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Reading the Tea Leaves: Chinese Strategic Thought; By Balasubramanian C

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

Image Courtesy: Organizational Physics

Article 06/2020

The term “Geopolitics” in the modern sense is a western concept. The history of the term ‘geopolitics’ can date back to 1899 when the term was first coined by the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellen. Its use spread throughout Europe in the period between World Wars I and II (1918–39) and came into worldwide use during the latter.

An Eastern Civilization like China has a distinctive way of conceiving how geography shapes their existence in the world in relation to other entities. In its millennial history, China has developed a distinct geopolitical outlook that influences its foreign policy still today.

Chinese Strategic Thought:

The chief principles to examine to understand China’s geopolitical perception is to examine the philosophical pillars upon which it is based. There are three hierarchical levels:

  1. The Family

  2. The Kingdom

  3. The World

They should be organised in a hierarchical but harmonious way where each element has its role and pursues it for the stability for the system.

In practice, keeping order in the kingdom means ensuring peace at home by preserving the sovereignty of the state, while maintaining the world order rendered into establishing an international system that grants China’s security.


With a focus on Peace and Harmony, Confucianism disallowed expansionism and considered war as a last resort that was to be waged only for defensive purposes. But in practice, this was always not the case, throughout history, China has recurrently sought to expand its borders to increase its power, control vital trade routes along the Silk Route and improve its own security. These aspects are closely related to the traditional concept of Tianxia (天下), which means “All under the Heaven”, a concise way of speaking of the traditional Chinese vision of the world order.

In ancient China, the emperor was a guarantor of peace and harmony which had to be ensured on a universal scale covering everything located under heaven. However, this was never achieved, as rival states, tribes and kingdoms outside of China’s sovereignty have always existed. This resulted in the Chinese developing a “concentric view” of the international system. At the core laid China (Zhōngguó -中国) itself, considered to the centre of the world in geographical and cultural terms. Chinese civilization was considered superior to that of adjacent populations deemed as non-civilized and barbarians. It also perceived China as a “beacon of culture” that can shape over to neighbouring and rival kingdoms, people and civilized them.

Ying Yang Juxtaposition:

Ying Yang

A second significant feature is the “Ying Yang” (陰陽 / 阴阳) juxtaposition described by Taoism. The Ying regarded as feminine, moon and subordinate element, while the Yang is the masculine, sun, creative and dominant one. The two coexist and blend in a harmonious manner.  In times of war, this is interpreted as initially adopting a passive stance and then performing a counter-attack from a position of strength. Such belief is reflected in the writings of Sun Tzu in his book “The Art of War”. Sun Tzu mentions the Tao, which means the way, and describes ways to dynamically combine stillness and movement to defeat the enemy. Sun Tzu insists on military leaders to avoid a direct confrontation, especially when the bulk of enemy forces, and instead control in the areas where the adversary is weak by exploiting the potential of the situation. This is to be done by waiting or by vigorously creating an opportunity allowing to strike from a position of strength, either by deceiving or outmanoeuvring the adversary. The ultimate aim and supreme achievement of the general are to win a war without fighting, so as to triumph in a cost-effective manner.

These concepts are deeply ingrained in Chinese strategic thinking, as they are found in other works such as those of Sun Bin in his treatise also named “The Art of War”, a supposed descendant of Sun Tzu and the lesser-known treatise “Hundred Unorthodox Strategies” whose author remains unknown and controversial.

Game of GO: Chinese Strategic Play:

Thirdly is the game of “GO” (Weiqi 围棋), an ancient Chinese strategy board game played to the present day. The exact origin of Go is unknown, but the game has long been regarded as an exercise in discipline and strategic thinking. This strategy board game resembles chess, although the two games differ profoundly. There are two players, one using white stones and the other black ones. On each turn, the player must place a stone on the board, which is initially empty. Depending on how it places the stones, the player can turn the opponents’ one into its own. But in actuality, GO is actually way more complex than chess it requires much skill and most of all, a comprehensive long term vision, as it all depends on appropriately placing the stones in a strategic manner to control the largest area of the board. Fundamentally the game is about creating a sphere of influence greater than the other player. As it can be seen today, China is applying the principles of GO to extend its global influence.


