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Paper 642                                                       26.03.2003

by Dr. Subhash Kapila 


China’s vast size, its preponderant manpower resources and its claims to historical greatness have always conjured visions of a strong major power even when it was a weak, fragmented and internally warring country in the recent contemporary past. 

China’s contemporary past and her future potential has been best painted by Richard Nixon (former President of the United States) and he had this to say: “China’s twentieth century has been a crucible of revolution and suffering, of poverty and promise, of political and ideological upheaval, of order fashioned out of chaos and chaos forcibly thrust into the midst of order. Within sixty years, China has been wrenched from ancient kingdom to infant republic to communist dictatorship. It has swung between angry rejection of any hint of Western influence and cautious acceptance of the benefits of good relations with the West. It is one of the world’s most homogeneous societies, but for most of the century, it has been at war with itself.”(1) 

Later on, summing-up future potential, President Nixon expresses: “Yet one of the miracles of our time is that China, which has endured the worst scourges of the twentieth century, is destined to be one of the world’s leading powers in the twenty-first century. One hundred and sixty years ago, Napoleon said of China: “There lies a sleeping giant, let him sleep: for when he awakes, he will move the world. The giant is awake. His time has come and he is ready to move the world.”(2) 

On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong had proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of China from the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tieneman Square). The Chinese people had “stood up” Mao declared. The Chinese Communist had seized the traditional “mandate of heaven”. (3) 

China had really “stood up’ that day. It emerged as the most contentious factor in the Asia Pacific region, complicating the already complex Cold War confrontation of the day. 

Chinese policies followed thereafter have been assertive and having a strong aggressive content arising from an intense degree of nationalism born out of historical humiliations and frustration. 

It is also pertinent to note that in the formulation of China’s 'Grand Strategy', a factor that came into play was the psychological attitudes of Mao Zedong and other senior leaders, till recently, moulded by their life long guerilla struggle, their isolation from the West and much of the Communist world, leading them to see the world as an album of stereotypes and through a maze of misconceptions and myths as analysed by one author Nien Sien Ching. 

This writer further emphasizes that the Chinese leaders all along have been clear about their national ambitions and goals and while they may shift priorities depending upon the international situation, they remain steadfastly determined to achieve China’s national aspirations. 


China’s ‘Grand Strategy’ gets manifested in the harnessing of the entire Chinese might and resources towards achievement of two basic national aspirations, which are assessed as:

* China should emerge as the dominant power in Asia. 

* China should emerge as a key global player initially and to be followed by stepping into the role of a dominant world power. 

China’s pursuance of this 'Grand Strategy' is both prompted and facilitated by China’s richness in terms of the national attributes of power as enunciated by Morgenthau, namely vast size, geo-strategic location, large population base, industrial capacity, military preparedness, and leadership with a will to use power in pursuance of national interests.

“Power is the cornerstone of Chinese policies (underpinning her 'Grand Strategy'). Chinese politicians and diplomats are often recognized as masters of power politics having inherited a well-spring of experience of power play over the millennium” as observed by Gerald Chan, who has authored a book-“Chinese Perspectives on International Relations”.(4)

 China’s Grand Strategy Goals: Perceptions of China Analysts& Political Scientists. 

China’s ‘Grand Strategy’ goals as asserted above in this paper can be substantiated by observations of noted China analysts. Some of these are: 

*  “The Chinese believe, with much reason, that for most of the past 3000 years, their nation was the largest, most prosperous, best governed and militarily most proficient society in the planet. The loss of that status more than three centuries ago and China’s eclipse by European power has always been regarded as a temporary aberration.”(5)

* “China is an ascendant military power with the capacity to intimidate its Asian neighbours, especially Taiwan but also India, Vietnam and Russia.”(6)

* “China’s history, culture, traditions, size, economic dynamism, and self image all impel it to assure a hegemonic position in East Asia”(7)

 * “Analysts compare the emergence of China to the rise of Wilhelmine Germany as the dominant power in Europe in the late nineteenth century. The emergence of new great powers is always de-stabilising, and if it occurs, China’s emergence as a major power will dwarf any comparable phenomena during the last half of the second millennium.(8) 

China is a revisionist power and the realization of its ‘Grand Strategy’ goals can  only be achieved by displacing the existing order. The magnitude of this displacement is best expressed by Lee Kuan Yew who observed in 1994 that: “The size of China’s displacement of the world is such that the world must find a new balance in 30 or 40 years. It’s not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of man.”(9) 

China’ vast land mass and its borders rest on the most strategic sub-systems of the world-East Asia, South East Asia. South Asia and by extension in terms of strategic interests, the Middle East too is of importance to China. Central Asia has been added after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. 

