China’s Turn Toward Regional Restructuring, Counter-Intervention: A Review of Authoritative Sources

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 22

Senior Colonel Chen Zhou has highlighted the need for China to “expand its scope” and "break through the limits of China's coastline."

Note: This piece is based on a longer article published in The Washington Quarterly (Fall 2015, available here).

Beginning after the global financial crisis in 2008, and transforming further with Xi Jinping’s ascent to power in 2012, Chinese security policy has undergone a remarkable shift in direction. China’s leaders have directed efforts to strengthen control of disputed maritime regions in the East and South China seas. Chinese maritime law enforcement forces wrested control of Scarborough Reef from the Philippines and scaled up their presence in the East China Sea in 2012. During the past year, China has also augmented features it occupies, adding port facilities capable of harboring small naval combatants, and building three military-grade airfields. Meanwhile, China’s leaders have proposed security mechanisms, based on Chinese-led organizations such as the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building (CICA) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), as alternatives to the current security order dominated by U.S. alliances. At the operational level, Chinese forces continue to invest heavily in military capabilities that serve anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), or counter-intervention, purposes; such as the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missile (which has an ASBM variant), YJ-12 anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM), HQ-9 surface-to-air missile (SAM), and J-20 stealth fighter—some of which China displayed prominently during its September parade commemorating the country’s victory over Japan in World War II. [1]

While observers continue to debate the reasons for and drivers of the shift, discussion of authoritative sources remains scarce. Among the most important publicly available sources, however, are the 2015 Defense White Paper (DWP), entitled China’s Military Strategy, and the 2013 version of the Science of Military Strategy (SMS), a periodically reissued strategy textbook. The DWP offers an authoritative view of China’s security policy and military strategy, while the SMS, published by the military’s center for strategy analysis, the Academy of Military Science (AMS), serves as an important representation of the PLA’s thinking on these topics.

Both sources suggest that despite a nominal adherence to a purely defensive posture, China has in fact revised that policy to support a peacetime expansion of national power. Like its predecessors, China’s Military Strategy upheld China’s “defensive” security policy. However, it also acknowledged that China’s evolving situation set “new requirements” for the military to help build a “favorable strategic posture” and “guarantee the country’s peaceful development.” It highlighted in particular the need to better protect the country’s “growing strategic interests.” This, the white paper explained, required the military to “actively expand military and security cooperation” and “promote the establishment of a regional framework for security and cooperation.” Hinting at the expanding focus of military activity, the DWP noted that the military intended to conduct preparations, planning, and activities in “all directions and in all domains” and to “effectively secure China’s overseas interests” (State Council Information Office, May 26).

A 2009 article by Colonel Chen Zhou, a defense policy expert at AMS, provides insight into the policy shift hinted at in the white paper. Colonel Chen affirmed the country’s commitment to a “defensive” policy. However, he also highlighted the need for an “expansion of scope” due to the reality of an “intermingling of security and developmental interests” and the “close connection between China’s interests and the interests of other countries.” The expanded scope, he argued, should “break through the limits of China’s coastline, actively construct a strategic foundation in the periphery, expand the defensive forward positions, and stretch the line of national defense in the air and sea.” [2]

The DWP outlined some of the changes to military activity required to implement the new policy. Criticizing a “traditional mentality” that regarded the value of land as “outweighing the sea,” it called for “developing a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with China’s national security and developmental interests” (China Brief, May 29). The white paper noted the need to develop capabilities to defend Chinese interests in outer space and cyberspace. The focus on expanding capabilities to defend growing interests is complemented by direction to support efforts to reform the regional security order. It noted the military will “strike to establish a new framework for security and cooperation conducive to peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.” The paper underscored, however, that the push to secure core interests and reform the international security order should be done peacefully, with strong consideration given to the impact on stability.

SMS affirms and elaborates on the policy shift. It notes the need to create a “strategic situation” (战略态势) “favorable for internal stability and external expansion” (阔外) that is “lasting in stability and durable in peace” (长治久安). [3] This phrase evokes a stable, peaceful Asian security environment in which China plays a leadership role and in which countries lack the ability and/or motivation to militarily challenge China over its “core” interests. Noting that the task of expansion has historically proven perilous for any rising power, authors of SMS reject the path of military conquest and warfare. Instead, SMS declares, China seeks a “peaceful, cooperative expansion” principally thorough “economic exchange and cultural blending.” It acknowledges, however, the possibility of “contradictions and conflicts” arising from resistance to the peaceful expansion. [4] To shape the strategic environment and tighten control of “core” interests in peacetime, Science of Military Strategy prioritizes non-war military actions. China should “rely more upon non-military powers, such as political, economic, and diplomacy” to address the “contradictions, friction and struggles generated by the country’s expansion of interests.” However, the military is expected to play a “powerful role” in supporting and ensuring the realization of these goals. [5]

