China’s Grand Strategy in Asia
Jyotishman Bhagawati

The Chinese Quest

China has attracted tremendous attention in the last couple of decades. Its rapid rise on the world stage spurred by remarkable economic growth for over three decades has led to its resurgence as a world class economic and military power. This so called “peaceful rise” of China which was termed by Premier Wen Jiabao, officially for the first time on 10th December, 2003 (Jiabao, 2003) has sparked off tensions in the neighbourhood due to its increasingly unilateral, aggressive and coercive activities in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, especially in the maritime domain. In fact the hostilities had reached to such an extent that Philippines, a tiny country situated in the South China Sea, had to appeal to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013 against China, which in its landmark judgement on July 12, 2016 upheld the verdict completely in favour of Philippines leading to a significant loss of face for China (Permanent Court of Arbitration, 2016). China’s unilateral actions were also reflected in its declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in November 2013 which also inflamed regional tensions significantly (Kazianis, 2016).

Besides the maritime realm, China is engaged in territorial disputes in the terrestrial space too, with India and Bhutan. It has begun to harden its claims on the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it has begun to call “South Tibet” since 2006 (Chellaney, 2016). It also wants to incorporate the Doklam Plateau in Bhutan which overlooks the strategically significant Chumbi Valley (Mukherjee, 2016).

All these developments highlight a sudden change in China’s strategic behaviour. Robert D. Kaplan argues that these ‘new claims’ by China are due to four key factors: increasing militarisation of states in the region, geo-political relevance of the South China Sea for China, China’s own interest to dial up nationalism at home as a way to control its growing population from becoming restive due to a slowdown of the Chinese economy (Kaplan, 2016); and finally, its need to secure energy, metals and strategic minerals to support its expanding economy (Kaplan, 2016).

These recent and sudden assertions of national power by China which had been following an accommodative stance towards its neighbours for the last few decades, questions one to think about their true motives and intentions in the region. Unlike democracies like the US or India, China doesn’t have the tradition of letting its strategic objectives known to the public, which further raises more apprehensions for its neighbours (Chen, 2016). Because of the lack of information about China’s strategic motivations and capabilities, it becomes ever more important to comprehend its grand strategy in the region. One way to understand it is through a study of its strategic culture and its relevance in the contemporary Chinese strategic behaviour.

This paper therefore attempts to understand the strategic cultures and tradition of China during different periods of its strategic history. The second section focuses on how the different concepts and traditions have influenced Chinese strategic behaviour in the past and how they continue to influence it in the present. The third section will try to analyse the contemporary Chinese grand strategy in Asia. And finally, towards the end, an analysis will be made about the relative gain/loss from the practice of such strategies by China followed by some brief policy recommendations.

China’s Strategic History

China has existed in different sizes and different shapes throughout history. It has been ruled, governed and fought over by various empires who employed their own strategies to gain power and exercise control over it. Throughout most of its history, the ‘Middle Kingdom’, as China was known, was the regional hegemon in East Asia. It expressed its dominance in the region through a ‘tribute’ system that required regional states to acknowledge Chinese supremacy and accept their inferior status as ‘vassals’ (Wang, 2006). Although there is no broad agreement on the origin of the tribute system, it is estimated to have been in existence since the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220AD) and lasted till the introduction of the treaty system in China’s international relations which was brought about after the Opium War in 1840 with the conclusion of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 (Zhang, 2015).

The tribute system was the ultimate institution of regional order. The imperial tributary system affected China’s grand strategy, behaviour and interactions with its neighbours. Under the system, the ‘vassal states’ were required to bring tribute to the Chinese court and perform certain rituals, such as the kowtow (An act of kneeling and touching one’s head to the ground as a salute or act of worship by foreign representatives appearing before the Chinese emperor -, 2016), to symbolize their submission to the Chinese Emperor. They received a much higher value of Chinese goods in return and could also call for Chinese help in case of any foreign aggression. While for the Chinese, the tribute system acted primarily as a ‘defence mechanism’ to protect it from foreign attacks (Wang, 2006). This was a strategy employed by the ancient dynasties like the Han and Qin for the preservation of their empire.

In the millennia plus of imperial rule in China (221 BC-1911 AD), it got fragmented for two periods between AD 220 to 589 and between AD 907 to 960. There was also two major non-Han Chinese rule (Yuan: 1271 to 1368 and Qing: 1644 to 1911) during this period (Nations, 2016). The experiences from the ‘fragmentation’ and ‘non-Han Chinese’ periods confirmed to the Chinese that internal instability invites external aggression and disintegration (U.S. Army War College, 2010).

In the imperial China, no attempt was made for military expansion beyond the peripheries (whose control was always necessary for the defence of the heartland) except during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty which after coming into power, disposed of the remnants of the home grown Song Dynasty, extended its rule into Southeast Asia and also attempted a conquest of Japan by sea (Horner, 2016). On the maritime front too, the only expeditions undertaken were by Zheng He in the fifteenth century during the rule of the Ming Dynasty, which was also discontinued for fear of strategic overreach. Thus internal stability, hierarchical tributary relationship and avoiding strategic overreach became the hallmarks of China’s grand strategy which endured for two millennia but proved to be insufficient after the coming of the western powers (U.S. Army War College, 2010).

