Pivot and Parry: China’s Response to America’s New Defense Strategy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 6

Smiles Belie Persistent Mistrust

On January 5, 2012, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta released new defense strategic guidance, highlighting U.S. national defense priorities and underscoring America’s determination to maintain its global leadership and military superiority despite budgetary constraints [1]. The strategy indicates the United States will continue to focus on counter-terrorism, and highlights the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East as key regional priorities. Specifically, it states the U.S. military “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” in keeping with the broader “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific illustrated by President Obama’s November 2011 Asia-Pacific trip, progress toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) economic agreement and plans to rotate U.S. military forces through bases in Australia—moves that many Chinese analysts have interpreted as aimed at countering China’s growing power and influence (“China Assesses President Obama’s November Asia-Pacific Trip,” China Brief, December 20, 2011).

Within the context of a growing focus on the Asia-Pacific region, the strategy notes China’s emergence as a great power “will have the potential to affect the U.S. economy and our security in a variety of ways,” and the United States and China “have a strong stake in peace and stability in East Asia and an interest in building a cooperative bilateral relationship.” It also highlights the need for transparency in China’s defense policies: “the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region.” Moreover, the strategy commits the United States to maintaining the ability to operate effectively in the region despite advances in Chinese military capabilities aimed at countering U.S. intervention [2]. In addition, the strategic guidance underscores long-standing and recently-highlighted commitments to enforce free use of international water space (e.g. the South China Sea) (U.S. State Department, July 22, 2011).  Given this focus on China-related issues, Chinese analysts reacted with predictable concern about the strategy itself and U.S. intentions. Official commentary highlighted the importance of maintaining a stable U.S.-China relationship, while other Chinese analysts debated Washington’s intentions toward China, its ability to implement the new strategy and how China should respond.

Chinese Concerns about the New U.S. Defense Strategy

Chinese assessments of the strategy highlighted several concerns about its implications for China. First, Chinese analysts clearly interpreted the strategy as further confirmation of a U.S. shift in strategic resources to the Asia-Pacific. An article in China Daily assessed the new strategy as marking “an adjustment of the U.S. defense structure in an era of austerity and a shift in its strategic priorities;” it further concluded that the shift, with the new emphasis on space, cyber, naval, and air power–despite plans to reduce defense spending–is a reflection of America’s supposed determination to extend its hegemony to new domains and a “cause for grave concern” (January 9).

Chinese observers opined that the United States is shifting its focus toward the Asia-Pacific not only because the region is an engine of economic growth, but also because Washington is worried that China’s emergence as a great power will threaten U.S. interests and challenge American supremacy. For example, a PLA Daily article suggested the strategy reflects Washington’s growing concern about the erosion of its superiority, which it described as “supremacy anxiety.”. The same article stated the Pentagon is returning to a threat-based planning model that increasingly emphasizes China (January 7).  Some Chinese analysts also suggested whatever the United States says about its motives, the underlying U.S. intent is to “contain” China. Rear Admiral Yang Yi of the PLA’s National Defense University opined that the new strategy clearly targets China and Iran (People’s Daily, January 7).  Similarly, Luo Yuan, Deputy Secretary General of the China Association for Military Science, warned that U.S. actions in the Asia-Pacific region are aimed at “containing China’s rise” (PLA Daily, January 10). Other Chinese sources paired grudging acceptance of the U.S. role in the region with concerns about Washington’s intentions toward China. For example, a China Daily article stated the United States “is more than welcome [in the region], so long as it plays a constructive role,” and “both countries stand to gain if they turn the Asia-Pacific into a region of cooperation.” It also warned, however, that both countries would lose if Washington sees the Asia-Pacific “as a wrestling ring in which to contain emerging powers like China” (January 9).

Reflecting broader debates within Chinese foreign and security policy circles about the extent to which America is a declining power, at least relatively, Chinese analysts also focused on the implications of America’s economic problems. Some scholars argued resource constraints will leave the United States hard-pressed to achieve its strategic objectives in the Asia-Pacific region. Yang Yi highlighted what he characterized as the serious consequences of the global financial crisis and the overextension of the U.S. military. According to Yang, “the financial crisis, the economic recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have exhausted the comprehensive national power of the United States” (People’s Daily, January 7, 2012). Similarly, Luo Yuan opined that, due to its economic troubles and impending budget cuts, “what the United States wants is one thing, whether or not it can do it is another” (PLA Daily, January 10).

