Chinese great power management: Managing War through the Yin-Yang Strategy

This short essay provides a detailed analysis of China’s strategies for managing the challenges of war and peace through the yin-yang dialectic. It offers a brief overview of historical and contemporary conflict over the Taiwan question between Washington and Beijing and discusses how the Taiwan question has become Beijing’s most difficult strategic dilemma. To manage this dilemma, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has returned to the old Chinese tradition of yin and yang principle. Through ‘yin-yang dialectics’, China has developed a number of innovative, interconnected, and occasionally incompatible strategies. The use of yin-yang strategies by China eludes Western understanding, constituting a major cognitive gap between China and the West. 

The question of whether to prevent a war from occurring over Taiwan or to seek to manage a war over Taiwan is the most important issue for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP seeks to deploy what we call the doctrine, principle, and tactics of yin-yang. Yin-yang dialectical thinking is a traditional Chinese cultural and intellectual framing. It can be viewed as constituting the foundation of Beijing’s approach to managing the problem of war. In some respects, the yin-yang framing sits logically alongside such Western paradigms as ‘soft and hard power’. But there are also notable differences. 

Taiwan is a longstanding potential flashpoint between Washington and Beijing. Three conflicts occurred across the Taiwan Straits in 1954, 1958 and 1960, but on each of these occasions the situation was defused through diplomatic channels. Over time, Washington and Beijing had successfully managed the danger of a war triggered by Taiwan’s moves towards independence. This became a pattern whereby Washington and Beijing cooperated in defusing tensions. The pattern was illustrated in 2003 when the Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian sought a referendum on whether Taiwan should apply for United Nations membership. The Bush administration in the US expressed its objections to Taipei. During the visit to Washington by China’s Premier Wen Jiabao in December 2003, President Bush repeated Washington's commitment to the Three Communiqués. Bush stated that the U.S. ‘opposes any unilateral move by China or Taiwan to change the status quo’. This statement clearly implied that Washington would not support Chen's referendum that could elevate Taiwan's political status to that of an independent nation. Wen responded positively by stressing the merits of peaceful reunification between China and Taiwan. 

While Washington and Beijing have thus managed conflict successfully in the past, we are unsure whether they can continue to do so in the present rapidly changing geopolitical climate. In the last decade, a power shift has taken place in Beijing’s favour in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing considers the United States to be in a state of terminal decline, and therefore views Washington’s continued ‘meddling’ in Taiwan as an increasingly unacceptable affront to its own status. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China broadened the definition of Taiwan independence, accusing both Taipei and Washington of being "revisionist", and labelling any direct governmental and military cooperation between Washington and Taipei as a provocation to openly challenge China’s sovereignty. China has intensified its pressure over Taiwan, using its expanding political, economic, and military clout to try and reshape cross-Strait dynamics in its favour. [1] Beijing perceives Washington as using Taiwan as a stratagem to contain China and potentially provoke Beijing into using force against Taiwan, which would disrupt the peaceful environment China needs for its continued rise. Chinese think tank researchers are increasingly worried that the Republican Party in the United States may violate international norms by openly supporting Taiwan’s independence for domestic American political gain. This concern links back to the Trump administration’s use of Taiwan issue to confront China. Before Trump had been inaugurated as President, he already made a direct phone call to President Tsai Ing-wen, in December 2016. In office, on March 16, 2018, Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which recommended reciprocal visits between high-level Taiwanese and US government officials. The Biden Administration has largely continued Trump’s Taiwan policy, stepping up naval patrols in the South China Sea and upgrading Taiwan’s protocol status. President Biden has declared that the USA would defend a democratic Taiwan if Beijing attacked it. Both sides have reached a new level confrontation: the American side normalises its ‘official’ visits to Taiwan, implicitly recognising Taiwan as a separate state. At the same time, Beijing is normalising its military exercises close to Taiwan. Both sides are escalating the geopolitical tension. 

