China’s Grand Strategy

China is a large country with more than a billion people, but as Ross Terrill observed, when we ask what China wants, we are really attempting to discern the goals of the nine male engineers that make up the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party.[1]  This clarification makes the answer straightforward, like any bureaucracy or interest group, the CCP wants to ensure their own survival. However, despite the authoritarian nature of the CCP, they depend on legitimacy to maintain control over the Chinese state. The CCP currently derives much of their legitimacy on economic performance, but as the economy is starting to slow down, maintaining a strong foreign policy is increasingly important. The CCP bases their foreign policy around the two concepts of “core interests” and building a “new type of great power relations” with the United States.  Both of these goals involve China taking a more assertive stance in Asia to ensure that other states are unable to interfere with China’s domestic policies, including their relationship with Taiwan and other territorial claims, as well as playing a more authoritative regional role. In order to meet these goals, the CCP will increase their political strength through economic ties and their role in multi-lateral organizations as well as a military buildup designed to provide a credible deterrence to any other power seeking to interfere. In order to deter a stronger or more sophisticated military, such as the United States, China will develop asymmetrical capabilities that will allow it to deny access to strategic areas long enough to complete its goals and present the international community with a fait accompli.

China’s Long Term Goals

The CCP considers foreign policy directly related to maintaining domestic stability and regime survival. Throughout Chinese history, external invasions have often overthrown ruling regimes during times of internal unrest.[2] As the Chinese people become more vocally nationalistic, the CCP’s foreign policy choices will become more constrained, and will need to take on more hard-line stances to maintain their legitimacy with the public. Collective memories of China’s role at the top of the hierarchy of Asian states under China’s tributary system fuel Chinese nationalists. Chinese Scholar Ye Zicheng expresses this nationalist sentiment by writing “If China does not become a world power, the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will be incomplete. Only when it becomes a world power can we say that the total rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has been achieved.”[3] As China continues to rise economically and militarily, this viewpoint has become widely accepted among both common and elite Chinese citizens.[4] In order to maintain control of nationalism, and to channel it as a source of legitimacy for the regime, the CCP has established the two concepts of ‘core interests’ and a ‘new type of great power relationship’ with the United States.

The 2011 Chinese White Paper “China’s Peaceful Development,” lists the six core Chinese interests as 1) state sovereignty; 2) national security; 3) territorial integrity; 4) national reunification; 5) China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability; 6) basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.[5] The concept of core interests is how the CCP defines its priorities, and signals issues it is willing to go to war over.[6] In the past, Chinese spokespeople have referred to both contested South and East China Sea territorial claims as core interests, but officially, the CCP has maintained ambiguity about their status.[7] However, despite the ambiguity, the CCP has been clear that it considers its territorial claims to be sovereign Chinese territory, so maintaining these claims would fall under the core interests of state sovereignty and territorial integrity. In addition, unlike the strategic ambiguity of its maritime claims, the CCP has been clear that Taiwan is a core interest, and that the CCP is unwilling to rule out the use of force to reunify China.[8]

Despite being included in a document about peaceful development, China’s pursuit of its core interests has the potential for great power rivalry or conflict with the United States and other regional powers. This is why in 2010 Chinese president Hu Jintao told U.S. president Obama “China and the United States should respect each other’s core interests and major concerns. This is key to the healthy and stable development of bilateral ties.”[9] Current Chinese president Xi Jinping has articulated a similar concept in his vision for a “new type of great-power relations” between China and the United States. As part of this vision, Xi insists that respect for each other’s ‘core interests’ was a vital part of this new relationship. This slogan has now become commonplace in Chinese official speeches and media when describing the U.S-Chinese relationship.[10] Together, the concepts of ‘core interests’ and a ‘new type of great power relationships,’ demonstrate the CCP’s vision of China’s future. In this vision, China and the United States will enjoy an equal relationship with clearly defined core interests that the other will not interfere with. This will result in China assuming a preeminent place in Asia, with a large sphere of influence encompassing much of the South and East China Seas, and a reunification with Taiwan.

Chinese Grand Strategy

            In order for China to achieve its world power vision, it needs to change the balance of power with the United States. The United States, through maintaining bases and alliances along China’s periphery and through extending its nuclear umbrella and weapons sells to Taiwan, stands in the way of China reunifying or consolidating its maritime claims. In addition, the United States has demonstrated its ability to interfere in what China considers its domestic affairs, such as applying economic sanctions in 1989 after the Tiananmen incident or sending in 1996 sending two aircraft carrier battle groups through the Taiwan Straits. In order to prevent more humiliating U.S. interference, and to balance the U.S.-China relationship, the CCP has developed a grand strategy that focuses on strengthening Chinese political power as well as developing an effective military deterrent.