At the strategic level, the move toward a security policy of peacetime expansion has led Chinese political and military leaders to pursue a restructuring of the regional security order in the least destabilizing manner possible, an idea that we believe is best captured in the term, “regional restructuring.” The goal is to shape a security order that is more amenable to the exercise of Chinese power. Misunderstanding of the expansionary nature of the current policy—often expressed as criticism of Beijing for acting in a presumably unnecessary “bullying” or “provocative” manner—underpins much of the criticism of Chinese behavior and Beijing’s dismissal of that criticism. Beijing well understands that its actions generate friction—expansion by any rising power necessarily antagonizes the beneficiaries of the status quo that stand most to lose from that expansion. The goal of a policy of peacetime expansion is to hold those tensions to a manageable level, not avoid them.

The Chinese military envisions a broad array of responsibilities to support this strategic line of effort. Some present opportunities for the United States and its allies, while others pose serious challenges. Efforts to bolster Beijing’s credibility and authority as a political and security leader against non-traditional threats open opportunities for collaboration on issues such as anti-piracy and humanitarian assistance.

Among the more serious challenges from Washington’s perspective, however, are efforts to undercut the ability of the United States and its allies to frustrate China’s expansion through the development of counter-intervention capabilities.


The Science of Military Strategy 2013 itself contains important references to counter-intervention. A section entitled “The Wars China May Face in the Future” states: “regardless how great the probability of a powerful enemy implementing large-scale military intervention [强敌对我实施大规模军事干预]…we…must keep a foothold at the foundation of having ample war preparations and powerful military capabilities of our own, rather than at the assessment that the enemy will not come, intervene [不进行干预], or strike.” The likelihood of intervention by “the powerful enemy,” almost certainly the United States, “depends upon this trade-off [analysis] between war risks and costs.” Geographically, “the main direction that may face war is the direction of oceans in the east and in the south.” Accordingly, “when contending with a powerful enemy in the sea direction, we must…form a strategic momentum disposition of controlling seas by relying on land, and controlling oceans by using seas [倚陆制海, 以海制洋].” To this end, China must “continue to innovate a series of fighting methods for fighting unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), stealth aircraft, cruise missiles, carrier formations, and space-based platforms.” [6]

As Beijing’s September 3 military parade showed, China has already made tremendous progress in developing such counter-intervention systems. The missiles on display included no fewer than 16 each of the world’s only ASBM-type missiles: the DF-21D and DF-26. Official commentary described the DF-21D as an “assassin’s mace weapon” (杀手锏武器)), one of several counter-intervention megaprojects that former Chinese paramount leader Jiang Zemin championed following U.S. intervention in the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis and the 1999 Belgrade Embassy Bombing, reasoning, “That which the enemy fears most, that is what we must develop.” [7] We are seeing the fruits of Jiang’s labors today: every weapon displayed, including the DF-21D, DF-26, and YJ-12, are already in PLA service, operational in PLA units. In fact, as documented in a detailed study of the ASBM’s development, China began deploying the DF-21D in 2010. [8]

Counter-interventionist doctrine to support these weapons’ potential employment has proceeded apace. Published in 2004, the Science of Second Artillery Campaigns warned, “Militarily strong nations might use various types of excuses to directly or indirectly engage in military interventions.” “The primary activities of conventional missile forces include…participating in operations to resist military intervention by the powerful enemy, the doctrinal handbook stated. [9] “When a strong enemy’s carrier strike group invades our maritime territory and when it directly uses military force to engage in a military intervention, we can communicate to the enemy,” it explains, “that the use of conventional missile weaponry in fire strikes against the enemy’s nuclear aircraft carrier will not be removed from possibility. Moreover, in order to protect national unity, we can send a strong warning about the defense of the sovereignty of territorial waters in order to restrain and scare away the enemy’s interventionist activities.” [10]

A section entitled “Participating in Operations of Resistance Against Powerful Enemy’s Intervention,” elaborates: “Modes of military intervention by the powerful enemy often include: a show of military strength through a carrier battle group, naval escorts, establishing no-fly and restricted sea zones, naval and aerial intervention, in-shore fire assaults, and deep strategic air raids.” To operationalize “the principle of making the powerful enemy’s carrier battle groups the focal points for attacks,” a two-page spread describes five ways to use ASBMs against carrier groups. [11] In 2006, Science of Campaigns likewise listed “resist[ing] the military intervention of a powerful enemy” as a “basic mission” for China’s Second Artillery Force. [12]

