By Vivek N. Joshi
Advisor, A-Joshi Strategy Consultants Pvt Ltd, Mumbai, India
Image Attribute: Workers peel papers off a wall as they re-paint the Chinese Communist Party flag on it at the Nanhu revolution memorial museum in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province May 21, 2014. REUTERS/Chance Chan
The first and second parts of this series dwelt on the grand strategies of USA and India respectively (1,2). The third part of this series contemplates the grand strategy of China. These studies are neither prescriptive nor critical, and are not meant to be comparative as each country has unique Compulsions & Constraints. Comparisons are drawn for the limited purpose of clarification. The strategic culture in China is much more developed than in India, and now reaching the sophistication of that in the USA. Like in the case of India, millennia-old cultural & historical contexts and influences are important in the shaping of modern China, compared to the USA which is a relatively very young nation. The unit of analysis in this study is the modern Peoples Republic of China (PRC), which was formed after the communist revolution in 1949. The geographical, historical & cultural contexts of China will be examined for the limited purpose of understanding their impact on the grand strategy of the modern nation-state. The analysis continues to follow three guiding principles of Strategic Thinking: (a) focus on Capabilities, which take a long time to build or counter, in contrast to Intentions, which can change overnight (b) focus on actual Actions and not on postures and (c) careful evaluation of Actors, their Powers & their Interests.
From among ancient civilizations, China stands out as the only nation-state which is nearing its historical peak. All others have declined from their peaks, though India continues to offer a promise of resurgence. Starting from the banks of the River Wei, China has periodically gone through contractions & expansions, with the net expansion & consolidation over millennia resulting in a vast nation-state dwarfing its earlier manifestations. China borders as many as 17 countries and is effectively the “center of gravity” of Asia. It will remain the most populous country until about 2030 when it is likely to be overtaken by India. The core “Han” China, comprising about 90% of the population originally occupied about 40% of the landmass of the present day territory (3). Annexations of East Turkestan (Xinjiang) to the west, Tibet in the southwest, Inner Mongolia to the north and Manchuria to the north-east thereafter has enabled China to build buffers in the directions from where its core has been threatened in the past. To the west beyond Xinjiang are the Central Asian "stans", a region which is also the underbelly of Russia. This is the ancient silk route, and where China is now building part of the massive “one belt one road” program. This program is designed to provide it trade & energy security, geopolitical influence and to help pull its rebellious peripheries into a tighter embrace. To the north lies the sparsely populated far east of Russia, parts of which was under Chinese control at different times in history and now is at risk of encroachment by China. Further to the north-east is the client state of North Korea, and the port of Vladivostok which China was forced to cede to Russia in 1860 when China was weak (4). To the southeast and south are the dense jungles of South-East Asia. The border with Vietnam offers a break from these barriers and has historically been a location for conflict. Alternating between being an independent and a vassal state through history, Vietnam has been a trip wire for expansion of the power of China. To the south and southwest are mountains and large parts of the Himalayan border with India are still effectively impassable, though China has built extensive infrastructure from its core to this border. In the same direction is a small border with Pakistan, including territories claimed by India. China is building infrastructure southward in another leg of its one belt-one road program, through areas claimed by India, to connect its landlocked west to the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea.
To the east & southeast, is the waters of the Yellow Sea (Bohai & Korea Bay), East China Sea and the South China Sea (SCS). As John Mearsheimer has said in his book “The tragedies of great power politics”, such large bodies of water have their own stopping power, which is a serious impediment for an invasion (5). Across the narrow Taiwan straits to the east is Taiwan, which lies in the center of the “first island chain” extending from Kuril Islands (north of Japan), passing through Japanese islands, Ryukyu islands, Taiwan, north Philippines and ending at Borneo in the South (6). Taiwan was described by Gen. McArthur as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” (7). Access to the Pacific Ocean from the SCS effectively passes through the lower of half of this first island chain. Access to the SCS from the Indian Ocean is through the narrow Malacca straits bordered by Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, with the Andaman & Nicobar islands of India to the west. An alternative route passes through a “tri-seas” area south of Philippines, north of Indonesia and north-east of Brunei. China claims very large portions of the resource-rich & critical trade routes of the SCS almost 500 nautical miles from its coast, defining a “nine-dash line” to mark its claims. Sovereignty over several of the islands within this line”, like the Paracels, Spratlys & Scarborough Shoals, is being contested by many littoral states. PRC has used force in the 21st century to possess & build infrastructure on some of these islands, regardless of international laws & conventions.
