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On China’s National Strategy And Theoretical System – Analysis


For a long period of time in Chinese history, there was only one person related to the term “strategy”, this person is none other than Mao Zedong. Apart from him, there was no one else. It was the revolutionary leader Ye Jianying who said that at the PLA National Defense University. While the theoretical circles around the world also admit this fact, but it seems that the Chinese themselves are nowadays reluctant to admit it, because China is now full of “strategists”. Most of these so-called strategists are qualified as doctoral supervisors and bear the title of “professors”. They are articulate, active on TV or internet social media, and almost all of them are “internet celebrity”. The question is, should China be a great power with all these infinite number of so-called “strategists”?

A frank answer to this question requires a thorough review of the theories and realities relevant or irrelevant to strategy.

We hear the term “strategy” all the time in China. For instances, there are various types of strategic planning including the Belt and Road Initiative, regional coordinated development strategy, technological innovation strategy, city development strategy, industrial strategy, enterprise strategy, and even human resources departments of enterprises also have their own “talent strategy”, and so on. In short, everything without the term “strategy” is somewhat undignified and even self-deprecating. Nowadays, they are many so-called “strategists” active on TV or internet social media. In addition, there are countless people called themselves the “United Nations Sun Tzu strategy expert”, “strategic thinker”, “global strategist”, “digital reform strategist”, “Strategic planner” and so on.

In fact, countries around the world have always been very cautious about the use of the term “strategy”. In other countries, the term “strategy” in English is usually replaced by the term “intelligence” to keep a low profile. More specifically, they would use the term “tactics” rather than “strategy”. In the English-speaking world, the use of the term “strategy” is generally related to national security and military affairs. In the Chinese context, the use of the term “strategy” is also very demanding. To express in a low-key manner, the term “tactic”, “ability”, or “plan” will be used instead. China’s poor translators often don’t understand the term “strategy” in English, as the term “strategy” has two levels of meaning, i.e., the tactic and the game plan. These two levels of meaning are often unified and simply translated as “strategy”, which is probably one of the reasons for the confusion in the term “strategy” in China. For example, Kenichi Ohmae, a Japanese scholar known as the “Japanese strategy guru”, was introduced as “corporate tactic master” in some online materials. Therefore, the confusion brought about by the term “strategy” is actually very tragic.

From a definitional point of view, China generally believes that the national strategy is something that is large-scaled and long-term which makes comprehensive use of political, military, economic, scientific, technological, cultural and other state forces to guide the country in all areas and all aspects with the purpose of achieving the overall national goals. The use of national strategy actually originated from the United States and was officially classified as a military term in China. It is defined as: “the art and science of the development and use of the political, economic and psychological forces of the state in order to achieve national objectives, in conjunction with the use of military force in time of peace and war.” Japan defines its national strategy as: “the tactic to achieve national goals, especially to ensure national security, to develop country comprehensively and to effectively use the country’s political, military and psychological forces in peacetime and wartime.” 

As a matter of fact, most Japanese people’s research on the concept of strategy is at a mediocre level. For instance, a Japanese book entitled Sutōrī to Shite no Kyōsō Senryaku Sugureta Senryaku no Jōken (“Strategy is Storytelling”) has reflected the understanding level of some Japanese people. What’s even more interesting is that the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries, which had long been in severe confrontation during the Cold War, did not use the concept of national strategy at all. In fact, China has rarely used the concept of “national strategy” in official documents. Instead, it mainly used political idioms such as general line, general principles or general policies of the party and state.

Looking around the world, instead of abuse the term “strategy” on internet, the United States and most countries are very cautious about the use of the term “strategy”. Even for the United States, the use of the term “strategy” is usually related to the proposition of the military and the security issues.

