The Other Side of Chinese Sea Power: 'White Area Warfare'

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There are good reasons why the United States and its strategic partners show growing concern over the build-up of Chinese military power and the Chinese Navy. The rapid rate of increase in Chinese military spending – and in the size and modernization of Chinese naval, air, and missile forces – makes it clear that China is seeking to become the dominant power in the Eastern Pacific and Indo-Pacific region. China is steadily improving its capability to invade Taiwan, is shifting from a role as a brown-water to a full blue-water navy, and is expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf.

The current war in Ukraine is a clear warning of how quickly any crisis, involving one of the world’s great powers, can escalate into war and how the ambitions of any authoritarian state can lead to a serious conflict. No one in Asia or the world can ignore the risk that the tensions over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the wider range of Chinese military activity in the Pacific could lead to a major military clash or war. The unclassified data provided on the rapid expansion of Chinese sea power by the U.S. Navy, U.S. intelligence community, and Congressional Research Service (CRS) make these risks all too clear. So do similar analyses by several of America’s strategic partners in Europe and Asia and by a wide range of think tanks. It is also clear that China currently projects continuing increases in its sea power, missile and air forces, and nuclear forces for at least the next decade. This means that the U.S. and its partners must act to deter any Chinese use of force and be ready to engage in combat if there is no other option.

At the same time, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) demonstrates its growing global role and the one dependent factor on the civil side of sea power. So do the steady rises in the size and value of China’s trade, in its merchant marine, in global dependence on its more advanced manufactures, and in the competition for energy resources and sensitive strategic minerals.

China, however, is scarcely Russia, and Xi is scarcely Putin. China’s steady rise to the status of a military and economic superpower has so far shown that China is cautious; willing to move slowly and carefully; and has emphasized politics, economics, and indirect military pressure over conflict. Assessments like the annual U.S. official China Military Power Report also make it clear that Chinese strategy integrates civil and military operations and that China’s civil advances in trade, technology, and manufacturing capability cannot be separated from its rising military budgets and force levels.

It is something of a strategic cliché to note Sun Tzu’s famous statements, such as, “To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting,” and “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” Yet, no one who attends Chinese military conferences or talks to Chinese planners can ignore the extent to which Chinese military and civil leaders still emphasize the use of economic and political power, military demonstrations and exercises, and the indirect use of force.

There is a very real cultural difference between China and the West in addressing the need for integrated civil and military strategies, and China seems much more committed to integrating civil and military activity at every level.

This commentary entitled, The Other Side of Chinese Sea Power: “White Area Warfare,” is available for download at

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Emeritus Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy