This article is part of the National War College’s contribution to the series “Compete and Win: Envisioning a Competitive Strategy for the Twenty-First Century.” The series endeavors to present expert commentary on diverse issues surrounding US competitive strategy and irregular warfare with peer and near-peer competitors in the physical, cyber, and information spaces. The series is part of the Competition in Cyberspace Project (C2P), a joint initiative by the Army Cyber Institute and the Modern War Institute. Read all articles in the series here.
Special thanks to series editors Capt. Maggie Smith, PhD, C2P director, and Dr. Barnett S. Koven.
Attend any wonky discussion on the challenges posed by China’s rise, and someone will insist that the United States must compete with China. But ask those same pundits to define what competition with China looks like, and instead of getting a straight answer, you’ll be met with incredulity, as if competing with China is really a set of self-evident and indisputable foreign policy options. Most often, competition with China gets reduced to mirroring Chinese actions—if China is going to invest in infrastructure for the developing world, so should the United States. The same, mirror-image thinking is also applied to increases in China’s military, advancements in artificial intelligence and quantum computing, and so on. Contemporary discussions on great power competition are devoid of proactive, self-justified foreign policy options. A US reactive posture cedes the initiative to China, allowing Chinese interests to dictate the time, place, and modality of competition. To escape its reactive rut, the United States should apply the logic of what in business contexts is called competitive strategy, develop a coherent response to China’s rise, and shape the arena of competition to favor America’s strengths and exploit China’s weaknesses.
The presumption that actors or states have a say in how competition plays out is in some ways at odds with many strategic approaches grounded in various schools of international relations that take an essentialist approach to international competition. For example, realists consider international competition to be fundamentally about power, and more specifically, military power. Competition is viewed as a balancing strategy—either via alliances (external balancing) or arms buildups (internal balancing). Liberal institutionalists, by contrast, conceive of competition in terms of the development, shaping, and control of norms and organizations. Both realists and institutionalists think that competitors have little choice about how they compete because competition is structured and largely fixed. Actors can choose how to compete, but not what to compete over. Competitive strategy rejects that, and instead sees the nature of competition as malleable. Consider the Cold War. Space was not an inevitable arena for competition, yet the space race made it one. Likewise, the United States and the Soviet Union did not have to engage in an arms race; once both sides deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles, they effectively possessed a secure second-strike capability, and thus reliable deterrence. But both sides remained obsessed with preventing the other from gaining a clear numerical advantage in warheads, even if those additional warheads brought little tangible benefit.
The mechanisms of shaping competition are complicated and not fully malleable. First, competition operates within certain constraints—geography is real and military capabilities matter. Relationships of economic dependence and interdependence are tangible and have durable effects. Second, all actors have some say in the nature of the competition. For instance, the United States cannot simply assert that from here on out, competition with China will be over “freedom.” The process is therefore interactive and mutually constitutive. Actors make choices in which arenas to compete, and so competitive strategy must be seen as a process of issuing challenges that can be accepted or rejected—not always without cost.
Within these constraints, however, competition can be shaped. Since actors will prefer to compete in arenas in which they have a comparative advantage, we might expect this process to be indeterminate, or to be resolved according to some hierarchy of advantages. This is indeed the traditional realist position. According to realists, military power is the ultima ratio of any political interaction, and therefore, in the final analysis, realists usually tend to see competition in military terms. It is only when the military balance is stable that other forms of competition can emerge. The core claim of competitive strategy, however, is that actors’ choices do matter, and that there can be significant advantages in exploiting informational asymmetries or durable strategic propensities.
Competitive Strategy Logic in Action
A famous applications of the logic of competitive strategy is the Reagan-era arms buildup and its effect on the Soviet Union. By the late 1970s, in part in response to the US military drawdowns after Vietnam and in part due to exogenous changes in the American economy, the United States moved toward a more technologically dependent form of warfare. The combination of stealth, improved sensors and systems integration, increased computing power, and higher precision created what the Soviets termed a “military-technical revolution” and what US analysts later dubbed the “revolution in military affairs.” It was institutionalized in both American defense procurement and doctrine (notably via the concept of AirLand Battle).
