Commentary: China’s Quest for Global Primacy by Timothy R. Heath, Derek Grossman, Asha Clark (Rand Publication)

 By Col Akshaya Handa

All the three authors of the paper are senior defence analysts with RAND Corporation and have extensive experience in studying and analysing China. Prior to joining RAND Timothy Heath served as the senior analyst for the US Pacific Command’s China Strategic Focus Group. Derek Grossman served over a decade as the daily intelligence briefer to the director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, and to the assistant secretary of defence for Asian & Pacific Security Affairs. Asha Clark is an experienced Defence Analyst and has worked with various think tanks and also with the US Government.

Conflict and/or Competition

Deng Xiaoping had emphasised, “Hide your strength, bide your time” as the guiding philosophy of Chinese Foreign Policy. However, even before Xi Jinping came to power, calls for a reinterpretation of the quote had started rising[1]. In less than half a decade, post the ascendance of Xi Jinping, most observers agree that Deng Xiaoping’s policy has been irrevocably abandoned[2].

US and China are today the two premier powers in the world, with the gap between their comprehensive national power (CNP) diminishing rapidly. This has often raised concerns of as to whether the two powers are likely to fall into the Thucydides trap.[3] The postulation has been further reinforced by Xi’s pledge that by 2049, China will have achieved the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” – a term that encapsulates both economic and territorial significance[4]. However, the Chinese author’s assert that “it is true that the United States has come to regard China as its most important competitor, but that does not mean that China and the United States will eventually engage in war or other forms of all-out conflict and confrontation”[5]. Albeit, simultaneously they blame the US and the west for competition and likely conflict.[6]

Vision and Path to Global Leadership

China’s ‘Vision of Global Leadership’ – as per the authors – is to be the “first among equals permitting it to set norms, rules and values for the world”. It aims to achieve this vision by establishing a network of client states and, employ its CNP to wrest control of global/multilateral institutions and also renovate them to uphold Chinese norms, values and preferences especially in the management of space, cyber, law and maritime domains. On its periphery it aims to become the predominant economic, political and security power, and use its BRI to incorporate the developing world as part of its political and security constituency.

The research concludes that the reduction in the gap of CNP between the US and China has emboldened the latter to seek Global Domination, by winning the inevitable competition while avoiding conflict with the US. It aims to achieve this by establishing primacy in the Indo-Pacific, hegemony centred on Eurasia, Middle East & Africa and Chinese leadership in the international order. For this, it will rely on its economic prowess and diplomatic manoeuvre i.e., by keeping the US and Europe divided; cooperating with Russia, with the latter being the junior partner; network of client states across the developing world in Eurasia, Africa, Middle East and Latin America and many such measures.

The employment of non-military domains to achieve geostrategic aims is not new to China. Therefore, it is not difficult to predict that in addition to diplomacy, China also defends its sovereignty and interests with ‘combination punches’ including administrative, economic and military measures, as well as a combination of official and non-governmental parties[7]. This has since been refined to what some believe to be “the three forms of warfare concept, vis public opinion warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare, which are conducted to create internal contradictions”[8]. Hence, the conjectures of the authors are plausible as they are consistent with China’s international behaviour of claiming peaceful intent while systematically interfering in internal matters of other states with an aim to (at best) convert them into client states or (at worst) hinder their capability to take decisions inimical to Chinese interests. These are also supported by voices coming out of China who believe that before the Opium War, China was the centre and method of the world and that China is finally returning as both centre and method under Xi Jinping[9].

As per the authors, for success, China will have to avoid war with the US for achieving its goal although limited/proxy wars are possible; US power be degraded, to a level where it is limited to the American continent and globally it accepts China’s leadership while refraining from interfering with Chinese interests and; Chinese primacy over Eurasia, Middle East and Africa is established. Also, the US and China manage their differences as per norms upheld by China while cooperating on shared concerns defined by China. Since, Taiwan, South China Seas, US Military presence in Asia etc, may act as a deterrent to the Chinese plan therefore Chinese Defence Strategy will remain important to the overall scheme. It will aim to forestall US attempts from China building a superior military while preventing conflict with the US, managing crisis and engaging in a proxy or limited conflict, deterring the US from challenging China anywhere along its periphery and supporting grey zone and diplomatic activities as also discrediting or weakening US appeal.

While deterring war with a superior military power would certainly be aimed for – India is likely to be viewed differently. It’s a power, which can challenge China in critical domains vis periphery, developing world as well as multi-lateral forums. Hence, China is likely to use its full arsenal against India to protect its perceived interests. Apart from its grey zone tactics and deterrence, if need be, limited war or hostilities may be resorted to. In the US-China paradigm, deterrence would suffice but a perceived militarily weaker power, capable of challenging in multiple domains is unlikely to be accepted. In addition, it will have the advantage to discredit US as a dependable military partner. Hence, the regions of conflict are likely to be in areas inaccessible to the US military.

The authors have identified the main challenge to the Chinese plans as being domestic vis economic imbalance, corruption, regional unrest and the demographic challenge. The fact that PLA is an unattractive partner and lacking power projection capability also finds mention. Some other factors which may be included are the politics within the CCP leading to reports of conflict with[10],[11] and side-lining[12] of the premier, once likely considered to be the President; China turning away from foreign influences[13] and trying to control businesses which were the engine of its economic resurgence[14]. All this is likely to adversely affect its economy. The Anti-Sanctions Law passed in June 2021 permitting it to throw out foreign multinationals and confiscate their assets in response to sanctions imposed on Chinese officials would further disincentivise foreign investment[15].


