2023 in Review: Assessing Shifts in China’s Global Ambitions by Ian Murphy


The 2023 US Intelligence Community Annual Threat Assessment provided key insights into China’s national security ambitions at the start of 2023. Written by the US Intelligence Community as its yearly threat assessment report to Congress, this document analyzes China’s objectives, activities, and military capabilities. According to the Annual Threat Assessment, China’s national security ambitions at the start of 2023 include:

  1. China will continue its efforts to achieve Xi Jinping’s vision of making China the preeminent power in East Asia and a major power on the world stage.
  2. China aims to press Taiwan on unification, undercut US influence in the region, and drive wedges between Washington and its partners while fostering norms that favor China’s authoritarian system.
  3. China will use military and non-military forces in the South China Sea to intimidate other claimants and to exert de facto control in disputed areas.

Reviewing the annual threat assessment allows us to focus on specific threats and opportunities as we enter 2024. Being an authoritative source on China’s national security ambitions, the document provides insights into China’s broader strategic vision, extending beyond the immediate one-year timeframe, and enabling us to see the forest from the trees.

With the new year upon us, we will review the 2023 Annual Threat Assessment and observable Chinese actions to create a SWOT analysis that can help us identify trends in Chinese diplomatic and military behavior, predict how regional powers will react to Chinese power, and propose areas where the United States can challenge China while preventing military escalation.

A notable development was the November 2023 meeting between Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping alongside the APEC summit. The positive spirit of the meeting seemingly contrasts with the Annual Threat Assessment’s description of an increasingly assertive China intent on expanding regional influence at the expense of the United States. However, behind the diplomatic pleasantries, the core elements of China’s regional and global ambitions remain unchanged.

Assessment Using SWOT Techniques

A SWOT analysis is a strategic planning tool used to assess the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats of a country in the context of international security. Using a SWOT analysis provides us with a structured approach to analyzing Chinese behavior and making informed decisions on how the international actors will react to Chinese power.

The scope of our SWOT analysis will include three critical elements that will drive global affairs in 2024: China’s approach to Taiwan, disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and technology competition with the United States in 2023. Strengths identify characteristics that give China a security advantage over others, with Weaknesses providing characteristics that give China a security disadvantage. Opportunities identify elements in the external environment that allow China to formulate and implement security strategies. The final section, Threats, identifies elements in the external environment that can negatively effect China’s ability to operate or enact its desires.

Taiwan Analysis

Taiwan remains one of China’s top strategic priorities. The Threat Assessment predicted increased Chinese political, economic, and military pressure against the island. What played out in 2023 was a series of coordinated aggressive actions against Taiwan, including PLA Air Force incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone and maritime activity around the island. Despite Xi stating that China has no invasion plans for Taiwan during his meeting with Biden, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still officially adheres to possible use of force for reunification. Hence aggression towards Taiwan derives from underlying motivations that are unlikely to dissipate due to Xi’s rhetoric shift. The following SWOT analysis highlights the key factors, positive and negative, that likely shape China’s strategy regarding Taiwan.


  • Growing economic, diplomatic, and military power to coerce Taiwan
  • Ability to shape global norms in its favor
  • Leverage over global supply chains and technology
  • Russia partnership to challenge the United States


  • Global backlash over perceived aggression
  • Economic costs of confrontation
  • Alienating Taiwan public opinion
  • Risk of direct US intervention


  • Increasing pressure at a time of perceived US weakness
  • Normalizing military flyovers and containing Taiwanese military capability
  • Forcing Taiwan into political talks on unification


  • Strengthened US security commitment to Taiwan
  • Taiwan accelerating asymmetric defense capabilities
  • Domestic economic challenges and disrupted Chinese supply chains
  • Severe disruption of the global semiconductor industry

Overall, China sees opportunities to exert increasing pressure on Taiwan to pursue unification, as described in the Annual Threat Assessment. In light of this analysis, the importance of ongoing and strengthened US security commitment to Taiwan is quite clear. China’s government believes it can coerce Taiwan into political concessions without provoking outright war with the United States. However, miscalculations could spiral tensions in unpredictable ways. To mitigate risks, China is likely balancing economic and diplomatic leverage without completely abandoning its assertive military position.

South China Sea Analysis

Similarly, in the South China Sea, the Threat Assessment forecasted China utilizing its maritime forces to intimidate rival claimants and signal control over contested zones. China has remained the most aggressive claimant in 2023, deploying assets to harass regional states’ vessels. While Xi has called for US-China peaceful coexistence, his words ring hollow to China’s neighbors continually facing Chinese coercion, including treaty allies of the United States, Japan and the Philippines. The following SWOT analysis evaluates angles for and against China’s strategic ambitions in the East and South China Seas.