In the current moment, Taiwan poses a strategic dilemma for Beijing. Unless China employs military coercion or even starts a war, Taiwan is likely to become an independent nation assisted by Washington. Too much military coercion, however, will escalate regional conflict and jeopardise the peaceful regional environment needed for China’s BRI projects. So far Beijing has endeavoured to prevent the Taiwan issue from disrupting the progress of the BRI. Previous leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, displayed strategic patience over Taiwan, saying ‘we can wait one hundred years.’ However today the Taiwan issue is testing Beijing’s strategic patience. Former President Jiang Zemin attempted to complete the holy mission of reunification under his administration after Hong Kong returned to China in 1996, but later delayed this plan due to fierce American resistance at the time. Reunification is clearly on Xi Jinping's agenda now. Xi has projected a passionate determination and belief in his ‘heavenly duty’ to reintegrate Taiwan with China, arguing that this goal cannot be delayed from one generation to the next, which has prompted leading scholars to wonder whether Xi has abandoned the strategic patience of previous administrations. [2] It is speculated China may wage a war against Taiwan in 2024-2025 should there be instability during or after the 2024 American Presidential election, or in 2027, the year that coincides with the celebration of the centenary of the PLA, which could be viewed within China as a way to grant legitimacy to the continuing rule of the CCP. Others cautiously note that the 2027 celebrations do not necessarily imply faster military modernization or a precipitate war against Taiwan. [3] Indeed Xi seems to have committed to a version of strategic patience when he articulated the following 24 word-strategy on March 9, 2023: ‘be calm, maintaining strategic concentration, seeking progress while maintaining stability, taking active actions, be united, and dare to fight’ (Chénzhuó lěngjìng, bǎochí dìng lì, wěn zhōng qiú jìn, jījí zuòwéi, tuánjié yīzhì, gǎnyú dòuzhēng). [4] In addition to this, the Russian army's slow advancement and Ukraine's fierce resistance have given Beijing further reason to prevent or delay any additional military conflict emerging over the Taiwan issue. There is no need to rush into a war with the United States. If China plays a ‘long game’ and averts unnecessary trouble, then it could potentially wear down its competitors while avoiding war.

The question of how to manage this strategic dilemma concerns scholars and policymakers in Beijing. An appealing solution for them lies in ancient Chinese wisdom, especially given the fact that modern science theories – ‘great power transition theory’, ‘liberal institutionalist theory’, ‘democratic peace theory’, etc. – are incapable of predicting whether, where or when there will be war. This leads them to the idea of yin and yang dialectics. Through a turn to and rediscovery of ancient Chinese wisdom, Beijing is seeking its own solution to the problem of how to manage war, and to make its own distinctive contribution to global governance in relation to peace. [5]

The two ancient concepts of the yin and yang are a rich source of Chinese strategic thinking and action. In contrast to the yang, which stands for the sun and is masculine, active, logical, and planning, the yin incorporates the moon, the feminine, the passive, the emotional, and the creative. Francois Jullien uses the metaphor of water to illustrate the Chinese yin principle: water's ‘flexibility’ and ‘weakness’ in fact make it more robust; over time it can eventually erode a rock. [6] In Chinese military thinking, the so-called Seven Military Classics advance the view that ‘the soft’ can control ‘the hard’; in effect the weak can control the strong. [7]

The yin and yang strategy is a way to manage permanent contradictions and offers a path to live with contradiction, seen by Yaqing Qin, the former President of China’s Foreign University. Differ from the thought of Friedrich Hegel who resolves contradictions through a higher-level synthesis of thesis and antithesis, ‘Yin and yang dialectics’ instead aims to strike a balance between opposing or contradictory forces. Within this context the middle way or middle ground is thought to be the best method for achieving harmony. [8] The yin and yang are contradictory to each other but not mutually exclusive of each other; each always contains an element of the other. The yin and yang may complement each other and continue to evolve alongside each other.

