#37 event report: China’s Traditional Statecraft in the XXI° century


September 15th, 2014, Bridge Cafè (Wudaokou)
Speaker: Edward Luttwak, Senior Associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)



Edward N. Luttwak, prominent strategic thinker and renowned author, started his talk with a remark that made audience to smile and feel a sense of self-reflection! “Congratulations for being in the right place,” he said after an introductory speech of Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at Renmin University in Beijing.

Luttwak, who claims that the small mistakes of intelligent people can be the sources for big historical shifts, shared frankly that he is not a China expert but he has been travelling here since a long time. The insights that Luttwak slowly started sharing were not only from his theoretical research and investigation but also came from his rich experience during his involvement in shaping history. As Sisci mentioned during the introductory session, Luttwak is a figure behind the demise of USSR.

The study of grand strategy as well as history of strategy made Luttwak to see what was going on but he could not do anything except witnessing things happening, as he said. “I was not in the policy making position,” he said. Along with his deep understanding of strategic moves in the world, Luttwak also touched upon the challenges that China is facing these days.

Highlighting the importance of China at the moment, he said that a lot of people are moving to China and a number of start-up companies are here to see if their future holds something for them in this constantly rising economic hub. “China’s constant rise in the economic front will remain growing in the foreseeable future,” he said. And consequently that will make China to act in a certain way, which might be uncomfortable for its neighbors and many other powers such as the USA. “The elevator metaphor can be very appropriate to make this clear,” Luttwak said signifying China as a fat guy entering from the third floor in the elevator and making all others to squeeze and feel uncomfortable even though the fat guy is totally gentle and non-threatening.

Going back to the history, Luttwak started talking from how the United States of America was being very aggressive to contain the USSR and did everything to make it fall down. He questioned, would the USA do that again to China. His answer is: no. Is there anything going on to contain China or block it from being powerful and economically prosper, Luttwak asks. And he continues deciphering his own question. But again, he explains that it is as simple as we could grasp. “It is kind of complicated,” he said. He goes on saying that China’s many territorial demands might be difficult to handle in the future. Similarly, China’s behavior with its neighbors such as India, Japan, Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia can easily lead to anti-China coalition, in which case the USA might play. Again repeating the analogy of elevator to explain China in the region, he said, “These neighboring countries are reacting to the entrance of Mr Fat.” In this context, Luttwak says that Hillary’s global strategy and idea of pivot in Asia seems to be working if China does not start working and being very nice to its neighbors.

Taking a pause on what he was all talking about, Luttwak said, “Actually, this all is very natural.” Immediately after that, Luttwak started talking with his young audience telling them not to study strategy only. Sharing his experience, he said, “it does not allow you to just look at exchange people, flow of people from one place to another place, it does not allow you to look at poetry, at cultural exchanges, and understand how economic and sociological phenomenon work in the world.

The idea of strategy sounds that it actually takes care of everything but it does not, he said. Linking with his own experience, he said that the strategy of a country actually helps it to move in one direction and make things functioning in international relations and power politics.

Luttwak, who has written a book, “The Rise of China vs. The Logic of Strategy” claimed that China does not have any strategy so far. “But it is trying to figure out which strategy to follow in the future,” he said. “One of the main things that China has to be careful is that it has to love its small neighbors as the USA does. There is no power politics between small countries and the USA.”

Coming to the current context, Luttwak said that China is rising economically, which will continue in the future. He starts asking audience about why it might be difficult for other powers to accept China’s rise. Further he says, the international politics is about grand strategies and they are always undercurrents going on.

Luttwak’s comment on China’s traditional statecrafts in 21st century was mainly focused on what China is trying to do now. The Chinese leadership is working hard to make sure that the strategy that they would adopt not eventually makes them out of the game. “This is the main concern at this moment,” Luttwak said.


As China is rising, there is a tendency of perceiving it as going to establish its own hegemony in the world but that is not the case. The tributary system that is always talked about when it comes to China is also not true. There was no actual tributary system in China as one of the audience comments on Luttwak’s lecture. Luttwak responds by arguing from the ‘Tianxia’ of China. Luttwak further says that the domestic political system of China might not be acceptable for many countries including the USA. For that reason, there might be a resistance from all parts of the world when China wants to work on establishing its hegemony. For instance, China’s president Xi Jinping’s visit to India is for two reasons, one, is to strengthen the friendship and the other is to make sure that India would not tilt towards Japan and the USA. “President Xi is definitely not going to answer all the questions that Indian journalists would ask him in New Delhi,” Luttwak said. With that reference, China is in a position to make sure that its rise will be accepted in the region as well as in the world.

Further elaborating his argument, Luttwak said that the internal political movement itself is a headache for China. Most of the local level authorities are doing their jobs and they are not entrepreneurs. Dealing with small neighbors is another problem for China. We know that Burma was an ally of China before but now things have been changed. “I bet the Chinese ambassador from Burma must have been writing everyday to take care of the situation there strictly,” Luttwak said as Burma is now being more tensed due to internal political shift there. The problem here is that in strategic thinking, the great power can’t defeat small countries. What is happening now is that neighbors are reacting as response to the China’s activities and the USA is behind it not in the forefront.

Responding to the question about Sino-Japan issue, Luttwak says that we should not be worrying about the war but what might be the case is that there would be economic repercussion in the future. China does not want anything from Japan except expecting it to be more humble with China.

In regard to the question of whether China’s military is involved in its politics, Luttwak said that it does not seem lie the PLA is involved in the politics of China but there are certainly some factors that might be willing to derail the goodwill that China has with other countries. He took the reference of military incursion from China’s side in 2013 in Ladhak area at a time when premier Li was about to visit India. “That incursion was surely not as sanctioned from the Beijing,” he said.

Again, talking about the China’s maritime power and having a strategy, Luttwak argues that China is getting better in everything except in strategy. Unlike China, Russians are very good in strategic movement. President’s Xi’s maritime Silk Route, which he has been talking about, seems taking a course and he picked up Maldives to visit this time for that reason as well. “Being strategist is having friends all around the world,” Luttwak said.

Talking about US-China relationship and American strategy while China is rising, Luttwak goes saying that there would be continuation of economic exchange and trade going on between the two countries. The USA will work with Japan, India and Vietnam in order to balance the power with China but there would not be any military confrontation and nuclear power performance. Actually, the USA is using the locals as strategic tools aiming to balance China and its economic rise.

In the end, Luttwak said that the Chinese market would be important one for all countries and powers no matter what. He further said that China would continue to rise, which will make it indispensable force in the global power order. The rise of China is definitely a factor of fear for all but that is also a major reason for all to work with it.

Prepared by: Bhoj Raj Poudel