The “Holistic Security Concept”: The Securitization of Policy and Increasing Risk of Militarized Crisis

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 12

Zhang Tuosheng, Director of Research and Senior Fellow at the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies.

Reflecting critical developments under the Xi administration, the recent “Military Strategy” white paper signals a turn toward a potentially more coercive phase of China’s rise (State Council, May 26). Driven by the determination to overcome a formidable array of domestic and international obstacles to national development, China’s leaders have vastly expanded the reach of national security to include virtually all policy fields. Beijing has centralized decision-making and reinforced the subordination of the military to national strategic objectives to control the risk of unwanted conflict. Nevertheless, the rising importance placed on the protection of the nation’s expanding interests marks a profound shift in security policy. While continuing to prioritize peaceful means to strengthen control over its core interests and improve its strategic position, China is at the same time preparing for more coercive options short of war.

In late May, China released its first defense white paper to prominently feature “military strategy” as its main theme. In contrast to the 2013 version, drafted just as Chinese Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping ascended to power, the latest defense white paper more clearly reflects the political thought and policy work of the current administration (State Council, April 16, 2013). It demonstrates a more focused explanation of the nation’s strategic objectives and tasks than is typical of previous white papers. For example, it explains that China’s “national strategic goal” is to “complete the building of a moderately prosperous society” in all respects by 2021 and a “modern, socialist country” by 2049, which represents the “Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” These goals are not new, but previous white papers only vaguely alluded to them.

The new paper similarly described, in a clear and logical manner, various threats to China and the resulting implications for security policy and the military. Reflecting the influence of the engineering-inspired approach to systematic, long term strategic planning—referred to as “top level design” (dingceng sheji)—which has become characteristic of Xi-era policy, the paper explained how the military’s guiding principles, policies and efforts support the strategic objectives related to national rejuvenation (see China Brief, November 30, 2012). Underscoring the importance of this point, the white paper is the first to expand the “historic missions” concept to include a fifth mission, which the paper explained requires the military to “strive to provide a strong guarantee for completing the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects and achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” [1] This “new mission” amounts to a redundant restatement of the entire historic missions idea, but its significance is political. The addendum reinforces the idea that all military activity must support, or at least not undermine, the pursuit of strategic objectives designed to realize China’s potential as a prosperous, stable, modern and powerful nation.

The presentation of a new security concept, the “overall” or “holistic” security concept (zongti anquan guan), also reflects the same trends under Xi toward the centralization of decision-making, a top-down design approach to strategy and policy, and a vision of policy that views all fields as interrelated and inseparable. According to the white paper, the new concept incorporates both domestic and international security; security for the homeland with security for overseas citizens, enterprises and other interests; and the interests related to the nation’s survival with those needed for its development. It also expands the definition of security to encompass 11 fields: political, territorial, military, economic, cultural, social, science and technological, information, ecological, financial and nuclear. According to commentators, the concept is designed to facilitate the implementation of security policy, in contrast to previous versions (i.e., the “new security concept” in the late 1990s and the “comprehensive security concept” in the 2000s) that served mostly as policy ideals and provided little concrete guidance for implementation. Xi Jinping introduced the holistic security concept at a Politburo study session 2014 (Xinhua, April 15, 2014).

One of the major drivers for the formulation of the overall security concept is the desire to more closely align security policy with developmental policy objectives. Xi outlined this logic when he stated that “development depends on security” and that “security requires development” (Xinhua, November 15, 2013). This desire reflects the realization that the “easy” part of the nation’s rise via export and investment-led growth, which China relied upon for the past three decades, has passed irrevocably. To sustain economic growth and realize the central leadership’s vision of national rejuvenation, Beijing will need to carry out extremely challenging policies, including a restructuring of its economy, an overhauling of its political operations to improve governance, shaping the regional and international trade and financial order to favor Chinese interests, restructuring the regional security order, as well as consolidating and exploiting the maritime domain. These and other policies are certain to encounter resistance from many powerful opponents, both domestic and international (see China Brief, March 19).

