Beijing’s New Grand Strategy: An Offensive with Extra-Military Instruments

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 24

As the United States hedges against a potential military confrontation with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Beijing has opted to circumvent Washington’s preparations by adopting a grand strategy that utilizes “extra-military instruments” to gradually diminish the preponderant influence of the United States. These instruments—economic aid, cultural contributions, legal compulsion and diplomatic coercion—transcend, but certainly do not exclude the use of military force. Indeed, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is, borrowing from the PLA’s descriptions of itself, “prepared but preferably unused” (bei er bu yong), and serves as the backbone of China’s extra-military instruments. While these instruments are primarily “soft,” their effects can often be “hard,” as illustrated by Beijing’s aggressive international strangulation of Taiwan’s “lebensraum” [1]. In constructing its new grand strategy, China appears to have infused elements of realpolitik into a number of its traditional objectives, with its priorities as follows: (1) maintain domestic stability at all cost; (2) cooperate with, rather than contradict the United States; (3) assist the growth and development of China’s neighbors, assure them of their security and win their friendship (fulin mulin anlin); (4) reunify Taiwan without war, reserving the use of force as a last resort; (5) cultivate Europe and Russia to serve as counterweights to the United States; and (6) fill in the post-Cold War power vacuums in Latin America and Africa.


Beijing’s grand strategy is based on the belief that time is on China’s side, and at present, it is unwise to confront the United States militarily or to force unification with Taiwan. The following internally circulated statement from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs typifies such a calculation: “In the next eight to ten years, it is highly possible that the momentum of U.S. strategic expansion will slow down after reaching its peak, the international environment will shift from one of a U.S. strategic offensive to one of strategic stalemate. Hence, the rise of China’s strategic opportunities and the subsidence of U.S. strategic expansion will occur at the same time, but not at the same pace” [2]. Given this reality, China should utilize its current status as a rising power to strengthen its position both internally and externally.

This strategic decision was first dictated in the summer of 2002, when Beijing, after years of internal debate, reached a milestone consensus comprised of two interrelated principles. The first, which had been internally suggested no later than January 2001 by then-Vice Premier Qian Qichen, stipulated that cooperation with the United States should take precedence over competition, even though elements of the latter would remain in bilateral relations. The second stipulated that China’s national economic development is more important than “the unification of the motherland.” Although the April 1, 2001 EP-3 Incident threatened to derail the former principle, Qian remained insistent, refused to compromise and reiterated his proposal a year later. In October 2002, Qian explained his concept in an interview: “It is insufficient to have only the hand for struggles. The hand for developing cooperation is equally important. Cooperation itself is an important constraint on the anti-China forces in the United States…When we handle Sino-American relations….we must make it a contest of wits and courage, not that of temper, seek not the gratification of a moment, and pursue not the victory of a day” [3]. It seemed that Qian was successful in convincing his skeptics, and within a month, China, eager to demonstrate its willingness to cooperate with the United States, made a dramatic reversal in its position on the UN Security Council and approved the U.S.-led resolution on Iraq.


Beijing’s adroit use of its economic power as an instrument of foreign policy has already been recognized in both academic and policy circles. Yet, an equally critical instrument, China’s cultural power, has widely been underappreciated. Beijing has been actively expanding the scope of China’s cultural activities with the goal of shaping itself into a cultural hub, which the world would eventually—and perhaps unconsciously—view as an international Mecca. These international activities run from large-scale annual academic conferences, like the Beijing Forum, to the ever-growing numbers of beauty contests and high-profile sporting events, such as Formula One races and Real Madrid football games [4]. Recognizing the growing appeal of the Chinese culture and language, Beijing has also sought to turn it into an international export. By November 2006, more than 70 Confucius Institutes had already been established throughout the world, making the goal of 100 by 2010 seem assuredly within reach (South China Morning Post, November 14; China Brief, November 8).

While still adhering to its atheist Marxist-Leninist state doctrine, China has impressively co-opted Buddhist conceptions into its strategic rhetoric to enhance its international status as a peaceful nation, promoting peace (heping), reconciliation (hejie) with Taiwan and harmony (hexie) within. In January 2006, Hu Jintao even allowed traveling permits to be issued to some 170 Chinese citizens to attend a mass empowerment ceremony in southern India, presided over by the Dalai Lama [5]. In April, China held the first international Buddhist forum in Hangzhou, which more than 1,000 delegates from 34 countries participated (Reuters, April 13).

