Deciphering China’s Grand Strategy


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS web journal in the authors column “The Strategist” may be accessed at

Xi’s Declarations

China’s strategic priorities constitute “comprehensive national security,” with regime-security being key and economic-security being the foundation and means to its Grand Strategy. The People’s Daily Online, reviewed Xi’s important declarations made while addressing the Central National Security Committee (CNSC) and the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCCP). Xi’s declarations included the following:

  • Uphold  Party’s Absolute Leadership over national security (17 Apr 2018, CNSC).
  • Improve strategic ability(17 April 2018, CNSC}.
  • Adhere to the organic unity of people’s security, political security, and national interest (18 Oct 2017, CCCP).
  • Play the first move well, play the active battle well, and be prepared to deal with any form of conflict, risk or challenge(18 Jan 2016, CCCP).
  • Take people’s security as the purpose and political security as the foundation, and embark on a national security path (15 Apr 2014, CNSC).

While some of the flavour may have been lost in translation the essence emerges only if we consider political survival of the CCP as key to national and economic security. Implying that the bulk of the population are mere vassals of the state. After-all, less than 6.7% of the population of China are members of the CCP.

What Do These Declarations Mean?

 “Absolute leadership” is a reminder to the world of the CCP’s internal stakes. If any saw in Beijing the possibility of egalitarianism, it must come as a rude awakening. It also brings into focus the reason why “galloping-growth” is an imperative for regime survival.

 “Strategic ability” of a nation is predicated on its people and their talent to generate wealth. People, for large nations, are also the most powerful consumers. When productive-age population shrinks, so do revenues. That has already happened to China since their “one child policy” of 1979. Adding to that Beijing’s policy of predatory economic statecraft and territorial ambitions, have hardly gone down well with the world community. No longer are nations enthused by China’s markets as they worry more about its disturbing intent.

 Examining the linkage between “unity of people’s security” with political security, and national interest; there is a contradiction that no action by the CCP can reconcile. The bond between people and politics is at best a tenuous one, for 6.7% of the population to claim first right of existence is only conceivable in a tyranny. George Orwell put it succinctly, “All tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but once the fraud is exposed they must rely exclusively on force. “ This is a reminder of the possibility of the state imploding.

“To play the first move well, play the active battle well and prepare to deal with any conflict” are curious exhortations to make to the people. In the game of chess, the best first move is one that seeks the centre of the board in order to control the maximum number of squares. In geo-politics this not only suggests a ready preparedness for conflict, but also advises timing and the skill to “rout the enemy before they form” (Sun Tzu, Art of War). The conquest of Tibet, offensive in Korea, First and Second Taiwan crises, Sino-Indian War of 1962, Sino-Soviet conflict, annexation of the Paracel Islands, China’s disregard of international law and its legally discredited expansionist claims in the South China Sea exemplify just what the “first move” means and what it entails for an adversary.

Grand Strategy Unravelled

Grand strategy refers to a plan of actions by which a nation achieves its major long-term objectives. To understand Beijing’s Grand Strategy, reliance has been placed on a combination of leadership declarations, policies, economic activities and the military means it has embraced.

Since inception in 1949, China’s strategic focus has shifted from revolution-survival-recovery to an emphasis on rejuvenation. Both internal and external factors have shaped this vision. Internally the “century of humiliation” has driven strategies of regime survival and rejuvenation. Externally, tensions with leading democracies of the world over its revisionist and expansionist policies have characterized the on-going rivalry.

Protecting Chinese ‘core interests’ of sovereignty of CCP-led political system and securing its “bloated” territorial integrity have been the source of its legitimacy. China has resolutely resisted any perceived challenges to these interests by aggressively garnering power whether in Hong Kong, Xinjiang or Tibet; while threatening control of Taiwan, Ladakh, the South and East China Seas.

Safeguarding China’s overseas interests has increasingly become a part of China’s strategy. Foreign Minister Wang Yi noting there are 30,000 global Chinese businesses and over 100 million Chinese who travel abroad annually, enlarged China’s security ambit providing assurance that ‘China’s armed forces will fulfil their international responsibilities; as  articulated in their 2019 Chinese defence white paper .

Xi’s ‘rejuvenation dream’ includes economic vibrancy, political initiatives, scientific innovation, cultural richness and military versatility; all critical components of the Grand Strategy. Meanwhile, China’s defence budget for 2019 was estimated at $175.4 billion (second to the US) enabling modernization, doctrinal changes and organizational reforms; all towards forging a first rate military.

The enigma of ‘the China-approach’ is that having greatly benefitted from international systems, China has deliberately undermined the very same system by not fully supporting its governing elements; whether WTO, UN, IMF or the World Bank.  

Dangers of Acquiescing

Over the past several years, the resolve to counter dynamics that threaten the status-quo has run into perilous shoals; weakening the idea of an equitable global-order. The world’s sole superpower blundered into strategic gaffes in managing the international environment; whether it was the anarchic withdrawal from Afghanistan, inability to effectively restrain Russia’s Ukraine policy or the financial meltdown of 2008. Worldwide leadership ambivalence has hit credibility of the international order.

The Counter Play

The interests of India and leading democracies of the world converge on many aspects in the Indo-Pacific. At its core lies maritime security. India’s Act East Policy, in addition to economic, cultural and commercial goals, includes strategic interests. The quadrilateral security dialogue (QUAD), the Australia-UK-US alliance and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific aim at maintaining prosperity, security, and order in the Indo-Pacific. Though not stated, countering China’s belligerence in the region figures prominently.

The ‘counter-play’ in chess is an offensive move intended to reverse the opponent’s advantage in another part of the board. The Indian Ocean and the Malacca Straits provide the space for strategic “counter play”; through these waters over 70% of China’s energy flow and 60% of trade ply. It is China’s “growth-jugular” and it is here that the world’s democracies must develop strategies that potentially signal the ability to stymie Xi’s dream of “rejuvenation.” 

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