Heaven and Earth On a Chinese Axis * Ancient Chinese Thought Behind the New Silk Road

Successful China may be, with a foreign policy which has spread its power around the globe; but China’s New Silk Road Vision is no celebration of the ancient land and sea routes linking East and West in a grand exchange of goods, innovations and philosophies.

Instead, it perfectly illustrates how China continues to carefully and successfully use its unique forms of strategic thought which are as rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy as they are in Marxism.

This fusion of thought in Maoism has been built upon by especially Deng Xiaoping and now Xi Jinping to navigate in the military, economic and political spheres of a world in which China is now supremely at home.

Comparative Strategic Culture and the Use Of Force, Space and Time In International Relations: Chinese Foreign Policy As Protracted War

My Master’s thesis for an MA in political Science was written in 1992 for the University of Victoria, and it seems as relevant now as it was then.

At the time, it was rather out of sync with received opinion in western academia, though this is changing.  In my thesis I made two controversial points:  First, that Mao’s strategic thought was as much rooted in Chinese ancient philosophy as it was in various versions of Marxism-Leninism which belatedly found their way into China; second, that Mao’s strategic framework had been proven highly successful not only in Mao’s military defeat in 1945 of the Japanese and in 1949 of the warlord Chiang Kai-shek, but later, adapted by Deng Xiaoping for China’s economic transformation.

The strategic principles found in Mao’s famous On Protracted War are quite simple, and originate in two ancient Chinese cultural sources: The Book of Changes, or I Ching, and the game of Weichi.

In the game of Weichi the objective is to surround or gain more territory (space) than the opponent. This game has been played by aristocratic, inlcuding military, elites of China for thousands of years and, when combined with the key dimension of time, found in the Book of Changes, clearly structured Mao’s work on protracted (time) war in the vast spaces of China.

Though often used and associated only with divination, the Book of Changes or I Ching is also considered a teacher, a source of wisdom, and a strategic manual of life guidance. It is used in this sense not for predicting events but for creating the best possible outcome from an first understanding and then acting (or not acting) into the going life process in which the questioner finds himself or herself at a specific point in time.

Put in abstract terms, interacting successfully with life situations always involves the skillful management of force (creative potential) generated through the friction between any set of unity of opposites.

This concept, that reality is being structured by pairs of opposites in tension, conflict, and ultimately the production of a new reality, was at some point borrowed by the pre-Socratic thinkers of ancient Greece, Like the Chinese, the Greeks saw this as a principle of physics which gave form and dynamics to all human life as well as to the universe.

Eventually, Hegel borrowed the concept of unity of opposites from the Greeks, also treating it as a metaphysical process manifesting within material reality. As we all know, Hegel’s vision was then appropriated and reformulated by Karl Marx as a purely materialist description of the engine of pairs in conflict driving human history.

Where it all began, in the Chinese Book of Changes, the human being is the key, the fulcrum of the universe, uniqely gifted with the management and transformation of reality though skillful identification and intervention in friction within a unity of opposites at key moments in time.

It is the (inevitable) generation of energy from the ongoing conflict which can be turned by human intervention at strategic moments into force applied over space and time. In the Chinese game of strategy known as Weichi or Go we see that the objective is to control ever more areas of space, a fundamental tenet of Mao’s On Protracted War. The outplay of this game is extremely subtle and challenging; in combination with the study of time and opposites embedded in the understanding of the I Ching produces a level of sophisticated thought frankly beyond most western military thought.

By the time Mao was ill and dying, his strategic thought – which had won China’s independence from Japan and a western-backed Chiang Kaichek – was thought to be sidelined, tarnished and discredited by his evolving, chaotic domestic policies. The famous Thought of Mao Zedong was now seen as stubbornly, even wickedly, misguided and seemed destined for the dustbin of history.

Yet by 1992 when I wrote my thesis, Mao’s seemingly idiosyncratic strategic theories were being successfully reframed in the domestic setting of economic development by Deng Xiao Ping. Ideas like Special Economic Zones articulated what is today the backbone of the New Silk Road or Belt and Road Initiative – expanding control of space over time.

In the Beginning – China’s Special Economic Zones

Deng’s New Economic Zones (1978) were created for the controlled importation of western capitalism to coastal city areas under a new policy rather ironically called The Open Door. As anyone who has studied China’s history knows, this was a deliberate, hardly subtle reversal of the West’s infamous Open Door policy which saw western imperial powers agree to give each other free rein in the exploitation of China at the point of western guns.

But in wishful western eyes, the new Open Door Policy was seen as the beginning of the end of Chinese socialism; the expectation in the West was that the long-term goal of communism itself would be quietly eliminated from China’s ideological world. The liberal hope of the West has always been that with the seemingly inevitable adoption of capitalism will come liberal democracies, all over the world.

One can note here that, not only has capitalism not be adopted in China, but where it has been, as in Japan, South Korea, and India, to give a few examples, democracy has steadily given way to more and more autocratic regimes which look set to slide, perhaps, into fascism.

But these new economic zones were meant to function – over time – as a means to absorb, control and transform western capitalism into engines for developing Chinese space in an ever-expanding series of circles working outward in a coastal-hinterland, urban-rural direction. Control of space can be achieved gradually, though an equally skilful exploitation of time, which involves identifying types and qualities of obstacles to space expansion, as well as those factors which may, at certain times, favor it.