The tension between the need for stability and the desire to see broad, steady progress in protecting the nation’s expanding array of interests is well captured in a revealing directive by Xi Jinping in 2013—and noted in the white paper—for Chinese authorities to both “safeguard stability and safeguard rights” (weiwen yu weiquan) (Xinhua, July 31, 2013). The directive, absent in previous white papers, elevates the priority of defending the country’s expanding rights and interests to a level co-equal with the old focus on upholding stability. This formulation suggests that Chinese leaders view domestic and regional stability as predicated, to some extent, on control of the country’s expanding rights and interests.

The revision of China’s security policy along these lines carries several important implications. First, it opens the way to a growing military involvement in a broad array of policies beyond the traditional security domains. Adoption of the holistic security concept now means anything Chinese authorities deem an impediment to the realization of any of the country’s developmental objectives—regardless of whether it is economic, political or another category—may now be deemed a “security threat.” Once issues are designated security threats, military involvement may be legitimately considered. Second, the expanded meaning of security underscores the leadership’s determination to realize steady, secure progress toward strategic objectives for all policy topics. This means senior leaders will likely forgo risky policies—such as military conflict to seize an island feature—that could threaten eventual attainment of other policy objectives. As a rule, China’s leaders will likely continue to prefer consistent, incremental progress toward all of the nation’s strategic objectives. The creation of the National Security Commission and issuance of a National Security Strategy Outline in 2013, and the formulation of the holistic security concept, among other measures, underscores the importance with which Chinese leaders regard the calibration of policy to control risk.

However, the desire to see steady progress toward all strategic objectives adds enormous pressure on China’s leaders to overcome impediments to any single objective. The elevation in importance of “securing rights” will encourage leaders to consider all options, including coercive ones, to overcome what is expected to be difficult and intractable resistance by domestic and international beneficiaries of the status quo. As a result, Chinese intransigence in major dispute issue—such as control over disputed areas of the East and South China Seas, and a desire to see greater progress toward Taiwan’s acceptance of a “one China policy”—will likely harden in the coming years. And should Beijing judge that a disputant is challenging the country’s “bottom line” on an issue, it will likely consider a broader array of options than it has followed in previous years when China placed a higher priority on upholding stability.

Options to Strengthen Protection For China’s Expanding Interests

Figuring out how to enhance the protection of the country’s expanding interests in the least destabilizing way possible has thus become a critical strategic challenge for China’s leaders. Beijing continues to prioritize peaceful methods, principally through bilateral and multilateral dialogue, negotiation and cooperation. In the words of the white paper, China seeks to merge its “own national interests with the common interests of other nations.” A recent editorial in the populist Chinese tabloid Global Times explained, “Rising powers all need strategic space.” It explained that China “differs from prior powers” in that it seeks to achieve its strategic space by “expanding ‘win-win’ cooperation” (Global Times, May 27). The Xi administration has sought to increase the appeal of political and security cooperation through policies aimed at demonstrating China’s economic strength and its political credibility as a contributor at the global level. Where these fail to persuade, Beijing has also shown a growing readiness to supplement “carrots” with punishing diplomatic and economic “sticks” to nations that impinge on China’s core interests. Examples of this include halting “rare earth” mineral shipments to Japan in 2010 in retaliation for the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain and ending the import of bananas from the Philippines in retaliation for the 2012 confrontation over the sovereignty of Scarborough Reef in the South China Sea.

But the intractable nature of many of the domestic and international obstacles to Beijing’s agenda suggests even stronger measures may be required. On the domestic front, the Xi administration has employed brutal crackdowns in the name of an anti-corruption campaign to crush opponents of key economic and political reforms. On the international front, Chinese authorities have similarly shown a growing willingness to risk antagonism with the United States and other nations when defending its interests in maritime, cyber and other domains. The most recent military strategy white paper suggests Beijing envisions the military playing an even larger role in the future. It states that central leaders expect to place “greater emphasis on the employment of military power” (jiazhu zhong yunyong junshi liliang) to achieve national objectives. The armed forces are expected to “work harder to create a favorable strategic posture” (yingzao youli taishi) for the country, the paper says.