Therefore, does every use of the term “strategy” means empty talks? The answer is no. The field of academic research – mainly public policy research, geopolitics in particular – is the exception where the term “strategy” is often used. In fact, from the academic definition point of view, only geostrategy is viewed as exquisite, systematic, comparable, and observable for the term “strategy” and its concept. Geopolitics and international relations are connected with national affairs in terms of scope, which represents the general direction and may trigger wars that determines the fate of many people. Its scope further determines the use of the term “strategy” is appropriate. From the perspective of field, geopolitics and international relations are often related to the military and security environment, which is actually the basis and theoretical root of various military strategies. This is closely related to the original intention, definition and connotation of the term “strategy”. In fact, the term “strategy” is a short for “geostrategy”. However, it is often comprehended literally and used arbitrarily and often ends up passing fake imitations for genuine.

Is this explanation of “strategy” justified?

There is a general consensus in the world about the definition of the term “strategy” but a less clear consensus of that to geostrategy, which is somewhat of a controversy within the academic circles. The divergent insights of several geopoliticians have been briefly summarised. James Rogers and Luis Simon argue that geostrategy is about the exercise of power in a specific geographic space and the scheme for making an impact in the international system, which is designed to secure a country and promote prosperity. Zbigniew Brzezinski believes that geopolitics itself is a comprehensive integration of geopolitics and geostrategy. He actually believes that geopolitics and geostrategy are one: certain types of politics require certain types of strategies, and strategies are derived from politics. According to Jakbu J. Grygiel, geostrategy depicts a country’s efforts to project military power and direct diplomacy in a particular region. In my opinion, geostrategy is the inevitable outcome of geopolitics, which can only be derived from geopolitics but not from other fields. So, after all, what is strategy? Geopolitics itself is strategy. Strategy derives from geopolitics and international relations, which is the closest thing to truth.

Having discussed about so many strategies related issues and it really just revolves around one key point: what is strategy? The next inevitable question is that how is the strategy, especially geostrategy, formed and constructed? This issue must involve methodology and epistemology.

Contrasts with rationality, many matters in China tend to go like this: there are some who might get some idea, then giving that idea some discussion, afterwards making up and determining a viewpoint. In the history of China, it was not uncommon that the fate of the country was determined by just a few words. Mere talk is relatively simple, but to withstand the test of history and future is not an easy feat. As this decides the direction of the country, if treated indiscreetly and the related people merely provided their personal opinions, this is unbefitting of their titles and the name of science. Since it is science, it must have its system and framework, epistemology and methodology, otherwise it will just be unprofessional. For a long time, China, especially its so-called academic “experts”, ignore matters or principle that they fail to understand, frequently pretend they do not favor certain concept, or even assert it as insignificant. In reality, the questions of epistemology and methodology are complex, divided into various theoretical doctrine and each doctrine represents different system and framework. Mastering such thing would require a great deal of merit, foundational academic understanding and time. When encountering questions like this, scholars like Hu Shih would call this as “this-ism” or “that-ism”. Masking intellectual ignorance as antipathy is just something that such “experts” do in China.

Regardless ” this-ism”, “that-ism” or many other “-ism”, it all boiled down to epistemology and methodology. In the United States, we will see libraries in many places. These libraries house large collections of books; they represent and reflect forerunners’ ideas, understanding, achievements, confusions and mistakes, all are part of summaries of historical experiences. The “innovations” that many people encounter today actually had already been discussed, and such discussions can often be found in the books within the library and they regularly were proven to be mistaken. The reliability and correctness of an idea can only come through a vast collection of books and systemized epistemology and methodology. Only through navigating different schools of thought, systems and frameworks can decide if our knowledge and conclusion are correct, reliable or plain useless. In other words, the experiences that our forerunners conclude, their epistemology and methodology, determine the efficiency of our thinking. It is even more so for strategic research that inherits from the past and present, as their questions whether the is it strategically correct or not. It is also greatly related to Hu Shih’s “this-ism” or “that-ism”, as, on the question of strategic, many often just babble and talk nonsense. Their childish mistake is overtly clear, the reason behind it might be because, at the longest time, all these have been proved, studied even systematically analyzed as fake. Why study on ” this-ism” or “that-ism”? By using a different system and framework to see its viability. It is only through classification and the understanding of such epistemology and methodology that the general credibility of a result can be judged. Demonstrating through examples cannot replace this classical way of research methodology. In China, many university students are not good students themselves, they simply give examples and name it as ‘case study’; many of them do not even make their argument. In reality, they fail to see the whole picture, the probability of unreliable of a lone example is greater than it being reliable, and this supposes the reason why a lone example cannot be evidence to proof larger reality. Such errors in weak propositions in logic can be found everywhere, to a large extent, it is the lack of training in epistemology and methodology, a failure to recognize the importance of system and framework. This is not uncommon in China’s academia, Hu Shih’s antipathy toward “-ism”, although having critical motives and reasons in historical background, yet by criticizing indifferently shows that he did not understand the actual significance of “-ism”.