Official responses from the Ministry of National Defense (MND) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) focused on transparency. The MND spokesperson stated criticism of China in the new strategy is “completely groundless” because the strategic intentions motivating China’s national defense modernization are “consistent and clear” (China News Service, January 9). Similarly, an MFA spokesman declared that China’s strategic intentions are “clear, open, and transparent” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 9).

Rather than responding directly to the individual elements of the U.S. strategic guidance, Chinese scholars and analysts tended to extrapolate on the potential results of its implementation. For example, many addressed what they portrayed as U.S. "interference" aimed at creating problems and exploiting tensions between China and other countries in the region. Yang Yi charged that the U.S. was attempting to portray the Asia-Pacific security situation as a “mess” in order to intensify regional concerns about China and “pave the way” for America’s “return to Asia.” In addition, he cast the United States, rather than China, as the “trouble-maker” that was responsible for recent regional instability (People’s Daily, January 7). Other Chinese commentators also asserted that U.S. “interference” has increased regional tensions (China Daily, January 9).

The potential increase of such "interference," initially motivated some Chinese observers to suggest Beijing would need to take a sober look at the U.S.-China relationship. Along these lines, a Global Times editorial cautioned that Washington has firmly locked its strategic attention on China and that Beijing should be “clear-headed” in dealing with the United States. Furthermore, the editorial suggested that, because Beijing is incapable of offsetting U.S. concerns about China’s rise, it must deal with the United States from a position of strength (January 6). Such comments reflected the discussion and debate that immediately followed the release of the new U.S. defense guidance—not only about the implications for the U.S.-China relationship, but also about how China ought to respond to growing U.S. involvement in the region.

Recommended Courses of Action

Chinese sources highlighted a range of potential responses to the U.S. strategy. In the immediate wake of the release of the new defense strategy, comments from scholars and analysts were varied with some recommending that China pursue a more muscular response to the United States. A characteristically strident Global Times editorial recommended using Iran to constrain Washington’s behavior: “The U.S. strategic adjustment should once again remind us of Iran’s importance to China. Whether we like this country or not, it’s existence and its diplomatic strategy form a strong check against the United States.” Consequently, according to the editorial, China should not allow U.S. preferences to determine its approach to Iran. In addition, it recommended strengthening China’s ability to deter the United States by further developing the Chinese military’s long-range strike capabilities (January 6).

Other analysts recommended a moderate, long-term policy that neither undermines the prospects for cooperation nor ignores the potential implications of a U.S. strategic shift toward the region—in short, a hedging strategy. Major General Luo Yuan suggested remaining “simultaneously vigilant and calm” (yi yao jingti, er yao danding) and indicated China should focus on developing its economic strength, enhancing its military power and maintaining a favorable external environment. In addition, Luo suggested China should employ skillful diplomacy to outmaneuver the United States in the region (PLA Daily, January 10).  Peking University’s Zhu Feng built on this concept of a balanced response, encouraging Chinese leaders to respond with a light touch, “by coupling strength and gentleness, and using softness to conquer strength” (gangrou bing ji, yi rou ke gang) (Global Times, January 13).

Official announcements clarified China’s commitment to maintain a steady course in terms of its foreign policy. Chinese officials reiterated the centrality of the U.S.-China relationship and suggested that China would work to maintain stability in the face of recent challenges. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, for example, emphasized the importance of maintaining the stable development of U.S.-China ties (Xinhua, January 9). In a December 2011 speech, Assistant Foreign Minister Le Yucheng had underscored similar themes, urging confidence in response to China’s diplomatic challenges:

“Recently, the United States has adjusted its policies toward the Asia-Pacific and increased its input in this region. Some people are thus worried and doubt if China and the U.S. can coexist peacefully in the Asia-Pacific. Some even believe that China’s surrounding environment has deteriorated. In my view, the United States has never left the Asia-Pacific, so there is no "return" to speak of. China does not want to and cannot push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific. We hope the United States can play a constructive role in this region, and that includes respecting China’s major concerns and core interests. The Pacific Ocean is vast enough to accommodate the coexistence and cooperation between these two big countries…In the face of the changing situation, we should seek cooperation, not confrontation, to solve issues. We must be confident that as long as China is committed to peaceful development, openness and cooperation and can attend our own affairs well, nobody can encircle us or keep us out” [3].

