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American Tactics vs. Chinese Strategy

For decades, US policymakers have preferred piecemeal tactical actions, while the Chinese government has consistently taken a more strategic approach. This mismatch is the reason why Huawei, to the shock of sanctions-focused American officials, was able to make a processor breakthrough in its flagship smartphone.

NEW HAVEN – The debate over the difference between tactics and strategy is as rich as it is enduring. In his seminal 1996 article in the Harvard Business Review, Harvard’s Michael Porter tackled this issue head on. While his focus was business, his arguments can be applied much more broadly – including to today’s Sino-American rivalry.

Porter differentiated between “operational effectiveness” and strategy, arguing that nimble companies had become well practiced in the former, but had dropped the ball on the latter. He also drew a sharp contrast between tactical tools – such as benchmarking, re-engineering, and total quality management – and competitive strategies aimed at “choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.”

Roughly 2,500 years earlier, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu offered an equally profound perspective. In The Art of War, Sun wrote, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory,” stressing the complementarity of these two aspects of military decision-making. But Sun also counseled, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat” – an admonition not to fixate on short-termism.