China’s war 4.0 is no longer focused on using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will, but rather is focused on using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.

The PLA International Relations Academy in Nanjing studied disintegration warfare from 2003 to 2009. Then in 2010 a PLA publisher issued Disintegration Warfare. A passage from chapter 3 of The Art of War, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill,” appears on the cover of Disintegration Warfare. The idea of disintegration warfare includes politics, economy, culture, psychology, military threats, conspiracy, media propaganda, law, information, and intelligence. All these concepts are clearly building on Sun Tzu’s ideas of deception, disruption, and subduing the enemy without fighting.

From a modern app like Tik-Tok used to gather data on users worldwide, manipulate information and spread propaganda, up to surveillance cameras sold for surveying streets, traffic lights to sensitive installations there are no limits for the PRC. The internet has become a huge ground to mine data on opponents, normal citizens of countries- allies and enemies, to profile them and manipulate them.  Industrial contracts have become an excuse to spy on sensitive and non sensitive installations and engage in economic espionage.

Master Sun’s idea of a spy has been used to its full by Xi’s China. “One who acts like moonlight and sneaks through cracks or gaps in enemy security and defences to obtain data on the enemy.”

According to the human rights group Safeguard Defenders, which first drew attention to the issue in 2022, there are 102 overseas Chinese police stations in 53 countries, including Italy, France, Canada, Britain and the Netherlands. 

Covering this incident, the Italian newspaper Il Giornale reports, “Italy has so far been the most fertile ground in the world for the illegal policy of control, repression and repatriation of Chinese citizens outside their country of origin. From Milan to Rome, from Bolzano to Sicily, from Venice to Florence to Prato, home to the third largest Chinese community in Europe and the largest in Italy, it is on our territory that the “police stations” used by the Beijing regime to “harass, threaten, intimidate and force to return to China, to be persecuted” those Chinese who live abroad and whom the Communist Party does not want to let escape its long hand.”

These Chinese spies, with the excuse of the police stations, lived legally in Italy and other countries that hosted them, ran illegal Chinese police stations, collected data on Chinese nationals and others who were against the current Chinese regime. This was all done by tricking the host government.

Another example of Master Sun’s strategy used by the current Chinese regime is attack where the resistance is low. Wherever they strike, you fade away, flowing towards the point of least resistance. An example could be Pakistan, which today is in turmoil. The country was a great ally of NATO during its invasion of Afghanistan and is an all weather friend of China. Today the confusion in Pakistan and the west’s abandonment of Afghanistan have opened the doors for China to take control of Afghanistan’s natural resources, especially the fuel of tomorrow, Lithium. Taliban led Afghanistan, a pariah to the west, a threat to its mentor Pakistan, may be the latest entrant to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), replacing Italy which seems is on its way out. China has several interests in Afghanistan-the natural resources, eliminating any support for Uyghur resistance, keeping Pakistan in check and replacing it as the biggest supporter of the Taliban regime. If China were to control the Afghan regime, with its new role as Iran’s main sponsor globally it controls central Asia.

On the 4th of February 2022 Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Beijing. He and secretary Xi declared a friendship with “no limits”. The two countries share a 4200 km border and have been competitors during the cold war. It was after the fall of the Soviet Union that the Sino-Russian rapprochement actually began. After this declaration of “no limits friendship”, Putin launched his Ukraine invasion which has completely isolated Russia and made it dependent on China. From a competitor Russia has become an extension of China. An example is China’s peace treaty between Iran (a Russian vassal and client state) and Saudi Arabia which also allowed another Russian ally, Syria, re-entry into the Arab league which had suspended Syria 12 years ago. China again is replacing Russia with Iran and Syria much like it is replacing Pakistan in Afghanistan. Taking advantage of chaos… The dragon now is the dominating power in the Middle East, right up to the red sea, from Central to South Asia right upto the caucus.

Not just this, Saudi Arabia has given China development rights for the Jazan port on the Red sea, just near the Gulf of Aden. The Saudi-Iran peace deal will probably lead to a ceasefire and peace in Yemen, just what China needs to arm Jazan, its choke point to the Indian Ocean and an important addition to its “string of pearls”.

Not only has this war weakened Russia it has also distracted the west-China’s traditional enemies-the democracies. US & Europe, essentially NATO’s weapons stocks have reduced tremendously in supporting Ukraine. NATO couldn’t probably engage in another conventional war if it were to start. Russia is defaulting in its weapons supplies to India due to the long drawn war that it did not account for. China’s irritating neighbour with whom China shares a 3400 km border is now under check because of Russia’s inability to deliver. Russia has been historically India’s arms supplier and India depends on Russia for between 40-50% of its military supplies. Not one shot fired and India’s mighty military is under check.

In one move, by standing with Putin, Xi has managed to implement another Master Sun’s teaching.  The skill-full leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.

He has distracted the west, increased his rhetoric on Taiwan keeping the tension, weakened India and usurped Russia’s strength in the Middle East and Africa, without firing a shot. The real beneficiary of Ukraine’s war is Xi Jinping.

The Art of War gives new life to Sun Tzu’s teachings which are a new window to understanding Xi’s china. It will be the art of understanding it will prepare us for future asymmetric war with China, the war of deceit. To win against Xi’s China we will have to think like him and fight fire with fire.

About the Author
Vas is a political researcher, consultant and entrepreneur who has worked in Europe, Middle East and Africa for two decades. He has had the privilege to interact with leaders, decision makers and work closely with people from all walks of life, all over the middle east.
Related Topics
Related Posts