The yin-yang strategy can be observed in the history of contemporary China. Since 1949, China has shown a tendency to be assertive – and sometimes outright belligerent – for a certain period, then toning down afterwards with more gentle and measured behaviour. This pattern can be seen in the Taiwan Strait Crises of 1954–58, the 1962 Indian border collision, the 1969–71 battle with the USSR along the Ussuri River, and the Sino-Vietnam War in 1979. In late August 2022, we saw evidence of the yin-yang strategy again, when Beijing agreed to allow U.S. regulators access to audits of Chinese companies listed on American exchanges; this came just a few weeks after China’s largest-ever military drill that had circled the whole island of Taiwan (August 4-7) in protest at U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taipei on August 2. 

In ideal conditions, a yin strategy suggests non-violent action: to ‘win the war without a single shot being fired’. It generates strategic momentum and creates a non-combative zone before deploying military force. Metaphorically, a yin strategy may work in the same way that water acts on a rock, eroding it over time. However, at the same time the success of any yin strategy relies on the yang, that is, military preparation and coercion. For example, in 1247, Sakya Pandita, facing a powerful Mongol force, was summoned to Liangzhou to meet Prince Godan and was subsequently issued a famous letter that facilitated the peaceful unification between Tibet and the Yuan Dynasty. Today, Beijing may hope to achieve peaceful unification through a combination of military coercion and economic interdependence with Taiwan. In addition, Beijing has adopted the tactics of wearing-down (the water and rock) and “protracted war” strategy. China’s frequent military operations across the Taiwan straits make for a high cost to the United States in American military counter-operations. Over time this may create in Washington a feeling of being sick of the Taiwan issue – politically, psychologically, and militarily. Ultimately this may force Washington into making concessions. This ‘wearing-down’ strategy may also apply to Taiwan’s pro- independence activists, the goal being to exhaust their energies and resources, forcing them eventually to moderate and even abandon their demands. Obviously, as a key part of this approach, military coercion is necessary from the perspective of yin-yang balance. 

A further strategic concept to be understood in this context is what can be termed ‘grey zone’ tactics. In recent decades Beijing has deliberately kept conflicts below the threshold of outright war, managing these conflicts so that they remain in balance between the yin and yang. In the words of Qiu Lin, Secretary General of the World Development Institute of the State Council of China, we should ‘not fall into the whirlpool of conflict and confrontation’. [9] In dealing with Taiwan, even though Beijing has increased its military coercion over Taiwan, it is possible to interpret this as evidence of ‘grey zone’ tactics in action. In similar vein, the use of economic coercion tactics may be seen as an attempt to avoid a direct, ‘hard’ military clash. Keeping conflict within the grey zone can be viewed as a military strategy born of an instinctive tendency to continuously further China’s interests as changing circumstances warrant rather than purposefully subverting the order of war and peace in favor of war.

Another tactical concept relevant to the yin-yang principle is called ‘ruan ying jian shi’, which translates as a combination of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ measures – or more colloquially as ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’. This approach requires that the carrots be sweet enough to be attractive and that the sticks be sufficiently hard to deter and punish an opponent.  Ruan (soft) tactics have been used in dealing with Taiwan recently. China’s efforts have included offering incentives for Taiwanese entrepreneurs to relocate their businesses to Mainland China through issuing immigration green cards, the provision of welfare benefits for ‘taibao’ (Taiwanese) people and giving favourable trade benefits to Taiwanese export industries. However, these ‘soft’ measures do not include any element of democracy and thus do not address Taiwan’s main concern with the Chinese political system. [10] For Taiwanese people, the sweetest lure to reunification would be an offer of democracy, but this is not currently on China’s radar. At the same time, Beijing has also applied ‘the stick’ by isolating Taipei diplomatically, sailing aircraft carriers along the line dividing the mainland China from Taiwan and flying air-force sorties around the island. Beijing wants sticks that are harsh enough to deter Taiwan's acts of defiant independence. Beijing's military drill in August 2022 was in fact a military blockade. It remains to be seen whether, in coming years, Beijing takes further actions such as imposing blockades that last months rather than days, or using new military technology such as electromagnetic pulse attacks or drone raids. 