Besides its extra-military emphasis, China’s new grand strategy is integrated and dissembled. For decades, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ pursuit of better international relations and the PLA’s pursuit of winning a war were at odds with each other. Such a lack of coordination has now been markedly reduced, at least in official rhetoric and overt behavior. In January 2003, General Xiong Guangkai, then-deputy chief of the PLA General Staff Department, echoed Qian Qichen by voicing the importance of improving Sino-American relations as the highest priority of the PLA’s work on foreign relations [6]. Far from being an isolated statement, at the May 2006 “International Conference on Sun Zi’s Art of War” in Hangzhou, Major General Zhang Shiping of the PLA Academy of Military Science went so far as to argue, “[We should] avoid confrontation with the United States…Although the United States has had hegemonic desires for quite some time, it would not be a bad thing if the United States were to shoulder additional burdens and perform more duties for the world” [7].

In its efforts to demonstrate China’s willingness to act as a responsible stakeholder, the PLA has selected elites from its engineering corps to serve as peacekeepers abroad. By mid-2006, China had deployed more personnel to UN peacekeeping operations than any other permanent members of the Security Council (International Herald Tribune, August 24). This illustrates China’s internal integration of strategies—engaging military forces in international cooperative missions.

Beijing’s current foreign policy appears to be characterized by ever-changing alliances that dissemble China’s long-term foreign policy goals. For example, in June 2005, China joined the United States in rejecting the addition of new members, including Japan, to the UN Security Council. The reason for the Bush administration’s objection was of course not Tokyo, a close diplomatic ally but Berlin, who was in the same package of applicants. In the next month, however, China quickly shifted alliances and joined Russia in demanding that the United States withdraw its troops stationed in Central Asia after the U.S. forces entered Afghanistan in 2001. In mid-2003, the United States, through Singapore, offered to patrol the Strait of Malacca. China feared that its energy supply route might be choked by U.S. forces, yet said nothing directly to Singapore or the United States. Instead, it quietly approached Malaysia and Indonesia, who then raised a strong objection to U.S. involvement. In April 2004, Washington formally dropped the idea, and instead adopted the multilateral Regional Maritime Security Initiative.


As a result of Beijing’s cooperation primacy with Washington, the official interactions between the two countries have reached an unprecedented magnitude, unseen since China first came into contact with the United States during the Qing Dynasty. This “cooperative” relationship manifests itself in four dimensions: (1) the growing frequency of interactions has surpassed all previous scales; (2) a number of key official meetings, such as those between the Chinese foreign minister and the U.S. secretary of state, have been institutionalized; (3) the levels of officials meeting their counterparts have expanded downward from the symbolic summits between presidents to the substantive working consultations between the U.S. deputy assistant secretaries and their Chinese equivalents; (4) the varieties of offices meeting their counterparts have diversified from trade and commerce to defense and even space agencies. Consequently, Beijing is now capable of indirectly containing any perceived moves of Taiwan toward de jure independence by raising its objections directly with Washington.

Beijing’s overtures of cooperation have not only—as Qian predicted in his 2002 interview—successfully constrained the “containment school” of the U.S. foreign policy community, but also, have given rise to a new “accommodation school” that believes that China is already an established power to which the United States must conform its behavior. In October 2004, Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek opined: “And to continue thriving, it [the United States] will have to adjust to the rise of Asia…led by China” [8]. Zakaria’s musing soon entered into official policy discourse as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill testified in May 2005: “One of the key challenges before us—and especially before the nations of the Asia-Pacific—is how to adapt to China’s emergence as a regional and global power” [9]. U.S. policy paradigms on China formerly consisted of engagement, containment and even “congagement.” In the scenarios of all three, Washington played the lead. Yet in the scenario of accommodation, which has been added to the list of options, Washington co-leads if not takes a lesser role.

The unexpected recent thaw of Sino-Japanese relations illustrates again China’s success in its policy of dissembled cooperation as applied to the thorniest of relations with its neighbors. Even the severe deterioration of bilateral relations in 2005 did not prevent Beijing from erecting a second Confucius Institute in Japan (Zhongguo Xinwenshe, November 2, 2005). During the spring of 2005 when anti-Japanese riots appeared in Chinese cities, public security and PAP personnel mingled with the crowd to contain the damages and to photograph the controlled scenes for news released abroad but not domestically [10]. Japan’s dependence upon China for its continued economic growth has only increased as Sino-Japanese trade surpassed U.S.-Japanese trade in 2004. This newfound dependency was reflected in June 2005 when Nippon Izokukai, the organization representing the families of those interred at the Yasukuni Shrine, plead with then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to stop visiting the shrine because national interests were being damaged. Ironically, they were the same organization during Koizumi’s 2001 election campaign that demanded that he promise to worship at the shrine. Others, including media leaders such as Tsuneo Watanabe of Yomiuri Shimbun, business groups such as Kezai Douyukai, and eventually Koizumi’s own lieutenants such as Yasuo Fukuda, followed suit, objecting to Koizumi’s shrine visits altogether. By September 2006, various opinion polls in Japan had shown that a growing percentage of the Japanese public wanted the next prime minister to improve relations with China [11].


