GP-ORF SeriesPublished on Sep 03, 2020 PDF Download
ballistic missiles,Defense,Doctrine,North Korea,Nuclear,PLA,SLBM,Submarines

China’s Strategic Ambitions in the Age of COVID19


 Kartik Bommakanti, China’s Strategic Ambitions in the Age of COVID-19 (New Delhi: ORF and Global Policy Journal, 2020).

Editor’s Note

The growth of China’s economic and military might long precede the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. China was already pressing ahead with its maritime territorial claims, especially in the South China Sea and its continental territorial claims against India. China’s military power has also increased several folds and the pandemic has created opportunities to service its territorial ambitions, which Beijing is increasingly exploiting. It has made critical strategic bets on its ties with Pakistan and Myanmar, and pursued a coercive strategy against states in South East Asia. This edited volume captures the ambitions, complexities and impact of Beijing’s strategic choices as well the response of different countries to China’s growing assertiveness across the Indo-Pacific.

Power is not static in the international system and the world has been witness to the increase of Chinese economic and military might over the last four decades. To be sure, Chinese military power is as much an outgrowth of its economic power. It is a truism of realism that as power expands, so do interests, and China is asserting power to secure its interests. Territorial claims, whether in the maritime or the continental domain, that were latent 15 years ago are today being pressed as China sees increasing opportunities bequeathed by its power. However, the variable and expansive territorial claims advanced by Beijing are also a direct consequence of the distractions generated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The responses of countries across the Indo-Pacific to Beijing’s aggressiveness can best be characterised as a mixture of trepidation and half measures. Although it is premature to dismiss them as outrightly ineffective, they have yet to produce an outcome that fundamentally alters China’s strategic calculus and restrains its aims. Discretion has tended to be the dominant approach of Indo-Pacific states in pushing back against Beijing’s aggressive conduct. Dependence on Chinese medical assistance to fight the pandemic as well as a dense trading and commercial relations with Beijing has left some states more cautious than others. India is a holdout among the countries, finding itself locked in a tense and protracted border military stand-off with China[1], which has claimed the lives of soldiers on both sides. India, while still cautious, has gone farther than other states in the Indo-Pacific in confronting China by reducing dependence on Chinese pharmaceuticals, banning Chinese 59 mobile apps within the Indian cyberspace segment, and additional bans to follow in potentially telecommunications sector[2][3][4]. New Delhi is also forging closer ties with the US, Japan and Australia through the Quadrilateral or Quad grouping that includes the latter three countries and India, which are likely to conduct joint naval exercises[5].

The first section examines the emergence of China as a major military power. Unlike China, the modernisation of Indian military capabilities is more staggered. Chinese military modernisation is an outcome of its economic growth. Determining military spending is a far more complex exercise today than it was a few decades ago. China has maintained a steady and constant rate of military spending (1.9 percent of its GDP), which is far more than what India spends. In absolute terms, between 2010-2019, China spent more on defence than India as its GDP is five times larger, however, in relative terms, it is less than India’s defence expenditure, which stands at 2.4 percent of GDP over the same period. Underlying the improvements being made across China’s various military branches is its quest to become a global leader. Beyond conventional warfighting capabilities, China is expanding its space military capabilities. Its counterspace capabilities are significant and space, which has historically never been intricately linked to geopolitical competition, is now assuming greater salience. The COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities for Beijing to press ahead with its territorial claims in the maritime domain and beyond. China has been more effective in weathering the worst effects of the virus as opposed to its principal rival (the US) and its Asian competitor (India). By pushing ahead with maritime claims in the South China Sea, China has intensified friction with the US and compelled the latter to deploy greater naval capabilities to limit such aggressive moves. The implications of China’s increasing stranglehold over the South China Sea will impact states beyond the region.

The second section assesses Chinese strategic goals in the extended South Asian region. The un-demarcated status of the boundary dividing India and China is at one level at the root of the current crisis between Beijing and New Delhi. However, a combination of Chinese motivations ranging from domestic insecurities to President Xi Jinping strategic ambitions and Indian misjudgments about Chinese intentions are to blame. Beijing has also escalated its territorial claims over eastern Bhutan, opening up another front for the expansion of Chinese ambitions. To offset growing anti-China sentiments resulting in part from the construction of dams along the upper riparian areas of the Mekong Delta, Beijing has pursued intensive outreach to neutralise the growing unease with China by assisting Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. China is also making technological intrusions into other countries through its heavily subsidised 5G telecommunications network developed by Huawei to secure information and pursue espionage.

