The Biden Transition and U.S. Competition with China and Russia: The Crisis-Driven Need to Change U.S. Strategy
January 6, 2021
The U.S. needs to fundamentally reassess its approach to competing and cooperating with China and Russia. Its present path has tilted more and more towards a poorly structured approach to confrontation focused more on worst case wars than on the broader forms of military and civil competition the U.S. needs to address. It has failed to integrate civil and military competition, to address grey area operations, to look at the global nature of this competition, and to focus on the fact that most forms will either not involve direct combat or will do so at low levels of combat. It has not given the proper priority to address America’s strategic partnerships or to develop net assessments of the longer-term patterns in this competition.
This analysis addresses the failures in the current U.S. efforts to implement the new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy issued in 2017 and 2018, respectively. More broadly, it addresses the nuclear balance and the shortfalls in the U.S. approach to modernizing its strategic nuclear forces. It highlights the fact that the U.S. also cannot focus on major conventional combat with Russia and China or on combat at the theater level, and that most actual military competition will probably take place at the gray area, hybrid warfare, or irregular level.
It stresses the fact that the U.S. must compete on a global level as China and Russia will often compete indirectly and target U.S. strategic partners, other states, and non-state actors. This will require that the U.S. continues to deploy strong forces at major command levels in every region of the world, and especially in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The strategic partnerships between these U.S. commands and key allied states will determine both the overall patterns of U.S. success, and they will be critical to deterring and defending against escalation to major conflicts and nuclear war.
It notes that U.S. strategic partnerships must also evolve to create interoperable conventional forces that can actually implement what has come to be called Joint/All-Domain Warfare, and it will compete with Chinese and Russian rates of modernization, force improvements, and changes in operational range and tactics.
At the same time, the analysis focuses in depth on the civil side of competition, and the fact that both China and Russia – and especially China – integrate military and civil competition at every level, including the development of their international trade and investment, their national technology base, as well as their political and diplomatic efforts. These are areas the U.S. needs to give far more attention, along with the need to compete in information warfare and at the pubic diplomatic level.
The analysis is supported by some forty charts that attempt to quantify the current military, economic, and technological balances as well as the nature of the key patterns of competition – including the scale of the military and defense efforts of each state. It is supported by two chronologies that illustrate the level and nature of Chinese and Russian activity. It also examines the risks to the U.S. in taking an ideological approach to competition, focusing on strategic intentions rather than their implementation, and needlessly alienating America’s strategic partners.
It concludes that major changes are needed to the ways the United States competes. If the U.S. is to develop a more effective approach to its national security strategy, it needs to look beyond just the need for military competition, and it cannot take its strategic partners and other states for granted. If the U.S. is to compete effectively, it must:
- Focus on all Chinese and Russian uses of civil, military, and economic gray zone tactics and their accumulating impact on a given strategic interest. The U.S. cannot ignore the destabilizing activities of Russian and Chinese gray zone operations due to its own compartmentalization of civil, economic, and military actions.
- Take a true whole of government approach to making joint military and economic assessments in the ways similar to which China, Russia, and other states compete with the United States and its strategic partners. These are not priorities the U.S. can ignore because of the Coronavirus crisis. If anything, the crisis makes effective competition more urgent.
- Approach the military side of competition by addressing all gray area military operations and to develop suitable strategies for each country and region by using its major combatant commands. The U.S. needs to give the right priority to the abilities of the functional commands to support such operations – including the Strategic and Space Commands to provide mutual assured deterrence (MAD).
- Focus on building and strengthening strategic partnerships in ways that look far beyond the narrow area of direct U.S. competition with China and Russia. The U.S needs to seek a broad allied recovery from the Coronavirus crisis as a key strategic objective and to find ways to work with its strategic partners and allies to contain and deter Chinese and Russian competitive efforts and push them towards global cooperation where possible.
- Develop an integrated strategy based on net assessments that address all areas of competition together. The U.S. needs to respond by directly comparing its capabilities to deter, conduct gray area and lower-level military operations, and provide economic growth and development.
The U.S. must also compete far more effectively on an unclassified level. Many aspects of such efforts have to be classified, but a primary emphasis should be placed on open-source reporting, revealing areas where competition is illicit or covert, exposing Chinese and Russian official and covert activities by name, citing the use of third countries and non-state actors, and showing the history and patterns in such activities. Public information is the key to building an understanding of these threats posed by such forms of competition, recognizing the need to counter them, and growing an awareness that using information is a weapon in countering disinformation.
Finally, the U.S. will need to develop plans, programs, and budgets that actually implement a practical and cost-effective strategy to counter the Chinese and Russian challenge, and one tailored to addressing the new issues raised by the new emerging industrial age and the lasting repercussions from the Coronavirus. The U.S. needs to be smarter in utilizing its current resources and allies at their highest potential, but it is also clear that if the U.S. does act more wisely, it has the strategic partners and the domestic resources in its civil and economic sector to compete successfully with both China and Russia.
This report is supported by two working chronologies covering China and Russia that support this study: One is entitled Chronology of Possible Chinese Gray Area and Hybrid Warfare Operations and is available on the CSIS website here. The second is entitled Chronology of Possible Russian Gray Area and Hybrid Warfare Operations and is available here.
This report entitled, The Biden Transition and U.S. Competition with China and Russia: The Crisis-Driven Need to Change U.S. Strategy, is available for download https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/2020811.Burke_Chair.AHC_.GH9_.pdf
The analysis has the following Table of Contents:
These issues in the U.S. strategy and the present U.S. planning, programming, and budgeting process (PPB) are addressed in more detail in four other Burke Chair studies:
- The FY2021 U.S. Defense Budget Request: A Dysfunctional Set of Strategic Blunders, February 13, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/fy2021-us-defense-budget-request-dysfunctional-set-strategic-blunders.
- America's FY2020 Defense Strategy and Programming Crisis, November 13, 2018, https://www.csis.org/analysis/americas-fy2020-defense-strategy-and-programming-crisis
- China and the U.S.: Cooperation, Competition and/or Conflict: An Experimental Assessment, October 1, 2019, https://www.csis.org/analysis/china-and-united-states-cooperation-competition-andor-conflict.
- China and the New Strategic Nuclear Arms Race: The Forces Driving the Creation of New Chinese Nuclear Delivery Systems, Nuclear Weapons, and Strategy, November 15, 2018, https://www.csis.org/analysis/china-and-new-strategic-nuclear-arms-race.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.