Connotation Of Active Defence

 By Maj. Gen. Vivek Sehgal VSM (Retd.)

China has been modernising its armed forces for over three decades. The increased economic well-being has resulted in an ever enlarging budget for acquisition of state of art weaponry and induction of high tech systems in various branches of the PLA. A graduated shift from a continental orientation to a maritime and power projection orientation is also increasingly visible.  While continuing to espouse a benign and peaceful development with continued rhetoric of a defensive orientation and non hegemonistic designs, China has not been able to dispel the growing security dilemma emerging within its immediate and extended neighbourhood. As a result, affected countries are resorting to internal balancing through a concomitant increased impetus to a modernisation of their armed forces and a greater affinity for external balancing through acceptability of an increased presence of extra regional powers as balancers within the region.

Shifting Strategic Orientation

China has moved away from the 24 Character advice of Deng Xiaoping (Roughly  translated as “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”)[1]and exhibited a more aggressive stance in its dealing with the outside world from 2008/09 period. From ‘Peaceful Rise’ to ‘Peaceful Development’[2] (instituted to offset the aggressive intent inherent in the first), to ‘Harmonious World’[3] (when China started proactive engagement with countries espousing a win-win, non- ideological based relationship), to ‘Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation’[4] (regaining the early 19th century stature as inherent in the ‘Middle Kingdom Mind-set’) has been a major change and the world needs to come to terms with the implications of the shift.

Active Defence

The latest Chinese White Paper (2019), stresses on ‘Active Defence’[5] being the strategic orientation of the PLA in relation to perceived sensitivities. Active Defence is not a new concept and was first espoused by Mao as a strategy to guide the Communist Party of China (CCP)  struggle for liberation of China from the nationalist forces. Crystallised as a defensive concept wherein, the Red Army will strategically use space to garner strength, avoiding direct conflict, while simultaneously exhibiting an offensive orientation at the operational and tactical levels to inflict casualties on the nationalist forces when and where an opportunity arises. The concept continues to resonate in military writings by the defence analysts within the Chinese community, however, it is not a static concept and has been changing in response with the emerging international environment and the improvement in the technological threshold of the PLA.

In a globalised world, increased interdependencies have resulted in defence being construed as all aspects of the societal well-being of a nation and is no longer restricted to the territorial angle as hither to fore. It is imperative that ‘Active Defence’ as espoused by China be looked at as a strategy restricted not only to the use of military force in a conflict situation, but as a strategy aimed at mitigating threats (perceived/real), to the articulated sensitivities of the Chinese Nation.[6]These could be summed up as follows:-

  • Sustained Economic Growth.
  • Internal Stability.
  • Perseverance of the CCP rule.
  • Territorial Integrity.
  • Safeguarding its SLOCs.
  • Safeguarding the interests of its expanding diaspora and investments abroad.

In effect any action that is likely to have a negative impact on any of the above is likely to invite  an aggressive response. However, China is currently not in a position to safeguard against all the above in military terms. The perceived period of opportunity (the initial two/three decades of the 21st century), is being utilised in developing its Comprehensive National Power (CNP), to include military modernisation with a view to create a strategic configuration of power, that may in effect prevent any inimical designs by hostile forces. All Chinese actions in the domestic and foreign policy domains need to be viewed in this context. They are proactive steps being taken to ensure defence of the Chinese sensitivities. This in essence is the connotation of Active Defence in the present context.

While in the military domain it aims at institutionalisation of measures ensuring an effective deterrence and should deterrence fail, gaining initiative at the tactical and operational levels ( Anti Access and Area Denial {A2AD}, infrastructure development, military transformation, impetus to information operations etc), in the non-military domain, it aims at developing a disposition that will inhibit development of adverse situations and should a development necessitate, have a configuration that ensures resolution on Chinese terms (Belt and Road Initiative, power projection capabilities, development of overland routes for energy and trade, engagement/participation in bilateral and multilateral fora with view to shape and influence agenda/discussion).

