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Military Power of the People's Republic of China

Chapter Two
Understanding China's Strategy

"Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership."
- Deng Xiaoping's "24 Character Strategy


China's leaders do not explicitly provide an overarching "grand strategy" that outlines strategic goals and the means to achieve them. Such vagueness may reflect a deliberate effort to conceal strategic planning, as well as uncertainties, disagreements, and debates that China's leaders themselves have about their own long-term goals and strategies. Still, it is possible to make some generalizations about Chinese "grand strategy" based on strategic tradition, historical patterns, statements and official papers, an emphasis on certain military capabilities, and recent diplomatic efforts.

Strategy with Chinese Characteristics

At the core of China's overall strategy rests the desire to maintain the continuous rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A deep-rooted fear of losing political power shapes the leadership's strategic outlook and drives many of its choices. As a substitute for the failure of communist ideology, the CCP has based its legitimacy on the twin pillars of economic performance and nationalism. As a consequence, domestic economic and social difficulties may lead China to attempt to bolster support by stimulating nationalist sentiment which could result in more aggressive behavior in foreign and security affairs than we might otherwise expect.

Chinese leaders and strategists rarely use a Western "ends-ways-means" construct to discuss strategy. Rather, they discuss strategy in terms of two central concepts: "comprehensive national power" (CNP) and the "strategic configuration of power." These concepts shape how Chinese strategic planners assess the security environment, gauge China's relative position in the world, and make adjustments to account for prevailing geopolitical trends.

CNP. China's strategic planners use CNP scores to evaluate China's standing in relation to other nations. These scores are based on qualitative and quantitative measures of territory, natural resources, economic prosperity, diplomatic influence, international prestige, domestic cohesiveness, military capability, and cultural influence. China's leading civilian and military think tanks apply slightly different criteria for CNP. A 2006 report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, for example, used economic, military, and diplomatic metrics to rank China sixth among the world powers.

Since the early 1980s, China's leaders have described their national development strategy as a quest to increase China's CNP. They stress economic growth and innovation in science and technology as central to strengthening CNP. A key assumption of this strategy is that economic prosperity and stability will afford China greater international influence and diplomatic leverage as well as a robust, modern military.

A commentary in the official Liberation Army Daily in April 2006 shed some light on the relationship between CNP, military modernization, and China's international status: "As China's comprehensive strength is incrementally mounting and her status keeps on going up in international affairs, it is a matter of great importance to strive to construct a military force that is commensurate with China's status and up to the job of defending the interests of China's development, so as to entrench China's international status."

The "24 Character" Strategy

In the early 1990s, former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (d. 1997) gave guidance to China's foreign and security policy apparatus that, collectively, has come to be known as the "24 character" strategy: "observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership." Later, the phrase, "make some contributions (you suo zuo wei)" was added.

Elements of this strategy have often been quoted by senior Chinese national security officials and academics, especially in the context of China's diplomacy and military strategy. Certain aspects of this strategy have been debated in recent years - namely the relative emphasis placed upon "never claim leadership" or "make some contributions." China's increased international profile, especially since the 2002 16th Party Congress, suggests Beijing is leaning toward a more assertive, confident diplomacy. Taken as a whole, Deng's strategy remains instructive in that it suggests both a short-term desire to downplay China's capabilities and avoid confrontation, and a long-term strategy to build up China's power to maximize options for the future.

"Strategic Configuration of Power." The "strategic configuration of power," or "shi," is roughly understood as an "alignment of forces," although there is no direct Western equivalent to the term. Chinese strategic planners continuously assess the "strategic configuration of power" for potential threats (e.g., potential conflict over Taiwan that involves the United States) as well as opportunities (e.g., the collapse of the Soviet Union) that might prompt an adjustment in national strategy.

China's leaders describe the initial decades of the 21st Century as a "20-year period of opportunity," meaning that regional and international conditions will generally be peaceful and conducive to economic, diplomatic, and military development and thus to China's rise as a great power. Closely linked to this concept is the "peaceful development" campaign to assuage foreign concerns over China's military modernization and its global agenda by proclaiming that China's rise will be peaceful and that conflict is not a necessary corollary to the emergence of a new power.

Stability, Sovereignty, and Strategy

The perpetuation of CCP rule shapes Beijing's perceptions of China's domestic political situation and the international environment. Regime survival likewise shapes how Party leaders view instability along China's periphery - e.g., North Korea, Central Asia - which could escalate or spill over into China. Concern over maintaining legitimacy also influences how Beijing treats the status of China's land and maritime territorial claims, since any challenge to Chinese sovereignty could undermine the strength and authority of the Party.

