SecAF Reading List: Understanding Our Pacing Challenge

  • Published
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs


Airmen and Guardians,

As we enter a new era of great power competition, it is crucial that we improve our understanding of our pacing challenge – the People's Republic of China (PRC). To that end, I am publishing a reading list to provide suggested works intended to enhance our knowledge of China’s history, culture, society, strategy, and military modernization program – and their implications for the Air Force and Space Force.

From my own experience serving as an Army officer and member of the Senior Executive Service during the Cold War, I learned firsthand the importance of deepening one’s understanding of potential competitors. By closely studying the Soviet Union, we were able to better appreciate motivations, strategic intent, operational methods, and tactics. This, in turn, helped us better prepare for and prevent conflict. Our ability to anticipate and counter Soviet actions helped us to deter effectively and ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today, we face a similar and, in some ways, greater challenge with China. The PRC's rapid modernization of its military and increasingly assertive behavior in the Indo-Pacific region poses a significant challenge to U.S. national interests, the security of the homeland, and regional stability. There is no time to lose in responding to this challenge. Studying and better understanding China is a prerequisite to making sound decisions about how to best deter, and, if necessary, defeat our pacing challenge.

I strongly encourage all Airmen and Guardians to invest time in reading from among the books on this list. By doing so, you can enhance your understanding of the challenges we face and become a stronger member of our One Team.

Thank you for your unwavering commitment to our nation. One Team, One Fight! 

SECAF Signature
Frank Kendall
Secretary of the Air Force


SECAF Reading List


In this sweeping and insightful history, Henry Kissinger turns for the first time at book length to a country he has known intimately for decades and whose modern relations with the West he helped shape. On China illuminates the inner workings of Chinese diplomacy during such pivotal events as the initial encounters between China and tight line modern European powers, the formation and breakdown of the Sino-Soviet alliance, the Korean War, and Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing. With a new final chapter on the emerging superpower’s twenty-first-century role in global politics and economics, On China provides historical perspective on Chinese foreign affairs from one of the premier statesmen of our time.
The Search for Modern China is a comprehensive and engaging exploration of China's historical transformation from the late 16th century to the late 20th century. Spence chronicles China's socio-political evolution, highlighting key events, figures, and ideas that have shaped the nation's identity. From the Ming and Qing dynasties to the Republican era and the People's Republic, the book delves into the complexities of China's cultural, economic, and political landscapes. By providing rich historical context and examining the challenges faced by this ancient civilization, The Search for Modern China offers a thorough understanding of China's ongoing quest for modernization and its implications for the contemporary world.
China was the world’s leading superpower for almost two millennia, falling behind only in the last two centuries and now rising to dominance again. What factors led to imperial China’s decline? The Rise and Fall of Imperial China offers a systematic look at the Chinese state from the seventh century through to the twentieth. Focusing on how short-lived emperors often ruled a strong state while long-lasting emperors governed a weak one, Yuhua Wang shows why lessons from China’s history can help us better understand state building. Drawing on more than a thousand years of Chinese history, The Rise and Fall of Imperial China highlights the role of elite social relations in influencing the trajectories of state development.
Tuchman uses the life of Joseph Stilwell, the military attaché to China in 1935-1939 and commander of United States forces and Allied Chief of Staff to Chiang Kai-shek in 1942-1944, to explore the history of China from the Revolution of 1911 to the turmoil of World War II, when China’s Nationalist government faced attack from Japanese invaders and Communist insurgents.


The World According to China explores China's ambitious strategy, led by Xi Jinping, to reclaim past glory and reshape the geostrategic landscape. Xi envisions Chinese global centrality, with sovereignty over Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea, expanded global reach through the Belt and Road Initiative, and influence over international norms and values. It is a world radically different from that of today. The international community must understand and respond to the risks and opportunities presented by a world reconstructed by China.
The Avoidable War demystifies the actions of both sides, explaining and translating them for the benefit of the other. Geopolitical disaster is still avoidable, but only if these two giants can find a way to coexist without betraying their core interests through what Rudd calls “managed strategic competition.” Should they fail, down that path lies the possibility of a war that could rewrite the future of both countries, and the world.
China's New Red Guards delves into the resurgence of radical Maoist ideologies in modern China. The book explores the persistence of neo-Maoism and its adherents, despite China's economic liberalization, and examines their impact on Chinese politics and potential influence on the nation's future. Through extensive research and interviews, Blanchette sheds light on this re-emerging radicalism and its challenges to China's current leadership, offering valuable insights into the complexities of contemporary Chinese politics and Mao Zedong's enduring legacy.
The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited provides a compelling examination of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and their enduring impact on Chinese society and politics. Through extensive research and interviews, Lim reveals the Chinese government's efforts to suppress information and erase the tragedy's remembrance. The book uncovers the hidden history of the protests and explores the broader implications of state-controlled memory on a nation's identity. This thought-provoking work is essential for understanding contemporary China and the ongoing struggle for truth and freedom.
The Party provides a gripping examination of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) inner workings. Through extensive research and interviews, McGregor uncovers how the CCP maintains power, controls key sectors, and perpetuates influence through patronage, nepotism, and corruption. The book offers an unparalleled view of the CCP's decision-making processes, explores the challenges it faces, and speculates on its future trajectory. Essential reading for understanding the enigmatic CCP and its role in shaping modern China, this book has significant implications for the international community.


