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Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff – “Chinese and Western Ways of War and Their Ethics”

Released 13 April 2022.

In this podcast, Pfaff argues understanding the ethical logic available to one’s adversaries will allow US leaders and planners to leverage China’s behavior and optimally shape US policies and actions.

Click here to read the original article.

Episode Transcript: Chinese and Western Ways of War and Their Ethics

 Stephanie Crider (Host)

Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

The guests in speaking order on this episode are:

(Guest 1 Anthony Pfaff)


Decisive Point welcomes Dr. Anthony Pfaff, author of “Chinese and Western Ways of War and Their Ethics,” featured in Parameters Spring 2022 issue. Dr. Pfaff is the research professor for strategy, the military profession, and ethics at the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College and a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.

Welcome, Dr. Pfaff. I’m glad you’re here. Let’s talk about China and the West, war, and ethics. Your thesis for this piece posits how one fights shapes how one governs that fighting. The article relies on traditional and contemporary scholarship from both East and West to describe differences in how each views the practical and ethical aspects of war and how they can interact. Understanding the ethical logic available to one’s adversaries allows one to better understand their behavior as well as how to better shape one’s own actions and policies to avoid misunderstanding. Some people think China is unethical. Let’s just start there. In fact, you note that in December of 2020, then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe claimed the Chinese government has “no ethical boundaries” in their pursuit of power. Please expand on that.

Yeah. Sure. This is a common refrain. A big theme in it is that the other side—they’re unethical. And I wanted to write this because it’s not true. Now, they may be doing some things which by our own lights are unethical; they may be doing some things that are unethical by their own lights. What I’m not doing in this paper is adjudicating. And I’m not saying that there is a moral equivalency between the kinds of things China does and the kinds of things the United States does. I’m not saying there’s a moral equivalency between the kind of aims that the United States has and China has. I think we can make arguments that a lot of what the Chinese do is in fact unethical.

However, it is wrong to say they aren’t considering it. There is a fairly rich conversation even in their own People’s Liberation Army (PLA) journals and think tanks and conferences, and all that, where they do raise these kinds of concerns. So what I wanted to do is kind of map out: How do these concerns arise, and what shapes how they get expressed in Chinese policy in Chinese thinking as well as our own? And I thought it was important to contrast it with how we do it so a reader can understand, “Oh, this is sort of a natural process that all security communities, states—however you want to define it—do.” These are almost unavoidable categories but do affect not how we just think about fighting, but how we think about the norms governing that fighting. To say the other side just doesn’t have any is to oversimplify and to miss a lot. It risks misinterpreting what in fact the other side actually thinks it’s doing and thinks it’s responding to.


Let’s talk about the ways and ethics of war. What do you mean by this, and how are the Western and Eastern ways of war different?


In terms of what I’m talking about here, in terms of what a way of war is and how it relates to the ethics of war, I’m basically employing the idea the way Colin Gray and Martin Shaw kind of articulated. We’re just really talking about how we organize the fight. In this case, that way of war is how you organize to fight against what you think is your most serious adversary. Again, it doesn’t mean to have a way of war that’s aimed at a peer competitor doesn’t mean that you don’t use your military for other things.

But what it does mean is that you think that—the way I characterize the Western view—if you think that defeating an adversary requires imposing your will on that adversary, then that’s your logic of your way of war. And it’s going to have a grammar to it, borrowing from Clausewitz. And so how do you impose your will? Well, you eliminate the other side’s ability to resist. And once you achieve the military objective, which is eliminating that resistance, you pretty much achieved your political objective, which is to defeat the adversary.

There’s another way of thinking about it, and I think this characterizes the Chinese way. And this is explicit in a very old book, very famous, written by two Chinese colonels (now one’s a general) called Unrestricted Warfare. I think they really do capture . . . they’re kind of explicitly comparing Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. And they’re saying, hey, where the Americans want to impose will, we have to do something else because we can’t really resist it. They’re writing right after the Gulf War, and they’re saying, “Hey, we’ve got to figure out something else.” The way they describe their logic is, “We’ve got to get them to accept our interests because we’re not going to be able to impose our will.” Rather than eliminating resistance, you’ve got to change minds. And changing minds is a lot more complicated because now there’s no necessary connection between the force you use and the outcome you get. Because now the target of your coercive efforts gets to decide how much punishment they will take.

So you can’t know in advance. It’s a little bit more complicated, but you can now see where the ethics comes in, right? If I’m imposing will and I’m eliminating resistance, I’m going to assume a just cause—so that gives me already a moral imperative to win. So that eliminating resistance comes as its own imperative. But I have other imperatives too: (a) to avoid harming those things that are not necessary to eliminating resistance. We have rules about not harming noncombatants, avoiding destruction of monuments, historical sites, etc. Any civilian infrastructure that’s not directly related to warfighting generally is off limits because it’s not central to the logic of warfighting, which is eliminating that resistance in order to impose your will.