The Ming Dynasty’s grand strategy was based on learning from the demise of the Song Dynasty. In doing so, it employed the strategy of sealing off China’s contact and commerce with Continental Asia but dramatically expanded China’s contact and commerce with maritime Asia although it was careful of avoiding strategic overreach which later on proved to be insufficient as it exposed the Chinese Empire to swift punishment and humiliation from the western powers and later on, Japan (Horner, 2016).

Unlike the Ming Dynasty, the Qing approach to national security was not to separate the Chinese nation into “China” and “not-China” but rather to combine the two into a single polity. To the Chinese heartland, the Qing added Mongolia, East-Turkistan, Tibet and Taiwan, thus making it twice the size of the ‘China’ that it had taken over in the late 1600s. The Qing is also well regarded by the current Communist Party of China as it was the Qing who created the “One China”, which would be half its current size were it not for the Manchu expansion (Horner and Brown, 2016).

Like the above mentioned strategies of the various dynasties such as the Yuan, Ming or the Qing etc. suggest, all of them employed different strategies at their respective times. Their strategies were also influenced by ancient traditions and tactics. For instance, the Civil Services which were introduced by the Ming Dynasty were highly influenced by Confucian ideals of benevolence and virtuous rule. They therefore discouraged wars and costly expeditions in the financial interests of the Empire. However all the Dynasties followed one common security strategy during the imperial era, i.e. controlling the periphery for the defence of the Chinese heartland, although the means employed for such control differed greatly among them.

Theoretical and Conceptual Underpinnings of Chinese Strategic Behaviour

Classical thinkers of the ‘ancient dynasties’ (Pre-221 BC) had and continue to have a tremendous influence on the strategic thinking of China since the imperial times. Their enduring relevance is grounded on a delicate balance between the doctrines of Confucianism (based on idealism) and Legalism (based on realism) which emerged during the ‘Spring and Autumn’ period (770 BC-476 BC) in China. For instance, Confucian doctrines like Guanxi which basically means ‘reciprocal relationships’ emerged and sustained and find expression even now in Chinese diplomatic strategy called ‘harmonious world’, as proposed by President Hu Jintao in 2007. Similarly Legalist concepts such as Yizhan or the ‘principle of just or righteous warfare’ also emerged at the same time which finds its contemporary manifestation in the strategy of ‘active defence’ which justifies the use of “offensive or pre-emptive military action at operational and tactical level under the guise of defensive posture at strategic level” (U.S. Army War College, 2010).

Much of the Chinese strategic thinking today is also based on the writings of Sun Tzu who wrote the famous masterpiece, Art of War at a time when war was ongoing and there was existential concerns for the Chinese states. The Art of War is the most influential among ‘Seven Military Classics’ in China where Sun Tzu notes that “Warfare is the greatest of state” and “it is the way of deception” (Rajpurohit, 2013). Sun Tzu’s strategy was based on deception during both war and peace, which reflected a change from earlier methods of warfare to represent a new way to achieve victory (Singh, 2016). He said:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence when able to attack we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder and crush them” (Rajpurohit, 2013)

Sun Tzu believed in taking extreme caution before waging a war and highlighted factors like geography, power, logistics etc. before undertaking any military mobilisation. He also focused more on political objectives over military gains and developed controversial doctrines of ‘winning a war without fighting’ and ‘attacking the enemy’s strategy’ (Cher Howe, 2015). This twin belief in deception and breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting was put into practice by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis by exercising a tremendous display of force through naval exercises and firing off shore missiles in the waters near Taiwan which forced the US to change its behaviour and also deterred Taiwan from declaring independence {although the United States sent two carrier battle groups through the Taiwan Strait shortly after, in a very humiliating incident for China}(Whyte, 2016).

After China gained independence in 1949, modern Chinese stratagem since the Mao era (1949-1976) have reflected an imperial mix of diplomatic manoeuvre with strong neighbours and coercion against weak neighbours (U.S. Army War College, 2010). From Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin, China’s foreign and national security policies have moved through several eras efficaciously which had significant consequences for China’s international conduct in the 21st century. This is reflected in the sense that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is much more extensively involved in world affairs then in the earlier period, the bureaucracy is more effective and expertise in the government is also much greater than before (Lampton, 2001). Therefore it won’t be wrong to say that China, today is increasingly incorporating Sun Tzu’s ideals in practice while propagating Confucian principles in rhetoric.

Contemporary Chinese Grand Strategy

‘Grand Strategy’ refers to using all available means towards achieving a long term strategic objective. According to Christopher Layne, formulating a grand strategy involves a three stage process: determining a state’s vital security interests, identifying the threats to those interests; and deciding how best to employ the available resources (political, economic and military) to protect those interests (Wang, 2006).