Beyond this chain of islands lies a “second chain of islands”, starting from the east of Japan in the north, passing through the Mariana Islands, Guam, Micronesia, and almost to Indonesia in the South (8). Further beyond this second chain is Hawaii, beyond which China faces the western seaboard of the USA across the Pacific Ocean. The raw material sources for the economy of China are scattered across the world. Unlike the USA, China cannot yet control its entire supply chain, which traverses the Suez & Panama Canals, the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The narrow Malacca straits, tri-seas area, and the SCS have several bottlenecks at which supply into China can conceivably be chocked by hostile navies. Starting from a position of geographical vulnerability, modern China has now reached a stage where it has clear geographical logic. However, unlike in the case of the USA and peninsular India, geography continues to decisively constrain China in several directions.
China had several sub-cultures, which eventually coalesced to a significant extent in response to external threats, and are now commonly & incorrectly grouped together as the “Han”. While India is an imperfect coalescence of many riverine cultures, the Han are more culturally “homogenous”, partly due to the gradual and steady outward expansion from a core. Unlike in India, religion has not been a strong force in China, and as an authoritarian communist country it now actively discourages practice and propagation of religion. China has had a series of dynasties through its long history. Unlike in the case of India, several Chinese dynasties ruled over vast territories, further enabling a relatively higher degree of cultural coalescence. The philosophies of Confucius have permeated the consciousness of successive Chinese states throughout history, including that of the current PRC. These include an emphasis on the importance of “order & discipline”, meticulous formality, and prioritization of welfare of society over that of the individual. The Emperor was traditionally considered as the intermediary between heaven and earth, with an elevated stature, and the “middle kingdom” was positioned between heaven and other earthly states.(9) Other neighboring kingdoms were considered inferior, and those which were not conquered had to become vassal states, paying tribute to the emperor and receiving generous gifts in return. Such vassal states were left alone as long as their interests were aligned, and they accepted the “superiority” of the emperor. Matters of warfare were guided by the military theorist Sun Tzu, who enunciated his strategic principles millennia ago (10). These principles like “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the pinnacle of skill”, “biding one time and lying low” and “warfare includes hard and soft power” continue to influence the PRC, and the broader strategic discourse. China has had an admirable bureaucratic framework for more than 2000 years, with even written examinations to determine admission on merit. Despite internecine warfare, the bureaucracy continued to become more sophisticated over time. The dynasties of China peaked with the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD), culminating in leadership in many aspects (11). During this period Admiral Zheng-He led a formidable expeditionary naval armada with ships much larger than contemporary European ships, sailing on routes stretching to Africa (12). Towards its end, this dynasty withdrew from the world, and even the grand imperial fleet was allowed to fall into disrepair. The decline of an isolationist China then continued for several centuries, highlighted by Napoleon in his comment that it is “better for the world that the middle kingdom sleeps, because the world will tremble when she awakens” (13). This decline eventually led to a period which is deeply seared into the consciousness of China as its “century of humiliation” by foreigners. This century started in 1839 with Britain forcibly continuing the trade of opium and the acquisition of Hong-Kong, continued repeated attacks by other countries, and ended only in 1945 with the defeat of Japan in WWII (14). During this period China was attacked by several foreign countries. The Boxer rebellion (1899-1901) in China resulted in 20,000 troops of a coalition (UK, Russia, Japan, Germany, USA, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary) attacking Beijing, leading to thousands of Chinese women committing suicide to escape humiliation by some of the attackers (15). Japan, in particular, fought many wars with China, with repeated forays including the infamous “rape of Nanjing” in 1937 during the second Sino-Japanese war. Unlike India, China successfully used its massive interior to resist & exhaust invaders, and did not pass completely into the hands of a conqueror. Even the invading Mongols (Yuan dynasty) assimilated and eventually accepted the Chinese culture.
