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China's Strategic Culture: Today, Tomorrow, And Yesterday

By Shivnarayan Rajpurohit

12 October, 2013

So long the fountain head of a country's foreign policy has been debated. Foreign policy connoisseurs have tried to look at cultural, historical and political roots which shape its response to international calling. However, principles and praxis of geostrategic concern can either be adopted by subsequent generation or revised, purged in view of renewed threats, challenges in the global atmosphere. In the post-Cold War era, emerging countries and developed world have changed their foreign policy tacks either drastically or mildly to suit their interests. For example, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani's ‘ice-breaking' overtures at the United Nations to resolve nuclear issues with the Western world are far-flight from his predecessors' anti-West stance.

On similar lines, the paper discusses Beijing 's strategic culture with historical and cultural background and its fallout and benefits. China 's foreign policy is of utmost importance to all countries as it is tipped to be become a superpower in not-so-distant future. In this background, the paper delineates on the bedrock of Chinese strategic culture and historical principles, which underpin its foreign policy, and hence accordingly make it articulate on international affairs. The discussion is no less important for South and East Asian countries because they have to deal with an assertive China vis-à-vis maritime and land boundary disputes.

Predominant Strategic Cultures:

There are two predominant narratives about Beijing 's strategic culture. One school of thought argues that China has parabellum strategy (realism) ( Johnston 1998).  It has been internalised in Chinese leaders who are blinkered by “Middle Kingdom” (Zhongguo). Mao Zedong's “barrel of a gun” quip was received by successive leaders with glee. Mao blithely believed that every problem could be solved through gun-power. Before Mao, it was Sun Tzu's The Art of War (circa 500 B.C.) which impressed the minds of military and political leaders (Bhattacharya 2011). Sun emphasised the importance of deception during peace and war. His war philosophy is read by military and political leaders alike in China . He said:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence when able to attack we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder and crush them”  (Bhattacharaya, 2011).

The Art of War is the most influential book among “Seven Military Classics” in China . Sun Tzu notes: “Warfare is the greatest affair of state,” and, “(it) is the Way (Tao) of deception” (Gilboy 2012: 33).

Another school of thought highlights that Confucian doctrines — peace and harmony — form the bedrock of Chinese strategic culture. To prove this point, Huiyun Feng's (2012) methodological analysis (he calls it operational codes) suggests that only Mao had realpolitik leanings while his successors were moderate. He further adds that Mao Zedong and Deng Xioping's military background partially contributed to their aggressive tilt. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were said to be more moderate than the former leaders. Defending Mao, Huiyun says, “He was not offensive in nature” (Feng 2012: 47-59).

In this methodology, he forgets that Deng Xioping actively mobilised forces against Taiwan in 1979. Jiang Zemin supervised the furore in the South China Sea in 1995, when China called it “disputed and negotiable”. The record of Hu Jintao has not been encouraging as Japan and China are still at loggerheads over the East China Sea .

According to some scholars, China 's development through peaceful means has acquired a prime place. It is not similar to Mao's realpolitik but is driven by its economic leverage, against the western hegemony. Reassurance that China 's peaceful rise is “a source of opportunity” for other countries has gained prominence (Sutter 2012: 11). But in their delirium to place economic leverage on higher pedestal, experts have sidelined the concept of imperialism coupled with the Chinese military power. Despite its justification for “peaceful growth”, recent aggressions suggest that it is willing to use force at the drop of a hat. At times to defend its imperialist policies towards small countries, it diligently evokes erstwhile-imperialists parallels which it vows to fight against (Malik 2013).

Modern Chinese Stratagem:

Recent territorial and maritime rows have reaffirmed that Beijing is peddling a revisionist strategy, riding on the back of its economic strength. The main thrust of this policy is to assiduously revise and expand Chinese territories. Moreover, meek response to Chinese truculence by Taiwan and the Philippines has emboldened it.

Despite leadership change in China , the historical baggage of offensive interstate relation has not ceased to exist.  Successive generations of leaders are averse to any change in their foreign policy outlook. As western scholars argue that the realpolitik doctrine, with an emphasis on pre-emptive strikes, of People's Liberation Army is a cause for concern (Gilboy 2012, p. 134).