  • Growing naval, air, coast guard, and non-military forces to intimidate neighbors
  • Newly established military installations in disputed areas, notably the Spratly islands
  • Exerting de facto control over contested waters and resources
  • Leveraging economic ties with ASEAN states


  • Over-reliance on military aggression over diplomacy
  • Neighbors allying more closely with the United States
  • Over-reliance on maritime shipping in the region for critical imports
  • International law not recognizing China’s claims


  • Perceived US distraction with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
  • Capitalizing on regional instability and ASEAN fragmentation
  • Exploration of oil/gas fields, fishing, and maritime resources
  • Presenting China as regional dispute mediator
  • Enhanced negotiating power in bilateral relations over multilateral


  • United pushback from US security allies and partners
  • Alternative security and economic alliances among rivals
  • Increased US freedom of navigation operations challenging Chinese claims
  • Permanent loss of contested regional features, increased transparency and media coverage of Chinese aggression
  • Severe disruption of global shipping lanes

In summary, China seeks regional dominance and control of South China Sea resources, explaining its militarization. However, its actions risk creating counterbalancing coalitions. China likely will use gray zone tactics to solidify its maritime claims while avoiding outright conflict. It also may posture itself as a mediator or engage in bilateral negotiations to divide regional states, similar to how it leveraged its economic relationship with Cambodia to weaken ASEAN.

Technology Competition Analysis

Other areas like technology and trade competition, information warfare, and military modernization saw Chinese actions over 2023 largely match the Threat Assessment analysis. The key takeaway is that behind diplomatic overtures, China’s core strategic ambitions outlined at the start of 2023 remain intact. Short-term shifts in rhetoric or isolated interactions signal a change in long-term Chinese motivations around expanding regional influence and undermining US primacy. This SWOT analysis evaluates China’s competition with the United States over advanced technologies, since advanced technology will enable China to pursue military modernization, wage information warfare, and promote domestic economic development.


  • Massive domestic consumer and manufacturing market to dominate global tech supply chains
  • State resources to support technology development, government control over State Owned Enterprises
  • Corporate espionage and IP theft capabilities
  • Alliances with autocratic and revisionist states


  • Reliance on foreign tech components and talent
  • Lagging in semiconductor manufacturing
  • Private sector stifled by state control


  • Leveraging civilian innovation for military modernization
  • Expanding global exports and BRI markets
  • Intranet and private networks allowing for an alternate tech ecosystem


  • US export controls on key technologies, collective foreign export restrictions
  • US alliances maintaining advantage in tech talent
  • Loss of access to Western research institutions
  • Backlash over data privacy and human rights

In summary, China aims to achieve self-sufficiency and surpass the US in strategic technologies, explaining its pursuit of indigenous innovation and supply chain dominance; China’s lags in semiconductor manufacturing, and subsequent dependence on sourcing from Taiwan and elsewhere, remain a key point of leverage for US policy. However, over-reliance on state intervention risks slowing innovation. If China can mitigate weaknesses, it may have opportunities to expand its technology influence globally.

Trends and Policy in 2024

The SWOT analyses on Chinese activities indicates that in 2024, China will continue to increase coercion against its neighbors, prioritize the use of military assets over diplomatic solutions, challenge US alliances, and pursue economic and technological self-sufficiency to contribute to its military modernization campaign. We will see the United States continue to forge alternative alliance structures that confront China economically and militarily, taking advantage of Chinese weaknesses and remove opportunities to divide US allies and leverage civilian innovation for military modernization projects. This includes increasing economic, military, and other unofficial relations with Taiwan, short of declaring the island an independent state. Supplementing US security engagement, Japan and the Philippines are actively seeking to expand their military ties, which will lead to a more unified First Island Chain.

The United States has a number of ways to counter China’s ambitions while preventing outright military escalation. Agreeing to restart military-to-military dialogue during the Biden-Xi talks contribute to the mutual goal of preventing accidental military escalation between the United States and China. In 2024, the United States will benefit from revealing the downsides of China’s economic ties, synchronizing advanced tech denial measures and export restrictions, and promoting domestic and foreign tech innovation among ally nations.

Understanding these strategic drivers rooted in China’s national vision allows better analysis of where genuine shifts may emerge in its future global posturing. Any changes must be evaluated against the backdrop of clearly stated ambitions around regional dominance and global power projection. On this basis, while the 2023 Biden-Xi meeting may promise cooperation, existing evidence suggests China’s fundamental strategic goals remain unchanged. Carefully tracking Chinese actions against these known underlying ambitions remains essential for the United States and allies in adopting new policies that safeguard their national security interests.

Author: Ian Murphy has a background in national security and international business. He earned an MA in National Security Studies at American Military University and currently works at Safe Spaces LLC as a Policy Analyst Consultant, where he helps clients bridge the gap between their business strategies and the geopolitical security environment. Ian can be reached at ianmurphy@safespacesllc.com.

DisclaimerThe opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Navanti Group or its partners.