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A Focus on Great Power Competition

Written by Stephanie Cannon


Background

Under the past two administrations, military and security officials have made “great power competition” central to U.S. national security. This strategy replaced the framework of counterterrorism operations in the Middle East that dominated the security policy-making field the decade before. By keeping U.S. security policy centered on the rising great powers, officials will best construct an approach to address the most relevant security threats.


Using the background provided by the Congressional Research Service’s report on renewed great power competition, this paper will assess the effectiveness of a national defense strategy framed around great power competition. The assessment is based on the potential impact of China and Russia’s national security investments on U.S. defensive capabilities immediately (within one year), in the short-term (within five years), and in the long-term (within ten years). China and Russia are making these investments through weapons development, gray-zone warfare, and regional influence.


Weapon Production

Although the U.S. has long been a leader in conventional weapon production, it no longer holds superiority in conventional weapons supplies or manufacturing their components. A long-term effect of this disadvantage is the potential for the current system to depend on China and Russia for weapon components, materials, and software. Thus, the most effective solution would be for the U.S. to strengthen its supply chain security.

Another area of concern for weapons development and supply is the size of nuclear stockpiles. Although there has been dialogue of reducing nuclear stockpiles, the current strategies of the U.S., Russia, and China stand in direct opposition to this goal as all three countries seek to modernize their weapons systems. China’s recent increase in nuclear weapons development may make it a greater nuclear threat to the U.S. than Russia. In the short term, the great powers’ modernization of their nuclear weapons systems will counteract efforts to limit future supplies of nuclear arms, as none of the powers want to be the first to reduce their nuclear stockpiles.


Gray-Zone Warfare

Gray-zone warfare has become an increasing center of discussion for national security. Russia and China are engaging in gray-zone warfare tactics against the U.S. These operations are happening on many fronts: cybersecurity, information security, and paramilitary operations. Immediate effects include Russia and China continuing to lead disinformation campaigns against the U.S. to divide the nation further. They will also continue cyber operations to decrease U.S. security in this realm. In the short term, Russia and China will continue to use hybrid warfare and disinformation campaigns to increase their regional influence throughout the world.


Regional Influence

Outside of weapons and warfare, the three great powers are competing for regional influence. One battleground is the Indo-Pacific. China is competing with the U.S. for influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Many U.S. allies in this region rely on practical cooperation with the U.S. military to ensure their security. However, the U.S. does not have a holistic strategy to counter Chinese aggression, as China continues to increase its influence in this region through gray-zone warfare tactics, including island-hopping. Chinese regional influence policies immediately threaten U.S. allies’ security. In the long-term, Chinese aggression threatens confrontation with U.S. forces, especially in the South and East China Seas.


Another region that is facing battles in regional influence is Europe. Russia is seeking to increase its influence in Europe through gray-zone operations. In the short term, Russian aggression threatens the security of NATO’s Baltic members. However, the United States' reputation of being a military leader who can defend its NATO allies will face challenges in the long term.


The past few months have highlighted regional influence battles in the Middle East and Central Asia. China and Russia are seeking to increase their influence in these regions. With U.S. troop withdrawals in this region, leaders leave a power vacuum that will likely be filled by one of the other great powers. In the immediate future, Russia and China will work with the Taliban to increase their influence in Afghanistan. Russia and China will increase their influence throughout Central/Southern Asia and the Middle East in the short term.

Recommendation

The national defense strategy should keep “great power competition” as the organizing principle to address conventional warfare, emerging gray-zone warfare, and regional influence campaigns. By keeping this framework, the U.S. does not elevate a single security issue, such as cybersecurity, above all others. Instead, the “great power competition” framework enables the U.S. to holistically approach all of the most relevant security issues facing the world today. These issues include weapons supplies, supply chain security, cybersecurity, information security, and the security of our allies. In each of these issues, it is clear that the U.S. has two main adversaries: Russia and China.

If the U.S. decides to elevate another framework, it will risk Russia and China putting “great power competition” as their top priority, leading the U.S. to have a strategic disadvantage in every significant security category. Therefore, to ensure the U.S. creates a National Defense Strategy that will protect the country from the most significant threats on every security front, the U.S. must use “great power competition” as the framework for national security strategy.

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