When it comes to the strategic doctrine, which underpins China 's foreign policy, operational and doctrinal aspect, is of great importance in shaping international relations. As enunciated in China 's white paper on national defence in December 2006, its doctrine is that of an “active defence”, an ambiguous terminology to being with.  Under this doctrine any aggression aimed at states, like Taiwan , will be legitimised (Cordeman and  Kleiber 2007: 26).  In the same vein, another white paper on defence, launched in April 2013, is a mere replay of earlier revanchist policies. The paper argues that PLA's interest is to safeguard and expand Chinese existing boundaries (Kondapalli 2013).

Though there have been significant changes in Beijing 's military culture to “informationised warfare”, underlying doctrines and principles of seeing “offence as a form of defence” have remained unalterable.  “Offense as defence” has the Mao roots which delineate on the concept of “active defence”. In his essay The Problems of Strategy in China 's Revolutionary War (1936), Mao illustrates that war cannot be won with defensive policies (Blasko 2006).

Apart from active defence, a 2009 Pentagon report notes that Chinese strategic doctrine has been centered around deception and duplicity (Gilboy 2012: 134).

Indian Experience:

Recent Chinese incursions into Indian territory of Ladakh have made Delhi wary of Chinese claims of peaceful rise on the world stage. The victim of an assertive China is not only India but almost all East Asian countries. Coming close on the heels of the South China Sea dispute is the confrontation between China and Japan over Sankaku islands (Diaoyu) in the East China Sea .  Occurrence of overlapping territorial disputes–be it maritime or land–has increased manifold, particularly after the modernisation of Chinese People's Liberation Army and Beijing's growing economic clout.

During his India visit, Chinese premier Li Keqiang asserted, “We ( India and China ) are not a threat to each other, nor do we seek to contain each other” (TOI 2013).  His remarks did not have military settings but pointed to deepening trade and commerce relations. This duality of economic gains with military assertiveness has become an inviolable part of Chinese strategic thinking. It serves two purposes; furthering its economic interests on the Confucian principles of peace and harmony, and browbeating neighbours when its preposterous “core interests” are perceived to be in danger.

It is all too well known that since 1949 China has been practising deception. Being second non-communist country to recoganise China (People's Republic of China ), India was short-changed by it. It accused Nehru as a “running dog of imperialist nations”.  When Chinese premier Chou En-lai visited India in 1956, he, according to Nehru, accepted the MacMahon Line as a border line. Later Chinese foreign ministry denied it (Bhatt1967:18). In addition China did not shy from interfering in India 's internal matters. When Telangana was burning in violent clashes in 1950, Mao wrote a letter to Indian Communist leader B.T. Ranadive saying that he had full faith in Indian communist leaders to rid it of imperialism and “its collaborator (Nehru)” (Ibid 9).

As far as border dispute is concerned, Peking made its official position clear in 1959, regarding territorial integrity. Chou in his 15000-word report said that these disputes were “negotiable”.  He blamed boundary disputes on “imperialist aggression”.  Ironically, it came 45 years after a tripartite agreement among Tibet , India and China which settled the boundary question (Ibid 55-57).

Another illustration of Chinese deception can be found when Nehru visited China in 1954 and saw Chinese maps which claimed 50,000 sq. miles of Indian territory of North East Frontier Agency and Ladakh. Allaying Nehru's fears, Chou said that they were the reproductions of Kuomintang regime as the current dispensation did not get time to revise them (Ibid 17). What happened later is history.

Historical background in the formation of strategic culture shapes a country's response, which is more or less true for China . “Barrel of gun” tactic to subdue Chinese neighbours is not on the wane but has got another fillip after China 's economic and military rise. In post colonial era, when Nehru's views were holistic, encompassing whole world, while China 's were for the creation and expansion of “Middle Kingdom”. In Parliament, Nehru, on May 8, 1959 , said: “The Chinese rather look down upon every country other than own. They consider themselves as the middle kingdom, as the celestial race, a great country” (Ibid 131). It stems from the fact that Chinese learned only Chinese culture and values with no knowledge of others' culture (Grasso, Corrin and Kort 2009: 22).

To address overlapping territorial claims in the Eastern, Western and Middle Sectors, India and China formed a joint committee in 1960 to look at it from legal, historical, cultural and administrative angles. In the 555-page report, India presented 630 evidences, while Peking garnered only 245 evidences. The upshot of the report was that China debunked it (Bhatt 1967: 85-94).

Duplicity and Deception:

Above mentioned historical account of Chinese deception has not deterred it from revoking this abominable practice. Days after the Chumar sector incursions in Ladakh, the Chinese foreign ministry brazenly denied it. While answering a question the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson feigned to be unaware of the incident and implored, “No change should be made unilaterally to the status quo in the LAC area pending the final settlement of the boundary question” (Chinese foreign ministry 2013). In three months, alongside the high-profile visits of the Chinese premier and Indian defence minister, Chinese incursions into Indian terrirtory (Despang, Dault Baig Oldi, Chumhar and Chamoli) have increased drastically.  This diplomacy of double-speak is unsurprisingly consistent with China 's foreign policy history.

Equally ludicrous is the Chinese stratagem to irrationally settle maritime and boundary disputes on the same ground with different states by using different yardsticks. There is a contradiction in its claim over the Spratlys, or in any island row, wherein it resorts to historically delimited and defined lines, while in land disputes with India , Burma and Vietnam , it takes exception to reaching an agreement premised on customary usage and historical facts (Malik 2013).  What a historical gaffe!

Not only Indians, but some East Asian countries are also facing Chinese claims over resource-rich islands.  In one incisive piece on Japan and China confrontation in the East China Sea , John Garanaut (2013) quotes Capt. James Fanell, a top U.S. intelligence officer, that People's Liberation Army Navy's focus is on war. Taking cue from his predecessors' barrel-of-a-gun line, Xi Jinping says, “We must ensure that there is a unison between a prosperous country and strong military,” and stresses the central role for military. One Japanese newspaper has also written that the military handling on Diaoyu islands was “micro-managed” by Xi (Garanaut 2013).

Beijing 's imperialist urge was reinforced when it rejected UN arbitration in the South China Sea under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (NYT 2013). Xi's leadership has so far suggested that he is still carrying the legacy of Sun Tzu and Mao Zedong. In a damning editorial, New York Times (May 2013) said that any issue which impinges on Chinese interest is enough a ruse to go to war and uses loaded terms, like “core interests”, to assert its supremacy.

Economic interests soured by Intimidation:

In the past couple of decades, China 's economic growth has been phenomenal and is slated to winnow out America to become the largest economy in the world. Its growth has gravitated developing and developed countries alike to its shores. Every country, even the most belligerent one, concedes that economic growth can be achieved in peace and tranquillity. These Confucian values are “dragon-flicked” in the face of territorial integrity seen through revisionist standpoint. Confrontation on border issues has ensured that Asia is sitting on a tinderbox in a hostile environment. The attendant consequences of an offensive strategic culture of China are deleteriously unfathomable which will rent asunder China 's economy along with that of its neighbours.

In an economically multipolar world, any bellicose country will sequester itself to its own peril, and China does not want to be one. Its economic boom notwithstanding, China 's trading partners will distance themselves if it continues with its sinister schemes to usurp land and islands of littoral and non-littoral states on spurious grounds.


To fight a hegemon, one does not have follow hegemony. Beijing claims to fight against the hegemony of the U.S. and Europe, but its misadventures have muddied the waters of the balance of power since USA has announced its national interests in maritime rows. China itself is responsible for the unwelcome involvement of Uncle Sam. This alliance partnership, a product of Chinese offensive strategy, will further sow the seeds of suspicion and hatred unless the dragon allays the fears of neighbouring countries through confidence-building measures. Since Asia is predicted to be the pivot of the world economy, sparring neighbours over territorial integrity will deprive it of its lubricants which run the “pivoted economy”, and China will be the biggest loser in this game. If Beijing wants to act on its whims and fancies unilaterally, other powers will gleefully fish into the troubled waters—an abhorring sight for the dragon. Contending parties can hammer out an amicable solution for all outstanding issues, if– a big ‘if'– China shows its compassion and regard for other's territorial integrity. Along with that, the revival of Five Principles can pave the way to disseminate peace and love , not only for India but for the world.

