China’s wrong approach to its strategic dilemma

Walden Bello
China’s wrong approach to its strategic dilemma
China has valid strategic concerns in the South China Sea, but its way of addressing them has involved violating the territorial and resource rights of its neighbors

Part 1: China: An imperial power in the image of the West?
Part 2: Capitalism with Chinese characteristics
Part 3: China’s economy: Powerful, yes, but vulnerable
Part 4: China’s rulers and its restive people 
Part 5: China’s global economic sheet: A balance sheet 
Part 6: China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Plan for domination or strategy for crisis?

Much has been written about China’s military ambitions. However, there are 4 facts that stand out. First, China’s military buildup has been largely in response to Washington’s defining it as the US’ strategic rival. Second, Beijing’s military capabilities are a far cry from matching those of the United States. Three, the strategic posture of China has not changed; it still is one of strategic defense. Fourth, China’s controversial territorial grabs in the South China Sea, while largely defensive in intent, involve serious violations of the rights of its neighbors. 

From informal ally to strategic threat 

Even as it opened up to the West in the late ’70s and ’80s, Beijing was under no illusion that the US would at some point brand it as a rival. The redefinition of China from being an informal ally of Washington against Moscow began soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. By the mid-1990s, the Pentagon had defined China as a strategic competitor. Up until recently, however, the political leadership in Washington has placed economic partnership with Beijing, rocky though it might be, above strategic concerns.

But with the advent of Donald Trump, China is no longer regarded simply as a rival but is now classified as a strategic threat, a “revisionist” power that aims, in the view of the Pentagon’s 2017 National Security Strategy Paper, to replace the United States with a Sino-centric world order. Moreover, Washington no longer separates the economic dimension from the military in its view of Beijing but sees China as one undifferentiated military-strategic threat since Chinese “economic aggression,” as the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing calls it, is said to weaken the industrial base that the US needs to produce advanced weaponry.

No match for the US 

Despite a serious buildup that began over a decade ago, China’s military capabilities are still relatively modest compared to those of the US. The $250 billion it spent on its military in 2018 was far outstripped by the $649-billion military budget of the US, which accounted for 36% of total global military spending.

Beijing has a relatively small strategic nuclear force, one that is guided by a doctrine of “No First Use” focused on deterring a potential aggressor via the maintenance of a second strike retaliatory capacity. The US has vastly superior nuclear capabilities, and it has not adopted an NFU position. The PRC has only about 260 nuclear warheads while at the end of 2017, the United States’ nuclear arsenal contained just under 1,400 deployed and approximately 4,000 stockpiled warheads. 

There is much writing about the so-called “blue-water” ambitions of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), that is, it allegedly seeks to compete for naval supremacy with the US. Much of this writing remains highly speculative, however, and reminds one of the spate of analyses about the so-called Soviet push for maritime ascendancy in the 1970s and early 1980s, with the “founder” of the modern Chinese Navy, the now fabled Admiral Liu Huaqing, substituting for the then fabled Soviet Admiral Gorshkov.

In fact, China’s power projection capability is rudimentary. It has only one overseas base, in Djibouti, and while the PLAN has many ships, their quality evokes skepticism from western defense analysts. Aircraft carriers are the key to offensive power projection, and Beijing has only two carriers, one that is a retrofitted Soviet-era warship, the other being a domestically produced craft that is still undergoing sea trials. In contrast, the US Navy has 10 carrier task force groups centered around mainly Nimitz-class supercarriers.

Beijing’s fundamental posture: Strategic defense

In terms of its strategic posture, there is virtually no credible military expert, western or Chinese, who would claim that China has fundamentally departed from its military posture during the Mao and Deng periods, that of the “strategic defensive.”

Current military doctrine has nuanced this posture to be one of “active defense,” a concept described as “strategically defensive but operationally offensive” and is said to be “rooted in a commitment not to initiate armed conflict, but to respond robustly if an adversary challenges China’s national unity, territorial sovereignty, or interests.” Or as one of the leading western analysts on the People’s Liberation Army puts it: “Strategically, China is defensive – it’s not offensive, it’s not an aggressor, it’s not a hegemon. But nevertheless, to achieve these defensive goals, it will, at the operational and tactical levels of warfare, use offensive operations and means.”

Beijing’s strategic dilemma

The reason Beijing will not be able to depart from a strategic defensive posture and move to one of global military hegemony for a long, long time, if ever, is that it has its hands full coping with its strategic dilemma in the South China Sea. China’s industrial power lies along the eastern and southeastern coasts bordering the East and South China Seas, which constitute a relatively narrow stretch of water ringed on its western end by the so-called “First Island Chain” stretching from South Korea through Japan down to Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Philippines. South Korea and Japan host numerous US bases and thousands of military personnel, the Philippines has US forces stationed in nominally Philippine bases, Taiwan remains a US protectorate, and the US Seventh Fleet, which never demobilized after the Second World War, roams the East and South China Seas with impunity. For all intents and purposes, the US intends a permanent military presence In the first island chain since, as General Douglas MacArthur once put it, “The strategic boundaries of the US were no longer along the western shore of North and South America; they lay along the eastern coast of the Asiatic continent.”