The third and final section evaluates regional and country-specific responses to China’s strategic conduct in the Indo-Pacific. India and Australia have discovered the importance of forging a strategic partnership amidst the uncertainties undergirding the current US Donald Trump-led US administration’s foreign policy conduct in the Indo-Pacific and Chinese assertiveness. Several Southeast Asian states who depend on China for investment and aid downplayed the extent of the COVID-19 threat initially, and China has worked intensively to limit damage to ties through ‘soft power’. Similarly, Japan has also been treading a fine line in its relations with China. Taiwan remains a lightning rod for China if any country abandons the ‘One China policy’ and establishes formal diplomatic relations with Taipei. India now faces a dilemma over whether it should recognise Taiwan and support its membership to the United Nations (UN), given Taipei’s medical assistance to New Delhi during the COVID-19 pandemic[6].

The larger pattern emerging in Chinese ambitions is driven by a combination of patience deceit, surprise, and stealth aggression. Beijing has coupled this muscular approach by tailoring concessions in the form of medical assistance to wean states away from assuming a potentially hostile posture towards Beijing’s strategic goal – hegemony over the Indo-Pacific. It also dovetails well with China’s historical proclivity for making variable claims, whether in the maritime or continental domains, and frame Chinese responses, which are acts of aggressive expansion, with victimhood to rationalise territorial seizures. The real source of China’s strength lies in the efficient and effective conversion of economic strength into military power, which is why it remains such a daunting state to confront. With few costs to incur, the pandemic has eased Beijing’s aggression and constrained the response of other nations. Yet confrontation is precisely the course on which Chinese leaders have set the country with the Indo-Pacific’s other major powers. Any countervailing coalition, which is now emerging in the form of the Quadrilateral (consisting the US, India, Japan and Australia) must not just seek to limit China’s aims, but equally influence Beijing’s strategic choices. Only this collective effort will generate a genuine equilibrium or balance of power and prevent the establishment of Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific.


Chinese Military Power

  • The India-China Military Matrix and their Modernisation Trajectories
    Authors: Harsh V. Pant and Anant Singh Mann
  • COVID-19: The Chinese Military is Busy Exploiting the COVID-19 Pandemic
    Authors: Harsh V. Pant and Kartik Bommakanti
  • China’s Growing Counter-Space Capabilities
    Author: Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
  • Rising Tensions in South China Sea: Why India Should Worry
    Author: Abhijit Singh

China’s Strategic Calculus in South Asia

  • The Ladakh Crisis: India’s Lapses and China’s Stealth Aggression
    Author: Kartik Bommakanti
  • Chinese Checkers in Bhutan?
    Author: Manoj Joshi
  • The Mekong Subregion in Beijing’s Strategic Calculus
    Author: K. Yhome
  • The Ladakh Lesson: India Must Guard Against Chinese Tech Intrusion
    Author: Gautam Chikermane

China in the Wider Indo-Pacific and Regional Responses

  • In Xi and Trump’s Shadow: The Evolving Australia-India Partnership
    Author: Ian Hall
  • Decoding the Initial Response and Ongoing Impact of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia
    Author: Premesha Saha
  • Japan’s China Dilemma in the COVID-19 Pandemic Situation
    Author: K.V. Kesavan
  • Taiwan Question in Indian Foreign Policy
    Authors: Harsh V. Pant and Premesha Saha


[1] Subhajit Roy and Sushant Singh, “100 days of LAC crisis: Indian envoy reaches out, Delhi waits for Beijing word on talks”, Indian Express, August 13, 2020.

[2] Gairika Mitra, “After The Chinese Apps Ban, India Sets Up A Rigid Vigil”, Express Computer, July 1, 2020.

[3] Rahul Shrivatsava, “Endgame for Huawei? India likely to exclude Chinese firm from 5G roll-out, say govt sources,” India Today, July 24, 2020,

[4] Sushant Singh, “As with Pak, select China entities face extra visa scan”, The Indian Express, August 22, 2020.

[5] Harsh V. Pant and Anant Singh Mann, “India’s Malabar Dilemma”, ORF Issue Brief, Issue No. 393, August 2020.

[6] Taiwan donates 1 million face masks to protect Indian medical personnel”, Hindustan Times, May 8, 2020.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

Read More +