The dynastic rule in China came to an end with the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, and a weak republic came into existence with the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen as its head, leading the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) (16). The communist party (CPC) was established in 1921, with Mao Zedong as a founding member (17). At the time of the death of Sun in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek headed an authoritarian regime of the Nationalist party, and Mao led the communists. A civil war started in 1927, in which the Nationalist regime initially prevailed. This regime was then weakened by repeated wars against invading Japanese forces. Mao retreated into the deep interior on his “long march”, and eventually his million man peasant army defeated the forces of the Nationalist party. Mao established an authoritarian communist government, and the PRC. It is noteworthy that both regimes claimed to be the real government of China, and ruled through suppression in their respective territories. Communist China eventually had a falling out with the communist Soviet Union and partnered with the USA in the cold war. The architect of this partnership, Henry Kissinger, notes in his book “World Order” that the “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution” unleashed by Mao had severe deleterious impacts on the fabric of the country. The balance between “legitimacy” & “power” of the state continues to be heavily tilted towards “power”(18).
It is noteworthy that ancient China rarely went on long & distant military campaigns to conquer, relying instead on the awe inspired by the “heavenly” emperor. The philosophies of Mao are captured in quotations like “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” & “War can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun” (19). Modern China in the form of the PRC has frequently lashed out at its smaller neighbors. These include Tibet (1950), Xinjiang (1949), India (1962), Vietnam (1979), Philippines (Scarborough Shoals / Spratly islands) & Vietnam (Paracel islands) in the 21st century (20). The Korean War and Sino-Soviet clashes across the Ussuri River (1969) have been other conflicts of the PRC. Annexed areas like Tibet and islands in the SCS have been used a platform for making claims on even more territory, and China has ongoing territorial disputes with many of its neighbors. Annexation of Tibet has given China control over the third largest source of freshwater in the world, and the largest in Asia. The building of large dams across several cross-border rivers in disregard of international conventions has been a matter of concern for its neighbors, with Brahma Chellaney in his writings estimating that China will be in a position to control 30% of the river flow into India by the year 2030 (21). China has the second largest economy in the world (largest in terms of PPP), which fuels the second largest outlay on the military and arms in the world with 70% of the arms produced domestically.
Following the principle of “war by algebra” of Clausewitz, Mao said that “quantity has a quality of its own”(22). China already has, or will soon have, the largest army and air-force, largest submarine force by 2018, an innovative ballistic missile program for attacking aircraft carriers, rapidly modernizing weapon systems, hundreds of attack boats, sophisticated sea mines, and leading edge capabilities in cyber & space warfare. China had for a long period emphasized “peaceful rise” as a principle, though its actions were often not in sync with this posture. The national defense policy of 2015 has for the first time enunciated the principle of “forward defense”, and the improving military capabilities are now accompanied with increasing military assertiveness in its neighborhood. China can claim only Pakistan & North Korea, beneficiaries of nuclear proliferation, as its allies. All of the countries which incorporate the “first and second island chains” have close economic relations with China, but none are its allies, and several are potential adversaries allied with the USA. The avid traveler Robert Kaplan in his writings has called the South China Sea the “Cauldron of Asia”(23). China has a sophisticated, long-term and deeply nuanced understanding of “comprehensive national power” (zonghe), its pillars and its projection. In 2003 the CPC formalized the use of psychology and media in “zonghe”, internally and for targeted countries. Stefan Halper & Dean Cheng have described these as a use of “harassment”, “demoralization” and “influencing & shaping public opinion, discourse, perception and attitudes”(24). Regarded as an authoritarian country itself, and with the absence of public positions and diplomatic postures in areas like human rights and plurality, China has not yet developed the soft power to the extent that USA and India have.