The other way of thinking about it, it works a little differently. You end up getting a different kind of ethics. Because it’s more complicated, the cultural references that I mention in the paper include Sun Tzu, but, also, a lot of Confucian thinkers who were thinking about military policy and what we would consider national security. What they were thinking of—just from a practical perspective, there is an emphasis on precision and avoiding destruction.

And in some sense that’s just simply instrumental because you want to assimilate the other side and be able to use what they have. But it’s also a sense that what warfighting is about is really—we would use the language of aligning interests, but, in the text, they use the words like “harmony”—they want to harmonize. And it’s not that I need to eliminate the other side; I need to harmonize the other side.

This was certainly the way during the Warring States period that I talk about. It was very formative in Chinese versions of just-war theory that this was sort of really what was going on. It ended up being about consolidating power, but as a way of aligning everybody’s interest so they were all focused more or less in the same direction, often using words like harmony to describe what they were doing. But that doesn’t mean these wars weren’t very brutal, and they were certainly wars of conquest. But it’s interesting that in a lot of literature, those get condemned, and the ones that were less destructive—and the ones that were more about aligning interests and not just seizing territory—get kind of lifted up as “this is just,” where This other way is just brutal takeover.

So I kind of zero in on Sun Tzu’s articulation of this because he’s got this great passage where he talks about, you know, it’s better not to destroy the city; it’s better not to destroy the army. The less destruction you commit in order to get your goal, the better off you are. So what does that do? Well, it opens up other ways of going about things. And, so, what’s very effective? Things like deception, trickery, and so on. Even things that we would look at and go, “Oh, that’s treachery” become a way of minimizing the actual damage you have to inflict in order to align your interests.

Their expressions obviously get more complicated than that, but what you end up with is something that on the outside can look kind of utilitarian. And by utilitarian, I mean that’s a way of thinking about ethics where you maximize a certain set of consequences that are good. So generic utility theory might say what the right thing to do is to maximize happiness. The problem with theories like that is that they become very ”Means justifies the ends.” So, if you’re running a group of people, and you want to maximize happiness of the group, and six people in the group of 10 are unhappy, how do you make them happier? Well, you could make the six people happier, or you could just kill them. Either way, now you have 100 percent of people in your group, once they’re gone, are happy. You win, right? So we use utility theory here sort of as “You need more than that in order to come up with a full, robust ethic.” So the Chinese appear like that sometimes, particularly because of the Marxist-Leninist influences. The good of the party is what matters. And it’s not that that doesn’t give you an ethic; it actually motivates a lot of sacrifice and does shape the kinds of things that you do and don’t do in order to maximize the good of the party. But, as we’ve seen throughout history, it also enables a lot of things we would think of as pretty horrible.

So again, I’m not trying to argue some kind of moral equivalency. But, on the other hand, as you look through the literature, there’s this idea that . . . the Confucian literature and even pre-Confucian literature, they talk about the mandate of heaven. And the mandate of heaven is, basically, that’s your legitimacy to rule. It depends on the ruler embodying the virtues of justice and benevolence. That can get a little circular in practice, but you can kind of see how that’s going to impact decision making. So I might be like a Sun Tzu who is motivated to limit destruction just because he wants to use it later on, but it’s still going to shape the kinds of reasons one uses to go to war, the kinds of adversaries one takes on, and the kinds of ways you go about fighting it. But it’s not going to look as principle-based as the way we tend to go about it. It’s going to be more found in the character of decisions made and the character of how decisions are made regarding who to fight and how to go about changing their minds while still ensuring that one maintains the character of doing this in a just and benevolent way. And that might mean deception if the alternative is destruction.


Your article offer s a discussion of ideals within two rich and complex traditions. Please, pull it all together for us. What are your conclusions?


Really, the whole point of the article, in a lot of ways, was just to introduce audiences on both sides, really, to “Hey, regardless of how we actually behave and how well we measure up to our own ethics—or anybody’s ethics for that matter—both sides, if we want to look at it that way, are having these conversations. And they’re having these conversations in roughly the same way: They’re doing it through journals and conferences, arguments, debates, op-eds. I think, to wrap it up, I would say both sides are having these conversations. It’s useful to get to know what the terms are and the resources they use. These aren’t final conclusions. Ways of war evolve. So do ethics of war. And that’s also part of the debate. What I hope to do is show the relationship so you can kind of map out how those do occur and can evolve.


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