The concept was not inherently dominant. It provided the United States with a potential “offset” against superior Soviet numbers, especially in areas where distance made US force projection a challenge, but there were potential Soviet counters, most notably the possibility of increasing the size of Soviet forces or increasing the role of nuclear weapons in Soviet war planning. But the Soviets did not look for counters and instead became increasingly committed to matching American technology. The Soviets chose to compete with the United States in an area in which they were operating at a competitive disadvantage. The logic of competitive strategy is central to explaining Soviet actions.
The Soviet Union trapped itself for two reasons: first, Soviet leaders overestimated the innovative potential of their economy, and second, the Soviet Union was trapped by its own rhetoric of “scientific materialism.” The Soviet economy hit a wall by the mid-1970s, but in part because the wall was disguised by a decade of rising energy prices, the Soviet economy was systematically overestimated by Western and Soviet analysts alike. Soviet leaders maintained unwarranted confidence in the ability of their economic system to match Western, technology-driven productivity gains. Next, the Soviet concept of scientific materialism trapped its leaders into emphasizing technology superiority—instead of conceding the technology race, they tried to keep up, and their difficulties in doing so led to the process of reforms that ultimately brought the entire Soviet system down.
A Contemporary Assessment: Today’s Traps and Opportunities for Great Power Competition
Competitive strategy is about seeking to take advantage of a competitor’s poor self-assessment and durable propensities to shape a competition in beneficial ways. Even though the sort of “net assessment” required to fully assess the US-China competition is beyond the scope of this essay, it is possible to apply some competitive strategy concepts to a few concrete debates associated with great power competition. The following sections consider some possible traps and opportunities illuminated by competitive strategy methods.
Just as the Soviet Union stepped into a trap when it tried to compete with the United States in the technology race of the 1970s, there are several problematic dynamics inherent in the current US approach toward competition with China.
Militarily, the United States is increasingly concerned with growing Chinese military power, but some of these concerns are questionable. China’s doubling of its strategic nuclear forces, for instance, has little impact on nuclear balance or strategic stability and does not provide the Chinese with a first-strike capability. The Chinese should already be confident in their nuclear deterrence capabilities, making the addition of a few thousand nuclear warheads to their arsenal relevant only if the United States chooses to make them so. Similarly, it is not clear how hypersonic glide vehicles alter the strategic balance or how their accrual will benefit China, but US protestations are making these developments seem significant when they are not.
By contrast, the growth of Chinese conventional capabilities, particularly the ability to contest and potentially dominate the battlespace within the so-called first island chain, is significant. It dramatically reduces American extended deterrence options and places many neighbors of China in an unenviable position. But despite being a negative development for the United States and its friends and allies in the region, there is little strategic benefit to a US military response. Simply put, the United States is at a competitive disadvantage. Distance is the challenge, but the United States is also largely reliant on fixed, forward bases to project power, advantages that would be neutralized early in a military conflict with China. The issue is not that Chinese gains in this arena are not important, but that competing with China on the ability to project power within one hundred miles of the Chinese coast is a strategic trap for the United States.
The Belt and Road Initiative is another trap. The United States is richer and has a more advanced economy than China, which creates a temptation to compete economically. However, China has more cash on hand, whereas the US government persistently turns to deficit spending to fund its operations. In addition, the United States has a massive public debt problem whereas China’s debt problems are largely in private debt (e.g., real estate, shadow banking, and zombie state-owned enterprises). And lastly, the Chinese state maintains control over the private sector, allowing China to direct foreign direct investment in support of government policies—something the United States can only affect indirectly. Ultimately, while China’s infrastructure investment abroad carries risks for the United States, there is little the United States can productively do to compete. China has more money to expend, and China’s willingness to extend loans and provide grants with minimal conditions makes its aid more attractive to many countries.
In both scenarios, the Chinese benefit from a lack of self-reflection by American analysts and the effects of inertia. American decision makers are used to being militarily dominant and have trouble imagining military competitions that cannot be won by the United States. Similarly, the United States prides itself on the creation and sustainment of a global economic regime that has been robust and successful since 1945. Seeking military dominance and control over economic regimes and institutions reflects unexamined biases—durable propensities, in the language of competitive strategy—that the Chinese may be seeking to exploit. Alternatively, the traps identified above could exist purely by luck, but their effect is the same. The military balance off the Chinese coast and the dominance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative are not promising arenas for the United States to engage in competition.