Active Defense provides a systematic analysis of China's military strategies since the 1949 Communist Revolution. Drawing from diverse Chinese-language sources, Fravel investigates the reasons behind the nine strategic guideline changes, focusing on the strategies adopted in 1956, 1980, and 1993. The study reveals that China pursued significant changes in response to shifts in international warfare and when the Communist Party was united. Active Defense offers a comprehensive examination of how and why states alter their defense policies, delving into China's security threats over the past seven decades.
Fire on the Water examines the escalating tensions between China and the US in the Asia-Pacific region, focusing on China's military expansion and its implications for regional stability. The book delves into the strategic, political, and economic aspects of this rivalry, analyzing potential conflicts and diplomatic challenges. Haddick also discusses the US role in maintaining regional security and preserving influence amid China's growing assertiveness. Providing valuable insights into the China-US relationship, this book is essential for understanding the dynamics shaping the future of the Asia-Pacific region and its impact on global stability.


In The Long Game, Rush Doshi explores China's grand strategy since the end of the Cold War, drawing from a wealth of Chinese primary sources. He uncovers Beijing's methodical plan to displace America's hegemony through three sequential "strategies of displacement," evolving from the 1980s to present day. Doshi then proposes a comprehensive, asymmetric plan for the US to counter China's ambitions and strengthen American order, borrowing tactics from Beijing's own strategic playbook to avoid direct competition.
The Hundred-Year Marathon, informed by interviews with Chinese defectors and previously undisclosed security documents, unveils China's covert plan to surpass the US as the global superpower by 2049. Author Michael Pillsbury, a Mandarin-speaking veteran of the US national security establishment, reveals the traditional Chinese statecraft guiding China's military and intelligence agencies. He provides insight into China's perception of America and its leaders, and discloses how the US has inadvertently or intentionally abetted China's rise. Pillsbury urges the US to adopt a more competitive strategy towards China, emphasizing the significance of addressing this pressing national security challenge.
Through a wide-ranging exploration of Xi Jinping’s top political, economic, and foreign policy priorities, Economy identifies the tensions, shortcomings, and successes of Xi’s reform efforts over the course of his first five years in office. She also assesses their implications for the rest of the world and provides recommendations for the United States and others should navigate their relationship with this vast nation in the coming years.
China's Quest for Great Power investigates China's national security strategy through foreign policy, energy security, and naval power, and their influence on China-US relations. With Beijing requiring reliable energy access and a strong navy, the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) protects China's regional maritime interests. The relationship between China and the US is crucial globally and depends on shared and divergent interests. China's trading economy and naval ambitions demand effective diplomacy and global engagement. The book examines how naval modernization and energy security will impact China's future foreign policy decisions.
In "Destined for War," political scientist Graham Allison introduces the concept of "Thucydides's Trap," a historical pattern where a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one, often leading to war. Applying this concept to the growing rivalry between the U.S. and China, Allison warns that both nations are potentially on a collision course similar to those that sparked major conflicts in the past. However, he argues that understanding this pattern can help the U.S. and China manage their relationship, avoid war, and ensure a peaceful transition of power. The book combines historical insights with strategic recommendations, making it a useful read for Airmen and Guardians to understand the competitive dynamics occurring between the US and China.


In Where Great Powers Meet, renowned China scholar David Shambaugh explores the US-China competition for power, particularly in Southeast Asia. This critical sub-region could determine whether Asia remains under American influence or falls into a new Chinese sphere of influence. Shambaugh assesses the likelihood of a regional power transition, examining the assets each country brings to bear, and how ASEAN and its member states navigate between the two powers. The fate of Southeast Asia serves as a significant indicator of the ongoing global power shift between the US and China.
The Elephant and the Dragon is the essential guide to understanding how India and China are reshaping our world. With labor now unbound from geographic borders, we're seeing startling shifts in how―and where―nearly everything we buy is made. In a compelling mix of history and on-the-ground reporting, veteran journalist Robyn Meredith untangles the complex web of business and politics, as well as environmental and cultural issues that entwine India, China, and the West. She also outlines how Americans can understand the vast changes coming and thrive in this new age.
The Future is Asian explores the 21st-century shift from European and American dominance to the emerging Asian era. This book reveals a vast, multi-civilizational system impacting 40% of global GDP and uncovers the true drivers of Asia's rise, debunking common misconceptions. No aspect of life remains untouched by Asianization, which influences investment, trade, entertainment, and education. With America's tech sector reliant on Asian talent and politicians praising Asia's achievements, the Asian century is solidifying its presence in global consciousness. This book offers a vital guide to understanding and navigating this transformative period.
Taiwan is one of the great paradoxes of the international order. A place with its own flag, currency, government, and military, but which most of the world does not recognize as a sovereign country. An island that China regards as a 'rebellious province', but which has managed to survive defiantly for decades. Now with its neighbor China a major power on the world stage and ally United States looking increasingly inward, Taiwan's position has never been more precarious. This book reveals how the island's shifting fortunes have been shaped by centuries of conquest and by a cast of dynamic characters, by Cold War intrigue and the rise of its neighbor as a global power, and explains how this tiny island, caught between the agendas of two superpowers, is attempting to find its place in a rapidly changing world order.