How to Understand Our 'Great Power Competition' With China

It’s important, but it’s not the only national security issue.

Thank you for signing up for Vital Interests, my new newsletter for The Dispatch. In this first issue, I’d like to explain the intent behind it and set the stage for future newsletters. As you might have guessed from the name, this publication will focus on threats to America’s national security and interests around the globe. 

If you don't know me, I'm s senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington-based think tank, though I live and work in New York. (I've fought the move to the swamp for more than a decade!) I'm also the senior editor of FDD's Long War Journal, a widely cited counterterrorism publication. I've been writing about security and counterterrorism for more than 15 years and have testified before Congress on 20 occasions concerning related matters. Once upon a time, I was also the senior counterterrorism adviser for Mayor Giuliani's ill-fated 2008 presidential campaign. But please don't hold that against me. 

The concept of “vital interests” is an old one, but what it means in the 21st century is up for debate. I certainly don’t have all the answers, and we should be deeply skeptical of anyone claiming to have it all figured out. But I’ll share some of my initial thoughts below. Namely, I’ll address two related questions: How does the U.S. government currently understand the “vital interests” of the citizenry? And why am I worried that the government is unable to walk and chew gum at the same time? Let’s discuss. 

When announcing his administration’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) in December 2017, President Trump defined America’s “four vital national interests” as: “Protect[ing] the homeland, the American people, and American way of life,” “Promot[ing] American prosperity,” “Preserv[ing] peace through strength,” and “Advanc[ing] American influence.” 

In general, each of those “four pillars” makes some sense—but obviously they are vague. 

The NSS, which was shepherded by Trump’s national security adviser at the time, retired Gen. H.R. McMaster, offered some further clarity by dividing America’s adversaries and enemies into three tiers. China and Russia are in the top tier. As “revisionist powers,” they seek to use all elements of their national strength “to shape a world antithetical to our interests and values.” In the second tier are “regional” dictatorships, such as those in Iran and North Korea, which “threaten their neighbors, and pursue weapons of mass destruction.” And then, in the third tier, there are the “jihadist terrorists” in organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.

The 2017 NSS and the subsequent National Defense Strategy (NDS), which was released by the Defense Department the following year, represent a fundamental reordering of America’s foreign policy priorities. From September 11, 2001, onward, American policymakers placed the fight against terrorists, once upon a time known as the “Global War on Terrorism,” at the forefront of their agenda. But in 2017, the terrorist threat was downgraded to a status of lesser importance. “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” the authors of the NDS wrote.

The catchphrase used by many in Washington to describe this shift in focus is “Great Power Competition.” To be sure, the concept has many merits. But over the past few years, some in Washington have become myopic, using the focus on this grand game to justify poor decision-making in other areas. Does competition with China require the U.S. to whitewash the Taliban while withdrawing from Afghanistan? You wouldn’t think so—but I’ve heard a senior State Department official make exactly that argument. Which is the source of my quip about walking and chewing gum at the same time. 

Let’s get into it. 

China, China, China!

The new focus on China was a long time coming. America was complacent in the face of China’s rising power for the 40-plus years after President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Indeed, the U.S. helped China improve its technological infrastructure, upgrade its military and provided other goods and services under the theory that economic liberalization would lead to greater political freedom. American policymakers didn’t heed Milton Friedman’s warning in his classic 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom. “History suggests only that capitalism is a necessary condition for political freedom,” Friedman wrote. “Clearly it is not a sufficient condition.” To bolster his point, Friedman pointed to pre-World War II regimes in Italy, Spain, Germany, Japan, and tsarist Russia, all of which combined “private enterprise” with illiberal politics “at various times.” 

U.S. officials didn’t learn this history lesson. From the early 1970s onward, the U.S. often acted as if China’s relative economic liberalization was both necessary and sufficient for political freedom. The growing Chinese dragon would be tamed by McDonald’s, the thinking held. That theory has been conclusively disproven, not only in the case of China, where an authoritarian regime relies on increasingly oppressive tactics to maintain its power internally and bully others around the world, but also with respect to Cuba and Russia. Like China, the latter two countries have enjoyed access to international markets and global capital, but haven’t liberalized their political regimes.