China’s tolerance for tension with other countries, while growing, is likely to remain limited. There is no evidence that China seeks open military confrontation with the United States or war with any of its neighbors. It is difficult to envision a faster way to end China’s hopes for national rejuvenation, after all, than provoking a large-scale regional war. The white paper similarly emphasizes to foreign and domestic audiences that the military will continue to “adhere to the defensive security policy” and “persevere in close coordination with political, economic and diplomatic work.”

However, in light of deeply rooted, intractable disputes, militarized crises or clashes involving China and its neighbors are no longer implausible. The military strategy paper noted that officials have directed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to “make serious preparations to cope with the most complex and difficult scenarios,” “uphold bottom-line thinking” (a reference to the principle, announced by Xi, that China views control of its sovereignty, territory and any other core interest as a non-negotiable “bottom-line”) and “ensure proper responses to scenarios at any time and in any circumstance.” The paper described a broad range of military contingencies for which the military must plan, including war preparation and prevention, deterrence and warfighting, operations in war and in peace, and “farsighted planning and management” to “create a favorable posture” and “comprehensively handle crises.”

These cryptic references find amplification in writings by Chinese military leaders, thinkers and strategists. Sun Jianguo, PLA Deputy Chief of the General Staff, explained that “no conflict and no confrontation does not mean ‘no struggle’” (Seeking Truth, March 1). He stated, “without struggle, it will be impossible for the United States to respect our core interests.” Citing Xi Jinping, the deputy chief explained that in sovereignty and territorial disputes, China must “give tit for tat” and “fight for every inch of territory.” A prominent Party scholar explained that the “holistic security concept” called for authorities to “be good at taking advantage of disputes” and the “use the efforts of others against them” (Outlook, December 2, 2013). Zhang Tuosheng, a Chinese expert in crisis management, observed in 2011 that “crisis management has replaced military confrontation” to become the “main characteristic of Chinese crisis behavior” (World Economics and Politics, April 14, 2011). A growing body of literature among military writers advocates the exploitation of crises to further Chinese goals. “Handled properly,” observed a typical article, “a military crisis can provide a major opportunity to promote national interests and achieve peace.” [2] These writings have broadly praised precedents in the way China has exploited recent actions by its neighbors, including Beijing’s decision to lock up access to Scarborough Reef and reinforce the Chinese coast guard presence with naval combatants after the Philippine’s missteps to gain control. This also applies to the way China responded to Japan’s announcement of the purchase of the Senkaku Islands by strengthening de-facto control through the announcement of the Air Defense Identification Zone, increasing coast guard patrols and other measures.


As a powerful China outgrows the security environment that nurtured its rise, its leaders are reexamining longstanding security policies. The elevation, centralization and expansion of security policy, embodied in Xi’s “holistic security concept,” reflects Beijing’s conclusion that breaking through constraints on the country’s rise will require new, potentially riskier approaches. China’s leaders will continue to avoid war and prioritize peaceful methods, but their determination to overcome resistance and consolidate control of key national interests makes friction and even the eruption of militarized crises increasingly possible. Recognizing this reality, Beijing is exploring ideas and making preparations to exploit such situations and advance its strategic aims in a way that could involve more military assets, but avoids war. This line of thought, while understandable, nonetheless carries considerable risk for Beijing. Brinksmanship as a tactic has historically proven alluring to rising powers eager to expand their strategic space without incurring the debilitating costs of war. Ominously, past practitioners have frequently failed to calculate accurately and ended up in disastrous conflicts. [3] For the United States, the evolving situation underscores the importance of planning for crises involving China and its neighbors. It also highlights the importance of strengthening outreach and dialogue between China and the United States and its allies to ensure future incidents do not escalate into a tragic conflict that all parties are working so hard to avoid.


  1. The longstanding four elements of the “historic missions” idea, introduced by Hu Jintao in 2004, consist of the following: 1) safeguarding the status of the CCP as governing party; 2) safeguarding the important period of national development; 3) safeguarding national interests; and 4) play a role in promoting world peace and common development.
  2. Zhao Zijin and Zhao Jingfang, “on the Control and Management of Military Crises,” China Military Science, July, 2013, pp. 62–71.
  3. Richard Lebow, Between Peace and War: The Nature of International Crises, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press (1981).