What’s Great Power Competition? No One Really Knows

Philippine and U.S. Marines begin their assault after storming the beach during an amphibious landing exercise at the two-week joint U.S.-Philippines military exercise.

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Philippine and U.S. Marines begin their assault after storming the beach during an amphibious landing exercise at the two-week joint U.S.-Philippines military exercise.

It’s the “trillion-dollar question,” one Marine Corps planner says.

More than a year since the new National Defense Strategy refocused the U.S. military away from counterinsurgency and back towards the country’s greatest strategic competitors, some policy and strategy experts say the Pentagon hasn’t yet figured out how to “compete” with Russia and China.

In fact, it hasn’t even settled on a definition for the “competition” in “great power competition.”

The uncertainty has left former officials scratching their heads about how, specifically, the Defense Department plans to counter China and Russia beneath the threshold of armed conflict. It also appears to be pulling the Pentagon’s policy planners beyond their traditional purview of fighting and winning wars.

“The NDS has two pieces to it: it says you have to compete with China and Russia and prepare for conflict with China and Russia,” said Mara Karlin, a former deputy assistant defense secretary for strategy and force development. “Those are different. The way you would manage and develop your force is different depending on which one you are biasing towards.”

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It’s clear that the Pentagon is focused on the competition piece of the strategy, says Karlin, who now runs the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies. “But that leads me to the question: What do you mean by competition? You can drive a truck through the idea of competition.”

One Army official involved in strategic planning said that there is pressure from above to come up with such a definition. But, the official said, there is some “reluctance” to do so — in part because there is disagreement over whether there should be a universal definition for the term, or whether “competition” should be defined country by country. And planners are also having trouble articulating what the transition from “competition” to outright conflict would look like, the official said.

Officials across the Defense Department, when asked what the United States is doing to implement the strategy, often begin by talking about economic investment, security assistance, and arms sales. In part, this is because China in particular is using economic tools to achieve military results, and pulling the United States along with it. In Greenland, for example, Beijing sought to finance and build three airports that the DOD feared it could seize for military purposes if Nuuk fell behind on its payments. In Africa, Pentagon leaders are watching to see whether Beijing will invest in a West African port that could harbor its warships at need. “We need to understand it so that we know how to respond to it,” said the Army official.

The NDS emphasizes a cross-agency approach to the problem, calling for “the seamless integration of multiple elements of national power — diplomacy, information, economics, finance, intelligence, law enforcement, and military.” Throughout its unclassified public version, the strategy highlights the importance of U.S. alliances and partnerships in “expanding the competitive space.”

“The willingness of rivals to abandon aggression will depend on their perception of U.S. strength and the vitality of our alliances and partnerships,” it reads.

But those kinds of non-conflict partnership activities are traditionally under the State Department’s purview. There are questions about whether the department even has the expertise necessary to do the kind of economic analysis that “competing” with China seems to call for. (There is no “chief economist” at the Pentagon, as there is at the State Department, for example.)

“It is kind of the trillion-dollar question,” U.S. Marine Corps Pacific Division Director, Gayle von Eckartsberg, at a conference in Washington last week. “How does the United States actually compete effectively when there’s so much demand for these resources and China is stepping in?”

DOD officials insist that the United States will continue to be the partner of choice for smaller countries that need financial or security assistance. “I think the track record is becoming more and more clear with China’s predatory economics. So I guess one of the messages is ‘buyer beware’,” Randy Schriver, the Pentagon’s top policy official for Pacific security, told reporters earlier this month. “I don’t think we’re as concerned with the dollar-for-dollar side-by-side comparison with China, because what we offer are clean, transparent, scandal-free approaches that benefit the people of the recipient countries, not just a few of the corrupt elites.”

But some analysts are skeptical that the United States will be able to compete “to be a better partner.” In many states that are susceptible to Russian or Chinese influence, American officials are late to the party or hamstrung by ethics considerations. Other countries may be more likely to choose Chinese equipment or training over U.S. offerings because Beijing asks fewer nosy questions about human rights or end use of the materiél.

Moreover, said Karlin, “There is not a lot of evidence that merely having an economic transactional relationship has translated to strategic gains. It is a piece of a much broader puzzle.”

“We should not just anchor to selling countries things,” she said.

More traditional signals of military strategy shifts, like force posturing or re-sizing various command headquarters, have only happened around the margins, Karlin said. Last year, the DOD adjusted the deployments of some aircraft carriers and pulled some anti-missile defenses out of the Middle East — although the United States announced Friday that it is sending back a Patriot battery in response to “credible” threats from Iran. But, Karlin said, “picking winners and losers [within the department] is a posture issue. To what extent do we meaningfully shift our posture from the Middle East to Asia and Europe?”

The shift in strategy seems to be forcing both policy and operational leaders at the Defense Department to take on issues beyond their traditional purview. In a press conference last week, the commander of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, a new specialized Army unit designed to train and assist partner forces, said that training for conflict with Russia and China forced his unit to adjust “to how we integrate in a nonmilitary environment as part of our training plan.”

“The shift from conflict to competition…there are some adjustments necessary,” said Brig. Gen. Scott Jackson. “That type of environment that we would operate in is different than a conflict zone. Authorities are different and relationships are different.”

Part of that training includes “expanding out our understanding of how the State Department works and other interagency aspects of the government work so we can work as part of their team,” Jackson said.

Or in Africa, for example, where a White House strategy calls for countering Russian and Chinese influence, success is measured by “partners recognizing us as the preference and then maintaining those strong partnerships so that we have the ability to respond when need be,” according to Michelle Lenihan, the Pentagon’s top Africa policy official. “Our whole mission here is support to diplomacy and development. So there are no military alone solutions in Africa,” she said in a recent interview that focused heavily on trade investment and economic engagement initiatives like Prosper Africa — run by USAID and the Commerce Department.

The issue is complicated by President Trump’s ongoing trade war with China.

“I don’t think basically that recent U.S. administrations have had a strategy for how to deal with China long-term,” former defense secretary Robert Gates told CBS’s “Face The Nation” on Sunday.

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