Despite subsequent problems encountered – endemic to forced-pace industrialization – China’s strategy of economic development has been a successful mirroring of Mao’s original military strategy for taking control of China’s space over a protracted period of time.

The Failure of Western Intelligence and Military Thought

During China’s war against Japan and the civil wars which accompanied it Western analysts did not understand or predict that Mao’s theoretical principles – using space and time as force multipliers – would be successful militarily. As a result, they failed to recognize that Ho Chih Minh, who copied Mao’s blueprint for war, would be successful.

As Barbara Tuchman so forcefully documents in The March of Folly, western analysts failed to understand because they did not respect Asian (or any non-western) peoples nor their cultural sources of philosophy, much less their application to military or other strategic thought. Looking for (a very narrow version of ) Clauswitzian military thought where it had never existed, western military analysts could not see Mao’s long-term, shifting, confusing tactics to be anything but signs of weakness and inevitable failure.

Last American Soldier To Leave Afghanistan

Note: For those still inclined to resist the non-western principles of asymmetrical (protracted) warfare, I recommend remedial studies of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in the face of the Taliban’s successful protracted war. Failure of American intelligence agencies was equaled by failure of American military analysts to identify the nature of power and its relationship to time, space, and culture. Again, the West racked up a stunning failure based on both racism and limited, mechanistic, technology-based, pragmatic concepts of “reality.”

Far from the West’s transformation of China through penetration of its economic and culture fabric, the West has itself been transformed by China’s long-term vision, losing a vast array of jobs, capital, technology and global influence to the China we see today, an economic and military superpower now moving outward as a natural expansive movement from a Center.

And what makes Chinese strategic thought still so relevant is that, having been first applied in China’s war of liberation, and then in its economic development, it is now employed widely outside China’s borders in a bid to transform the world. This vision is embedded in China’s vast geopolitical project – the New Silk Road, or Belt and Road Initiative.

At the helm of this great new expansive process is Xi JinPing, an ambitious man whose thought is now embedded in China’s constitution along with the thought of Mao and the slightly less prestigious theory of Deng Xiaoping.

The Big Three Founders of Modern China

There is a saying in Chinese political circles: “Mao Zedong made Chinese people stand up; Deng Xiaoping made Chinese people rich; Xi Jinping will make Chinese people strong.”

The Thought of Xi Jingping is complex, rooted in Mao’s strategic thought with the same Marxist elements, combined with something Mao left out – the ancient Chinese concept of a world united under Chinese leadership to form the correct cosmic relations of Earth-Humanity-Heaven, with Chinese humanity as the naturally superior axis for this structure of cosmic unity.

Xi sees himself and portrays himself (wearing Mao suits on occasion and touting Maoist reforms) as a third phase in a historic process which his two predecessors began and he will finish. In his own creative formulation, Mao applied essentially Chinese strategic thought to liberate China’s huge land mass from chronic invasion, announcing the new People’s Republic of China in October 1949. He then began transformation of its social and economic space using these same concepts.

With more fine-tuning, his successor Deng Xiaoping applied this same strategic thought to enable transformation of China’s economic space into the powerhouse we see today. Deng accomplished this by enticing – and then absorbing – western capitalists into enmeshment with China. The West became one of the two opposites in a “Unity”, with China being the other, ultimately successful opposite, draining the West of technology, information and capital. Western economies still reel from the fallout of this “struggle” which they failed to recognize as such.

Partial Map of China’s Global Belt and Road Initiative.

Xi Jinping plans to continue this process of expansion and transformation through space and time. He hopes to immortalize himself as the architect of the New Silk Road (digital, maritime and land) which will transform – over time – the space (geographic, social, economic, and political) of the whole world. Each of the spaces China moves into now are to be transformed by a process of draining its resources which will be fed back into the Center – China proper.

Over time, this process will transform societies, and above all, transform the relations of power between them, so that China will emerge as the natural Center of an expanding sphere in which all other entities will take their identities and role from the vision/needs of a vastly Greater China.

This vision is a natural progression outward, from the Center of the cosmic Circle which its ancient philosophers and modern thinkers have always known to be China.

Reviewing The Political Thought of Xi Jinping in the Strategist (from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute) author Robert Wihtol concludes: 

“The chapter on a ‘common destiny for humankind’, again, bears careful reading by diplomats and defence specialists. As the authors see it, Xi’s ultimate ambition is to restore the system of tianxia (all under heaven), with China as the central power, surrounded by vassal states and operating in a global environment that poses no threat to authoritarianism. Under this Sinocentric world view, divide-and-rule politics, wolf-warrior diplomacy and assertive efforts to undermine the liberal rules-based order can be expected to continue, while peaceful resolution of China’s claims on Taiwan seems unlikely.”

China’s New Silk Road Vision is much more than a celebration of the ancient land and sea routes linking East and West in a grand exchange of goods, innovations and philosophies. Instead, it perfectly illustrates how China continues to carefully and successfully use its unique forms of strategic thought to navigate in military, economic and political spheres of a world in which it is now supremely at home.

And if time is on China’s side, as it seems always to have been, then one day we may all be living in China’s home.

© Carol Leigh Rice 2024

A basic outline of China’s New Silk Road can be found here, in China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative and, for a remarkable analysis of the Chinese philosophy underpinning this geopolitical vision, do read Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order by Bruno Macaes.

You can read a précis or download my original MA thesis in PDF at the University of Victoria website:

Comparative Strategic Culture and the Use Of Force, Space and Time In International Relations: Chinese Foreign Policy As Protracted War

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