Rethinking CTI – The Classical Chinese Approach

At the close of the previous article, we noted that the requirements for a functional CTI (as well as cyber-war) system were dependent on three qualities:

  1. Must be designed for a potentially permanent state of war, where no particular victory signifies an end to war itself;
  2. Must rely on indirect and non-violent means of attaining victory;
  3. Must negate the need for attribution and retaliation – thus negating the entire point of retaliation.

One system in particular seems to offer the greatest potential for a functional replacement: classical Chinese philosophy.[i] However, we should always beware of claims that some “exotic” civilization has all the answers, and should always require a justification for introducing new and foreign ideas. From a pragmatic standpoint, foreign ideas increase complexity, and complexity increases complications. If the benefit of new ideas does not outweigh the drawbacks of complexity and complications, it should not be used. We certainly don’t want to simply slap the “… and the Art of War” sticker on yet another issue, and pretend we found a solution.

Demonstrating the benefit of the classical Chinese perspective in CTI is a sizable task, and one that cannot be done in a few paragraphs. In fact, the entire CTI subsection here is ultimately devoted to this demonstration, and extracting actionable InfoSec ideas from classical Chinese thought. However, what can be done quickly, is to demonstrate the potential value of the classical Chinese approach, through several key points. The potential value is roughly analogous to prospecting: on the basis of several samples, we make a determination about whether committing resources in the location is likely to be a good idea. The key points are:

  1. It has 550 years of initial development (followed by another 2200 years of later adaptation), trial and error, and history behind it, for evaluation of functionality;
  2. It was developed for practical use – not abstract theory;
  3. It is not a static product, but a dynamic and adaptable process, with clear methodology to match its ideology;
  4. Its codification is available in a limited number of core texts, many of which overlap on crucial issues – demonstrating the coherence of the various parts of the system;
  5. Its context of development is radically different from the Western model, in all respects;
  6. It offers a system that meets all the requirements noted above.

The Classical Chinese period of philosophical and military development took place between 771-221 BC. In 771 the rulers of unified China (Zhou Dynasty) were displaced by a foreign attack, the various provincial governors declared themselves kings, and began a war to reunify China under their own rule. Though every state fought for total domination over all of China, the goal was a distant dream. The reality was incessant warfare on all fronts.

To provide some sense of what 550 years of war means, that length of time would take us all the way back to 1467. That is a full 25 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In 1467, the Moors still controlled the southern reaches of Spain. Constantinople had just fallen to the Ottomans – signifying the total end of the Roman Empire. Finally, it is 76 years before the publication of Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric universe.

Some 200 years into the fray, China experienced the “Hundred Philosophers Period,” during which philosophy flourished and all the primary Chinese classics were written. Part of the reason for this flourishing was the highly unstable reality of the Chinese experience. In response, various states sought any means of creating a more stable order, allowing them to persevere against internal and external threats, and ultimately achieve the victory through unification. Unlike much of the Western philosophy, Chinese ideas were primarily politico-philosophical, and concerned themselves exactly with the problems of creating, maintaining, and expanding a stable, successful, and sustainable state. Also unlike the Western experience, Chinese philosophy was not an abstract concept, but was applied by states in order to give them a competitive edge in survival.

Given the ever-changing nature of the political and military landscape, any philosophy of governance or war had to be flexible, dynamic, and adaptive to one’s own and enemies’ circumstances; there was no single “right” way that, once adopted, would solve all the problems. As a result, all the major philosophical and military traditions of classical China were heavily focused on an approach that identified crucial elements that had to be achieved for success, while simultaneously providing a dynamic methodology – so that the means of attaining success were not themselves set in stone.

The other basis for dynamic and adaptive methodology came from the fact that the only valid goals were long-term. With never a shortage of enemies, numerous avenues of attack, adaptive tactics, high death toll, etc. the concern of Chinese thinkers was not about winning a battle but the overall war. This meant devising a system that could withstand the realities of state instability and war, and do so sustainably in the long-term. Clearly, with a different goal came a different methodology.

With the unending scope of war, and the inability to remove the opponent off the board (as in the chess analogy), Chinese warfare ideology was forced to accept the reality that there is no complete victory – in the Western sense. There was no path by military might to guarantee safety, security, and stability of the state. Instead, one had to accept the perpetual dangers as part of what it meant to exist – not something to be done away with. As a result, the theories developed by the classical authors from Confucius to Sunzi,[ii] shift away from battle and war as a primary tool of security, and instead focus on elements like the internal strength of the state produced by clear order, and the use of intelligence as a means to outright avoid war.

Here, we can already begin to glimpse the scope of difference between the Western and Chinese theories, based just on the context of their military development. With these radical differences, the argument for the possibility of the classical Chinese theory succeeding where the Western one has failed, is looking up.

While many of the above points will need further explanation in later articles, the classical Chinese theory has already presented strong potential value in dealing with the problems we face. The Chinese approach was designed for a potentially permanent state of war. Its greatest philosophical and military contributors focused primarily on state integrity and the use of intelligence to entirely avoid war, by anticipating and dissipating the attacks. Finally, the notion of meaningful deterrence by threat of retaliation was simply not part of the Chinese ideology – since there were always more enemies ready to engage in hostilities.

It would seem that the classical Chinese approach includes everything we want from a new system, and may be usefully adapted to our InfoSec needs. However, before we can simply start copying their ideas, we must make sure that we properly understand their context, or we will face the very real danger of improper application of the ideas, and thus another failed effort leaving us no better off than before.

The first bit of context that must be understood is the meaning of language and terms, which will be the subject of the next article.

[i]In evaluating potential systems for this project, the easiest approach is to simply remove all systems that have contributed to the noted problems, or that have a similar underlying ideology. Since the traditional warfare model is a major part of the Western historical context, the easiest approach is to start by examining non-Western systems – as they offer the greatest probability of avoiding the same ideological problems.

[ii]Sunzi is more commonly spelled as Sun Tzu, though I prefer the combined spelling format, which is becoming the new standard.