Strategic Failure: America Is (Literally) Missing the Boat Competing With China

May 18, 2020
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As the name suggests, great power competition—the newest focus of the U.S. Department of Defense—is about power. However, despite the recent fetishization of great power competition within the defense community, few people give serious thought to what power is and how great powers wield it to compete. In today’s great power competition with the People’s Republic of China, American strategists appear stuck focusing on archaic instruments of power and power projection to the detriment of national security. The Department of Defense spends billions on military hardware while rhetoric and neglect undermine the political partnerships and economic integration on which American power is based. Strategists pay lip service to strengthening alliances, then trumpet a foreign policy of “America first.” They highlight creating new partnerships, but fail to consider the economic and financial tools that establish genuine interdependence and influence. China is using a variety of initiatives to make advances across the globe while the United States is missing the boat.

A core reason for this failure of American strategy is the flawed manner in which American policymakers, particularly within the defense establishment, rely on highly visible metrics that emphasize military hardware. Political scientists and defense experts measure manpower, weapons systems, number and types of ships, attack aircraft, or tanks. They do so without considering the many other facets that define competition among great powers.

Overmatch is chapter and verse from the catechism preaching technology as salvation…

Equating power with technology and hardware is reflected in the concept of overmatch—defined in the 2017 National Security Strategy as “the combination of capabilities in sufficient scale to prevent enemy success and to ensure that America’s sons and daughters will never be in a fair fight.” Overmatch is chapter and verse from the catechism preaching technology as salvation, preserving American security and power, again in the words of the 2017 National Security Strategy, through the production of innovative capabilities.

Equating power with powerful weapons substitutes colossal spending on weapons programs for comprehensive thinking on strategy. This is the dogma of the F-35, a $428.4 billion program to produce the world’s finest 5th generation combat aircraft, of the Ford Class aircraft carrier, produced at the modest price of $12.9 billion per ship, or of the $22.2 billion contract for the navy to build new Virginia Class attack submarines. It is the dogma driving the creation of a space force and the $494 billion committed, according to the Congressional Budget Office for the period 2019-2028, to modernize its nuclear arsenal.

Such programs have their place. It would be naive to argue America has no need of advanced fighters, cutting-edge ships, or nuclear weapons. But these efforts represent an extraordinarily costly and disproportionate focus on only military power and even then on only one aspect of that. It is dangerous and historically ignorant to believe that American invincibility is dependent solely on technological superiority or that competition between great powers takes place only through military deterrence or on the battlefield.

Theorists of power argue that power is about achieved desired outcomes. Moreover, it is about getting others to do what they would not otherwise go about doing. But in today’s world, the tools of power the United States values, prioritizes, invests in, and often brings to the table are awkward at best and antiquated at worst. In spite of possessing a wealth of power, the United States has not achieved its desired outcomes in any number of international conflicts. History, indeed, demonstrates that technological superiority and better equipment are not guarantees of victory, even on the battlefield. Conflicts where the battlefield may play a secondary role, as in America’s experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, confirm the painful lesson that material superiority does not go hand in hand with victory. Yet, a majority of policymakers continue to measure power largely in these terms.

In America’s competition with China, the battlefield is not a primary area of contest. It has not been so for nearly seventy years. Nor is it likely to be one. Yet, America’s defense establishment is preparing as if the contest with China is and will be primarily military in nature and that military confrontation will conform to existing models of warfare. At the same time, significant and relevant areas where Chinese power is expanding, and American power is receding or absent, are being ignored.

An Air Force B-2 bomber along with other aircraft from the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps fly over the Kitty Hawk, Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike groups during Exercise Valiant Shield 2006. (U.S. Navy)

In military terms, except for the number of soldiers and sailors under arms, the United States has enormous advantages over China. The United States has 11 active aircraft carriers. China has two. While China has more than 3,000 fighter, bomber, and attack aircraft, the United States operates some 13,000 military aircraft, hundreds of them the vaunted (and expensive) 5th-generation attack planes. The United States maintains an arsenal of more than 6,000 nuclear warheads; China is estimated to have fewer than 300.

The United States enjoys these advantages and is keen to double down on them, even as it appears firmly on the back foot politically. Time and again, the United States seems unable to translate its perceived superiority into desired outcomes. China builds islands in the Pacific without hesitation or apparent consequence. American leaders decry Chinese cyber-attacks as “cyber Pearl Harbors.” American citizens continue to suffer dangerous data breaches and American companies are subject to theft of intellectual property. In times of crisis and uncertainty—most recently during the COVID19 outbreak—China successfully uses cyberspace to peddle disinformation, sowing uncertainty and discontent.