Like all great civilizations, China considers itself to be the center of the world. In Chinese, it reflects this conception as Zhōngguó (中国), which means the Middle Kingdom. Through much of its history, China’s borders were much smaller than the present ones. Its territory was limited to the large coastal strip of agricultural plains fortified by the Yellow River and the Yangtze River Basins. This region was the Economic, Demographic and Cultural Hub of the realm where the Han population concentrated. The concern was dealing with the other peoples. Throughout history, the Chinese rulers have attempted to solve the issue by integrating other kingdoms into a “Sino Centric Vassal” System. Subject states had to recognize Chinese ‘suzerainty’ and offer some tribute. But the whole issue was often largely symbolic and the vassal states were in essence autonomous.

Yet this allowed china to maintain positive relations and ensure the safety of its borders. Despite which the Chinese under the Ming Dynasty occasionally launched military campaigns to protect their vassals as in the case of the Korean Joseon Kingdom against the Japanese invasion in the late 16th Century. They also attacked neighbouring territories like Vietnam, which was invaded multiple times under Ming and Qing dynasties of China.

The matter was more problematic for the Chinese in the case of nomadic tribes in the north. They represented a constant threat for China for centuries and in two occasions they managed to conquer the country and establish imperial dynasties as in the case of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in the 13th Century and the Manchu Qing Dynasty in the 17th Century.

Against these barbarians’ tribes, the Chinese resorted to numerous strategies to keep the nomads out, including engineering, warfare, and diplomacy. Upon lack of choice but to set up defensive positions along the border, the Great Wall was constructed and military campaigns conducted to eliminate the threat.

In the occurrence of a foreign tribe managing to conquer China then the Chinese relied on Soft Power. They were self-assured that their culture would absorb the invaders and turn them into Chinese. And this was proved in the case of the Yuan and the Qing Dynasties which eventually became one with Chinese characteristics. Despite its imperfections, the “China Centric System” continued to exist for centuries until the might of the western powers and Japan drew China into submission. This tragic period lasted from 1839 – 1949 which China regards as the “Century of Humiliation”, which is a crucial component of the national identity of modern China. Since its formation, The PRC has implemented a strategy to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity including preventing foreign interferences and this is largely based upon this century-old principles.

China Today:

China wants to protect its core which still consists of the coastal area along the two great rivers the Yellow River (Huang He) and the Yangtze. This hydro-basin hosts the vast majority of the Han Population and is the country’s economic heart where the main cities lie including its industrial and financial centres.

China perceives threats against this region from the sea or from the land. The need to defend the coastline from foreign aggression is one of the reasons why China has been building up its Navy and has built its “Anti Access and Area Denial” (A2/AD) Platforms like long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles. China’s primary concern is to deter or defeat a US intervention, most notably in the case of a contingency over Taiwan. In this logic, it developed a strategy based on three defence layers to keep the US forces far from its coasts.

On the land side, the threat of nomad tribes has disappeared, but to protect its heartland China still wants to control a vast buffer zone to increase its strategic depth which partially explains China’s actions under Mao Zedong in his ‘Right Palm Five Fingers’ strategy. Mao described Tibet as right palm and Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh its five fingers.  The regions of Xinxiang and Tibet were swiftly occupied immediately after the creation of China and also the intention behind the current leadership President Xi Jinping is determined to keep these two regions under control.

In this sense it can be explained to see China as an island, the western areas are a buffer zone to protect China’s core, just like the sea is to the east. In the territorial disputes China is involved in the South China Sea, it is implementing the classic principles of Chinese strategy.

It seeks to avoid an open confrontation and in many cases (employing Classic Strategy of ‘Art of winning without a fight’) it employs paramilitary forces and naval militias to assert its claim in the South China Sea without resorting to the military and it gradually builds facilities and deploys its forces to strengthen its position.

Finally amid a revival of Confucianism at the state level the old conception of a “Harmonious Sino Centric Order” has reemerged under President Xi Jinping. China is representing it’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative including its Maritime Silk Route (MSR) as a peaceful and mutually beneficially project, but it still reveals the one that has China at the centre.

In addition, many geopolitical observers note that the strategy China is employing in building these infrastructures resembles the game of GO, by gradually positioning these facilities and then by linking them together China is slowly expanding its sphere of influence not only across Eurasia and the Indo – Pacific but also Africa and South America. This portrays that China not only has its distinctive geopolitical conception but that it has a deep influence in China and understanding it is important to assess and counter the Chinese current strategy.

Balasubramanian C is a Research Officer at the Chennai Centre for China Studies.  His areas of interests include Sino –Russia Relations, Indian Ocean Region, Geo-economics, Security and Strategic Studies. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author)

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