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.” 

The Quad and AUKUS-Compacts to Collar China


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar.

(Published in the author’s column “The Strategist” in the IPCS web journal. May be accessed at

Keywords: Pre-First World War Germany, China’s new era of rejuvenation, strategic culture of China’s leadership, Confucian ideology, realpolitik, South China Sea, predatory economics, Belt and Road Initiative, Great Wall, Long March, era of turbulence, AUKUS, Quad, National Defence in a New Era, Covid 19.

An historical analogy may be in order to fully understand the looming conflict between Chinese authoritarianism and the uneasy democracies of the world. In the run up to the First World War, Germany pursued a combination of militarism, overbearing diplomacy, nationalism and brinkmanship to achieve policy goals, despite the risk of war. Demanding a review of international order that would confer on it a dominant political position, in keeping with its self-perceived economic and military prevalence, Germany saw little issue in conflict being a natural corollary to its creating crises and then manoeuvring through them. In the event, it was the response to ambitious revisionism and disregard for established norms of international order that led to war.

An observer of contemporary geopolitics will not fail to note the similarity in circumstance of China’s dazzling economic growth, “military muscularity” pivotal to its geopolitical vision, ambitions, nationalism and its realpolitik instincts. The critical assumption of China’s leadership is that their new era of rejuvenation will progress per script through questionable economic deals and coercion. This assumption is flawed for as Michael Howard pointed out in his Lessons of History (pg39) “force is the midwife of (violent) historical processes.” A clash is brewing, unintended as it may be; for nationalism and predatory economics is as much a source of conflict as counterforce and economic rivalry.

The strategic culture of Chinese leadership is driven by two dynamics — Confucian ideology and Realpolitik — the former is legacy of China’s past, the latter draws strength from rigidity of a totalitarian dispensation and its propensity to ‘power-politics’. This presents a dangerous cocktail. Confucian ideology treasures virtue and conservatism; it depends largely on the sagacity of the autocrat to speak for society. However, for an unrepresentative nationalistic state, Realpolitik places power and the threat of its use central to international relations. Beijing’s grandiose territorial claims coupled with leadership’s strategic culture provide both incentive and contrivance for conflict.

China’s economic policies are predatory, a key reason is opacity of dealings, for the Communist Party is opposed to any inconvenient transparency that might compel standardising products and divulging processes. The Belt and Road Initiative, which was supposed to deliver billions of dollars in infrastructure financing to some countries in Asia, Africa and Europe, has now turned into a massive debt trap.

To interpret China’s international and domestic behaviour one needs to look over the “Great Wall” and beyond the “Long March.” The former, was conceived to hold back Northern raiders, yet its completion over 1800 years comes at a time when invaders rule within; while the “Long March” was a bloody retreat in a civil war that underscored great human loss and ruthless control. Both events were inward “racking” and do not provide advocacy for use of power in the strategic environment of today. No surprises, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), readily resorts to strong-arming when it perceives an opening window of vulnerability or a closing window of opportunity in potential victims.

The Long March (Chinese

China’s geopolitical aims are not secret. Xi, wants to consolidate China’s control over important lands and waterways that the “century of humiliation,” ostensibly, wrested from its influence. These areas include Hong Kong, Taiwan, chunks of Indian Territory, and some 80 per cent of the East and South China Seas (SCS). Contradictions erupt when use of force is tempered by tenets of Confucian thought; so the Korean War ends in a caustic stalemate, the 1962 conflict with India meanders to an unsettled impasse, the purpose and outcome of the Vietnam war of 1979 is clouded, the frenetic creation of artificial islands for military bases in the South China Sea tramples on established international norms and the recent skirmishes in Ladakh remain a continuum of the impasse. We stand, perilously, on the cusp of an era of turbulence.

On cue, in response to China’s aggressive manoeuvres; the recent announcement of the formation of a new trilateral alliance between Australia, UK and the US (AUKUS) and the continuing strategic security dialogue between Japan, Australia, India and the US (Quad) have made it amply clear that “countering China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific” is number one priority, and the two will do whatever it takes to succeed.  Ironically, Beijing’s recent White Paper titled “National Defence in a New Era” outlined its territorial ambitions in the South and East China Seas, Yellow Sea, Taiwan and Ladakh and warned regional powers of its willingness to use force and use it first if its ambitions are threatened.