Part of China’s success rests in exploiting its newly developed economic power. A nation’s gross domestic product, its currency reserves, or its balance of trade tell us something about its power, but in many ways these are clumsy and incomplete metrics. They often fail to predict a state’s ability to achieve its desired outcomes. China has been creative and successful in leveraging different economic tools to expand its influence. Prominent among these are bilateral trade agreements, development finance, infrastructure investment (particularly port operations and 5G networks), and commercial shipping.

China is making inroads into countries in Africa, offering investment, deriving access to natural resources, and engaging in profitable trade. In 2009, China surpassed the United States as the continent’s largest trading partner. It currently enjoys bilateral trade agreements with forty different African countries. Chinese trade with Africa reached nearly $210 billion in 2019, up from about $10 at the start of the century. Meanwhile, American trade with Africa actually contracted between 2006 and 2018. American efforts to remodel development finance through the newly created U.S. Development Finance Corporation are hamstrung by political disagreements, mixed messages from leadership in Washington, and bureaucratic red tape.

China has also invested heavily in Europe. It has secured trade and infrastructure agreements with major NATO partners and G-7 members like Italy. It operates port facilities in other NATO allies, like Greece, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Even America’s closest ally, Great Britain, overlooked American objections to a partnership with Huawei to develop its 5G network. China has established itself as a major economic and political player in Europe at the same time that America’s relationship with Europe strains under divergences on climate change, compromise with Iran, trade, and the utility of NATO itself.

A decline of American power is also present in European opinion. According to a recent Pew survey, Europeans now believe that China is the world’s leading economic power over the U.S., by a margin of 44% to 38%. China’s dynamic growth, a favorable balance of trade, and relatively low national debt are only a partial explanation for this phenomenon. European attitudes also reflect the fact that American policymakers have ceded enormous ground to Chinese geoeconomic policy at the global level. In a colossal strategic blunder, the United States is failing to contest a number of influential areas with China. In some instances, it even lacks the tools to contest various spaces. In others, it continues to misallocate resources and mistreat potential international partners.

Recent debates over European partnerships with Huawei demonstrate how far removed the United States is from comprehending the concept of power in today’s world and where competitive gaps between the two competitors are marked and dangerous. Countries like Britain, for example, are choosing Huawei for its 5G needs because there is simply no American company able to compete in that space. The only other two global companies offering to build 5G networks are Ericsson (a Swedish company) and Nokia (a Finnish company). In the 5G space, the U.S. cannot compete with Huawei because there is simply no American Huawei to offer competition.

5G network technology is not the only area where the United States is behind. As the government pours hundreds of billions into military hardware, American strategic thinkers should remove their blinders and consider other equally vital and important tools of power and influence. In a globally-connected world with economies driven by trade, investment, and technology, China’s ability to project power and influence through an entity like Huawei is critical.

There are other sectors where the United States is similarly absent, and losing as a result. Consider this. Piraeus, in Greece, is one of Europe’s busiest ports in terms of container traffic and is operated by the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), the world’s largest port operator. COSCO is also a Chinese state-owned enterprise, subject to direction by the Chinese Communist Party. When the privatization of Piraeus was bid out, not one American port operator even competed for the contract.

COSCO Shipping (Atlas)

Piraeus is not COSCO’s only investment abroad. Chinese companies operate ports throughout the world. Through them, the government of China and the Communist Party exert power and influence on local governments and international trade. It is hardly surprising that no American company considered bidding for the operation rights in Greece. There isn’t  a single American company in the global top 10 of port operators. The world’s top port operators by country of origin, counting down from #10 to #1 are: India, the Philippines, China, Turkey, Denmark, China, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, China (Hong Kong), and China. The four Chinese entries on the list of the top 10 global port operators are not a typo; they represent an aspect of the enormous global influence and power emanating from Beijing.

When it comes to what transits those ports, the United States is also literally missing the boat. There is no U.S. based operator within the top 30 of global shipping companies. Maersk (Denmark), Mediterranean Shipping Company (Switzerland-Italy), CMA (France), the China Ocean Shipping Company (China), and Hapag-Lloyd (Germany) lead the list of the world’s largest shipping container companies. Yes, that is the same China Ocean Shipping Company. The American State Department, which is obligated by law to ship diplomats and their personal effects with American carriers, often confronts delays of weeks or months in shipping their goods because there is simply insufficient capacity on American-flagged vessels.