Having discussed these descriptive and methodological theories, now the question is how many “-isms” are there that geopolitical and strategic researchers need to master? How do we understand and apply these “-isms” and knowledge standpoints? Rationalism is the beginning of philosophy, the basics of elementary philosophy. A person without rationalism would be insane. Rationalism is about the intelligence of being able to differentiate, analyze, and evaluate real reason and to ensure human behavior fits his or her aim and goals. Rationalism is using argumentative points and convincing evidence to find out the truth, using logical deduction and not just observation to reach conclusions, opinions and motives. So, rationalism is a philosophy built on recognizing human logical deduction can be the source of knowledge. It is generally understood that rationalism is built on René Descartes’ theory and it is widespread globally. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was spread across Europe and this shows the allure of rationalism to science and democracy. ‘Philosophy is the mother of all science’; indeed this well-known quote emphasizes rationalism.

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume is a book on rationalism, and Immanuel Kant too was also influenced by rationalism. If we look further, Socrates himself was a Greek rationalist who believes that the only way to know ourselves is through reasoning. If we go beyond rationalism, it will be romanticism, in which it will be more idealistic and valuable in art and culture, but in term of strategic ideology it may stray towards Utopianism. Then, there are also critical rationalism and liberalism. Karl R. Popper, the founder of critical rationalism, advocates that a critical attitude towards rationality, arguing that general science theories does not come from empirical induction, in which scientific theories were through constant falsification, negation, and criticism to continue moving forward. This is similar with Friedrich Hayek who declared that he does not believe that the social-economic structure can have an overall design in his book The Fatal Conceit. Meanwhile the core idea of rationalism in general lies in the “reasoning process”, in between the basic ideology of “this-ism” and “that-ism”. 

Base on the considerations of instinct, realism is not only easy to classify, but also more acceptable by most of the people. After the Russian October Revolution, painters in Russia labeled themselves as realist painters, where they only believed in realism and did not even recognize the abstract oil paintings as art. Even the famous Russian painters like Ilya Yefimovich Repin and Vasily Ivanovich Surikov also painted in realist works. At that time, the Soviet experts once depreciated Chinese ink paintings just because they thought those works were abstract. It was only after their visit to Huangshan that they recognized ink paintings were realist. It is said that labelling a piece of work as ‘realist’ was the highest compliment by the Soviets. In fact, realism also has a direct, primitive, and instinctive spirit in the theoretical framework system. This makes realism like a “drug”; once you were addicted to it, there was cure for that. As a result, the book of realism had been published more and more and lasted forever until now. This shows that most of the people can easily accept the realist ideas and theories which are supposedly closer to our life.    

To take an example from the academic celebrities, Hans Joachim Morgenthau was one of the famous classical realists in the world, he was the founder of the “Power School” in political studies. 

