Michael Losacco is a former active-duty U.S. Army officer who served in Afghanistan in 2017. He currently studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service where he focuses on U.S. National Security Policy and China relations. He can be found on Twitter @mplosacco. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessing China’s Strategy to “Hide Capabilities and Bide Time”

Date Originally Written:  January 20, 2022.

Date Originally Published:  February 21, 2022.

Author and / or Article Point of View:   The author is a former U.S. Army combat arms officer who served in South Asia. He is currently pursuing a Master of Security Studies at Georgetown University. 

Summary:  Since 2008, China has emerged on the world stage as a global power. Its growth within the political, economic, and military domains in international affairs has caught the world off guard. China’s success resulted from efforts undertaken to manipulate perceptions in Washington D.C., known as “hiding capabilities and biding time,” to achieve its core national security objectives.

Text:  China has made major achievements in its economic, military, and political development. With a gross domestic product rising from 54 trillion to 80 trillion yuan, it has maintained its position as the world’s second-largest economy[1]. Militarily, the Peoples Liberation Army has increased its ability to implement a sea-control strategy in the Indo-Pacific by implementing new technology and structural reform. Politically and economically, China has created a favorable external environment through the Belt and Road Initiative and regional institutions. China’s core national security objective—to achieve a “community of common destiny”—drives its success[2].  Under this objective, Western powers do not dictate, influence, or shape China’s political, economic, or security domains.

China’s current success resulted from a deception strategy pursued at the end of the Cold War, designed to manipulate Chinese threat perceptions in Washington. This deception campaign kept U.S. attention away from China, while it focused on building its economic and political might at home. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. was the only superpower in the international system. If there was any perception that China wanted to challenge this status, the U.S. would have likely intervened and stopped it. As a result, it was in China’s interest to divert attention and mask its successes on the world stage.  

To understand China’s deception strategy, the reader must first consider the game-theory scenario of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma, Robert Jervis, Ph.D. explains the Prisoner’s Dilemma as an individual’s decision, after being arrested, on whether to cooperate with their co-prisoner and remain loyal or defect and testify on behalf of law enforcement[3]. Each choice can lead to varying levels of reward and punishment and is further compounded by the other party’s choice. Notably, neither prisoner is aware of the other’s intentions and, thus, fear of being exploited drives the decision-making process. 

Important to this decision-making process is how vulnerable the prisoner feels. Specifically, how each prisoner perceives the other prisoner’s likelihood to cooperate or defect. While neither prisoner will likely know the other’s true intentions, the perception of the other, based on previous history and actions, is critical in predicting the outcome of the dilemma. 

For example, if Prisoner A is predisposed to see Prisoner B as an adversary, Prisoner A will react more strongly and quickly than if either saw the other as benign. In this scenario, Prisoner A is more likely to readily testify against Prisoner B, capitalizing on the benefits of cooperating with law enforcement. Conversely, if perceptions stay hidden or are unknown, the playing field is equal, and neither prisoner can utilize their knowledge to take advantage of the other.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma directly reflects the strategy China pursued at the end of the Cold War. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Gulf War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, China went from viewing the U.S. as a potential partner to a potential adversary[4]. China knew it could not become powerful if it was perceived as a growing threat in Washington because the U.S. would intervene—economically, or perhaps militarily—to prevent it from challenging its position as a global hegemon. Thus, China began a deception campaign across political, military, and economic domains, coined under the phrase “hiding capabilities and biding time.” This campaign sought to mask growth and prevent the U.S. from predisposing China as an adversary. 

China focused on avoiding a security dilemma with the U.S. in the military domain by prioritizing its military strategy on sea denial, whereby China denies the enemy’s ability to use the sea without necessarily attempting to control the sea for its own use[4]. Sea denial was an inexpensive way to avoid setting off alarms and prevent the U.S. from traversing or intervening in the waters near China. China invested in inexpensive asymmetrical weapons such as the world’s largest mine arsenal, the world’s first anti-ship missile, and the world’s largest anti-submarine fleet. Compared to sea control, these efforts avoided a strategy focused on holding distant maritime territory that would raise concern in Washington. 

At the political level, China sought to join regional institutions to inhibit Washington from building an Asian order that could prevent China from growing[4]. China joined organizations such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and Asian Nations Regional Forum under the guise that it was open to transitioning to the liberal order, with a hidden agenda to blunt American power. China’s membership in these organizations allowed it to stall progress, wield institutional rules to constrain U.S. freedom to maneuver, and persuade worried neighbors that a U.S. balancing coalition was not its only option. 

China moved to couple at the economic level rather than decoupling from U.S. economic institutions[4]. Recognizing its dependence on the U.S. market, and that a strategy of decoupling would weaken China and raise alarm, China sought to strengthen its economic relationship with the U.S. and lobby for the removal of annual congressional renewal of Most Favored Nation status. By eliminating this procedural rule and making it permanent, China was able to expand investment opportunities and strengthen economic and trade exchanges, while deconstructing potential economic leverage that could be imposed by the U.S., particularly with trade sanctions, tariffs, and technology restrictions.  

In sum, China’s path to sustained growth required a strategy that masked its true intent to become a great power. By “hiding capabilities and biding time,” China simultaneously grew politically, economically, and militarily, while avoiding actions that could lead to U.S. suspicions. Like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, China understood that if the U.S. became predisposed to think China had ulterior motives to become a power and challenge the U.S., the U.S. would have intervened and taken advantage of China’s weakened state following the Cold War. Thus, China’s ability to manipulate its adversary’s perceptions was critical to achieving its core national security objectives. 


[1] Jinping, X. (2017). 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. In Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era (pp. 1–6). Beijing. 

[2] Rolland, N. (2020). (Rep.). China’s Vision for a New World Order (83rd ed., pp. 35–41). Seattle, WA: The National Bureau of Asian Research.

[3] Jervis, R. (1978). Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma. World Politics, 30(2), 167–214. https://doi.org/10.2307/2009958.

[4] Doshi, R. (2021). Introduction. In The Long Game (pp. 11–12). Essay, Oxford University Press.