Tufts World Historian Outlines History of Chinese Grand Strategy

The Great Leap Forward took place from 1958 to 1962.

The Great Leap Forward took place from 1958 to 1962.

At a Georgetown University event on November 15, Sulmaan Khan, a professor of international history and Chinese foreign policy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, outlined a history of China’s grand strategy from the Mao Zedong era to the present under President Xi Jinping. 

Khan defines grand strategy as the merging of various sources of power including military, economic, and diplomatic, in pursuit of a common goal. Grand strategy is a nation’s long-term goal, not merely a reaction to temporary circumstances within and policies of other nations. He argues that China’s grand strategy has focused on finding its place in the balance of global power during and after the Cold War by modernizing China’s military without destabilizing the economy or displeasing its citizens. 

Khan notes that Mao had a vision that China was much more vulnerable and weak during the 1920s and 1930s when compared to other periods throughout history. He notes that Mao wanted to rebuild China and restore its rightful place in the world. After Mao’s victory in 1949 over the Nationalists, Mao began reaching out to other nations. Khan believes that Mao had a better understanding of the global balance of power than is typically realized. He explains that Mao reached out to Stalin and both agreed that China and Russia needed 20 years of peace to rebuild their economies and industry after facing devastation during World War II. 

Khan explained that China’s strategy and perspective has always been defined by its geography. China worries about coastal attacks and invaders, as well as threats from its northern and western frontiers where Russia, North Korea, and India are. 

During the Mao era, China learned the importance of always keeping relationships open and maintaining opportunities for dialogue with other nations. Khan explained that he found the term “Sino-Soviet split,” inadequate, as China never intended to end its relationship with the USSR; rather, it aimed to show its displeasure but maintain cooperation in other areas. 

Khan also explained the strategy behind the economic reforms of both Mao and his successor, Deng Xiaoping. Khan explained that Mao’s infamous Great Leap Forward, which resulted in tens of millions of deaths in an attempt to modernize the country, was about building up an industrial base as a foundation for a strong military. Following Mao’s death, Deng aimed to integrate market forces into the socialist Chinese economy, what he called “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Deng reduced foreign aid payments, reduced the size of China’s military, and instituted the one child policy in the name of fiscal responsibility. Khan explained that China has continued to follow the path set by Deng to modernize both its military and technology sector. Khan argued that China learned from the swift U.S. victory in the Gulf War that military technology matters. 

Ultimately, Khan warned that China’s pursuit of industrial growth has led to the environmental degradation of its rivers and the militarization of artificial islands, threatening fish stocks that China depends upon for food and thereby posing a risk to China’s ambitions.