Chinese political scientist Yan Xuetong has developed a formula to measure a country’s strength based on the concept of comprehensive national power. This formula is derived from the sum of a country’s military, economic, and soft power multiplied by its political power (CP=(M+E+C)xP).[11] This concept demonstrates the importance of a countries political power as compared to economics or military might, for example if political power is zero it does not matter how high any of the other inputs to the formula are. Yan’s conception of political power relates to humane authority, or the ability of a country to win friends and allies through moral leadership.[12] This idea of the attractive power of moral leadership has a long history in Chinese thought, for example, Confucius wrote, “If distant people do not submit, then cultivate benevolent virtue so as to attract them.”[13]

Currently the United States and other western powers run the international order and benefit by creating the rules. The United State’s manifests this control through its powerful global alliance networks and through its influence over international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. The United States also uses ideas like human rights to interfere in other states internal affairs, such as its many humanitarian interventions in places like Yugoslavia and Libya. China is currently a rule-taker in this international system, but has developed a new ideal for international relations based on non-interference in other state’s affairs. President Xi has articulated this new vision of international relations as part of China’s peaceful development strategy, saying China should “abide by the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, respect the independent choice of development path and social system by people of other countries, promote peaceful resolution of differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation, and oppose the willful use or threat of force.”[14]

This strategy of non-interference has the benefit of attracting developing countries that are wary of western interference in their domestic affairs. For example, China, unlike the United States, is often willing to give aid to countries without attaching political conditions such as human rights or anti-corruption requirements. A recent example of this is President Xi’s trip to Pakistan and his pledge of $46 billion dollars in aid, more than the United States has ever given to Pakistan during decades of a troubled alliance.[15] Despite Yan and Xi’s rhetoric about peace and moral authority, Xi also articulated the strategic intent behind the aid and the visit, saying “China appreciates Pakistan’s consistent support on issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet and South China Sea,” and “China will continue to staunchly support Pakistan for its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.”[16] Xi’s diplomatic aid is not limited to Pakistan, but within the same week, China extended a $5 billion loan to the United State’s main irritant in Latin America, Venezuela. This new loan comes on top of an already existing $70 billion worth of risky Chinese loans, but ensures that China will have a foothold in Latin America.[17] Currently China is far behind the United States in terms of friends and allies, as Yan notes, the United States has more than 50 formal military allies, whereas China has none, and counts among its friends unstable states like North Korea, Pakistan, and Venezuela. However, President Xi seems determined to change this calculus and expand his vision of a new form of international relations.

Problems with this grand strategy- America has more than 50 formal military allies, while China has none. North Korea and Pakistan are only quasi-allies of China.

Luttwaks theory and the current balancing against China

[1] Ross Terrill, “What Does China Want?,” The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2005,

[2] Wang Jisi, “China’s Search for a Grand Strategy: A Rising Power Finds Its Way,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2011, 69.

[3] Ye Zicheng, Inside China’s Grand Strategy: The Perspective from the People’s Republic (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2011), 74.

[4] Swaine, Michael D. and Ashley J. Tellis. Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2000, 14.

[5] Feng Zhaokui, “What Are China’s Core Interests?,” China-US Focus, October 21, 2014,

[6] “China’s Evolving ‘Core Interests’,” The New York Times, May 11, 2013,

[7] Caitlin Campbell, Ethan Meick, Kimberly Hsu, and Craig Murray, “China’s “Core Interests” and the East China Sea,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, May 10, 2013,

[8] Wang Jisi, 70.

[9] Wu Xinbo, “China and the United States: Core Interests, Common Interests, and Partnership,” United States Institute of Peace, June 2011,

[10] Andrew S. Erickson and Adam P. Liff, “Not-So-Empty Talk

The Danger of China’s “New Type of Great-Power Relations” Slogan,” Foreign Affairs, October 1, 2014,

[11] Yan Xuetong, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 101.

[12] Yan Xuetong, “How China Can Defeat America,” New York Times, November 20, 2011,

[13] Yan Xuetong, 37.

[14] “Xi eyes more enabling int’l environment for China’s peaceful development,” Xinhuanet, November 30, 2014,

[15] Jane Perlez, “Xi Jinping Heads to Pakistan, Bearing Billions in Infrastructure Aid,” New York Times, April 19, 2015,

[16] “China, Pakistan elevate relations, commit to long-lasting friendship,” Xinhuanet, April 21, 2015,

[17] Shannon Tiezzi, “Maduro: China Gives $5 Billion Loan to Venezuela,” The Diplomat, April 21, 2015,

About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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