China under Mao remained a very backward and poor country. At the time of his death in 1976, the size of the economy (GDP) of China was less than even the GDP of India. His pragmatic successor, Deng Xiaoping, opened up the economy of China, which facilitated economic growth at a speed and impact unprecedented in global history, lifting hundreds of millions out of hunger and poverty. The growth in the GDP was enabled by China becoming the “factory of the world” in low technology products, and by infrastructure developed on a massive scale in a short period, though consumption still remains low by global standards. Starting from a lower GDP in 1978, China now has a GDP nearly five times that of the India and has a reasonable probability of becoming a middle-income country. It has now effectively abandoned “Maoism”, and is a communist country with effectively a capitalist economic system. Conventional economics questions the massive infrastructure creation without regard to economic viability. It is important to note, however, that China has tested the limits of conventional economics, and now has a stock of infrastructure which would be of use as it progresses towards becoming a middle-income country. The growth was financed by state-owned banks, and the country now faces a debt burden which is almost 300% of its GDP, and which could threaten the stability of the banking system itself.(25) It has the largest foreign exchange reserves in the world. “Free” reserves, however, fall below the level of adequate foreign reserves recommended by the IMF based on various parameters. Though the Renminbi has recently been accepted as one of the “reserve” currencies, it will take several decades for it to attain the status of the US Dollar. The infrastructure development has run its course and wage inflation has eroded the attractiveness of China as a low-cost manufacturing destination. Unlike for India, graying of the population and deteriorating dependency ratio is a challenge for China. With a median age of about 38 years, China will become an older country than the USA by 2018, and risks becoming the only major country which is “growing old” before “growing rich”(26). The growth of the economy is slowing significantly, with an accompanying “rebalancing” towards increasing consumption as a driver for growth. The economic liberalization has been accompanied by severe environmental degradation, large-scale corruption, and without political liberalization, with the PRC remaining, and even becoming an increasingly authoritarian state under the current administration. The Gini coefficient of income inequality at 0.46 in 2015 for China is higher than that for USA and India (27). The richest 1% own about 33% of the wealth of the country, while the bottom 25% own only 1%. Unlike in the case of India the Gini coefficient between provinces is higher in China than within provinces, highlighting the disparity between the coast and the interior. China has now reached an important economic turning point.
Like it was important to specifically examine China & Pakistan in the context of India in part 2, it is important to examine Taiwan & Japan in the context of China. After the regime changed in 1949, the deposed Chiang fled to Formosa (Taiwan) across the Taiwan Straits, forming the authoritarian Nationalist Chinese government and claimed Taiwan as the “real China”. Taiwan had an open economy and industrialized rapidly to become a major exporter of electronic and other engineering products. Starting from the mid-eighties it has now become a thriving democracy and has the standard of living of a developed country. PRC defines acquisition of Taiwan as a “core” interest, along with Tibet and Xinjiang, and has declared that it will invade if Taiwan ever formally strives for independence. Taiwan was replaced in the UN by the PRC as a result of the China-USA partnership in the cold war, and China has prevailed in ensuring that other countries cannot have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China has often threatened Taiwan through hostile acts which carry the risk of dragging the USA, which has a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, into a possible conflict. China has offered to assimilate Taiwan, like its assimilation of Hong-Kong in 1997, under the concept of “one nation two systems”. There is little evidence that the people of Taiwan are interested, and a referendum carries the risk of provoking an invasion by the PRC. Taiwan is an emotive issue in China, raising strong nationalistic feelings.
Japan has invaded China often in the past and is also uncomfortable with being identified as one of the vassal states of China in history. Samuel Huntington has identified China-Japan as one of the civilizational fault lines in his writings on “The Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of the World Order”(28). China had to cede Formosa (Taiwan) to Japan in the 19th century, which remained a colony until the defeat of Japan in WWII. Japan competes for influence in the same parts of Asia, and to be the “core” of Asia. China claims the Senkaku islands in the possession of Japan and calls them Diyaou islands. It has similar claims to Okinawa territories of Japan, where the USA has large military facilities at present. Japan has been a leader in engineering and technology for several decades and has the third largest economy in the world. A pacifist constitution after WWII and security guarantees, including a nuclear umbrella, from the USA, precluded Japan from militarizing for a considerable period up-to-the mid-nineties. Since then Japan has built up a significant air and naval defensive forces and the increasing assertiveness of China is now compelling Japan to further build up its military. Given its technological prowess, there is little doubt that Japan can quickly become a formidable military power whenever it chooses to do so. Unlike the India-China rivalry which is clinical, the China-Japan rivalry has strong emotional components similar to the India-Pakistan rivalry.
