05 June 2015

The Big Story Behind China’s New Military Strategy

Alexander Sullivan and Andrew S. Erickson, “The Big Story Behind China’s New Military Strategy,” The Diplomat, 5 June 2015.

China is becoming “more willing and able” to stake and defend its interests overseas.

As China reemerges as one of the globe’s leading powers, just what type of actor it will be on the world stage has become a subject of intense debate among China watchers and the broader public. With tensions rising to what one eminent China scholar has called a “tipping point” in U.S.-China relations, the Chinese government released its first-ever white paper on military strategy just before the fourteenth annual Shangri-La Dialogue was held in Singapore this past weekend. Since 2012, Beijing has indeed become more assertive in proximate waters, and the paper underscores determination to strengthen Chinese “strategic management of the sea.” Attention has rightly focused on expressions of Chinese resolve with respect to current points of contention such as China’s land reclamation on disputed features in the South China Sea. Most recently – following Pentagon predictions – China’s Coast Guard appears to be increasing activity near Luconia Shoals, roughly 60 miles north of Borneo in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone. But the strategic thinking just published also reflects a much larger story of profound changes in Chinese foreign policy.

The story itself is relatively simple: China’s participation in globalization has catalyzed an irreversible explosion of overseas interests. It has also afforded China greater resources and capabilities with which to advance and defend them. This combination has drawn China inexorably outward to become “more willing and able” – that is, active in international security affairs. In fact in many ways, China’s first-ever defense white paper on strategy is official policy catching up to reality. Because this trend is likely only to intensify, U.S. scholars and policymakers must understand it if they are to shape policies that can seize the benefits and manage the challenges stemming from China’s new normal of increasing international security activism.

In particular, “China’s Military Strategy” publicly articulates innovations in China’s national security thinking in three key areas: a new understanding of the political framework for military force, enhanced security partnerships, and global power projection capabilities for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Because the drivers for this strategy are baked into globalization, several of these ideas predate the current administration, dating to Hu Jintao’s 2004 call for “new historic missions”; but they are ratified and given sharper emphasis here. For this reason, they are likely also to outlast Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tenure in office. Taken together, this strategy augurs a China that will be much more active globally on security issues. … … …

In its most forward-leaning innovation, “China’s Military Strategy” also signals that Beijing will put steel behind its willingness to do more and court new partners. China intends to build military forces that are capable of limited power projection across domains. The headline for this modernization program is a move from “near seas defense” to “the combination of ‘near seas defense’ and ‘far seas protection’,” which suggests the need to develop a limited blue water navy.

Simultaneously, China has set other crucial goals in the air and other domains. Indeed, the PLA has already made headway across nearly all key determinants of expeditionary military power and has much room to grow if, as this strategy suggests, resources will continue to flow. A two-year study from the Center for a New American Security that the authors of this piece helped write analyzed the PLA’s inchoate power projection in five key areas: force projection, sustainment, capacity, command and control, and force protection. Each is a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective use of military power far away from one’s shores. China’s new strategy calls out each category as a specific goal across different domains. …

For more on this topic, see the CNAS report.

More Willing and Able: Charting China’s International Security Activism

Ely Ratner, Elbridge Colby, Andrew Erickson, Zachary Hosford, and Alexander Sullivan,More Willing and Able: Charting China’s International Security Activism (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, May 2015).

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Asia-Pacific Security Program has released a new report, More Willing and Able: Charting China’s International Security Activism. The report examines China’s increasingly robust foreign policy and makes a series of recommendations, ultimately concluding that managing China’s expansive security policy “call[s] for the United States to widen the aperture of its hedging policy to seize the benefits and manage potential instabilities associated with a more active China.”


Dr. Ely Ratner is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS.

Elbridge Colby is the Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow at CNAS.

Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is an Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College.

Zachary Hosford, at the time of writing, was an Associate Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS.