Strategic culture of a nation has been generally studied in relation to that of nation’s propensity towards use of force to meet desired ends. However, with increasing dependencies amongst nations through trade, the means available to meet the ends have increased and so also have the combination of ways to leverage the means. Therefore, in essence, strategic culture has transcended the erstwhile focus on use of force to ways of leveraging the spectrum of options to best advantage.


A combination of means through coercion to appeasement.



Economic Leverages.



Global/Regional Power


Ability to shape environment.

Ability to set agendas.

Ability to influence perceptions.

China is aware of the leverages that it has in its repository and will continue to exploit the same in its dealings at the regional and global levels to meet its national aspirations. They are benefitted due to persistent continuities in their domestic and foreign policy orientation. These continuities are:-

  • Plan for long term.
  • National Interests reign supreme.
  • A close relationship in domestic and foreign policy.
  • Strategic configuration of power – create space for acceptability through mix of coercion and appeasement while simultaneously developing a fait accompli.
  • Real Politic dealings.
  • When strong,exhibit a tendency towards coercion.

In keeping with above, Active Defence has applicability in both the War Domain and the Non-War Domain. The likely orientation will be as follows:-

  • War Domain:-
  • Unity and Sovereignty – Access Denial and Seamless War.
  • Boundary Disputes – Pre-emption and Access Denial.
  • Non War Domain – A perceived/existing dispute emanating from a competition within a common and contested strategic space will require/invite an assertive, coercive approach and resort to unrestricted/hybrid strategy with built in deniability.

It is imperative that the strategic community within India takes note of the larger connotation of Active Defence. We need to be sensitive to the Chinese endeavours in the immediate neighbourhood and take actions to mitigate the emergence of adverse conditions, calling for a more antagonistic response at a later stage.


China is a nation of continental proportions. It has a huge landmass and an equally large coastline in the temperate zone. The landmassprovides it an extended reach into Eurasia, while the coast gives it access to the rest of the world. Chinese economic growth and military modernisation needs to be viewed as an endeavour to extend the reach and securitise the access. While achieving the same, it is developing capabilities that seem threatening to the immediate neighbourhood. The adage, ‘capabilities take time while intentions can change overnight’, is accentuating the security dilemma amongst the countries in the Asia Pacific or now the Indo Pacific region.

China looks at exploiting the period of opportunity to, not only develop/grow economically, but to actively pursue actions that will forestall inimical situations in future, be the diversification of energy resources, building alternative to Malacca Dilemma, developing capabilities to sustain prolonged deployment of forces in IOR, strengthening the confidence of diaspora in the region, becoming an important player in bilateral/regional groupings and an actor whose views can only be ignored at peril.

Though China may not pose an immediate threat, a rise of India in a common regional space will entail overlaps and if India does not pay heed to the developments in China holistically, it may find itself at the receiving end when a conflict of interest occurs.

India needs to focus on sustained economic growth, exploit the space afforded by the hedging towards China in the extended neighbourhood,and modernise its armed forces with niche capabilities to enhance the cost of conflict. Simultaneously, a proactive development of the defence industrial base needs to be undertaken, else in the ongoing arms race in the region, dependence on extra regional countries for meeting our needs of defence acquisition will come with leverages that may not auger well with our stated foreign policy goal of autonomy in international dealings.

This does not necessarily entail an antagonistic relationship between India and China. Continued engagement on the economic front, an understanding towards country specific sensitivities, greater respect and transparency in bilateral and multilateral dealings should guide the relationship between the two.



[1] Deng Xiaoping’s “24-Character Strategy”, Available at>military>world>china>24-character, (Accessed on 17 Feb 2020)

[2]Okuda,H. (2016). “China’s ‘peaceful rise/peaceful development”: A case study of media frames of the rise of China.

[3] Poole, R.E. (2014). “China’s ‘Harmonious World’ in the Era of the Rising East.” Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse, 6(10). Retrieved from

[4] “Xi stresses unity, striving for national rejuvenation at PRC anniversary reception.” Xinhua, 2019-09-30.

[5] China Daily. “China’s National Defence in the New Era.” Available at,>whitepaperonnationaldefenseinnewera.