The Biden administration is poised to continue the notion of great power competition expressed in the current National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy. Despite having been at the center of national security experts’ lexicon for the past few years, few have clearly defined, let alone operationalized, what it means to apply the concept to a viable security strategy. Chief among the ambiguity is how strategists confuse the means with the ends of great power competition. Others have debated whether great power competition is a set of unique activities akin to hybrid warfare or historical conditions similar to the power transition theory. However, the debate lacks strategic nuance as it often invokes a false dichotomy of confrontation and cooperation.
There is space for theoretical or historical discussions, but on a practical level, making great power competition a viable and executable security strategy first and foremost requires us to articulate how it can be one. Practitioners and planners must be able to map out what activities that can specifically support great power competition. Equally, we must understand the policy implications of those activities the United States can pursue to achieve a strategically favorable balance of power in the long run.
What is Great Power Competition?
In a 2018 report, the RAND Corporation defines competition as a “state of antagonistic relations short of direct armed conflict between actors.” The report also identifies key conditions under which great power competition is more likely to occur, such as ideological competition, contention about global governance, domestic pressure for political legitimacy, low levels of interstate trust, and consequences of major wars. While national identity, historical memory, and the type of governance are important factors that may drive the intensity of great power competition, they do not necessarily offer operational insight. Others also tend to characterize great power competition from a historical perspective as a period of divergent principles of organizing international norms and institutions. Another popular approach to the concept is treating competition as a conflict, short of war, between an incumbent power and a rising challenger.
Still others define great power competition as a set of activities and means. This is how parts of the US special operations community envision it: building networks and partnerships for influence and legitimacy in peacetime. We can build networks and alliances. We can conduct joint military exercises. We can train partnered forces in small-unit tactics. But these are just some of the available means, not ends. They mean little unless they cause more delays, less maneuver space, or impose greater material costs to the competitor’s objectives.
While these many definitions aid our understanding of the current geopolitical environment, they tend to delineate some characteristics of great power competition rather than define it in a way that engenders an executable strategy. Moreover, they do not offer useful tools for conceptualizing and measuring the progression of great power competition.
To overcome these shortcomings, I offer a practitioner’s definition to concretize how we can strategize and operationalize the concept:
Great power competition is a state of antagonistic relations indicated by time, space, and material progression toward respective objective achievement between two or more great powers.
In this formulation, I posit that the main yardstick of great power competition is the temporally variable extent of a state’s competitive edge. The key is how to execute foreign policy in such a way as to create a favorable relative ratio of objective achievement over time.
Who Are We Competing Against?
While the US National Security Strategy identifies Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea as primary security concerns, few can doubt that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the gravest threat to the United States. While most policy documents use the term “China” to refer to that threat, it is used rhetorically. The focus of our current national security strategic guidance is the CCP, the party that exclusively controls the Chinese regime. This is not a trivial distinction as we are not in conflict with the Chinese people or Chinese diaspora communities. Vilifying China as a whole would only fuel the CCP’s narratives of collective victimization.
The CCP represents the most revisionist power since the Cold War era and possesses a competitive economic model, unlike the Soviet Union. In fact, analysts forecast that the CCP’s economy will overtake the US economy sooner than previously anticipated due to the COVID pandemic. It is particularly concerning that the long-term balance of power between the United States and the CCP is shifting given the latter’s economic growth rate and accelerating military expenditures. Several reasons underscore the importance of having to outcompete the CCP. First, the relative rate of growth favors the challenger. This can intensify how the two powers perceive the temporal dimension of competition. In other words, the hegemon may feel more compelled to counter the challenger and the status quo is at greater risk over time. This, in turn, is likely to compel the challenger to pursue more aggressive policies against the hegemon. Second, the CCP has global ambitions where Russia has limited regional objectives. In other words, the CCP has the means and willingness to achieve its objectives at the expense of the United States’ interests. Third, The PRC is building alliances to counter those the United States leads. Tightening respective alliances tends to exacerbate the intensity of great power competition. Fourth, the CCP appears committed to reshaping the world according to its values and norms.
Simply put, the CCP is actively exporting its economic and political norms such as statist capitalism and surveillance statism to other countries and institutions. For instance, the PRC managed to induce the ASEAN countries to accept a new code of conduct surrounding the freedom of navigation and territorial claims around the South China Sea. The PRC is also deeply engaged in reshaping internet governance to its political preferences where state security is prioritized over privacy and civil liberty. Moreover. The CCP has been actively exporting its digital surveillance methods to suppress political freedom and opposition in several regions. These are just a few of the ways the PRC is leveraging its position to influence political and civil institutions across the globe.
How Do We Keep Score?
What are the effects that we need to achieve a reassuring lead on the CCP? Going back to the above definition, the main goal in great power competition is to impose disproportional costs in time, space, and material in order to achieve a favorable relative ratio of achieving foreign policy objectives. Cost imposition in time entails activities that can force the CCP to take more time than planned to achieve its objectives. Take Taiwan for example. We can assume that Xi Jinping’s objective to either annex or invade Taiwan by 2025 is deliberate for his and the CCP’s domestic legitimacy. If we enable the Taiwanese military to establish asymmetric warfare capabilities such as civil resistance, guerrilla warfare, and aerial-denial weapons and tactics, it can significantly disrupt the existing plans and posture of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In effect, it will force the CCP to delay its plan to annex Taiwan by 2025. If the CCP has to reevaluate its plans and capabilities and fails to achieve its stated objective by 2025, then it also casts additional doubt about Xi’s leadership. In other words, cost imposition can also lead to a legitimacy crisis within the CCP.
Cost imposition in space means that US foreign policy activities increase maneuver space at the expense of the CCP’s. Consider the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), in which the CCP plays a major role and which analysts forecast is more likely to benefit the CCP than the developing countries. The United States can strengthen the World Trade Organization and reengage potential partners in the region on the Trans-Pacific Partnership to pry members from RCEP. Given that the United States and other democracies make up 50 percent of the world’s trading capacity, this is an entirely feasible strategy. By doing so, the United States can substantively shrink the CCP’s economic sphere of influence. In essence, it would contract the economic space that the CCP needs to catch up to the United States.
We can conceptualize disproportionate costs in material in terms of the resources required for both powers to achieve similar or competing objectives. Let’s return to the Taiwan analogy. Asymmetric defensive options supported by the United States will be much more cost-effective than what the PLA will have to prepare in return. For example, if Iraq and Afghanistan can teach us anything about great power competition, it would be that counterinsurgency is excessively more costly than supporting resistance movements. What strategic benefits the United States has reaped from counterinsurgency campaigns in the twenty-first century remains doubtful. Conversely, the United States can impose the perception of such disproportionate costs to deter the CCP from invading or annexing Taiwan.
Now, let us consider a couple of additional scenarios to illustrate how the logic of cost imposition can integrate with the US National Security Strategy. For instance, if we organize and conduct a multilateral naval exercise in the Pacific, the event itself is not an end of great power competition. Rather we should ascertain the impact of such an event by asking three questions. First, does it lead to indications that the PLA is revising and updating its plans for the theater? Second, how much do those efforts delay the PLA’s known objectives in the theater? Third, how many more resources are required to update and revise the PLA’s posture in the theater? For the US-led naval exercise to be effective at imposing additional costs on the PLA, US Indo-Pacific Command should be able to establish observable indications that answer the three questions. Simply put, if the costs in time, space, and material of organizing a US-led naval exercise prove smaller than the costs the PLA is forced to bear in order to adapt, then we can reasonably establish that we are outcompeting the CCP.
Let’s take another example. The CCP is active along the Mekong river with several Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects. Thailand is a one of the major countries involved and one where influence is tightly contested between the CCP and the United States. For instance, the Biden administration is planning to provide alternatives to the BRI. Imagine the United States works with the Thai government to engage local civil society organizations and environmental nongovernmental organizations to ensure due diligence with environmental impact assessments and financial viability audits. This is the same scenario that revised and delayed BRI projects in Malaysia. The purpose is not to hurt the local economies. Rather, it is to help the Thai government achieve more equitable agreements with the CCP. As a result, the United States’ diplomatic efforts can impose additional costs in time, space, and material on the CCP’s strategic objectives along the Mekong River.
What Is to Be Done?
In the end, this article hopes to begin a rigorous and feasible conversation for national security practitioners and planners to concretize the concept of great power competition. I offer three recommendations. First, we need to understand the CCP’s strategic priorities and policies better. Debates about the CCP’s strategic interests are driven by the most conspicuous issues. US policymakers should intimately appreciate the CCP’s grand strategy. More importantly we need to understand potential local and regional friction points to such objectives. Imposing disproportionate costs in short order will require taking advantage of emerging grievances against the CCP outside the mainland. Second, the United States should focus on countries where influence is tightly contested and the CCP is actively expanding its economic and military footprints. We see increasing local resistance to the CCP’s expansionist projects. Third, the United States should develop data-driven analytic processes to observe, measure, and track how different activities are in fact correlated with effective cost imposition in time, space, and material. Without such a system, it would be nearly impossible to optimize how we allocate our resources to outcompete the CCP. It is time that the United States established a means of measuring return of investment on great power competition.
With the Chinese economy likely to overtake that of the United States in the next seven years, the United States does not have a lot of time to learn how to practice great power competition effectively. The only way to sustain or expand American global leadership is to incorporate disproportionate cost imposition in every aspect of US foreign policy execution.
Doowan Lee is a strategic advisor to the Institute for Security and Technology (IST) and adjunct professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. He leverages emerging AI technologies to empower open society and support national security. He is a national security expert specializing in disinformation analysis and great power competition in the information environment. Before joining IST, he taught at the Naval Postgraduate School for more than eleven years as a faculty member and principal investigator. There he developed and executed operational and communications technology projects with federal R&D agencies to support the US government’s efforts to combat violent extremist networks and authoritarian regimes. In particular, he has closely worked with the US special operations community to support overseas operations. Central to this work is a focus on how the CCP and the Kremlin exploit social media and emerging technologies to undermine organic political processes.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: kremlin.ru