Alexander Sullivan is a Research Associate in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS and a prospective Ph.D. student in political science at Georgetown University


China’s external behavior has entered a period of profound evolution. The rapid expansion of Chinese economic, political, and security interests around the world, backed by greater capabilities to advance and defend those interests, is driving Beijing to become increasingly active in international security affairs. Although the ultimate character of China’s future foreign policy remains uncertain – including to leaders in Beijing – China has already begun deviating from long-standing foreign policy practices in ways that reflect its changing constellation of interests and capabilities.

Part I of this study considers what we assess to be the three most significant and transformative trends in Beijing’s international security activism. Taken together, these developments portend a China increasingly willing and able to play a prominent and decisive role in international security issues:


Although China’s noninterference principle continues to serve a variety of foreign policy goals, it is under considerable strain from demands to protect China’s growing overseas interests. We catalog how China is taking a more flexible approach to noninterference when key national interests are at stake, engaging in a range of economic, diplomatic, and military activities that depart from traditional definitions of noninterference.


The globalization of China’s national security interests has also led Beijing to embark upon efforts to develop deeper security relations around the world. We describe how over the last decade China has enhanced its security ties across the spectrum of defense activities, including military diplomacy, combined training and exercises, and arms exports.


While still facing considerable limitations, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is becoming more sophisticated across the spectrum of power projection capabilities. In the next 10 to 15 years, we assess that China will likely be capable of carrying out a variety of overseas missions, including major international humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, noncombatant evacuation operations, securing of important assets overseas, defense of sea lanes, counterterrorism strikes, and stabilization operations.

The expanding scope and scale of China’s international security activism demand that Washington widen the aperture of its hedging policy toward China in several domains. Part II considers the implications for U.S. strategy and offers policy recommendations.

U.S. military-to-military engagement with China should continue focusing on developing operational safety and crisis management mechanisms, expanding existing agreements, and finding ways to ensure they will be used effectively when needed. The Department of Defense should also seek measures to reduce the likelihood of incidents and accidents between China and U.S. allies and partners.

U.S.-China security cooperation will continue to be limited by legal and political constraints, although there may be opportunities for cooperation on nontraditional security challenges and possibly new areas to include counterterrorism, maritime security, and arms control. Within existing engagements, the United States should pursue with China more interagency interactions, at lower levels and with third countries.

To shape the environment in which China’s international security activism occurs, the United States should seek to increase U.S. military access and presence in areas where the PLA is most likely to operate away from China’s shores, particularly in the Indian Ocean region. As China increasingly has both the political will and the military capability to serve as an important security partner, the United States should also take measures to sustain and deepen its alliances, as well as augment its diplomatic engagement on China-related issues with countries that could be strategically significant for Chinese power projection.

Supporting the development of more capable and effective multilateral institutions will also be critical to managing China’s international security activism in a number of regions, including Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, Central Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Arctic. As part of these efforts, the United States should consider ways to engage and shape Chinese-led multilateral initiatives and organizations.

Maintaining a competitive military balance in the Western Pacific will be a crucial element of limiting the potentially destabilizing effects of the PLA’s expanding partnerships and power projection capabilities. Failing to do so would enable China to field greater capacity for extraregional power projection more quickly, render it able to focus more resources on deploying to a broader set of regions, and allow it to operate more effectively and decisively across a greater set of domains.

As a result, even as the United States and its allies and partners must take due account of the military challenges posed by a more globally active PLA, it still makes sense for Washington to concentrate on maintaining key advantages over Chinese military power at its leading edge in the Western Pacific. This argues against military strategies that cede the near seas and the airspace above them to China.

Finally, U.S. defense cooperation in areas of expected PLA activism should be geared in part to assist countries in developing their own defensive counterintervention capabilities. This should reduce China’s ability to project power in destabilizing ways by making such efforts more difficult and costly for Beijing.

These recommendations and more are discussed in greater detail herein.