PLA sources discuss cruise missiles in similar terms. Writing in one of the PLA’s premier journals, sponsored by AMS, an expert at Nanjing Military Region Headquarters states that China should “use coastal-based cruise missiles to carry out surprise attacks” to “weaken the supporting capability of enemy bases, obstruct and interfere with the enemy’s aircraft carrier battle groups, and greatly frighten enemies that take part in intervention in our operations.” [13]


Within the past decade, China’s security policy has undergone some of the most profound changes of the entire reform and opening-up period. The most recent changes, stemming from around 2010, seek to orient defense policy toward the tremendous task of supporting an expansion of national power, albeit in as peaceful and stable a manner as possible. At the strategic level, this requires a highly coordinated military and non-military effort to restructure the security order by weakening the U.S. alliance system and establishing in its place an alternative based on Chinese-led multilateral institutions, an effort that can be summarized as “regional restructuring.

Beijing hopes to achieve its goals without resorting to force, but is realistic enough to realize its peacetime expansion may incite friction or pushback from others. As Chinese scholars themselves note, the risk of a militarized crisis is thus increasing, and the possibility of a military clash, however improbable, cannot be ruled out. As one way to prepare for such a possibility, China is pursuing counter-intervention at the operational level. Rather than seeking war, counter-intervention seeks—through development, deployment, and doctrinal support of asymmetric weapons—to make U.S. intervention in its island and maritime claims disputes so risky and potentially costly that Washington will recalibrate its policies and deemphasize its alliance commitments. Should deterrence fail, Beijing envisions counter-intervention capabilities as a backstop to compel the United States to cease hostilities and pursue a negotiated settlement or other off-ramp.

Both “regional restructuring” and “counter-intervention” should be regarded as Western terms designed to describe Chinese behavior, but these concepts draw heavily from ideas and directives provided in Chinese authoritative sources. Making the distinction between these two levels can help policy makers and planners distinguish between important but substantially different challenges to U.S. policy. Regional restructuring, for example, offers both challenges and opportunities. Chinese efforts to build multilateral efforts to combat transnational threats or to increase infrastructure investment do not inherently threaten U.S. interests, and may offer opportunities for collaboration. However, efforts to weaken the alliance system directly challenge the foundation of U.S. power and threaten regional stability. The U.S. must resist such efforts, while developing countermeasures to pace China’s deployment of counter-intervention capabilities.

Timothy Heath is a senior international defense research analyst at the RAND Corporation and worked for over sixteen years in the U.S. government as a specialist on China and Asia.

Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor at the Naval War College and a research associate at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. He also blogs at and tweets at @AndrewSErickson.


1. For in-depth analysis of Counter-Intervention, see Timothy Heath and Andrew S. Erickson, “Is China Pursuing Counter-Intervention?” The Washington Quarterly 38.3 (Fall 2015).

2. Chen Zhou, “On the Development of China’s Defensive National Defense Policy Under the New Situation,” China Military Science [中国军事科学], No. 6, 2009, pp. 63–71.

3. AMS Military Strategy Research Department (ed.), The Science of Military Strategy (Beijing, China: Military Science Press, 2013), p. 112

4. Ibid, p. 104.

5. Ibid, p. 111.

6. Ibid, pp. 98–102.

7. Zhang Wannian, “敌人害怕什么, 我们就发展什么” [We Must Develop for Ourselves That Which the Enemy Fears],” Speech given November 5, 1999, in Zhang Wannian, 张万年军事文选 [Selected Military Writings of Zhang Wannian] (Beijing: PLA Press, 2008), p. 733.

8. Andrew S. Erickson, Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development: Drivers, Trajectories and Strategic Implications, The Jamestown Foundation, 2013, pp. 10–11, 14, 20, 22–23, esp. 44.

9. 第二炮兵战役学, [The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns] (Beijing: PLA Press, 2004), p. 293, 397.

10. Ibid, p. 283.

11. Ibid, pp. 401–402.

12. Zhang Yulang, chief ed., 战役学 [Science of Campaigns] (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006), p. 629.

13. 张维平 [Zhang Weiping], “浅谈联合反封锁作战的地位作用” [Introduction to Importance and Role of Joint Anti-Blockade Operations], 军事学术 [Military Art Journal] (December 2003), pp. 16–18.