Each of these vital regions have their own strategic and political dynamics to which China must react or assert in the pursuance of her ‘Grand Strategy’ goals, but in an overall inter-locking manner. 

The picture of China’s ‘Grand Strategy’ operating in these regions emerges as under. 

China’s Grand Strategy in East Asia

East Asia is the region in which the strategic interests of the world’s most powerful nations intersect-Russia, China, Japan and the United States. The first three are a geographical part of the region, with China predominating in terms of size and geo-strategic significance.

 Naturally therefore East Asia is the region which receives China’s top-priority strategic focus and it is also the region in which China’s strategic concerns and insecurities exist. 

Briefly it can be said that: China’s leadership is working towards four inter-related goals that amount to a program for Chinese domination of Asia: (1) Gain sovereignty and control of Taiwan. (2) Expand its military presence and take control over the South China Sea (3) Aim at inducing a withdrawal of United States  forward military presence in Asia, except for some forces in Japan, to keep Japan under control (4) Keep Japan in a state of permanent strategic subordination. 

The crux here in terms of China’s ‘Grand Strategy' is to induce the withdrawal of American forces from this region creating a vacuum which can be filled by China, both for regional dominance and a key global role by carving the region into a Chinese ‘sphere of influence’. 

This has been China’s underlying goal in this region right from the Korean War of 1950, when within a year of its inception, Communist China militarily challenged the United States and fought it to a standstill. 

China’s bid for regional dominance in this region has been the major factor in generating China’s “Swing Strategy” in terms of China’s tilts towards Russia and the United States, alternatively. 

China’s Grand Strategy in South East Asia

 China has historically considered South East Asia as its own backyard. During the formative stages of the Chinese Communist state, China’s 'Grand Strategy' in the region operated on the ideological plane. The aim was to convert the region into Communist states as satellites of China. The era of the 1950’s bears witness in terms of events in Burma, Malaya and the Indo-China region.

 Notably, South East Asia hosts sizeable Chinese expatriate communities who have fuelled China’s economic growth. China looks upon them strategically in terms of contributing someday, to the creation of a “Greater China Co-Prosperity Sphere”. 

In pursuance of her ‘Grand Strategy’, China’s direct military assistance to North Vietnam, bogged down the United States in the Vietnam War and the infamous exit of American military forces from that country. 

Into the 21st century, China’s ‘Grand Strategy’ in South East Asia focuses on economic penetration and inter-locking South East Asia into economic inter-dependence on China. The political influence so gained, China hopes, will offset the United States control of strategic choke points in the region, through which the increasing oil-imports dependency of China will have to pass. 

However, China in terms of her ‘Grand Strategy’ goals has not lost sight of the strategic and military factors. While the United States may control the high seas in the region, China has worked on the bringing of the strategic choke points in South East Asia under the coverage of her missile arsenal. This gives China options for both political and military coercion. 

China’s Grand Strategy In South Asia 

 After East Asia, China has focused her undivided attention on South Asia. India’s natural pre-eminence and strategic power potential is an anathema to China. In China’s perceptions, India and China alone can challenge China’s ‘Grand Strategy’ of emerging as the sole dominant power in Asia.

 China’s Grand Strategy’ in South Asia has manifested itself at multiple levels, namely: (1) Building up Pakistan as the regional ‘spoiler state’ to challenge India’s natural pre-eminence (2) Attempted to create a ring of Chinese military equipment client states around India (3) Entering into defence cooperation agreements with Pakistan and Bangladesh (4) Generating insurgencies in India’s North East peripheries (5) Creating potential Chinese naval bases in Myanmar and Pakistan. The list is endless and the aim being simple i.e. to keep India strategically de-stabilised and politically confined to South Asia. 