The more palpable part of the ‘AUKUS’ is the transfer of 8 Nuclear-powered submarines (SSN); clearly, the SSNs will not be available to Australia for the next decade and a half, however they provides the basis for denial operations in these waters and gives access to a host of futuristic capabilities. AUKUS’s technology-sharing mission is complemented by the Quad presenting a new security architecture that combines both military and economic prowess amongst nations that share a vision of a free and rule-based Indo-Pacific. The resolve to strategic confrontation against revisionism in the Indo-Pacific is thus emphasised. Balance of power adherents, with justification, consider a visible demonstration of collective power as the only way to dampen Beijing’s aggressive expansionism.

That these initiatives have made China “edgy” is clear from their immediate declarations: “China will certainly punish Australia with no mercy” and Australian troops are most likely to be the first batch of soldiers to waste their lives in the SCS. President Xi Jinping avowed in July that those who get in the way of China’s ascent will have their “heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel”.

Nations have become less enthused by China’s market and more worried about its disturbing intent. Fearing forced unification, Taiwan is tightening its ties to the U.S.; Japan, is engaged in its largest military build-up since the Cold War; India is readying strike forces along China’s borders, developing strategies to occlude vital sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and has engaged partnerships that threaten China’s vulnerabilities; Australia is opening up its northern coast to U.S. forces and is readying for acquisition of long-range missiles and SSNs. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are sending warships into the Indo-Pacific to assert their rights.

 In the meantime China’s dubious role in the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has left it beleaguered.  

We began with a pre-First World War analogy of Germany. However, one may surmise that given the nuclear overhang, the rise of China with its burden of a ‘century-of-humiliation’ will demand a strategy tempered by tolerance and accommodation rather than principles of the past. But the other truth is, the fear of war, to authoritarian regimes such as China co-exists with belligerence and exalted nationalistic feelings that, while advancing concern of survival of dispensation, also boosts profitable involvement in the incessant preparedness for war. Herein lies the striking resemblance of China with pre-First World War Germany. And herein also lies the necessity to collar China through unified action that threatens regime survival by challenging its bellicosity in the Indo-Pacific.

Rumpus in the South China Sea


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the October issue of DSA available on their site

Keywords and phrases: Paracels sea battle, Domino Theory, Saigon Military Mission, Pacification and development of Vietnam, Shanghai communique, China control of Paracels, century of humiliation.

The Battle for the Paracel Islands: Setting the precedence

In January of 1974 during America’s war in Vietnam, an obscure naval battle was fought in the South China Sea involving an intense clash between the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and South Vietnamese navies near the disputed Paracel Islands. The short but fierce battle left China in control of seemingly unremarkable spits of land and surrounding waters. The incident merited little global attention, especially when compared with past titanic struggles at sea, such as those of the two world wars. Unsurprisingly, the battle remains an obscure, if not forgotten, episode. However in naval history it defined China’s early steps to arrogate the South China Sea. It is, therefore, important that we examine this naval battle keeping in perspective the backdrop of the larger war being waged on the Indo-China Peninsula and the US geo-political moves to open-up the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In response to the stunning victory by North Vietnamese communist forces in June 1954, bringing to an end nearly a century of French colonial rule in Indochina, America, feared the strategic collapse of western influence against the surge of Communism in South East Asia. It contrived a foreign policy that came to be known as the “Domino Theory”. Subsequent events however suggest that the concept was ill-advised and today stands discredited; the view was that the fall of Indochina to communism would lead rapidly to the collapse of other nations in Southeast Asia (including Laos, Cambodia and Thailand) and elsewhere (Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and even India). US President Eisenhower, in 1954 declared, “The possible consequences of the loss “are just incalculable to the free world.”

 American answer was the Saigon Military Mission, a covert operation to conduct psychological warfare and paramilitary activities in Vietnam to prop up the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in South Vietnam. It marks the beginning of the American war in Vietnam. The Geneva Accords of 1954 effectively divided Vietnam in two at the 17th parallel. By 1967 a wily programme for the ‘pacification and development of Vietnam’ was initiated that was primarily a US military coercive effort to compel security and stability of South Vietnam’s rural population. US troops were surged to approximately 485,000. The casualties bore grim testimony to the utter failure of the scheme, by 1968 over 20,000 US troops had had been killed.

It wasn’t till 27 January, 1973 that President Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending ‘direct’ U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. It may be recalled that Nixon opened the doors to China in February 1972, during which he met Chairman Mao and signed the Shanghai Communiqué with Premier Zhou Enlai. The communiqué set the stage for improved Sino-US relations both economic and political. Normalization of relations and the accession of China into the global marketplace was the end purpose. Clearly there was no intention to initiate any action that might jeopardise Nixon’s grand scheme.

