The Art of Balancing Power

Posted on 03. February 2016

by Anja Aune Selmer

anja-aune-selmer“Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

China`s recent rise and development have caused tensions. Economic and military advancement never pass by unnoticed, especially not when it is a matter of balancing power on the Asian continent. With increasingly evident military capabilities, there is no wonder that neighbouring countries desiring to maintain their importance are concerned about China`s growing military power. The question remains, however, if such fears are grounded in reality.

This subject was brought up for discussion between Ambassador Kurt Volker and Colonel Lu Yin during this year`s Berlin Foreign Policy Forum. Colonel Lu Yin started off, stating a clear “no” to the above-mentioned question, whilst Ambassador Kurt Volker was more careful and noted “it`s difficult to say.”

Volker on his side acknowledged that aiming to increase one’s possessions of land, oceans and air, is not exceptional among rising powers, and a consistent occurrence throughout history. The difference in recent times, however, “is an increase in the way China goes about on staking its claims…” says Volker. According to Colonel Yin, China is learning from its past, and is now cautious in order to avoid returning to its previously weak position. It has learned that being in the background can make one vulnerable, abets Lu Yin. A safe position on the continent equals a strong military which, without a doubt, requires extensive territorial possessions.

Yin justified her country`s continuous claiming of territory and enhancement of military capacities by arguing that this stabilizes the Asian region, and the world in general. By aiding globalisation with trade, and by being a major contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, it appears crucial that China delivers a strong performance in military power.

Without a doubt, this striving for power with such a conscious aim contradicts recent efforts in obtaining territories and the implications this has fostered.

Claiming lost historic territories are strategic assertions that helps to allocate power to oneself. Lately, several claims of this nature occurred. One is the famous 9-dash line, or the “Cow`s Tongue”, that provides partial sovereignty in the South China Sea. The dispute concerns who is to obtain this sovereignty; China is claiming its right for this.

Similarly, India faced a China that was very much interested in its Arunachal Pradesh state in 2006 – evident when the then Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, declared that “the whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory”. In 2007 the Chinese government put his statement into practice, denying visa to Ganesh Kouyi, an Indian officer from the state who was visiting Beijing and Shanghai, as they alleged he was a Chinese citizen. The refusal was regarded as a bold provocative. Arunachal Pradesh was separated from Tibet in 1914 by the Simla Accord, which defined the “McMahon line”. China never approved this line and so the arguing goes: as Tibet is now an extension of the country, so is Arunachal Pradesh. This act is not only to notify that India is a potential adversary, but also a method to oppose its desire for balancing power on Asian land.

Paradoxically China maintains a close economic relationship with India, with China being the largest trading partner of the country. Colonel Lu Yin elaborated in Berlin that one of the reasons not to fear China is its willingness cooperation economically across borders. This willingness she exemplified by using the Mutual Recognition Arrangement (MRA) implemented in the region. The MRA system allows a product approved in one country to be accepted “everywhere” via official accreditation systems. The aim is to optimise the trade of goods, and foster increased sharing of products. Whereas in a 2011 paper1, Namrata Goswami, Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) in New Delhi, suggests that combining friendly cooperation with aggressive territorial claims, as is the example with Arunachal Pradesh, is a method in asserting its power

Furthermore, China`s excelling in moving military operations to space. Assisted by Russia and Europe, it developed SAR satellites, a technology that allows the probing of terrestrial and maritime territories, as it penetrates substances such as fog, mud and masses of water. That way it is able to spot an operation wherever it occurs. Together with advanced weather satellites, the Chinese military is clearly ahead in terms of the knowledge required during military interventions.

In the same fashion, parasite satellites and ASAT satellites, commonly known as anti-satellites, pose a direct threat to other nations. These are equipped with the ability to damage and interfere with a targeted satellite`s system and technology. A direct ascent ASAT test executed in 2007 (and suggested to have been re-tested in 2013) appeared as a very sudden, but bold statement to neighbouring countries: this republic is growing and its military techniques are advancing rapidly.

One giant leap for China, an even greater threat to Asia.

In 513 B.C, the famous warfare strategist Sun Tzu said in The Art of War: “Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.”

China might take this advice to heart and consider it safer to be a step ahead of its counterparts. It`s a matter of power balance, which means acting out the better safe than sorry-principle.

Yin claimed that it`s not a matter of size, but a matter of mission. Volker argued against this and highlighted the importance of reassurance and information from the Chinese government on its military intentions and customs. Currently they are far from being open about operations.

What`s for sure, is that China’s growing military power will lead to several inconveniences on the Asian continent.

In essence, China`s military provocations in the past years are staggering, creating anxiety and restlessness. Seemingly, the most crucial strategy proposed by Sun Tzu is being forgotten; namely that the wisest act in times of tension is to avoid conflict by all means. Or with his own words: There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.


[1] Namrata Goswami, “China`s `Aggressive` Territorial Claim on India`s Anuchachal Pradesh: A Response to Changing Power Dynamics in Asia”, 09 August 2011, p. 787