If competitive strategy notes traps, it also notes opportunities—the United States has many areas of strength, and the Chinese several notable weaknesses, that can form the basis for a more productive competitive strategy–based approach to competing with China. Embracing these opportunities, however, will require American leaders to willingly reexamine American core competencies as they’ve emerged and changed over the past few decades.
First, the United States retains a significant advantage in both the number and the quality of its international partners. China has tried to increase its international position, its most visible success being the nearly complete marginalization of Taiwan as a diplomatic actor. Additionally, more states are cooperating with Chinese economic activities (the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, most notably) and there is a growing unwillingness to hold China accountable for illegal and counter-normative actions in international institutions. But despite these visible gains, the Chinese position remains weak. Namely, the states that have refused to condemn Chinese mistreatment of the Uighur minority comprise a rogue’s gallery of states like Belarus, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Myanmar, North Korea, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe remaining silent. Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all countries with their own human rights problems, are the closest things China has to “respectable” supporters on this front. China’s quest for global respect presents an opportunity for the United States, which should exploit China’s yearning for respect and recognition and highlight how China’s human rights violations align Beijing with international rogues, scofflaws, and delinquents. It should be a point of emphasis for the United States to speak of China as part of a cohort of problematic actors.
Second, the Chinese are pathologically defensive, self-conscious, and addicted to secrecy. There is little evidence, for instance, that COVID-19 was created in a Chinese lab, but because the Chinese refuse access to the data necessary to disprove the allegations, no one can really be sure. An unwillingness to allow international access to the data is, at its core, self-doubting behavior. The United States should push China on the issue—and others like it—to keep the spotlight on China’s secrecy and censorship, its population’s lack of access to the global internet, and its social constraints on individual travel and self-expression. To be effective, the US tone should range from sadness to bemusement, but not condemnation. American pity is more likely to provoke ill-considered Chinese responses than harsh criticism. A campaign that says, “If you’re so successful, then why are you so scared?” uses Chinese weaknesses and needs against Beijing. It may not pay any immediate benefits in restraining Chinese behavior, but it shapes the competition in a direction that is more in line with American strengths, especially if it successfully appeals to broader international audiences.
American Domestic Politics Are Our Biggest Vulnerability
Despite the current administration’s claim that “America is back,” the reality is very different. American strengths, in terms of international partnerships and self-confidence, are dramatically eroded and domestic social divisions are the biggest vulnerability and limitation on American power.
Notably, the United States is not equipped for strategic competition, or any competition. Historically, the record of countries engaging in great power competition while divided at home is abysmal. Consider France’s experience between the world wars, when it made a strategic blunder in terms of military doctrine and procurement with the adoption of a largely defensive and static posture in an era when technology was beginning to favor offensive action and mobility. The French feared that moving toward a more professional and capable military, separated from the rest of society, might be used as an instrument of reaction. This fear was not wholly misguided—after all, the French military was a deeply conservative institution that could have sought to undermine French electoral politics, most notably with the election of Leon Blum and his Popular Front. But the effect of France’s decision to limit military development and focus on defense instead of focusing on the military competition with Germany was devastating. Similarly, a United States that cannot pass a budget on schedule without a fight, that faces threats of political violence surrounding elections, and that is unable to make reliable international commitments because partisanship requires each new administration to disavow the actions of its predecessor, is ill suited to make thoughtful, durable strategic plans.
Competitive strategy requires a systematic assessment of our adversaries’ strengths and weaknesses and an objective assessment of our own. If we are honest in our assessment, what we learn about American power and capabilities may be frightening. Domestic challenges are preventing us from engaging with the international community and taking on international challenges. Instead of stressing competition as the framework for US-Chinese relations, the United States must first conduct an accurate assessment of itself and look to defuse domestic tensions before looking for ways to enter into great power competition with its adversaries.
Dr. Bernard I. Finel is a professor at national security strategy at the National War College, where he has been a faculty member since 2010. While at NWC, Dr. Finel has served as a core course director, department chair, and from 2017 to 2020 as associate dean of academic programs.
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: Chad Miller (adapted by MWI)