Harking back to the Battle for the Paracel Islands. The archipelago lies in the South China Sea approximately equidistant from the coastlines of the PRC and Vietnam. With no indigenous population, ownership has been in dispute since the early 20th century. Between 1932 and 1956 the Islands exchanged hands contentiously between the French, Japanese, Republic of China (Taiwan) and South Vietnam. By 1956 France and Japan abdicated their claims which left China and South Vietnam with small garrisons on Yongxing and Shanu Islands. The Paracel Islands are located 300 kilometres south of Hainan Island, and 370 kilometres east of Da Nang. The archipelago is composed of coral islands, reefs, and banks divided into two island groups. To the northeast is the Amphitrite Group, in which Woody Island is the largest feature. To the southwest is the Crescent Group, consisting of Pattle , Money and Robert Islands on the western side and Drummond  Duncan  and Palm Islands on the eastern side. About eighty kilometers of water separate the Amphitrite and Crescent Groups (see Chart 1)

Chart 1  PARACEL ARCHIPELAGO                                                          (source‘

On 16 January, 1974, two Chinese Kronshtadt-class submarine chasers and two minesweepers along with a force of maritime militia were ordered to protect fisherman operating off the Paracel Islands. It was also a part of a force build-up in the eastern part of the archipelago. Beijing had decided to solve the Paracel Islands territorial dispute by force if the opportunity presented itself. Saigon in the meantime despatched a Frigate with South Vietnamese Army officers and an American observer to the Paracels on a surveillance mission to investigate reported Chinese activities in the area (the role of the American officer on the frigate was never clear). They discovered two Chinese “armoured fishing trawlers” off Drummond Island in support of a detachment of troops who had occupied the island. Chinese soldiers were also observed on nearby Duncan Island, with a landing ship and two additional Kronstadt class submarine chasers in the vicinity. This was reported to Saigon who despatched two more frigates and one corvette to confront the Chinese ships in the area and evict their troops on the islands. By 18 January the Vietnamese force concentrated off the Islands. In the meantime the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had also landed two battalions of marines supported by a large number of irregular militia.

The combined Vietnamese force of three frigates and one corvette vastly outgunned (5 inch and 3 inch guns) the PLAN force of two minesweepers, two Kronshtadt class submarine chasers (Soviet origin, main armament 85 mm and 37 mm guns) and the landing ship. In the run up to the battle, South Vietnamese troops attempting to establish a bridgehead on Duncan Island were beaten back by Chinese marines and irregulars.

On the morning of 19 January the Battle was joined when a gun duel broke out between the two forces.  The lighter and faster Chinese flotilla manoeuvred close in to the South Vietnamese force; their agility permitted them to close the larger South Vietnamese warships to within their gun range. The Vietnamese could not bring their heavier guns to bear. All the while the Chinese maritime militia on board their armed and armoured trawlers were deployed close-in to ensure a very confused picture. Tactically, once range was closed to half-mile, the Chinese vessels’ rapid-firing light weapons and speed gave them a decisive advantage. The PLAN had within 40 minutes bested the South Vietnamese fleet. By late evening 20 January, all of the Paracel Archipelago was under Chinese control.

China’s Grand Strategy Unfolds

China employed a mix of conventional and irregular forces to meet its operational objectives. Such hybrid methods foreshadowed the kinds of combined maritime warfare China would consistently employ in its grand strategy to annex the South China Sea. Indeed, operations in 1974 in the Paracels represent an archetype that could be employed again in the future. The battle was the first step in China’s effort to control and usurp the South China Sea as it territorial sea.

Using similar tactics, in 1988, China seized six reefs and atolls of the Spratly Islands after another skirmish with the Vietnamese at Johnson South Reef. In late 1994, they built structures on Philippines-claimed Mischief Reef, leaving a weak Manila no choice but to accept the fait accompli. In 2012, China compelled the Philippines to yield control of Scarborough Shoal after a standoff at sea over fishing rights in the area. Beginning in late 2013, China embarked on a massive land reclamation project in the Spratlys, building up artificial islands that added up to thousands of acres of land. Some of the man-made islands feature military-grade runways, deep-draft piers and facilities to accommodate warships.