It’s easy to see why the White House, as well as the State and Defense Departments, have decided to focus their attention on China. Today, the Chinese pose a unique combination of threats to American power and security. The U.S. still leads the world in military spending, but China has closed the gap and developed low-cost means for projecting its power. A growing body of evidence indicates that China has global ambitions. Xi Jinping, the general secretary of China’s Communist Party, has spoken of “Chinese wisdom” as a key to solving the world’s problems and vows to build a “community of common human destiny.” This benign-sounding phrase is, as the U.S.—China Economic and Security Review Commission has pointed out, actually a “CCP formulation for a China-led global governance regime.” Xi has also vowed to build the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a “world-class” military, while Beijing refers to the U.S. as “the powerful enemy adversary.” To date, China’s international ambitions, from a military perspective, have been somewhat restrained. But there is a legitimate concern in Washington that China’s long-term designs are quickly evolving both within Asia, throughout the South China sea, and possibly elsewhere. 

Since China’s admission into the World Trade Organization in 2001, the U.S. and Chinese economies have become increasingly intertwined. (President Donald Trump has been the foremost critic of its trade practices, yet his own line of ties are made in China.) Under Washington’s previous theory of nation-state behavior, these economic bonds should have mitigated the risks of Chinese hostility. But American companies have been forced to deal with an array of unsavory Chinese policies, ranging from cyber-theft and industrial espionage, to forced technological transfers and unfair trade practices. China hasn’t respected intellectual property rights either. The Chinese government does not draw a firm line between civilian and military interests, and pursues policies that fuse the two. This basic difference in the structure of the two nations’ political economies creates significant problems for U.S. policymakers, as the American government isn’t supposed to be in the business of managing businesses. The Chinese government does just that. 

China presents unique cultural threats as well. China has stood up hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world, including on college campuses throughout the U.S. At first blush, these may appear to be rather innocuous organizations—part of a genuine effort to celebrate the majesty of China’s ancient civilization. But as various accounts attest, these same institutes have been used to surveil dissidents, while also spreading propaganda and disinformation. At a time when America is undergoing an identity crisis, with many academics being ambivalent, at best, about their own nation’s history and legitimacy, it is especially curious to see so many Confucius Institutes welcoming American college students through their doors. 

This points to another aspect of America’s competition with China. The Chinese government adheres to an ethnic nationalism and strictly defines what it means to be a citizen. This may limit China’s appeal abroad. While the Han are a massive ethnic group, all other ethnicities are basically excluded from the government’s notion of what it means to be Chinese. This has also fueled tensions within China’s borders, as Xi’s regime has ruthlessly suppressed the Uighur population, among others, seeking to eradicate any perceived cultural challenges to the state’s agenda. The recent protests in Hong Kong also speak to the internal tensions. These are clear liabilities for Xi and his subordinates. How America handles China’s human rights abuses is another wedge issue in the contest. 

Thus far, I’ve only scratched the surface of “Great Power Competition” between America and China. But hey, that’s one reason why this newsletter is going to be a regular publication. And you’ll note that I wrote about China’s great power status—not Russia’s. There’s a reason for that: I’m not at all convinced Russia qualifies as a great power contender. There’s no question that Vladimir Putin is a nasty actor with an anti-American agenda. Some aspects of Russian power, such as the country’s nuclear arsenal, do qualify as “great”—albeit terrifying. But Russia doesn’t have nearly the same level of economic influence as China. Xi commands the second-largest economy in the world. Putin? Not so much. Russia’s GDP is comparable to that of Texas, and less than California’s. For all of the talk about President Trump’s supposed ties to Russia, none of his ties are “Made in Russia.”

I’m not arguing that Russia is a non-factor on the world stage. It’s a safe bet Putin will cause problems in the future. And the relationship between China and Russia is especially concerning, as their cooperation across a number of spheres only amplifies the threat from both of them. But the concept of “Great Power Competition” has its limits. 

Which brings me to some additional points I’d like to raise in this inaugural issue of Vital Interests.

America has already pivoted away from the 9/11 wars. 

In conversations about “Great Power Competition,” you often hear about the need to substantially reduce America’s military commitments in the fight against terrorism. Of course, America’s rivalries with China and Russia are not limited to the military sphere, but encompass multiple areas of life. In addition, here is a fact that is underappreciated in policymaking circles: America’s military pivot has already occurred. 

In December, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he’d like “to go down to a lower number” of troops in Afghanistan, so they could either be brought home or “redeployed to the Indo-Pacific to face off our greatest challenge in terms of the Great Power Competition that’s vis-a-vis China.” 

I’ve heard similar sentiments from Defense Department and State Department officials over the last couple of years. There is this idea that the 9/11 wars—the conflicts unleashed by al-Qaeda’s deadliest day and its aftermath—are somehow impeding the great power game. That isn’t true. 