His renowned book Politics Among Nations discusses the origin of nationalism and clarifies the change of the world political map, as well as the balance of power in the past century. The book introduces the Six Principles of Political Realism:

  1. Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.
  2. The main signpost of political realism is the concept of interest defined in terms of power.
  3. Realism recognizes that the determining kind of interest varies depending on the political and cultural context in which foreign policy, not to be confused with a theory of international politics, is made.
  4. Political realism is aware of the moral significance of political action.
  5. Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe.
  6. The most important factor that distinguishes realism theory from other theories is that Political realism is based on a pluralistic conception of human nature.

However, Morgenthau also believes that “geopolitics is a pseudoscience”, due to the geopolitical situational characteristics, and because of this some people exaggerated their criticism against geopolitics. Some political scientists have similar opinions like Nicholas John Spykma who proposes “rimland theory” in his book America’s Strategy in World Politics and Alfred Thayer Mahan’s discussions on sea power. 

Another famous realist is Samuel Phillips Huntington, best known for his 1993 classic Clash of Civilizations. Actually. He proposed that post-Cold War conflict would most frequently and violently occur because of cultural rather than ideological differences, this theoretical framework actually is to break through the geography of space. John Joseph Mearsheimer is another well-known realist, his opinion that “Made in China 2025 is a huge mistake” has caused huge reactions, and the people at China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) certainly are not happy about it. Ironically, Mearsheimer also proposed offensive realism theory. He believes that because of the security competition among the major powers and the inability to determine the intentions of other countries, hence it is impossible to realize the interaction based on rationality to gain hegemonic status. In other words, he believes that major powers should not care about the past and can only focus on the present.

Marxism is actually a kind of realism as well, because it mainly studies class conflicts in reality. Such space, power, and conflict are all classic research issues in geopolitics and international relations theories, which form and construct the fundamental foundation of inter-state strategies. Without these theories, frameworks and systems, the so-called opinions, ideas, and strategies are like rootless trees and are basically nonsense.

Structuralism, which emphasizes the overall system and rules, is a methodology founded in the 19th century by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913). It has become an important trend of thought in the contemporary world through the development and criticism of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean Piaget, Jacques Lacan, Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Louis Pierre Althusser, Lawrence Kohlberg, Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.

Generally speaking, structuralism, focusing on the understanding of structure (interaction), rather than the understanding of the essence, advocates a scientific way that shaping the overall situation by study underlying relations of superficial phenomena. Therefore, the core expression of structuralism is “looking at the whole through relations”. The key to understanding structuralism is the interrelationship, which is actually the idea of systems theory and it can even be said that the idea of systems theory is also a structuralist idea. Structuralism has become a popular method of analyzing language, culture, and society in the second half of the twentieth century.

The overall system proposed by structuralism is not based merely on a phenomenon. In the 18th century, the French enlightenment philosophers proposed Newtonianism, which applied Isaac Newton’s natural scientific methods and theories into the field of human society. In the view of Newtonians, the world is orderly and in accordance with strict laws. Thus, its behavior is predictable and has a causal relationship. I myself am a Newtonian, and several books I have written in the last century on the information analysis have been based on this law of causation.

The significance of structuralism in strategic research lies mainly in prediction. To understand the future, one must have a grasp of the whole situation, establish a reasonable forecast and come out with a sound strategy, in order to make a wise conjecture, otherwise it is equivalent to a wild guess. The reason for this is simple. Only by knowing a person completely can we predict what he or she would do in the future. It is absurd that nowadays people make friends under the framework of structuralism, but in the face of many major issues, they adopt an inexplicable framework of understanding and come to or believe in bizarre and demagogic conclusions.

Constructionism originated from pedagogy, which is the learning theory proposed as the improvement of teaching. Its main purpose is to understand how various activities in the development process trigger children’s independent learning, and how teachers properly play the role of supporters in the learning process. Constructionism believes that human knowledge is gradually cultivated, which is a rationalization of personal experience. Learning is not a simple accumulation, but an active and interactive “construction” process. The attitude of constructionism is relatively positive, and the core expression is “interactive growth”. In fact, constructionism has long been widely extended in philosophy, sociology, and political science. For example, social constructionism is one of the classics of constructionism. Constructionism holds that the behavior of any social person is restricted or changed by established social traditions, social habits, and personal identity.

