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China & Grand Strategy

China still lacks a grand strategy

The Chinese Communist Party Congress in October will indicate whether China has departed from its ‘peaceful rise’ in favour of an ambitious grand strategy.

China’s one-party government is often noted for its ability to take a long-term strategic outlook, in contrast with Western democracies whose planning is restricted by short-term election cycles. But a new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) argues that, in fact, China has yet to formulate a true grand strategy.

The report, Grand designs: Does China have a 'grand strategy'?, brings together the views of prominent Chinese scholars to document the evolution of strategic thinking in China since the 1970s to the present day.

Discussions concerning China’s grand strategy began in earnest during the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, who advocated for China to keep a ‘low profile’ in international affairs so as to keep its focus on economic development.

At the end of the Cold War, and in response to a greater US military presence in Asia, China began to pay more attention to the international arena, endorsing multilateralism and the building of relations with neighbouring countries. This new approach culminated in the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001.

As a stronger China began to attract greater international attention and criticism, Hu Jintao articulated the concept of ‘China’s peaceful rise’ in 2003 – later toned down further to ‘China’s peaceful development’ - in order to reassure nervous international observers. But this changed abruptly with the premiership of Xi Jinping, who quickly asserted his desire to ‘resurrect’ China’s ancient power.

Angela Stanzel of ECFR argues that despite these various visions and attitudes, “China has yet to formulate a true ‘grand strategy’.” She notes further that it is an open question as to whether it even wants to do so, or whether it merely seeks to develop more and more concrete individual strategies.

Nadège Rolland, in an essay for the collection, explains that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is somewhat akin to a grand strategy. It is a vision that reflects China’s long-term interests (its ‘unimpeded rise’) and mobilises hard and soft power resources with strategic purpose.

Jabin Jacob outlines China’s thinking on a maritime strategy, which in his view includes the BRI. Jacob underlines that China’s leaders are committed to “the idea of China as a maritime great power”, visible in its efforts to combine capabilities, actions, and narratives.

Melanie Hart, in another contributing essay, argues that China’s strategic thinking is inextricably linked with the United States’ presence in the region and globally. She notes that all Chinese scholars see the US-China relationship as the centre of global power, but that there is disagreement on the question of whether the Chinese leadership seeks a partnership or rivalry with Washington in China’s desired ‘G2 world’.

These insights show that the concept of a grand strategy is still very fluid in China and continues to develop. While it might be too simple to say that China will phrase its grand strategy according to whatever the US is doing, the apparent decline of the US under Trump has certainly triggered a renewed debate on China’s standing as a global power.

Whether this is the beginning of a renewed thinking on a grand conceptual strategy for China remains to be seen. Possibly the long-awaited Party Congress in October will indicate whether China has indeed departed from its peaceful rise in favour of an ambitious grand strategy.

Notes to editors

Read the publication online: Grand designs: Does China have a 'grand strategy'?
Download the PDF.

Publication editor Angela Stanzel is available for comment. She can be reached at Angela.Stanzel@ecfr.eu.

Alternatively, contact ECFR’s communications officer, Wiebke Ewering, at wiebke.ewering@ecfr.eu or +49 176 42065425.

About China Analysis

This publication is part of ECFR’s series of China Analysis. Each issue of China Analysis focuses on a specific theme and draws on Chinese sources to introduce European audiences to a strategic debate within China’s expert and think-tank world. The series aims to help the European policy community understand how China’s leadership thinks about domestic and foreign policy issues.

For more information on our work on Asia & China, visit the Asia & China pages on our website (http://www.ecfr.eu/asia).

ECFR is an award-winning international think tank that aims to conduct cutting-edge independent research; provide a safe meeting space for policy-makers, activists and intellectuals to share ideas; offer a media platform to get Europeans talking about their role in the world. ECFR is an independent charity and funded from a variety of sources. For more details go to www.ecfr.eu/about/donors

This paper, like all ECFR publications, represents the views of its authors, not the collective position of ECFR or its Council Members.