To claim to have a clear understanding of Chinese intentions would require a level of arrogance that even I have yet to achieve. So let me be up front. I have no bottom-line truths on this topic. No one can speak with authority on how the Chinese who matter perceive the potential costs of a conflict. Therefore, I have no unassailable insights to offer. Most of what I have to offer is highly subjective. It is speculative. It is based on a meager handful of articles published in the press and bounded by my own interpretation of Chinese history.
Let me start with a proposition. Even in the absence of hard data, I would be surprised if the larger community of security analysis in Beijing and beyond, military and civilian, is not thinking very carefully about the potential costs and benefits of military conflict. Stated in the affirmative, I am prepared to assert that there is likely a good deal of thinking going on about the potential risks and costs. I say this even in the absence of hard evidence because the historical record suggests it. We are talking about a civilization and culture that has a legacy of strategic calculation that is more than two millennia in the running. This is, after all, the civilization that gave the world the oldest surviving, written treatise on war and statecraft. I refer of course to Sun Zi Bing Fa. Every once in a while it is good to review what Master Sun had to say about war. What one finds is that almost the entire treatise is about the need for proper cost-benefit analyses at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of warfare. Indeed, at the strategic level of warfare, Sun Zi cautions rulers and generals alike that whether one should engage in a war at all is the most serious calculation. In fact, the very first sentence of the very first chapter (Estimates) of Sun Zi Bing Fa talks to this:
“War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.”
In the preface to his own book of commentaries on Sun Zi Bing Fa published in 1995, Major General Xie Guoliang of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Science highlighted the seriousness of contemplating war when he offered that the first of all the principles one can learn from Sun Zi is, “. . . have adequate respect for war and be wary of waging one.” Of course, we are talking about a book of uncertain origins that was purportedly written some 2,000 years ago. So the question, then, is this: Is it a stretch to postulate that Sun Zi Bing Fa and all of its emphasis on calculations have any relevance to current Chinese thinking on the issue at hand?
There was a time when I would have answered, “Yes, it is a stretch.” However, I am now of a mind that the study of Sun Zi Bing Fa is alive and well among Chinese military strategists. Of course, the historical record suggesting a legacy of careful calculations about war by Chinese need not go back as far as Sun Zi. Closer to our own times we need look no further than what the Chinese call Mao Zedong Junshi Sixiang, or, “Mao Zedong Military Thought.”
Mao was a rather conservative military planner, having learned many painful lessons throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s. By “conservative” I do not mean “passive.” My use of the word “conservative” is meant to convey a sense of Mao’s use of careful calculations and cost-benefit analyses as part of the operational planning process. Of the ten famous “principles of operations” Mao highlighted for his commanders at the Central Committee meeting at Yanjiakou in December 1947, the one that seems to have had the most durability since 1949 is Number 5:
“Fight no battle unprepared, fight no battle you are not sure of winning; make every effort to be well prepared for each battle, make every effort to insure victory in the given set of conditions as between the enemy and ourselves.”
The point of this historical digression, then, is to make the point that, even if we had no data at all indicating that Chinese leaders and planners are thinking about the potential costs of a war, the historical record (not to mention just good common sense) would provide some reason to believe that Beijing will not enter into such a conflict without some careful analysis. Of course, careful analysis is no guarantee of correct analysis. So the question remains to be asked: “Do we have any evidence that Chinese analysts and other concerned individuals are thinking about what is at stake? Do they think about the “downside” of such an endeavor? My own reading of the press and journals as leads me to believe that there are Chinese security analysts that do understand what is at stake and that the costs to China, even if victorious militarily, could be quite high. China is one of the United States' biggest trading partners and a war would not benefit either. The Soviet Union and the U.S. were enemies for decades and they did not go to war.