The Buzz

Sun Tzu Explains China’s Shaping Operations in the South China Sea

In the past two weeks, Filipino President Duterte has agreed to 13.5 billion dollars in trade deals with China, softened his country’s claims to Scarborough Shoal, and called for the expulsion of U.S. troops. This Chinese relations coup, along with growing Asian appetite for alternative trade deals to the stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership and the creation of the Asian infrastructure development bank, illuminate China’s success in its contrarian campaign to the U.S. Pivot to Asia.  

Under the U.S. Department of Defense’s Joint Operational Planning Process, these efforts would be called shaping activities—interagency activities performed to dissuade or deter potential adversaries and to assure or solidify relationships with allies prior to the start of a conflict. As Paul Scharre recently pointed out, this phasing construct does not adapt to gray-zone conflicts, where adversaries aim to accomplish goals prior to major combat.

While not a model, China’s shaping operations and operational preparation of the environment may be more easily understood through the lens of a strong-influence on Chinese strategic thought, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. The Art of War helps expose the motivation behind past, current, and future Chinese actions, and provides a useful frame of reference to interpret Chinese statecraft.


The Art of War’s opening chapter considers five factors when calculating the chance of victory in war: moral influence, weather, terrain, command, and doctrine. “Moral influence” is an echo of the “Populace” or “enmity” third of Clausewitz’s trinity, a reference to the populace’s appetite for conflict and their belief in the virtue of its cause.

By moral influence I mean that which causes the people to be in harmony with their leaders, so that they will accompany them in life and unto death without fear of mortal peril (Art of War, Chapter 1, Plans).

The Chinese Communist Party wisely begins shaping national attitudes towards the South China Sea during elementary education. Classrooms teach every child that the People’s Republic stretches down to the James Shoal; territorial disputes with other nations go unmentioned. Unsurprisingly, these beliefs persist into adulthood. In a 2014 poll by the Perth USAsia Centre, nearly every Chinese adult surveyed believed that all territory within the nine-dash line belonged to China. Effectually, this means that the Chinese population could see U.S. military action against South China Sea territories as invasive, akin to how American’s might perceive an attack on Guam, or even Hawaii.  

This kind of domestic shaping activity has no place within the Department of Defense’s Joint Operational Planning Process. American values and the shorter timelines of American war-planning preclude it. The closest parallel, strategic communication, focuses on targeting key audiences within U.S. and foreign government, or foreign populations, not the American people themselves, and JOPP leans towards framing campaigns as exogenous from the U.S. population. It does, however, note the importance of alliances.  


After the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against Chinese claims within the South China Sea in July, Russia and China announced a September joint naval exercise demonstrating their capabilities and mutual support to other claimants. The growing military cooperation between the two states highlights the ascending nature of the relationship between Russia and China, an about-face from their Cold War rivalry.