All said, the need of the hour for the dragon is to embrace Confucian values in letter and spirit to have an environment of peace and tranquility, at least for Asia if not for itself.  A harmonious Asia and its Utopian concept are possible provided China forsakes its bellicosity and wishful thinking of creating ‘Middle Kingdom'; hence putting an end to all apprehensions once and for all.

Shivnarayan Rajpurohit studied at the Asian College of Journalism. akpushpa.wordpress.com

Reference List

·          Reference Books:

1.        Bhatt, Sudhakar (1967): India and China : ( Delhi : Gulab Vazirani for Popular Books Services)

2.        Blasko, J Dennis (2006) The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century in Gilboy J George and Heginbotham Eric (2012): Chinese and Indian Strategic Behaviour: Growing Power and Alarm ( New Delhi : Cambridge University Press 2012)

3.        Cordesman, H Anthony and Kleiber M (2007, Third Edition): Chinese Military Modernisation: Force Development and Strategic Capabilities: (Center for Strategic and International Studies)

4.        Corrin J, Grasso J and Kort M ( Fourth Edition: 2009): Modernisation and Revolution in China : From Opium Wars to the Olympics: ( New York : M E Sharpe Inc.)

5.        Gilboy J George and Heginbotham Eric (2012): Chinese and Indian Strategic Behaviour: Growing Power and Alarm ( New Delhi : Cambridge University Press 2012)

6.        Huiyn, Feng (2012): China 's Strategic Culture and Foreign Policy in Kavalski, Emilian (ed): The Ashgate Research Companion to Chinese Foreign Policy ( USA : Ashgate Publishing Company)

7.        Johnston, Alastair (1998): Cultural Realism, in Gilboy J George and Heginbotham Eric (2012): Chinese and Indian Strategic Behaviour: Growing Power and Alarm ( New Delhi : Cambridge University Press 2012)

8.        Sutter, G Robert (2012): Chinese Foreign Policy since the Cold War: (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers)

·                   E-Resources

1.        NYT Editorial ( 11 May 2013 ): “ China 's Evolving Core Interests”, New York Times, Viewed on 25 July 2013 ( http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/opinion/sunday/chinas-evolving-core-interests.html?_r=0 )

2.        EPW Editorial (8 June 2013): “Can Panchsheel be revived?” Economic and Politically Weekly, Viewed on 27 July 2013 ( http://www.epw.in/editorials/can-panchsheel-be-revived.html )

3.        Finance Ministry of People's republic of China (10 July 2013): Ministry's Regular Press Conference, Viewed on 12 July 2013 ( http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/xwfw/s2510/t1057848.shtml )

4.        Garanut, J. (2013): “Xi's War Drums”, Foreign Policy, Viewed on 21 July 2013 ( http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/04/29/xis_war_drums )

5.        Kondapalli, S ( 7 May 2013): China Flexes its Muscles: Its New Paper on Defence Highlights the Chinese Military's Growing Muscularity, Time of India, Viewed on 25 July 2013 ( http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-05-07/edit-page/39089416_1_defence-sector-white-paper-indian-domains )

6.        Malik, Mohan (May-June 2013): “Historical Fiction”, World Affairs, Viewed on 27 July 2013 ( http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/historical-fiction-china%E2%80%99s-south-china-sea-claims )

7.        The Associated Press ( 19 February 2013 ): “China Rejects UN Arbitration of Maritime Dispute”, New York Times, Viewed on 24 July 2013 ( http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/20/world/asia/china-rejects-un-arbitration-of-maritime-dispute.html?_r=0 )

8.        Time of India ( 22 May 2013 ): “ China is not a Threat to India , Li Kequiang Says”, Times of India , Viewed on 27 July 2013 ( http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-05-22/india/39444361_1_china-and-india-strategic-mutual-trust-china-ties )

·                           Research Paper:

      1.     Bhattacharya, Banerji S ( 3 July 2011 ): “ China 's Strategic Culture and Sino-US Military Relations: A Re-view”, IDSA, Viewed on 25 July 2013 ( http://idsa.in/system/files/5_3_SBBhattacharya.pdf )




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