All of the strategies referred to above –military coercion, wearing-down-tactics, grey-zone tactics, and ‘the carrot and the stick’– are a part of an approach called in China ‘Douerbupo’, literally, ‘fighting without breaking’. The term was coined by Zhou Wenzhong, the former Chinese ambassador to the U.S. [11] ‘Dou’ (fighting) here represents a yang strategy while ‘bupo’ (without breaking) suggests a yin strategy. It can be seen as a Chinese conceptualisation of ‘rivalry partnerships’ strategy, or a Chinese great power management approach.  Douerbupo offers China a viable option for managing the Sino-American rivalry over the long term - one that might be helpful in averting conflict. It combines competitiveness and cooperativeness along with an element of combativeness. The approach was proposed by Zhou in 2016, anticipating by several years the strategy advanced by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in 2021 that Washington's approach to Beijing would be ‘competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be’. [12]

The key assumption behind Douerbupo is that China should not be afraid of military confrontation and is willing and ready to fight the Americans. Indeed Wei Fenghe, China's defence minister, told U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in June 2022 in Singapore that: ‘Beijing will not hesitate to start a war no matter the cost and will fight to the very end, if Taiwan declares independence’. [13] However, even if warfare does take place, this does not necessarily imply a full-scale ‘war to end all wars.’ Certainly, the fact of nuclear deterrence might deter total war, and instead encourage a strategy more like ‘fighting without breaking.’ Other pressing matters like economic connections, climate change or the North Korean conflict, among many others, could force Beijing and Washington to reduce the intensity of any actual war should it occur. In the long run, Beijing will need to sustain some relationship with Washington. The principle of fighting ‘without breaking’, according to Zhou’s formulation, means that China is unlikely to smash the existing international order from which it has been benefiting tremendously since its economic reforms of the 1980s. Today’s China depends on global trade, investment, financial system, and the UN system.

The Douerbupo approach is an attempt to balance China’s existing globalist strategy with its decoupling strategy. Both the USA and China have each been pursuing their own version of decoupling. The American version, to pursue a radical decoupling from China, has been criticised by US commentator Henry Paulson because it ‘hurts the United States as well as China, and over the long term, is likely to hurt Americans more than Chinese people’. [14] Rather than adopting a complete and radical decoupling policy, Beijing has continued to implement its global strategy. The 20th Communist Party Congress in 2022 clearly affirmed an agenda to accelerate the building of China as a strong trade nation. This process is clearly underway. Foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Chinese mainland increased 14.4% year over year to nearly 1.09 trillion yuan in the first 10 months of 2022. In the first three quarters of 2022, China's outbound direct investment (ODI) totalled US$106.8 billion, a 0.3% year-over-year decline, but the Q3 figure climbed by 10% from the Q2 figure. In 2021, trade between China and Africa increased by 35% from the previous year. Many nations are expanding their trade with China even as they diversify their commercial operations to protect themselves against China economically. Cross-border claims on Chinese banks are $2.6 trillion as of the end of June 2022, up $1 trillion since 2016.