Sometimes constructionism can get in trouble for being honest. For example, Michel Foucault argued in his book The History of Sexuality that even human sexual life is not an idea independent of external conditions, but the result of cultural construction, which varies with times and social changes. Foucault believes that what we now call homosexuality and heterosexuality has only recently been constructed. In other words, the current distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality was created by history and culture, not by physical and psychological nature. Since the 19th century, the gay community has been created under the influence of culture and environment to “become” a certain kind of person. It is to be expected that Foucault’s ideas about sexual orientation and social construction will be strongly opposed by homosexual activists, because such social constructionism only emphasizes the role of the outside world and culture, and denies the primary feelings of the human.

Some people in China say that many things in China are unsatisfactory because “this generation of ordinary people are not capable”, which is actually the way and essence of constructionism. In fact, constructionism is a position and attitude that encourages and believes in dynamics, and its cognitive framework is built on a dynamic basis. Because of this, constructionism, although its conclusions are often somewhat unexpected, is often contrary to various extreme trends of thought. It is a very important modern theoretical system, which often provides excellent observation and research perspectives.

Behaviorism originated from an American psychological school during early 20th century. In fact, there are a lot of analytical frameworks in this world. These includes systems theory and Information theory, which are related to biology or psychology. Any research which is related to human beings, is somehow associated with psychological and biological field. With the development trend of empirical research, the top priority subject of research should be related to human beings, as this is a human society.

The main characteristic of behaviorism is to understand the behavior of human beings and animals through systems theory. This theory assumes that all actions are the reflections of provocation received in an environment, or the result developed by an individual in his or her way of life. Punishment, motivation, stimulation received by certain individuals will enhance the tendency to carry out these behaviors. So, the main idea of behaviorism is “stimulate-reaction”. Today behaviorism school has boomed and developed into many different branches. In those early days, Psychology from The Standpoint of A Behaviorist by John Broadus Watson is the fundamental in understanding behaviorism basics. He could be categorized as a S-R (Stimulate-Reaction) school psychologist.

Besides that, there are several behaviorists such as, B.F. Skinner, and Oxford University philosopher-Gilbert Ryle, who is the author of The Concept of Mind, are those who are more influential than others. A school of thought, which is known as Skinner’s School, has been founded based on Skinner’s philosophy, who is also the famous author of a behaviorist work The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis of Behavior. John King Fairbank is claimed to be the founder of S-R Theory. In fact, he is a relatively late behaviorist who follow the trending school of behaviorism at that time. He had drawn some attention in China just because his theory had made some Chinese upset. In fact, we cannot rule out the possibility that Fairbank is just merely quoting epistemic framework of behaviorism.

These theoretical systems and cognitive frameworks are only the most basic. Behind these large and mainstream theoretical schools of thoughts, there are countless branches, and they did not arise out of disorder. For example, on the basis of geopolitics, geo-economics has emerged. Edward N. Luttwak became a celebrity because of his article From Geopolitics to Geo-Economics: Logic of Conflict, Grammar of Commerce (note: my own spatial conflict and competition theory has nothing to do with him, but there are some similarities; my thoughts on various market conflicts based on spatial competition and the various predictions arising therefrom are also not related to him because I have not read the article at the time). Dadaism is anti-modernist thinking epistemology, because reality is capitalism and imperialism. At the time, Lenin and Hugo Ball, the founder of Dadaism, lived in Spiegelgasse, Zurich. Dadaism represented subversion, disorder, antiwar, anti-establishment, and anti-art. This is also true of neorealism, critical realism, critical geopolitics, and postmodernism. The classic theory and understanding that produced various branches will naturally cause such an effect. Some of them are progressive, while others are just opposition and criticism. Because of this, the strategies based on them will succeed, while others are doomed to failure and disappear.