The Chinese military occupation of Tibet was not prompted only by reasons of re-claiming so-called ‘lost territories’. The reason were strategic also i.e. as a military pressure point on India and as a gateway to Central Asia.

 China has admirably succeeded in terms of ‘Grand Strategy’ in South Asia for two good reasons: (1) Earlier by inducing a  strategic atrophy in India’s first Prime Minister for 15 years, about China’s pretensions to peace and  (2) Enlisting a large tribe of China apologists within India, who persistently advocate that China is not a threat to India, while the rest of the world thinks otherwise.

The point to be noted is that friends do not strategically de-stabilise your regional security environment, only adversaries do so.

China’s Grand Strategy in the Middle East

China’s main element of her ‘Grand Strategy’ in the Middle East has been to use this region as a “strategic counter-pressure point” against the United States in relation to Taiwan and East Asia. In a region, overwhelmingly allied to the United States, China has built up their missile arsenals beginning with Saudi Arabia and all with impunity. 

China’s other focus has been: (1) Win over Islamic goodwill to counter domestic Islamic threats in Xinjiang and  (2) Secure oil imports for the future. 

China’s pragmatism can once again be seen here in that while it ardently woos Islamic countries, it has also built up an appreciable defence cooperation relationship with Israel. This with special reference to acquire defence technologies in terms of China’s force projection capabilities. 

China’s Grand Strategy in Central Asia   

China’s 'Grand Strategy' in Central Asia has yet to blossom. Due to geographical contiguity of Central Asia with Xinjiang (a troublesome and resources rich region) China stepped into the region with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Russian and Chinese convergence of interests has led to the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Council. 

However, the post-Afghanistan war period has seen the United States  militarily entering the region in a big way.  A couple of countries host  US military presence. 

It can be presumed that into the future, China would adopt here the same ‘Grand Strategy' model that she did in the Middle East.  

Overall, the following can be said in relation to China’s success in the pursuance of her ‘Grand Strategy’ basic goals:

*  China has emerged as the dominant power in Asia

* In terms of being a key global power, the international global community is today forced to take into account China’s interests and sensitivities extending from East Asia to Middle East.

*  China is still a distant away from being a dominant global power, as militarily it is still not in the same league as the United States or Russia. 

China’s Military Modernisation

China’s ongoing military modernization has been the subject of intense discussion, world wide, and rightly so, as China’s future thrusts in terms of her ‘Grand Strategy' can be discerned from the direction and emphasis that under-pin it.  China’s significant military acquisitions in terms of military modernisation and upgradation stand widely documented and it is not the intention of this paper to go into a statistical recount of this.

Military modernisation programmes of the magnitude that China has undertaken are normally prompted by two reasons.   The first being that a country faces a significant enhancement in its threat perceptions and the second being prompted by the creation of enhanced and effective military power to underwrite a significant rise in a countries national aspirations. 

 In the post Cold War era, China faces no significant threats from any quarter, well in the foreseeable future. If threats to China do arise, it will only be as a consequence of China’s own actions as a revisionist power to displace the existing order.   It could also be due to Chinese uncertainties about the evolving international security environment. 

The Gulf War of 1991 and the United States propensity since the 1990s to restore situations adversial to her (US) national interests, militarily, under the guise of “humanitarian military intervention “ has left a deep mark on the Chinese military psyche.  And therefore, no other nation has embarked on such a serious study of the hi- tech Gulf War, and also against Serbia, as the Chinese have done.  Consequently, China’s entire military modernization is directed towards revision of military doctrines and creation of force structures capable of fighting hi- tech warfare. 

China’s ‘Grand Strategy’ goals can only be challenged or impeded by the United States and China’s military modernisation is geared in this direction i.e. to challenge or impede USA.  It can also be analysed that in any such scenario, China would not sit back in a defensive mode but use her emerging force- projection capabilities in contiguous regions to threaten American strategic interests. China’s military modernisation is therefore not exclusively directed towards forcible occupation of Taiwan, but has a wider scope. 

To this end, the more salient observations on China’s military modernisation programmes as analysed in various work can be summarized as under:

Strategic Missile Force

* Enhancement of conventional missile units as a key mission

* Enhancement of China’s second-strike capability with emphasis on: (1) Shortening launching times (2) Hardening launching sites (3) Increasing mobility (4) Lengthening missile ranges (5) Miniaturising warheads and computerising guidance systems.