This perspective is what has guided the consistent US strategy of “forward defense,” which is to push the active defense of the US homeland several thousand miles farther west from its western political boundary, with the defensive goal sliding into an offensive thrust of projecting US power onto the Asian landmass to prevent the rise of a rival power that could threaten the United States. Preemptive action has become central to the US posture, with the National Security Strategy Paper of 2002 declaring that the US could engage in “anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack.”

Backing the US forces in the East and South China Seas and first island chain are massive forces deployed farther east, on the second island chain stretching from Japan to the Marianas and Micronesia, where deep waters provide an ideal environment for US ballistic missile submarines, and on and around the third island chain centered on Hawaii, where the headquarters of the US Indo-Pacific Command is located.

The largest of the United States’ Unified Commands, the Indo-Pacific Command has an awesome reach and a strike capability that has been displayed in war and aggressive “show the flag” actions numerous times in the South and East China Seas since the end of the Second World War, including the dispatching of two aircraft carrier task forces to intimidate China, during the Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1996. Currently, the Command deploys some 337,000 military personnel. The US Pacific Fleet consists of approximately 200 ships. Including 5 aircraft carrier strike groups, nearly 1,100 aircraft, and more than 130,000 sailors. US Marine Corps forces include two Marine Expeditionary Forces and about 86,000 personnel and 640 aircraft. The US Pacific Air Forces is comprised of approximately 46,000 airmen and more than 420 aircraft. The US Army Pacific has approximately 106,000 personnel from one corps and two divisions, plus over 300 aircraft and 5 watercraft deployed from Japan and Korea to Alaska and Hawaii. Also included are than 1,200 Special Operations personnel. 

The inescapable strategic dilemma of China is that large parts of this force lie right on its doorstep. And it does not constitute simply a potential threat but an active one. As one western analyst notes, “Washington’s persistent military encirclement of China, its debates about blockade scenarios, and its Air-Sea Battle Doctrine only aggravated [China’s] concerns.”

A strategy such as that during Mao’s time of having the capability of retreating to China’s vast interior in the event of conflict is no longer possible for today’s China since that would leave exposed the heavily populated coastal urban areas of Eastern and Southeastern China that undergird the country’s industrial and technological power. As Samir Tata, an analyst appreciative of Beijing’s strategic problem, puts it: China “does not have to worry about the unlikely possibility of a conventional American assault on the mainland via amphibious landing by sea, parachuting troops by air, or an expeditionary force marching through a land invasion route. What it is vulnerable to is US control of the seas outside China’s 12-nautical mile maritime boundaries. From such an over-the-horizon maritime vantage point, the US Navy has the capability to cripple Chinese infrastructure along the eastern seaboard by long-range shelling, missiles, and unmanned aerial bombing.”

To address this weakness, Tata writes, “in addition to modernizing and expanding its land-based anti-access/area denial capabilities, China is systematically establishing and demarcating a maritime equivalent of the Great Wall – a cordon sanitaire running from the South China Sea through the East China Sea to the Yellow Sea.” The northern portion of this cordon would run from the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku Islands, to the Japanese) that China claims but Japan occupies to Taiwan, which China seeks to eventually integrate into its territory; and the southern part from Taiwan to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which China claims as its national territory.

Still stymied by Japan in the northern portion, China has been more successful in the south, unilaterally seizing maritime formations claimed by the Philippines and, via land reclamation, adding some 3,200 acres of artificial land to the 7 formations it currently occupies. According to the Pentagon, in early 2018, China continued its gradual deployment of military jamming equipment as well as advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems to its Spratly Islands outposts. The missile systems are said to be the most capable land-based weapons systems deployed by China in the South China Sea. China completed building shore-based infrastructure on 4 small outposts in the Spratly Islands in early 2016. These facilities on Johnson, Gaven, Hughes, and Cuarteron Reefs “include administrative buildings, weapons stations, and sensor emplacements.” More significant was the completion of more extensive military infrastructure on 3 larger outposts in the Spratly Islands, at Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs. Among the installations in these maritime formations are aviation facilities, port facilities, fixed-weapons positions, barracks, administration buildings, and communications facilities.

The strategy guiding the formation of this cordon sanitaire is apparently that of “forward edge defense” that would move potential conflicts far from China’s terrestrial space. This may have some success since, as Tata claims, “China’s advantage is that it does not have, nor does it seek, the responsibility for controlling the global maritime commons, and, therefore, Beijing can concentrate substantially its entire naval fleet on ensuring that it controls what it considers to be territorial waters within the Middle Kingdom’s maritime Great Wall.”