As of mid-2019, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which is responsible for managing Chinese military threats, already had “four times the assigned forces as any other geographical combatant command.” That’s four times as many troops as U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees America’s military efforts across 20 nations in the Middle East, Central and South Asia. It’s also four times more than U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which coordinates the military’s actions across the African continent, including in various jihadist hotspots. 

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command currently has “more than 370,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, DoD civilians, and contractors assigned within its area of responsibility.” A few thousand more from Afghanistan aren’t likely to make much of a difference. 

Put another way, the days of large-scale U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq are already over. The U.S. force level in Afghanistan peaked at around 100,000 troops in 2010 and 2011. Today, there are about 12,000 to 13,000 American troops in the country.  In 2007, there were more than 165,000 U.S. service members in Iraq. Today, there are approximately 5,500 in Iraq and several hundred more in Syria. Their ranks are bolstered in both countries by contractors, intelligence personnel, and others. Yes, as a result of the recent tensions with Iran, the Trump administration is deploying several thousand more troops to the Middle East. But  the total number of American troops deployed today to fight terrorists is a far cry from the peak.

In sum, whereas nearly 200,000 American troops were deployed across Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago, today there are about 20,000 (or fewer) in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Again, there are also contractors and other personnel involved, so these are just ballpark estimates. But these rough figures give you a sense of how the U.S. has already greatly reduced its military commitments in the Middle East and South Asia. American allies are doing the bulk of the fighting. 

One can argue the merits of withdrawing more troops from these theaters, including Afghanistan, where the U.S. has wasted tens of billions of dollars. But the idea that the Pentagon needs to do so in order to take on China doesn’t really make much sense. 

The jihadists haven’t been defeated.

While the U.S. has greatly reduced its commitments in the fight against terrorism, the jihadists are still a threat. Al-Qaeda’s East African arm, Shabaab, killed three Americans during a predawn raid on the Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya earlier this month. That airbase is used to launch counterterrorism missions against Shabaab and also to deploy a quick response force. The death of one American in Iraq, as well as an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, led the Trump administration to target Qassem Suleimani—Iran’s foremost terrorist and head of the prolific Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). That, in turn, led to Iran lobbing ballistic missiles at American air bases in Iraq. 

The reaction to the killing of three Americans in Kenya was far more subdued. But the raid in Kenya demonstrates that al-Qaeda is very much alive in East Africa. Indeed, Sunni jihadism is probably growing faster in the African continent than any other geographic region. This is true not only in East Africa, but also in West Africa, where both ISIS and al-Qaeda groups are flourishing.

But as part of the obsession with “Great Power Competition,” the Pentagon is considering a major withdrawal of forces from West Africa and possibly East Africa. My sources have been chattering about this for months. The New York Times published a lengthy account of the deliberations on Christmas Eve. That piece was titled, “Pentagon Eyes Africa Drawdown as First Step in Global Troop Shift.” The subheadline explained that the Defense Department’s “deliberations stem from a push to reduce missions battling distant terrorist groups, and to instead refocus on confronting so-called Great Powers like Russia and China.”

How many American troops are deployed as part of the counterterrorism mission in Africa? According to the Times, “about 6,000 to 7,000” with approximately “500 Special Operations troops fighting” Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s arm in Somalia and East Africa. Now remember the figures given above: There are about 370,000 personnel already deployed as part of the Indo-Pacific Command. Moreover, China has developed relationships across the African continent that are intended to further its grand designs. There’s no reason the U.S. military’s footprint, which provides American spies and diplomatic personnel with a greater latitude to operate, needs to serve only one mission. 

Now, there are good reasons that American forces shouldn’t get further entrenched in Africa. But the need to reposition forces to counter China and Russia really isn’t one of them. The same can be said about Afghanistan. The State Department has pushed a deal with the Taliban that will treat al-Qaeda’s longtime ally as a de facto counterterrorism partner, even though the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain closely allied to this day. That isn’t necessary to draw down further from the country, nor does it help with “Great Power Competition.” And even though many criticisms of the “endless war” are well-placed, there are still legitimate terrorist threats emanating from South Asia. 

In future editions of Vital Interests, I’m going to touch on all of these issues. The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) rightly prioritized the growing competition with China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. But the NSS didn’t say the terrorist threat can be ignored in the name of “Great Power Competition.” Some, today, want to do just that.  

Photograph of a parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China at Tiananmen Square by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images.