With this background and in the context of the Imperatives for China, the analysis now postulates the grand strategy for China:
a) Maintain the unity of China: Unlike USA, neither China nor India can take the unity of the nation-state for granted. China has been affected by a characteristic which has persevered over millennia. As George Friedman elucidates in his book “The Next Decade”, whenever China has opened out to the world, the internal conflict between its relatively prosperous eastern coast and it’s much poorer interior have threatened to tear the country apart.(29) China periodically responded to this by withdrawing from the world, and consequentially becoming a unified, but poor country. The Uyghurs of its largest province Xinjiang have cultural & religious affinity with Central Asia and China faces an ongoing armed rebellion here. Tibetans have a cultural and religious affinity with India, and China continues to face passive resistance to its rule here, with a Tibetan “government-in-exile” and the Dalai Lama both currently based in India. China has responded by significantly reducing the original sizes of these geographical areas while defining “autonomous regions”, and also by relocating the Han into these provinces thus altering their demographic balance. The connecting infrastructure built by China across the country, therefore, serves the additional purpose of enabling integration even if the investments do not satisfy conventional economics of Return on Investment (ROI). Issues related to Taiwan and Japan help to increase nationalism and national identity. With the buffer states firmly under its control, a reasonably strong China identity and enabling social & physical infrastructure, China has had significant success in building a nation-state. Fragility consequent to single-party authoritarian rule and external misadventures are key risks.
b) Dominance over its periphery & then beyond: The USA started its journey to become a global power by first consolidating unquestioned supremacy over the Caribbean. Given the importance of the SCS for China, attaining supremacy here is similarly the first step and China is likely to attain “anti-access & area-denial” capabilities over other navies, including the US Navy, by about the middle of the next decade (2020-2030). Over the next two decades, China will strive to extend this supremacy up to the second island chain. At the same time, it will continue to strive for capabilities to protect its supply chains in other areas, particularly crude oil shipping routes. China is already building bases, refueling stations and other facilities along routes in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the Persian Gulf up to Africa. While control of the seas will take several decades more, China is already significantly more advanced in the Cyber & Space arenas, possessing both offensive & defensive capabilities. Given the gap with the USA in technology, alliances, military expenditure and prosperity, China will not strive to displace the USA as the pre-eminent power in the foreseeable future. The goal will be to make China and its core interests invulnerable, except at unacceptable cost to the adversary.
The subsequent step in the great power journey of USA was to attain unquestioned dominance over its periphery and in the western hemisphere. China will push for similar dominance in the long-term after attaining supremacy in the SCS. From the options outlined by John Mearsheimer in his writings (Buckpass, Bandwagon or Balance), its neighbors will need to choose between “bandwagoning” & “balancing”, since buck passing is not an option with a neighbor. Small countries choosing not to bandwagon will be mindful of the fact that a patient China will always be next door, while the USA can retreat to a safe home, thousands of miles away. A combination of persistent encroachment, force projection, and economic relationships will be used to pressurize and induce these countries. Unlike in the case of USA, China also has large & powerful neighbors like Russia, Japan, India and potentially Indonesia, who will not be able to bandwagon with China. These countries will need to be constrained & balanced by a combination of tools. China has several levers to contain Russia and India. Russia has challenges on its western & southern frontiers, a declining & aging power in need of investments and support from China, has a vast far-east which it increasingly cannot control, and hence will not need to be contained. India will be contained through multi-pronged support to Pakistan, encouraging internal discordance & strife (example Maoists) and harassment by infiltration, thus compelling it to remain focus within the subcontinent. Annexation of Tibet is a platform from which areas which are culturally related to Tibet will be claimed, commencing with Tawang, the second holiest monastery site of Tibetan Buddhism in the north-east of India. Options to contain Japan are limited, mainly limited to trade disruption and harassment. Hence Japan is likely to be the primary challenger in the Asian context and can position itself as an alternative “center of gravity” of Asia.
c) Ensure social stability & monopoly of the CPC: Despite impressive economic gains, more than 700 million people in China continue to be very poor. The rapid growth of the economy has helped to maintain social stability. Unlike in the Soviet Union, the CPC has legitimized authoritarian communism by providing economic growth, jobs, improvement in the standard of living and a reasonably efficient government. China will strive to qualitatively enhance the drivers of growth. It now has the highest number of patent applications in the world, has very large scale programs for enhancing the quality of its human capital, is rapidly building world-class academic institutions and burgeoning entrepreneurship.
