Changing strategy: China’s more offensive stance


Alarm bells have been ringing recently in the Asia Pacific region. Media reports suggest that China is acting more assertively in its territorial claims in the South and East China Sea. These reports come amid rising tensions between both China and Japan, which have escalated since Japan’s Government nationalised the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in September 2012[i].

In the recent past, many observers have accused China of bullying countries in the region[ii] [iii]. Whilst China’s security strategy has traditionally been more defensive rather than offensive[iv] [v], such reports indicate a possible change in approach. This begs the question; are we witnessing a more militarized approach from China when resolving disputes?

According to China’s leaders, the country has not waged any war of aggression since 1949[vi]. Its government maintains it has only gone to war when other countries have threatened China’s sovereignty. This includes their involvement in the Korean War in the early 1950s, the Sino-Indian war in 1962 and the intervention in Vietnam during the 1970s, which the Communist Government says were all in defence of its territory[vii].

Historically, China has a long list of writers on war and peace dating back to Confucius and Sun Tzu, who in their own right established an ideology centred on non-intervention and non-aggression. Tzu, who wrote The Art of War, is considered a pioneer in military strategy. Nonetheless, he held a deep respect for war and deemed war to be avoided whenever possible. Similarly, Confucius and his followers cited war as an instrument to be used only for maintaining the status quo and that peace and harmony was the utmost political goal[viii].

Still today, China’s Government and its People’s Liberation Army, officially preserve a defensive military doctrine as pioneered by their forefathers[ix]. On a political level, Chinese leaders assure neighbours of their desire for “harmonious coexistence”[x]. Coupled with this is China’s continuing pledge to abide by its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence[xi].

With economic success over the past decade, however, China has started transforming its outdated military into a modern force. Between 2000 and 2010 China’s annual defence spending rose from over $30 billion to almost $120 billion, equivalent to an average increase in spending of 10 per cent per annum[xii]. In 2012, China again increased this figure by 11.2 per cent to over $140 billion [xiii] [xiv]. Despite this being a fraction of what the United States Government spends, The Economist declared last year that the Chinese Government was involved in the world’s largest military build-up[xv].

In justification of its increase in military spending, Beijing claims increased spending is necessary to safeguard the sovereignty and security of China[xvi]. This may be a fair assertion given the size of China’s population, the largest in the world, together with its recent economic achievements. Realists too would also make the connection between economic gains and increased military spending. Nevertheless, despite the Communist Party’s rhetoric, many believe China is belligerently reasserting its power in this region.

The South China Sea is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas resources[xvii]. It is also home to some of the world’s most frequented shipping lanes, which has resulted in heightening tensions as countries strive to ensure protection of their commercial trade. While the author acknowledges that many countries in the region are weighing in on the dispute and making claims for whole or parts of various islands, it is the Chinese Government which claims the largest portion.

Countries in the region, including Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia all uphold their claims fall within their entitled portion of the sea under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982[xviii] [xix]. On the other hand, Chinese officials say that much of this area belonged to China in ancient times. However, as it currently stands, China’s latest requests encroach on the exclusive economic zones of these aforementioned countries.

Rising nationalist sentiment in these countries appear to be accelerating territorial demands, and China is no exception[xx]. Reports indicate that the Chinese Government is drumming up domestic support for its actions. In November 2012, Hu Jintao, the outgoing communist leader, urged China to continue its push to become a maritime power[xxi]. Stories suggesting state television and newspapers are propagating the possibility of war have also been reported[xxii]. And in a bold move, the Government has printed a map inside newly created Chinese passports of what it considers its entire territory, including the disputed territories[xxiii].

China now finds itself engaged in territorial disputes on a number of fronts.

In the South China Sea, China and Vietnam are enduring a long stand-off over the Spratly Islands which China also claims as its territory. Tensions have also been brewing since early 2012 between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal when government vessels from both countries faced off for a number of weeks[xxiv]. Manila says this is sovereign land belonging to the Philippines, whilst Beijing insists it holds historical links to the islands.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines have attempted to raise their concerns within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but due to alleged pressure from China, this was taken off the agenda. In early 2013, the Philippines decided to contest China’s claims over the Scarborough Shoal in the United Nations.

This region has once more witnessed a surge in tensions, with China and Japan at the centre. Both countries have stepped up their claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea since September last year when Japan’s Government nationalised the islands. Officials in Beijing argue this move was undertaken to deliberately incite China. The Communist Government has since reportedly engaged in more assertive measures and actions essentially challenging the Japanese Government’s long term control of the islands.

These actions include Chinese aircraft reportedly flying for the first time in Japanese airspace over the disputed area on 10 January[xxv]. Furthermore, on 7 January Chinese patrol ships were reported perilously close to the islands for an extended period of time[xxvi]. In one of the latest events, on 30 January, a Chinese ship purportedly locked a weapons guiding radar on a Japanese navy vessel in international waters in the East China Sea[xxvii].