But even if China were successful in nullifying US power within the East and South China Seas, the US capacity to strike its coastal areas within minutes from the second island chain area with conventional weapons would remain formidable. Not surprisingly, the most recent elaboration of the Pentagon’s overall combat strategy, the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, is likely to be seen by Beijing as designed to overcome its “unprecedented array of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities” meant to respond to the US and allied model of power projection and maneuver that constitutes the main component of its defensive buildup in the East and South China Seas. But perhaps Beijing seeks not so much to gain substantial protection but to communicate to the US and any other adversary that their forces within the first island chain would have to be prepared to sustain heavy losses in any conflict.

Valid concerns, wrong solution

China has very valid strategic defensive concerns in the East and South China Seas. Its way of addressing its strategic dilemma has, however, been problematic. More than other instances of questionable Chinese behavior, it has been Beijing’s moves of unilaterally declaring itself owner of 90% of the South China Sea and seizing maritime formations in violation of the territorial and resource rights of its neighbors that have triggered accusations that it is no better than the US and other western powers. They have of created the image of China being a Goliath bullying the small countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that, like Beijing, have territorial and resource claims in the South China Sea: Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia. This is unfortunate since beyond the disputed areas in the South China Sea and East China Sea, none of China’s neighbors fear territorial aggression by Beijing and have developed otherwise positive relations with it.

In search of an alternative

China’s decision to go the unilateral big power route was not inevitable. There have been alternative ways to resolve both the territorial/resource issue and the strategic question that could have resulted in a more positive outcome for China and its smaller neighbors than the current imbroglio, from which only the US has benefited, with the main issue, its strategic encirclement of China, largely obscured by Beijing’s unilateral bully tactics.

In an article published in the New York Times in 2016, this author outlined one such proposal for both a strategic and territorial settlement, using the Philippine-China conflict as a starting point.

First, since strategic defense is a central drive motivating China’s behavior, the Philippines and China can agree to have bilateral talks on how to bring down the tension between the two countries. The aim of the these talks will not be to settle the territorial issue but to negotiate military deescalation. One possible proposal could be a freeze in China’s base-building activities in exchange for a freeze in the implementation of the latest military agreement the Philippines has with the United States, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows the US to use Philippine bases for its military buildup in that country. 

Second, perhaps simultaneously with the Philippine-China bilateral talks, China should take seriously ASEAN’s longstanding offer to hold multilateral talks on a code of conduct to govern the maritime behavior of all parties with claims to the South China Sea. 

Third, should these two confidence-building measures achieve some success, ASEAN and China could move on to negotiations to achieve significant demilitarization and denuclearization of the South China Sea, with the goal of coming up with a multilateral treaty that would be binding on all parties, including third parties like the United States.

Such an agreement would, of course, necessitate abandoning EDCA on the part of the Philippines and dismantling of military structures in the South China Sea on the part of China. This agreement would complement two earlier ASEAN agreements – the agreement to make ASEAN a Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) and the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Agreement (SEANWFZ). It could also be the forerunner of an East Asia-wide collective security treaty that would replace the dangerous and volatile balance of power politics that simply promotes an uncontrollable arms race.

Finally, ASEAN and China could begin the process of resolving their competing claims on Exclusive Economic Zones and continental shelves and discussing joint development of fisheries and other resources. Given political sensitivities, these might be de facto arrangements instead of full-blown treaties or agreements, and would not necessitate the concerned parties formally abandoning their claims.

This route would not be easy to take. But its medium- and long-term benefits for China would far outweigh what little benefits the unilateral course can reap for it and avoid its heavy costs. Beijing would distance itself from its image of being intransigent, especially as it seeks to be respected as a global actor different in intent and methods from the western powers. This route would also open up a future of peace with its neighbors instead of one of endless tension. It would make it increasingly difficult for the US to justify its massive military presence in the western Pacific by convincing other countries that this is necessary in order to “balance” China. It provides a way out of a very volatile and destabilizing balance of power politics that could promote rather than prevent large-scale conflict, as it did in Europe in the years leading up to the First World War. As has been pointed out a number of times, a mere ship collision can quickly escalate into a major war.


Despite its military buildup, there is very little evidence that China seeks to displace the US as a military hegemon or that it has departed from its traditional posture of strategic defense. China in fact faces a strategic dilemma in the East China Sea and South China Sea. China has very valid strategic defensive concerns in these areas. However, the road it has taken to resolve its strategic problem there has involved violation of the rights of other countries bordering that body of water.

An alternative route is possible, one that is a combination of bilateral and multilateral dialogue that aims at providing a peaceful and equitable resolution of the territorial issues as well as a much more effective way to address Beijing’s strategic concerns about US power. This route could pave the way for a multilateral agreement to demilitarize and denuclearize the area. This path would lead the region away from the current balance of power politics, which promotes rather than restrains military competition and conflict, much like it did in Europe in the years leading up to the First World War.

Beijing is at a crossroads in its rise as a significant global actor, and its way of dealing with the South China Sea issue could be the starting point of an approach to other countries different from the behavior of the western imperial powers. –

This is the last of 7 articles on China’s political economy based on the study titled “China: An Imperial Power in the Image of the West” published by Focus on the Global South and authored by Walden Bello, retired Professor at the University of the Philippines and currently the Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. The study can be accessed here. The author can be contacted at

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