Following Layne’s three-stage conception of grand strategy leads us to one important question: What are the strategic interests of China? As Ross Terill correctly observes, although China is a country of over a billion population, it is the party, more so the powerful nine-members that make up the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC) which really decides what China wants (Whyte, 2016). Therefore the party acts like an interest group which is concerned about its survival.

In keeping with this main objective, China has outlined what it calls its “core interests” which were articulated as sovereignty, security and development, but later on expanded and further defined as: one, China’s political system and social stability; two, ensuring sustainable economic and social development; and three, state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and national reunification (Norton, 2015). It has also demonstrated its willingness to even go to war if any of its “core interests” are harmed. China’s development of anti-access/area-denial capabilities and promotion of “active defence” strategy in defence of its core interests are well articulated in the PLA’s ‘Science of Military Strategy’ of 2001, which states:

“We should do all we can to dominate the enemy by striking first. Once the enemy invades our territory and offends our national interests, it means the enemy has already fired the first shot strategically and crossed the border of our strategic defence”(Whyte, 2016).

This strategy too incorporates both the concepts of Sun Tzu, i.e. deception and winning without fighting.

Modern Chinese strategy has taken a very revisionist and revanchist stance. As Kaplan also argues, China wants to draw the attention of its people away from the political and economic discontent at home. One effective way of doing so is by shoring up nationalism to give the CPC more legitimacy in the eyes of the people (Kaplan, 2016). It is being implemented by striking at the emotional chords of people through the use of jargons like “century of humiliation”, “China Dream” etc. for the “great national rejuvenation” of China (Chen, 2016).

The main thrust of this policy has been to assiduously revise and expand its territory to counter any future potential threats to the mainland. As part of this approach, China has already declared its intention to go to war over Taiwan if necessary, has laid claims to around 90 per cent of the South China Sea through land reclamation projects and so called “historical evidences”; and also hardened its stance towards territorial and maritime disputes with states like India, Japan, Bhutan etc. Another very important alteration in contemporary Chinese foreign policy in recent decades has been its increasing willingness to engage with international institutions to lobby within them for its own interest by taking full advantage of its geographical position and economic capabilities (Kuo and O. Tang, 2016). Thus one of the significant changes in China’s strategic behaviour has been that it has become more forceful and is focused on outright control of the peripheral regions (which is also expanding according to its threat perception) not only through its aggressive behaviour in the region but also through its economic reach and capabilities.

Analysis and Conclusion

China’s grand strategy gives tremendous importance to the “peaceful rise” theory as only a peaceful atmosphere can sustain its economic growth. Although military modernisation is also going on at a fast pace aided by a strong economy, China does not want to be seen as prioritizing the military over the economy, an important lesson learnt from the collapse of the Soviet Union (Wang, 2006). Beijing also knows that focusing more on economic development helps in alleviating regional fears and contributes to it becoming a more important player on the global stage. In fact, China’s economic capabilities and geographical power has become the core elements of its 21st century grand strategy as it is increasingly coming into contact with powerful outsiders in keeping with its growing influential role in international trade and international institutions (Kuo and O. Tang, 2016). Its mega economic strategy, the ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) project is also a part of its overall grand strategy.

China’s grand strategy since the Deng Xiaoping era period of “reform and opening” has been to find an optimal balance between economic development and military modernisation. However, following its tremendous growth in economic, political, technological and military power aided by its advantageous geography and the various developments in the Asian strategic circle, China has started to embark on a neo-Confucian notion of the ‘Middle

Kingdom’ syndrome through the support of various doctrines such as active defence, duplicity and deception etc. This drive on the part of the Chinese to gain control of more territory in its periphery regions also stems from its concerns over the defence of the heartland which has been its security and strategic objective since the imperial times. This is now being augmented with renewed focus after the discovery of possible vast sources of unexplored mineral deposits, hydrocarbon reserves and strategic locations in its periphery regions.

Moreover China also believes that with the US rebalance strategy now being one of the primary emphasis of the US foreign policy, its period of ‘strategic opportunity’ is about to come to an end and therefore has started to balance against US power through both internal balancing, i.e. increasing China’s relative power through economic development and military modernisation with particular emphasis on asymmetric capabilities; and external “soft balancing” by limiting US policy initiatives deemed detrimental to Chinese interests through diplomatic efforts in multilateral institutions and bilateral partnerships (Wang, 2006).

However, for China to become the dominant power in Asia and a Great Power in a multi-polar world, it would be wise for it to embrace Confucian values both in letter and spirit rather than only in rhetoric. China should also forsake any wishful thinking of creating “Middle Kingdom” as the 21st century Asian order is vastly different from what existed during the imperial times (Rajpurohit, 2013). China would be more respected and have a bigger say on Asian affairs if it follows the accommodative policy of ‘strategic restraint’ as exercised during the Deng Xiaoping era.

(Jyotishman Bhagawati is a postgraduate scholar of International Relations at South Asian University).


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Published Date: 21st December 2016, Image Source:

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