Such tactics are due to cause concern for Japan’s newly elected Government and Prime Minister, Mr Abe. The state-run Chinese newspaper, Global Times[xxviii], says a military encounter between the two countries is becoming “more likely”.

Given China’s recent rise to regional power status, its every move is closely observed. Some circles of political science associate this heavy scrutiny with the growing opinion that China is acting more assertively. China’s current action towards neighbouring countries could also be considered assertive or aggressive relative to its behaviour in the preceding decades. This was a time when its policies focused on developing the economy and lifting millions out of poverty.

Nevertheless, China’s current territorial demands and behaviour suggest it no longer favours a conventional defensive security approach. On the contrary, China seems to have revised its long held policy of non-aggression. In doing so, the Communist Government’s recent undertakings have raised many questions and concerns within the international community, as its new diplomatic posture fuels security concerns in the region.

This more assertive approach in China’s security policy can be attributed to its rise in global power. With its recently upgraded military, its modern naval fleet and new aircraft carrier, China now feels it has the capabilities to project power in the region. While Chinese officials have not explicitly verified a change in China’s security strategy, its assertive behaviour does underline China’s growing confidence.

[i] The New York Times, 11 September 2012, “China Accuses Japan of Stealing After Purchase of Group of Disputed Islands”,

[ii] The Wall Street Journal, 14 August 2012, “The Bully of the South China Sea”,

[iii] The Guardian, 6 August 2012, “Protests in Vietnam as anger over China’s ‘bullying’ grows”,

[iv] Ministry of National Defense, 13 January 2012, “PLA should foster offensive defense thinking in developing long-range strike weapons”,

[v] Holmes, J., Yoshihara, T., April 2011, “Mao’s Active Defense is Turning Offensive”, US Naval Institute, Proceedings Magazine, Vol. 137/4/1, 298,

[vi] Finkelstein, D.M., viewed on 4/3/2013, “China’s National Military Strategy”, RAND, Chapter 7,

[vii] Finkelstein, D.M., viewed on 4/3/2013, “China’s National Military Strategy”, RAND, Chapter 7,

[viii] Xinzhong Yao, date viewed 31 January 2013, “Conflict, Peace and Ethical Solutions”,

[ix] Ministry of National Defense – The Peoples Republic of China, viewed on 29/1/2013, “Defense Policy”,

[x] China Digital Times, 2012, “Chinese Minister Stresses ‘Harmonious Co-Existence’”,

[xi] An Huihou, 2012, “The Principle of Non-Interference Versus”, Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, 104th Issue,;jsessionid=7D59DF90BD4C7693905899E713B63743?pageNum=4&articleId=230&quarterlyPageNum=24

[xii] The Economist, 7 April 2012, “The dragon’s new teeth”,

[xiii] Xinhuanet, 3 April 2012, “China’s defense budget to grow 11.2 pct in 2012: spokesman”,

[xiv] SIPRI, 2012, “The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database”,

[xv] The Economist, 7 April 2012, “China’s military rise”,

[xvi] Bloomberg, 5 March 2012, “China Raising 2012 Defense Spending to Cope With Unfriendly ‘Neighborhood’”

[xvii] BBC, 22 January 2013, “Q&A: South China Sea dispute”,

[xviii] BBC, 22 January 2013, “Q&A: South China Sea dispute”,

[xix] United Nations, 2011, “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982”, Oceans and Law of the Sea,

[xx] CNN, 2012, “Dangerous waters: Behind the islands dispute”, Edition: International,

[xxi] Global Times, 9 November 2012, “Hu urges ‘maritime power”,

[xxii] The Economist, 19 January 2013, “The drums of war”,

[xxiii] The Guardian, 23 November 2012, “China passports claim ownership of South China Sea and Taiwan”

[xxiv] BBC, 22 January 2013, “Philippines ‘to take South China Sea row to court’”,

[xxv] The Diplomat, 12 January 2013, “Japan, China Scramble Military Jets in East China Sea”,

[xxvi] The Economist, 19 January 2013, “The drums of war”,

[xxvii] Reuters, 5 February 2013, “Japan protests to China after radar pointed at vessel”

[xxviii] Global Times, 11 January 2013, “China ready for worst-case Diaoyu scenario”

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About Author

Jonathon Cini

Jonathon Cini is contributor at the International Security Observer. Jonathon is an employee at the World Economic Forum. Previously he worked at the Peace and Security Institute and was a contributor for Wikistrat on geo political issues in the Asia Pacific and European regions. In addition, he has articles published in Thomson Reuters, the Diplomatic Courier, International Security Observer and Business Review.Jonathon is a native English speaker and is fluent in German.

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