Since these “-isms” are not easy to understand, perhaps this is why many people are reluctant to get involved in them but are willing to get involved in “strategies”. However, I think that even if you are not so sure about the certain theory, at least you must know what characteristics, tendencies, and framework systems that theory has. This has obvious value and meaning for your true understanding of strategic issues, rather than being befuddled by the terminology. Of course, everything is changing, and nothing is particularly affirming in philosophical theories, geopolitics, and strategies. People’s attitudes are changing, and so are their thoughts. Today’s one particular ideology might be the mainstream, it could be replaced by another ideology in the next day. Ludwig Wittgenstein is sometimes said to support the position of behaviorism, and behaviorism does overlap with his philosophical theories, such as logical behaviorism and fundamentalist behaviorism. But Wittgenstein was not really a behaviorist, as his thinking and chaotic writings attest. Alan Turing was sometimes seen as a behaviorist, though he did not admit it.

In general, people who have a basic knowledge of the theoretical framework are much better than those who do not or pretend to dislike it. With a basic understanding of the theoretical framework of “-isms”, you will have a certain basis for discussing strategic issues, as well as some systematic wisdom.

Zhang Zhaozhong, a retired rear admiral promoted by CCTV, likes to talk about international strategy on his television program, but judging from what he proposed, he does not seem to have much education. There are indeed a lot of strategic issues involved in the U.S. media reports, this is based on the fact that the system of American society is very different from that of China, and many strategic issues are actually public in the United States. On the contrary, what is the point of discussing non-public strategic issues? To understand these strategies, it is not enough to have knowledge at the level of “ordnance knowledge magazine”. For example, Zhang Zhaozhong should have read and talked a lot about concepts such as Arthur K. Cebrowski’s 1997 paper Network Centric Warfare: Its Origins and Future, which proposed the initial U.S. National Cyber Strategy. However, he may not know that such strategies in the United States, including their winning formula, are derived from geopolitics, and that the United States has plenty of relevant research papers. As a matter of fact, the issue of spatial expansion and spatial conflict have been part of geopolitical studies for a long time. Geopolitical space is no longer the geographical space of the past, but the space related to various national interests. Perhaps some people have long been impatient, and think these theories are not difficult to understand. However, if one really understands, how can no one predict the outbreak of the trade war between China and the U.S.? Do they know not this is also a competition for space? How could no one have predicted the protests in Hong Kong? Do they know not this is an issue of political identity and the trend towards “deterritorialization”? Concepts such as “globalization and new state relations” and “deterritorialization” are the basic concepts of modern geopolitics, which are familiar to one who studies public policy. Those who really understand will not wait for the incident to comment afterward. However, compared with this kind of “strategist”, Zhang Zhaozhong is still better than the defense adviser Jin Yinan. Judging from Jin’s article, his thinking is basically built on the basis of one-sided news reports, and he also selectively chooses the information that fits his needs.

Therefore, those who engage in strategic studies, including those who aspire to talk about national affairs on the TV program, should learn more about the basic theories instead of fooling the public. It might be understandable if it was just self-promotion, but if the policymakers of national strategies were like these so-called “experts”, it would be problematic and it’s harmful to both the society and the country. To sum up, these “-isms”, rules, and the theoretical framework of understanding are very important. Whether a person’s point of view or proposed strategy is reasonable, the first thing is to look at his theoretical system, which determines his position and perspective. Thus, it is also the key to improve the quality of the strategy proposed.

The Chinese people are all master in taking the exams. They could recite well all kinds of “-isms”, cognitive frameworks and dogmatic for the relevant exams. However, most of them merely have a one-sided understanding on what they recite and do not know how to use these theories to analyze the problem. It’s like learning maths but fail to apply it to everyday arithmetic problems.

Thus, how can we make use of the strategy theory? How to understand the term “geostrategic” and participate in relevant research?