* Intense study of features of tactical nuclear war and employment of battlefield nuclear weapons.

Chinese Air Force

* Arising from Gulf War lessons China believes it must now give top priority to air force modernisation and re-structuring it for use in hi- tech warfare

* Top priority projects are (1) strategic airlift  (2) aerial refuelling (3) ground attack capabilities

* Air defense and missile defense receive special attention.

Chinese Navy

* China’s political leadership perceives that the future threats to China would be coming from the seas in the East and hence naval modernisation is a top priority.

* Force expansion incorporates formation of naval battle groups by expanding the number of surface combatants

*  Enhancement of Anti-Submarine and Air Defence capabilities

* Expansion of submarine forces

Chinese Army

Restructuring plans for the army are focusing on

* Offensive operations in depth capabilities   

* Combined operations i.e. Chinese version of Air Land War doctrines

* Electronic warfare at tactical level 

* Training combat units for both a high tech conventional war and a tactical nuclear war

* Introduction of combat air wings in Group Armies

* Streamlining of logistics systems 

China’s military modernization and force re-structuring is in full swing facilitated by the military budget doubling every four or five years. It is enabling long term development projects that are costly and technologically demanding. 

A RAND research project focusing on China’s military modernization concludes that: “by 2015 China could emerge as a “multidimensional” regional competitor to the United States as a military power, that while not a peer of the United States, could nonetheless assert itself in the immediate region so as to thwart US political military objectives.”(10)

More notably China now poses a strategic nuclear threat to the United States. Till middle of last year Chinese strategic missile coverage extended to the West Coast of USA. Since then China has extended her capabilities to cover the East Coast too. 


 In conclusion, the following observations may be in order: 

* “As its power and wealth have grown, China has steadfastly refused to take instructions from its great power rivals, insisting, on its right to chart a foreign policy guided by its own perceptions of national interests.”

* “…if the vigorous rearmament and force modernization program inspired by a re-awakened nationalist pride continue, China’s arsenal will position it to play a dominant military role in Asia and the entire world.”

* “China is an economic giant and potential military colossus bent on modernizing its maritime and air capabilities. Therefore its rise and growing assertiveness has understandably heightened concerns of other great powers."(11)

China’s ‘Grand Strategy’ and her military modernization is all set to persist on the course that this paper has surveyed. China had no choice for: “history seems to have left its deepest marks by setting a demanding security agenda that will continue to guide Chinese leaders against challenges from intrusive superpowers, resentful nationalistic neighbours and restive ethnic groups. For Peking to turn its back on that agenda would not just be to surrender the practical advantages of defence in depth., but--an even more weighty consideration--to repudiate a heritage in which all Chinese take considerable pride”(12)

(Paper Presented by Dr Subhash Kapila at a Seminar: “Southern Asia Security Challenges in the Coming Decade” on  March 2003 hosted by Society for Peace, Security and Development Studies, Allahabad & The Indian Council for Social Science Research, New Delhi.)


  1. Richard Nixon, “Victory Without War”. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1988 P24.
  2. Ibid, pp 242-243
  3. Roderick Mac Farquhar, “The Politics of China: 1949-1948” Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993. P1.
  4. Gerald Chan. “Chinese Perspectives on International Relations”, London, Macmillans,1999, P28
  5. See Charles W Kegly Jr & Eugene R Wittkopf “World Politics, Sixth Edition. New York, St Martins Press. P410
  6. Ibid. P410
  7. Samuel P Huntington. “The Clash of Civilisations and The Remaking of the World Order”. New York, Simon & Schuster. 1996. P229
  8. Ibid. P 231
  9. Ibid.
  10. Zalmay Khalizad et al. “The United States and Asia: Towards a New US Strategy and Force Posture”. Project Air Force, RAND, 2001 Pp 141-142
  11. Charles W Kegly (1997) Pp 409-410.
  12. Michael Hunt, “Chinese Foreign Relations in Perspectives in Harry Harding. Ed. “China's Relations in the 1980s” Yale, Yale Univers ity Press. 1984.   

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email <drsubhashkapila>)