With the slowdown in the growth of the economy, this “contract” between the CPC and the people of China will come under increasing strain. Rapid growth has resulted in many social problems including severe pollution, an inability of many to afford the purchase of houses, delays in starting families and large-scale migration to cities under the “Hukou” system. Freedom of thought is essential for a society to be innovative in various spheres. Unlike India, China does not have the “safety-valve” of democracy to manage social unrest. China will also be approaching “middle-income” country status by the mid-2020s. The middle-class aspires for more freedom, and the Asian tigers became relatively open democratic systems on attaining this status. It is noteworthy that regime change in China has historically been accomplished through revolutions. The Tiananmen Square revolt by students in 1989 and its suppression by force is an example of unleashed forces for freedom and the reaction of entrenched systems. China will seek to manage social consequences through the rebalancing of the economy, making it more consumption based with significant social welfare components, and strive to maintain the monopoly of the CPC. The overriding priority on retaining the supremacy of the CPC, potentially threatened by social disruption, is the proverbial “Achilles heel” of China.
As the dominant power, USA will be content to be a “status quo” power. Constrained in the subcontinent, India will need to be content with the status-quo for a considerable period of time. As the only country in a position to eventually challenge the USA, China will need to be revisionist. The natural progression of the “zhongi” of China will result in positions conflicting with its periphery, and with the USA. The growth or falling into a disarray of China will critically influence the Asia, and the world. In its actions, China needs to be more sensitive towards generating good will and confidence in its periphery. The USA needs to “pivot” towards Asia more effectively. India needs to match performance with potential. In the quest for the “Asian Century”, the maturity of the leaders of China & Asia will be tested for the coming decade.
It is important to highlight two important contexts of the 21st century which will increasingly be needed in such analyses in future. The first of these is the unit of analysis, which in this study has been the Westphalian nation-state. Scholars have opined that cities will increasingly be the centers of economic activity, with the largest cities & surrounding clusters accounting for a bulk of the economic activity. Politics & economics evolve in consonance, even if with a time-lag. The unit of analysis will need to evolve in future analyses. The second context is that geography of “fixed space”, within rigid boundaries will need to evolve to include the increasing importance of geography of “flows”, of people, information & knowledge, capital, and trade. International relations theories & grand strategies will need to evolve with the resultant world order.
The analytical study of the grand strategy of the three largest countries in the world has been completed in parts 1, 2 & 3. Subsequent studies by the author will shift gears from being only analytical towards being more predictive, thereby providing a platform to anticipate, predict and manage.
About the Author:
Vivek N. Joshi is an Advisor to A-Joshi Strategy Consultants Pvt Ltd based in Mumbai, India. He has international experience in various sectors and is an expert in Strategy, Innovation, and Venture Capital. Vivek has several publications and is an invited speaker on Strategy, 21st Century Challenges, and Management. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering, an MBA from India, and a Master’s Degree in Engineering from the USA
Cite this Article:
Joshi, V.N. "ESSAY | "Grand" Strategies - China: Part 3" IndraStra Global 002, Issue No:07 (2016) , 0011, http://www.indrastra.com/2016/07/ESSAY-Grand-Strategies-China-Part-III-002-07-2016-0011.html, ISSN 2381-3652
Cite this Article:
Joshi, V.N. "ESSAY | "Grand" Strategies - China: Part 3" IndraStra Global 002, Issue No:07 (2016) , 0011, http://www.indrastra.com/2016/07/ESSAY-Grand-Strategies-China-Part-III-002-07-2016-0011.html, ISSN 2381-3652
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2. Joshi, Vivek N., Grand Strategy Part II: India (April 13, 2016). Indrastra, 2016. Available at SSRN:http://ssrn.com/abstract=2764093
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