Generally speaking, those who engage in theoretical research and those engage in public policy research have completely different career paths. People who engage in theoretical research are inseparable from the theoretical induction, they are good at theoretical review and evaluation, and their goal is usually to prove the theory; whereas, people engaged in public policy research usually work on policies, strategies, and forecasts. However, from the other perspective, both types of research are based on geopolitics and international relations, which are the same. The junior theoretical researchers are usually engaging in translation. They translate world classics, academic works and introduce various “-isms” to China. Although it is a relatively simple job, it is also important in theoretical research. The senior theoretical researchers are mainly engaging in education. They have trained and cultivated relevant talents through their understanding and digestion of relevant teaching materials, which is also of great significance. The high-level theoretical researchers are engaged in the more difficult theoretical innovation, which is also the ultimate goal pursued by all theoretical researchers; otherwise, it should not be considered as theoretical research.

Those who conduct public policy research, especially those who focus on strategic research, also understand geopolitics, as it is the foundational knowledge, though they might not understand it as well as those who engage in theoretical research; the latter are very clear and precise about the ins and outs of the theoretical system. After all, there is a specialty in every field of studies, but those who engage in public policy and strategic research must do something that those who engage in theoretical research cannot do, namely tracking research. Tracking research here does not refer to the changes in the tracking theory as that falls in the realm of theoretical research. It refers to the continuous tracking and analysis of social dynamics and major events, which is the basic skill of public policy research. People who read 5 materials a day would not know as much as those who read 50 materials a day, and this shows that tracking research is hard work. Academician Lu Dadao had voiced his dissatisfactory with the academic status of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He has spoken many times that he hopes scholars who engage in geopolitical theory will contribute more to the country’s strategy, but how is that possible? I am uncertain of what academicians really think about conducting research. The difference between those who engage in theory and those who engage in public policy research is the dynamic tracking of social events. This type of tracking research activity cannot be conducted by scholars who purely do theoretical research; it is a different kind of professional literacy and training. Theoretical scholars are more suitable to do translation work, write news analysis, and comment on the existing strategic policies. Their theoretical skills might be insufficient for theoretical innovation but they are good enough to clarify the context, and to teach those who conduct actual public policy research a lesson, which in fact can improve their theoretical level. This is of course something meaningful.

To use theory, system, and cognitive framework well, the most important thing is integrating theory with practice, and connecting theory with the real world. To know of this integration work is done well or not, we can see from the predictions. If one’s theoretical foundation is really solid, he or she would have the ability to deduce what will happen according to the actual situation. Some have pointed out that social science is roughly three things: description, interpretation, and prediction. In fact, description and explanation carry almost the same meaning, and they all belong to the scope of the work of the critics. Prediction on the other hand is something that is quite challenging. We can know a person understands that a person’s understanding through his or her predictions. Those who know the theories well can make accurate predictions. This is like if we know someone’s personality and ability, we can deduce and predict what that person might do.

Henry Kissinger as a geo-strategist is fairly recognized. He is an adept in the theory of balance in geopolitics and has participated in many major international events. What many people do not know is that Kissinger’s theoretical foundation is very profound. His research on the 19th century history of European diplomacy, entitled A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-22 is often said to be the longest Harvard Ph.D. dissertation, because the final version published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson is 365-pages long. The main point of the dissertation is that Europe coordinated the international order after the Treaty of Vienna in 1809, and there was a century of peace. This was mainly due to the fact that Metternich and Castlereagh did not take excessive retribution on the defeated Napoleon’s France. Instead, they paid more attention to the international balance of power under such order. Kissinger was at Harvard under the guidance of a theoretical authority, William Yandell Elliott, a well-known American historian who had advised six U.S. presidents on political and historical issues. It is therefore not accidental that Kissinger was involved in many geopolitical strategies and events in the United States. Geopolitical theory was the real foundation in all these.