These official comments suggest, while there may be uncertainty about the scope and significance of America’s so-called “pivot,” Beijing will continue to chart a course that emphasizes continuing to develop its economic and military strength while at the same time attempting to assuage concerns about its growing power, in order to maintain an external environment conducive to its domestic social stability and economic development goals.


The initial Chinese responses to the new U.S. defense guidance reflected a range of concerns. Prickly responses to comments about transparency suggest continuing unwillingness to reveal information that is released fairly routinely by many countries. China has repeatedly underscored that it is committed to developing a military capable of preventing Taiwan from moving toward independence and deterring U.S. involvement in a cross-Strait conflict, controlling or denying others’ access to its near-seas if required, and protecting China’s emerging interests globally. Yet, in many areas, it still does not provide the kind of clarity that major powers normally do. For example, Chinese Defense White Papers have improved gradually over the years in terms of transparency, but they still lack the quality of information that many outside observers expect—including data that is often included in similar documents released by several other countries [4]. By responding to the U.S. strategy with a simple restatement that Chinese intentions are clear, Beijing glosses over the need for the kind of transparency that could help reassure its neighbors and reduce the risks of miscalculation, which seemingly does not bode well for the sort of transparency or confidence-building measures that Washington seeks.

The initial responses to America’s new defense strategy illustrate that the current environment in China tolerates debate over Beijing’s foreign policy challenges. The nuanced nature of some of the comments appears to reflect an evolving understanding of the regional security environment. Although U.S. statements and actions may have exacerbated Chinese concerns about “containment,” they also appear to have motivated Beijing to moderate its approach to dealing with its neighbors. Furthermore, Beijing clearly recognizes the importance of a constructive U.S.-China relationship, particularly given its desire to ensure a stable environment for the upcoming leadership transition that will have unprecedented turnover in the senior-most ranks.

Despite criticizing U.S. motivations for the “pivot” and questioning Washington’s ability to execute a shift to the Asia-Pacific, Chinese analysts generally recommended that Beijing observe U.S. actions and stay its existing course by continuing to focus on economic growth and enhancing its diplomacy and soft-power while simultaneously improving its military capabilities—an approach they appear to believe will leave China well-positioned to cope with America’s new defense strategy and its “return” to Asia more broadly. Along these lines, Peng Guangqian recommended that Beijing neither regard changes in U.S. strategy with “indifference,” nor “panic” unnecessarily about the likely consequences of the new defense guidance. According to Peng, as long as China continues building its economic strength and increasing its military power ”the sky will not fall” (China Review News, February 26). The same themes were evident in a Study Times article in which military analyst Huang Yingxu cautioned that China should not entertain any illusions about the United States, but should nonetheless respond to the new defense strategy "calmly" and stick to its current path. Huang’s reasoning is that because "time is on China’s side," Beijing should remain patient and China’s position will continue to improve as U.S. power declines (February 27). This confidence in China’s long-term prospects suggests that debates about the new U.S. defense strategy and the U.S. strategic “pivot” are unlikely to result in major changes to the overall direction of China’s foreign and security policy. Nonetheless, observers should expect to see tactical adjustments in Beijing’s approach as it grapples with the multi-faceted challenges it sees as inherent in the U.S. “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific.


  1. U.S. Department of Defense, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” January 2012, https://www.defense.gov/news/Defense_Strategic_Guidance.pdf.
  2. Ibid. pp. 2, 4.
  3. “The Rapid Development of China’s Diplomacy in a Volatile World,” Address by Assistant Foreign Minister Le Yucheng at the Seminar on China’s Diplomacy in 2011 and its Prospects, China Foreign Affairs University, Beijing, China, December 18, 2011, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjdt/zyjh/t890675.htm.
  4. Michael Kiselycznyk and Phillip C. Saunders, “Assessing Chinese Military Transparency,” China Strategic Perspectives, No. 1, National Defense University, Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, June 2010.