China has laid claim to all the waters of the South China Sea based on a demarcation they call the ‘Nine-Dash’ line. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that the origin of the entitlement is bereft of legitimacy and could not be used by Beijing to make historic claims to the South China Sea. The line, first inscribed on a Chinese map in 1947, has “no legal basis” for maritime claims, deemed the Court.

Chart 2.  The Nine Dash Line

In brazen dismissal of the Tribunal’s ruling, China persists in its sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea, its resources and de-facto control over the   trade plying across it amounting to US $5.3 trillion annually.

Satellite imagery has shown China’s efforts to militarize the  Woody Island while constructing artificial Islands and setting up military bases, rejecting competing claims of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Most of the world along with claimant countries demand the rights assured under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In  sum,  China’s  strategy  for  managing  its  claims  in  the  South China  Sea  has  emphasized  delaying  settlement  of disputes. And in time with swelling military capability, occupation of contested features, building artificial Islands and locating military bases for control of the waters within the nine-dash line. In the face of these aggressive moves the other claimant states are left in awe as they are handed down a grim reality.

To Untangle Beijing’s Behaviour

China’s century of Humiliation (1839-1949) coincided with the start of the First Opium War and ceding of Hong Kong to Britain. The conflict provided other colonial powers, a blueprint for usurping territories from the crumbling Qing dynasty. So, northern China was seized by the Czar, Formosa was taken by Japan; while Germany, France and Austria carved out coveted real estate through ‘loaded treaties’.

The period remains etched in Chinese institutional memory of a rapacious international system over which it had little influence. It has today shaped China’s geo-political thrust for controlling status in the very same system. More importantly, it provides a rallying point internally and a persistent reminder to its people of why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Indeed, Premier Xi Jinping’s declaration of 2017 that “…the world is not peaceful” is turning out to be an “engineered” self-fulfilling prophecy. When put on a strategic template the delaying actions to resolve simmering discords effected only to exasperate, Janus faced policies that serve to deceive and subvert alliances, coercive manoeuvres, lease-for-debt economic deals and flouting of international norms bear a bizarre semblance to the words of Sun Tzu: ‘The master conqueror frustrated his enemy’s plans and broke up his alliances. He created cleavages…He gathered information, sowed dissension and nurtured subversion. The enemy was isolated, divided and demoralized; his will to resist broken.” (Griffith, p 39).

Challenge of China

Of all the uncertainties, it is China, a stated revisionist autocratic power that will impact regional stability; particularly so, in the maritime domain. The planner must in the circumstance examine in some detail the challenge of China. Of significance is the shift in global balance to the Indo-Pacific intricately linked to the stunning growth of China as a contender for regional dominance. Its ascendancy is backed by military forces that are developed to the point where they expect to challenge any adversary that may attempt to deny its interests.

China’s latest defence white paper of July 2019 describes “Taiwan, Tibet, and Turkistan as separatists that threaten national unity. While drumming the theme of “people’s security” it persists with its re-education camps in Xinjiang. It hammers home the brutal repression of Muslim ethnic minorities, mainly Uighurs, and their mass incarceration. The paper warns of the dangers of territorial conflicts erupting in the South China Sea and hazards of strategic competition for resources and control of the seaways.”

Paradox of China’s Actions: A Conclusion-An Unintended War

The consequences of China enabling its Anti-Access and Area Denial strategy and enabling its Coast Guard Law (January 2021) are moves to establish proprietary control, sources of raw materials, domination of sea lines of communication euphemistically called the “maritime silk route” and working to realise the String of Pearls (currently a patchy network of Chinese military and commercial facilities along its maritime silk route). These manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Region evoke increasing anxieties and resistance by players in the same strategic settings. Debt traps that have been set by China to inveigle some of the hapless littorals of the Indian Ocean of their maritime facilities are symptomatic of a new form of colonial venture. The paradoxical effects of China’s actions are to undermine its own strategic standing, hasten counter balancing alignments such as the QUAD and urge a global logic of cooperative politics over imperial strategies.

Through all this, China remains quite oblivious to the legality of their discordant Air Defence Identification Zone, the 9-Dash line delineating their claim over most of the South China Sea, China’s Coast Guard Laws, contravention of the UNCLOS and breaching international law by constructing and militarising artificial islands. China appears to be challenging not just today’s economic orthodoxy, but the world’s political and security framework as well.

              We are not in Sun Tzu times neither are strategies so opaque nor are Xi’s people willing to tolerate an autocratic ruler indefinitely. Yet China would do well to heed Sun Tzu’s sage words of avoiding a reckless path to an unintended war.