To give another example, many people have heard of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theory of sea power. These theories were put forward in The Influence of Sea Power upon History and Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812 by Mahan published from 1890 to 1905. These are thin books, but they remain to be classics. Mahan pointed out that a country cannot develop sea and land rights at the same time. This is mainly due to the limited size of the country’s economy and limited military spending, which cannot coexist. Of course, there are always those who refuse to believe this. Both Napoleon and Hitler fell into such trap. Napoleon attacked Egypt and although it achieved victory, it was eventually defeated. The British navy beat the French navy and broke the French army’s ties with Europe. Napoleon abandoned the elite French troops and quietly returned to France and finally, the French army in Egypt surrendered. Hitler’s situation was similar. He spent huge sum of money to build the navy but in the end, the entire navy was besieged and the German navy had to rely on submarine to engage in harassment warfare. Mahan’s theory is relevant to China’s reality, and serious geopolitical scholars can learn something from that. China’s Belt and Road Initiative for instance, carries much worrying prospects as it deals with land and maritime investment simultaneously. The investment of so much capital requires long-term investment and maintenance for the navy, hence the feasibility of this is doubtful. This is also one of the reasons why I proposed to focus on the new Silk Road based on the theory of land rights. After all, in China’s historical tradition it has always been a land power country, not a sea power one.

Of course, the so-called advantages are relative. China can progress, so can other countries. Of course, for the Chinese it would be even better if others regress and China progresses. Yet this is likely to be a mere illusion. The era in which Mahan lived was the era with the greatest geographical advantage. Mahan warned the world powers at that time that a power cannot maintain both land and sea rights. His theoretical system obviously includes his deep understanding of the navy. What about China then? At least when the Belt and Road Initiative was proposed, we did not see the rise of the Chinese navy, let alone the historical experience of the navy and maritime operations. Things that cannot be done in the era with obvious advantages are even more impossible today. If it is to be derived based on geo-theory, then it is expected that China’s current Belt and Road Initiative, which has both land and sea aspects, will have some major adjustments in the future. The result is that there are only four possible situations. One is land-based change, the other is sea-based change, the third is the shifting of the strategic focus of the whole strategy, and the last is abandoning of such initiative. Such predictions remain to be seen.

It should be noted that it is relatively easy to distinguish between “this-ism” and “that-ism” in theoretical research, yet in the field of substantive public policy research, during the process of research, construction and formation of actual geostrategy, many of such “this-isms” and “that-isms” are actually in a mixed state. An early geopolitical research topic led by myself is the “1 + 3 global pattern”. From the title of the project, this is obviously a structuralist research. The research attempts to derive the possible world structure in the future based on the geopolitical strategy direction of the United States and form a scenario system. The final conclusion is that China, Japan, and Germany with similar economic and industrial structures may work together to reach a certain consensus and safeguard their common international interests. As a result, this would form a structural spatial balance with the increasingly independent “monopolar” United States. Similar to this kind of research, we must first simulate the overall economic and political structure of the future world, but its overall research framework is based on realistic scenarios and on the study of spatial conflicts. Therefore, this is a realist study framework. This is a relatively classic geopolitical study, which will help us to understand the future world.

From strategy to geopolitics, from international relations theory to theoretical practice, we can see that strategy is based on theory. Theory lays the foundation for the cognitive system and framework, opens up the knowledge pathway, and determines if certain views and thoughts “make sense”. The future world is complex and changeable; these are the characteristics of an era determined by capital forces. In such an era, geopolitics and international relations will play an unparalleled and important role. More rational thinking is needed, and we will eventually understand the simple truth that the very word “strategy” is the abbreviation of the term “geostrategy”, and that although there are many “-isms”, how they function will be depending on the people. 

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Anbound Consulting (Anbound) is an independent Think Tank with the headquarter based in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound specializes in public policy research, and enjoys a professional reputation in the areas of strategic forecasting, policy solutions and risk analysis. Anbound's research findings are widely recognized and create a deep interest within public media, academics and experts who are also providing consulting service to the State Council of China.


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