Beijing seems to have achieved a number of initial successes in the implementation of its new grand strategy, though not without some setbacks. Among them, the most obvious was the EU’s abrupt alteration of its plan to lift the arms embargo in 2005, owing largely to the passage of Beijing’s Anti-Secession Law (ASL). Having learned its lesson, however, Beijing has increasingly integrated the components of its new grand strategy, making it more resilient in recovering from its tactical blunders. Since the passage of the ASL, Beijing has proactively launched more than 30 goodwill measures toward Taiwan, which served to repair Beijing’s international image. Beijing also recovered from its loss of face after North Korea exploded a quasi-nuclear device on October 8, by strengthening its relations with the United States and Japan, reining in Pyongyang afterwards and continuing its pivotal role in the Six Party Talks.

China’s new grand strategy has brought forth not only challenges but also opportunities for the rest of the world. Because of its seemingly unstoppable rise, China is fast becoming a status quo power despite its own wish to “forever remain a third-world country,” as pronounced by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. Its new place in the spotlight has made the PRC more susceptible to outside pressure and criticism. For instance, Beijing passed a law in late October forbidding provinces to deliver death sentences without first trying the cases before China’s Supreme Court, a direct result of continuous protests launched by Amnesty International (International Herald Tribune, November 1). The United States should take advantage of China’s desires for international legitimacy and consult with its allies to establish a coordinated approach to China’s new grand strategy.


1. The term “soft power,” as famously expounded upon by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., falls short of accurately describing China’s tactics. Using exclusively “extra-military instruments,” China has been able to reap hard results; Taiwan remains excluded from key regional international rule-making bodies, and in the last three years, six of its 30 diplomatic allies have switched diplomatic recognition to China.

2. Think tank affiliated with PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The Factors, Characteristics, and Potential Problems of Our Country’s Strategic Opportunities,” an internal document, June 2003.

3. Qian Qichen, “The Post-September 11 International Situation and Sino-American Relations,” Xuexi Shibao, (Beijing: The Central Party School) October, p.8.

4. The Beijing Forum, officially organized by Peking University with governmental backing, was held in August 2004, and November 2005. Hundreds of international scholars attended, including such luminaries as former President Bill Clinton. The first Forum had 14 panels covering subjects ranging from economics to ecology and from politics to philosophy. Personal communication with an attendee to both occasions, San Francisco, August 2006.

5. Personal and telephone communications with attendees in Taipei and Beijing, April 2006.

6. Xiong Guangkai, “Sanda guanxi jiao1zhi tiaozhan jiyu bingcun” [Three Main Relations Intertwines: Coexistence of Challenges and Opportunities], Xuexi Shibao, January 2003.

7. Zhang Shiping, “Zhongguo jueqi yu Zhong-Mei guanxi” (The Rise of China and Sino-American Relations], a speech delivered at the International Conference on Sun Zi’s The Art of War” in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province PRC.

8. Fareed Zakaria, “What Bush and Kerry Missed,” Newsweek, October 25, 2004, p.13.

9. Christopher R. Hill, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, “North East Asia : A Region of Vital Concern to the United States,” Testimony before the House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Washington, D.C., May 26, 2005.

10. It was first reported by Taiyang Bao [Sun News] in Hong Kong and mentioned in “Zhongguo fan Ri shiwei jingguo caipai,” [Chinese Anti-Japanese Demonstrations were Rehearsed], Liberty Times (Taipei), April 12, 2004, p.7.

11. Testimony by Yuki Tatsumi, Research Fellow, The Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, D.C. Congressional hearing on “Japan’s Relationship with Its Neighbors: Back to the Future?” House Committee on International Relations, U.S House of Representatives, September 14, 2006; “Anbei biaotai dang shouziang bu bai Qingguo,” [Abe Announced Not to Visit the Yasukuni Shrine], Apple Daily (Taipei), September 12, 2006.