The yin yang-based strategic approach reveals a distinct and highly sophisticated aspect of Chinese great power management that will likely not be fully appreciated in the West – or at least, not for several years. This approach differs significantly from the dominant American explanations and understandings of Chinese foreign policies. Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, for example, emphasise China’s vulnerability as a ‘peaking power’, claiming that this will prompt China to start a war within a decade. [15] U.S. Air Force general Mike Minihan, in a memo issued in January 2023, instructs officers to prepare for potential military conflict with China over Taiwan in 2025. [16] These assessments overlook China's complex and innovative long-term game. While Susan Shirk perceives China’s current aggressive policies as revealing a loss of restraint by Beijing which derails its peaceful rise, [17] some Chinese policymakers and think tank scholars are arguing that China in fact needs to occasionally deploy offensive tactics in order to balance its defensive actions. From a yin and yang perspective, this so-called loss of restraint is in fact a part of Beijing’s effort to re-balance essential forces. Within yin-yang dialectics, hard or soft power may be applied as appropriate to deal with a permanent state of change and flux. The continual use of yin-yang dialectics by Chinese strategists, and the failure to understand these dialectics on the part of Western analysts and strategists will likely deepen the cognitive gap between the US and China at the geopolitical level. The most challenging issue for onlookers and participant countries in this geopolitical contest is to discern where precisely Beijing is at any moment in the cycle of war and peace. Understanding yin-yang doctrine does not give us the answer precisely. Moreover, whether the CCP can develop the ancient wisdom embedded in the yin-yang principle into modern techniques and institutions for managing the challenges of war and peace is uncertain. Much remains to be seen.

Baogang He

[1] Bonny Lin, ‘Enabling “Patriots” to Be Masters of the Island: Evolution of Xi’s Policy on Taiwan Since 2013’, China Leadership Monitor, Issue 73, September 1 (2022).

[2] Suisheng Zhao, ‘Is Beijing’s Long Game on Taiwan About to End? Peaceful Unification, Brinkmanship, and Military Takeover’, Journal of Contemporary China (2022), DOI:10.1080/10670564.2022.2124349.

[3] Brian Hart, Bonnie S. Glaser, Matthew P. Funaiole, ‘China’s 2027 Goal Marks the PLA’s Centennial, Not an Expedited Military Modernization’, China Brief, Volume: 21 Issue: 6 (2021).

[4] Xinhua News, March 9, 2023.

[5] The 2019 White Paper on China and the World in a New Era, https://english.www.gov.cn/archive/whitepaper/201909/27/content_WS5d8d80f9c6d0bcf8c4c142ef.html.

[6] Francois Jullien, A Treatise on Efficacy (The University of Hawaii Press, Hawaii, 2004), p. 173.

[7] Ralph D. Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (Basic Books, 1993).

[8] Yaqing Qin, A Relational Theory of World Politics (Cambridge University Press¸ Cambridge, 2018), pp. xii-xvii; Barry Buzan and Amitav Acharya, Re-imaging International Relations (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2022), pp. 65-68.

[9] Qiu Lin, ‘Commentary on the Active Shaping of the International Strategic Environment in Southeast Asia by China's Diplomacy since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China’, Research on Indian Ocean Economies, No. 3 (2019).

[10] For a detailed discussion on the democratic approaches to the Taiwan question, see Baogang He, Governing Taiwan and Tibet: Democratic Approaches (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2015).

[11] Zhou Wenzhong, Fighting without Breaking: China-US Game and World Rebalancing (CITIC publisher, Beijing, 2016).

[12] Nick Wadhams, ‘Blinken Says Only China Can Truly Challenge Global System’, Bloomberg (March 4, 2021),  available at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-03/blinken-calls-china-competition-a-key-challenge-for-the-u-s.

[13] Guo Yuandan, ‘Beijing will not hesitate to start a war if someone dare to push Taiwan into independence,’ Global Times (June 10, 2022), https://world.huanqiu.com/article/48MtCFHsiwV.

[14] Henry M. Paulson, ‘America’s China Policy Is Not Working: The Dangers of a Broad Decoupling’, Foreign Affairs (January 26, 2023).

[15] Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China (WW Norton, 2022).

[16] Ryo Nakamura, ‘U.S. General Predicts China Conflicts over Taiwan in 2025’, Nikkei Asia (January 27, 2023).

[17] Susan Shirk, Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2022).

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