China has settled territorial disputes with many of its neighbors in recent years. However, disputes with Japan in the East China Sea, with India along their shared border, and with Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea remain. Although China has attempted to prevent these disputes from disrupting regional relations, occasional statements by PRC officials underscore China's resolve in these areas. For example, on the eve of President Hu's historic October 2006 visit to India, PRC Ambassador Sun Yuxi told Indian press, "the whole of what you call the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory . . . we are claiming all of that - that's our position."

Balance, Position, and Strategy

Beyond China's efforts to maintain stability on its borders and assert its territorial claims, Beijing seeks to advance its strategic interests into the "greater periphery" encompassing Central Asia and the Middle East. The security goals behind this emphasis include maintaining access to resources and markets, and establishing a regional presence and influence to balance and compete with other powers, including the United States, Japan, and India in areas distant from China's borders.

Similarly, China's strategy for the developing world seeks to secure access to resources and markets, build influence in multilateral bodies such as the United Nations, and restrict Taiwan's diplomatic space. To build these relationships, China emphasizes its self-proclaimed status as the leader of the developing world and one that can sympathize with local dissatisfaction over the effects of globalization and perceptions of a widening "north-south" gap.

Resource Demands and Strategy

As China's economy grows, dependence on secure access to markets and natural resources, particularly metals and fossil fuels, is becoming a more urgent influence on China's strategic behavior. At present, China can neither protect its foreign energy supplies nor the routes on which they travel, including the Straits of Malacca through which some 80 percent of China's cruse oil imports transit - a vulnerability President Hu refers to as the "Malacca Dilemma."

China relies on coal for some two-thirds of its energy, but its demand for oil and gas is increasing. In 2003, China became the world's second largest consumer and third largest importer of oil. China currently imports over 40 percent of its oil (about 2.5 million barrels per day in 2005). By 2025, this figure could rise to 80 percent (9.5 - 15 million barrels per day). China began filling a strategic petroleum reserve in 2006. By 2015, Beijing plans to build reserves to the International Energy Agency standard of 90-days supply, but with poor logistics and transportation networks, this may still prove inadequate.

Nuclear power and natural gas account for smaller, but growing, portions of energy consumption. China plans to increase natural gas utilization from 3 percent to 8 percent of total consumption by 2010. Similarly, China plans to build some 30 1,000- megawatt nuclear power reactors by 2020.

China's reliance on foreign energy imports has affected its strategy and policy in significant ways. It has pursued long-term energy supply agreements in Angola, Central Asia, Chad, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Oman, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Venezuela. China has used economic aid, diplomatic favors, and, in some cases, the sale of military technology to secure energy deals. China's desire to meet its energy needs, moreover, has led it to strengthen ties with countries that defy international norms on issues ranging from human rights, support for international terrorism, and proliferation.

In the past few years, China has also offered economic assistance and military cooperation with countries located astride key maritime transit routes. Concern over these routes has also prompted China to pursue maritime capabilities that would help it ensure the safe passage of resources through international waterways.

China's Critical Sea Lanes

Other Factors Influencing Chinese Strategy

Economic Reform. Economic success is central to China's emergence as a regional and global power, and is the basis for an increasingly capable military. However, underlying structural weaknesses threaten economic growth. Demographic shifts and social dislocations are stressing an already weak social welfare system. Economic setbacks or downturns could lead to internal unrest, potentially giving rise to greater reliance on nationalism to maintain popular support.

Political Reform. In an October 2005 White Paper on Political Democracy, China's leaders reaffirmed the "people's democratic dictatorship," and declared that China is "against the anarchic call for 'democracy for all.'" However, internal pressures for political liberalization persist. Party leaders criminalize political dissent, censor the media and internet, suppress independent trade and labor unions, repress ethnic Tibetan and Uighur minorities, and harass religious groups and churches not recognized by the regime. The Party is wary of any unsanctioned organization in China, even if non-political, fearing these organizations could facilitate organized opposition

Non-Traditional Security Challenges. Nontraditional security challenges such as epidemic disease (e.g., HIV, avian influenza), systemic corruption (according to official Chinese press, more than 17,500 government officials were prosecuted for corruption in the first eight months of 2006 alone), international crime and narcotics trafficking, and environmental problems (e.g., pollution, water shortages, and renewable resource depletion) could exacerbate Chinese domestic unrest and serve as sources of regional tension and instability.

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