America’s lack of a 5G network competitor for Huawei, a port-operator to compete with China Ocean Shipping Company, or a major shipping company to compete with the likes of Maersk and the China Ocean Shipping Company, are only three highly visible examples of ways in which the United States lags behind China in the competition for influence and power in today’s world. Links through investment, trade, and transportation provide opportunities for tangible influence. Just recently, for example, The New York Times, as well as European media, reported that the European Union’s report on misinformation during the Coronavirus pandemic watered down language critical of Beijing.

While China actively pursues its Belt and Road Initiative, the United States has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As China actively pursues (and achieves) new bilateral trade agreements with countries in Africa and Europe, the United States has engaged in tariff disputes with some of its closest global partners, including Mexico, Canada, the European Union, and Turkey. These shortcomings are symptoms of the misaligned focus of the United States and its understanding of power in its competition with China. They are also evidence of a crucial lack of strategic focus across different aspects of power in today’s world.

…if strategy is not a big plan, it must at least be grounded in big ideas.

Strategy is not simply a big plan, but strategy must be comprehensive if it is to succeed, and if strategy is not a big plan, it must at least be grounded in big ideas. In the Cold War, for example, the United States had big ideas and put them into action in ways that strengthened its position and undermined the Soviet Union. Strategy is not only a question of building more ships, better planes, and fancy weapons. In conjunction with Britain and France, the United States created NATO, the largest military alliance in history. American policymakers developed the Marshall Plan to invest in Europe, to rebuild it, and to establish links between European countries and the United States. The United States led the creation of a host of institutions connected to the United Nations—the World Health Organization, the World Bank Group, and the International Monetary Fund, for example. Even after the end of the Cold War, the United States supported the establishment of the World Trade Organization. At the same time, the United States sponsored academic, cultural, and professional exchanges to showcase and share the benefits of an open, democratic, market society. This strategy not only insured Europe and the United States were aligned in their opposition to the expansion of Soviet power, but that their relationship was underpinned by economic, diplomatic, and social bonds. It created an architecture of international cooperation, which allowed the United States to project its power, secure its dominance, and fend off challenges from competitors by institutionalizing its power.

Trade, shipping, integrative industrial and civilian technologies, investment, finance, and cooperative institutions launched American power and maintained it for more than a century. Not surprisingly, these are the same tools that China is using to facilitate its development and its growing global reach. It is in these spheres of competition that the United States is failing with regard to China, not because it lacks the tools to compete, but because it lacks the vision. Neither a twelfth Ford Class aircraft carrier nor a trillion-dollar attack aircraft program is going to solve that problem. In fact, such misdirected expenditures compound it.

Almost as if in direct refutation of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, with its emphasis on lethality, the Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu wrote that one should not put a premium on killing.[1] To Sun Tzu, attacking the enemy’s army was not the most effective strategy; the best approach was “to attack the enemy’s strategy.”[2] American policymakers should take that message to heart and acknowledge the more comprehensive nature of power in today’s world. In competing with China, they must devote resources to rebuilding and enhancing the economic, social, and political links that allow the United States to influence geopolitics.

Rather than abandoning free trade, American policymakers must look for opportunities to increase economic interchange so that nations will perforce value their relationship with the United States. Rather than restricting movement, American policymakers should establish new opportunities for personal, cultural, and above all educational interchange between the United States and countries it would like to have as partners. “America first” should mean that the United States is first to help rebuild and restore economies cracking under the weight of financial crisis. America should be first in leading efforts to restore peace in areas of conflict and  first in creating new technologies and in building new networks.

Part of the problem, of course, stems from the reality that the American economy is predominantly privately owned and the government cannot simply direct its efforts wherever it sees fit. But American policymakers must actively look at ways to incentivize industry to act in ways that further America’s national security goals rather than undermining them. To attack China’s strategy, American policymakers must acknowledge that while the Chinese build ports and trading ships, America builds warships. While China pursues trade relationships, America pursues tariffs. As China builds 5G network software, America builds fighter planes grounded because of defective software. In looking ahead to great power competition between the United States and China, American policymakers would do well to remember that the lethality of American weaponry will not compensate for the lethargy of American strategy.

Andrew Novo is Associate Professor of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Washington, D.C.  The views expressed here are entirely his and do not reflect those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Sun Tzu, The Illustrated Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 115. Technically, this is a comment on Sun Tzu , III.1, by Li Ch’üan.

[2] Ibid.

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