As per the authors, the implications for the US are that it needs to strengthen its network of alliances and partnerships while considering Indo-Pacific as the critical domain and upholding US credibility as a global leader. For this, it needs to build short and long-term capabilities to deter China. This would involve sustained investment in future military capabilities, better protection of US interests in Indo-Pacific and cyber, greater importance to military diplomacy, continued provisioning of public goods like sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) and expansion of capabilities to areas not touched upon yet.

China’s aim to build the most powerful military in Asia has serious implications for India. Coupled with its endeavour of surrounding India with client states, attempts to reform global governance to confirm to it and the propensity of employing both grey-zone tactics and proxy war demands the highest level of vigil within India. Also – unlike the US-USSR competition – considering the proximity and direct nature of the threat, non-alignment is no longer a viable option. While the US-China competition is likely to last a decade-plus, it also offers India an opportunity to replace China as a manufacturing hub. However, moving up the technological ladder too would be critical.


Earlier a nation state’s survival depended upon military power and consequent territory & wealth it holds. However, today global primacy is more an issue of being able to hoist one’s values and preferences on the world – a game which China has planned for in detail. While the west prepares for and counters the same; nations on China’s periphery, perceived to be inconvenient and militarily weak may face conflict, especially in areas inaccessible to western militaries. It would have the added advantage of discrediting the west as a trustworthy partner. A strong and technologically advanced military force capable of deterring the PLA is therefore essential. Simultaneously, the competition between the West and China provides an opportunity for India to move up the technology ladder and emerge as the manufacturing hub of the future.


[1]Huang Youyi  “Context, not history, matters for Deng’s famous phrase” Global Times 15 June 2011, Accessible on Accessed on 15 June 2021.

[2]Kevin Rudd  “Emperor Xi’s China Is Done Biding Its Time” Bloomberg Opinion. Accessible on Accessed on 15 June 2021.

[3] In 12 of 16 cases over the last 500 years, in which there was a rapid shift in the relative power of a rising nation that threatened to displace a ruling state, the result was war.  Graham Allison “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, 24 September 2015. Accessible on Accessed on 15 June 2021.

[4]Editorial Board, “China’s long march to national rejuvenation” Financial Times. Accessible on Accessed on 15 June 2021.

[5]Zuo Fengrong  “The Thucydides Trap and a New Type of Great Power Relationship: Discursive Competition in Sino-American Relations” Reading the China Dream. Accessible on Accessed on 15 June 2021.

[6] “We might describe U.S. national identity as ‘democracy first, white people first, and America first,’ and another word for ‘America first’ is hegemony.  Whether it was Time magazine founder Henry Luce’s ‘American Century’ from 1941, or Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s ‘American Pacific Century’ in 2011, or Joe Biden’s ‘Why America Should Lead the World Again’ from his presidential campaign, all reflect the hegemonic attitude that America is the only power. Xie Tao (2020) “2020:  Sino-American Relations and U.S. Politics in the Time of the Pandemic” Reading the China Dream, available on  accessed on 17 June 2021.

[7]People’s Daily Online  “China defends sovereignty by combination punches”. Accessible on Accessed on 16 June 2021.

[8]Wu Su-wei and Jonathan Chin “Measures against China’s ‘gray-zone’ tactics detailed” Taipei Times. Accessible on Accessed on 16 June 2021.

[9]Zhang Cheng “China as Center and Method” Reading the China Dream. Accessible on Accessed on 17 June 2021.

[10]Lingling Wei and Jeremy Page  “Discord Between China’s Top Two Leaders Spills Into the Open” The Wall Street Journal. Accessible on Accessed on 16 June 2021.

[11]Kalpit A Mankikar  “Is China facing a Xi Jinping-Li Keqiang rivalry amidst a job crisis?” Money Control. Accessible on Accessed on 16 June 2021.

[12]BBC  “Li Keqiang: China’s marginalised premier” BBC News. Accessible on asia-china-19870221. Accessed on 16 June 2021.

[13]Vijay Gokhale “Cracks in Fortress Beijing: Insularity, inequality, conformity, discord with neighbors – these didn’t make America No 1” The Times of India 16 June 2021 page 10.

[14]In September 2020, an 18-year prison sentence was imposed, on a real-estate executive Ren Zhiqiang who’d criticized Xi in a private email. The following month, the world’s largest initial public offering, that of the financial firm Ant Group was axed. Beijing subsequently launched an antitrust investigation into Ma’s other creation, the e-commerce company Alibaba Group and later carved out the company into smaller companies. Then in April 2021, Ma was removed as president of Hupan University, the ultra-elite business school he founded and endowed in 2015. Finally in May 2021, regulators approved Jack Ma’s Ant Group to start running a new finance company. It will absorb the most profitable part of Ant — the consumer lending business. Ant will contribute its massive portfolio of $155 Bn in outstanding loans – in effect handing over the Finance Business to a State Owned Enterprise.  Simultaneously, in November 2020, a leading private businessman Sun Dawu who ran an agricultural conglomerate, was arrested because he had spoken in favor of political reform. Finally, until a recent low-key appearance, Jack Ma, the founder of both Ant Group and the e-commerce giant Alibaba, hadn’t been seen in public for months after he criticized the party’s handling of financial reform. See John Pomfret (2021) “China’s Leader Attacks His Greatest Threat” The Atlantic available on accessed on 17 June 2021, Michael Schuman (2021) “The Undoing of China’s Economic Miracle” The Atlantic available on accessed on 17 Jun 2021 and George Calhoun (2021) “The Sad End Of Jack Ma Inc” Forbes available on accessed on 17 June 2021.

[15]South China Morning Post  “China’s anti-sanctions law: how companies can avoid picking a side” South China Morning Post. Accessible on Accessed on 17 June 2021.