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Foreign Policy

America’s Three-Pronged Strategy

Oct 20, 2022
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University
  • Zhang Ding

    Assistant Research Fellow, D&C Think Tank

The U.S. National Security Strategy report represents the top-level design and future vision of the United States government on national security and foreign strategy. It is also an important guide for government agencies as they do their work. Last March, the Biden administration released its Interim National Security Guidance, which can be regarded as a preview of the NSS report and a preliminary outline of the national security strategy of the new administration.

In October this year, the new edition of the NSS report was long overdue. It is worth noting that the report was released at a time when the country was experiencing extreme complexity in the great power game, facing a long-term Ukraine crisis, the upcoming midterm elections, inflation and other economic challenges. It is in urgent need of an internal and external strategic design to lead the way. However, many of the policies in the report had already been rolled out. The report is not so much a strategic guide as it is a phased summary for Biden as he nears the halfway point of his first term.

Compared with the NSS report launched by the Trump administration in 2017, the new version is richer in content and more complex in structure, reflecting the three strategic views of the Biden administration in the face of the changing times — an international view, a regional view and a China view. 

A decisive decade 

The Biden administration has maintained the core international concepts of the Trump administration, but it also acknowledges the complexity of the current world. According to the report, the U.S. and the world must deal with two major strategic challenges. First is the end of the post-Cold War era, as great power competition has emerged. Second, the world is still facing many common cross-border challenges that need to be addressed together.

The main vision of the new strategic report is to reshape global leadership and achieve and defend American-style democratic values. Out-competing or outmaneuvering strategic competitors, tackling shared challenges and shaping the rules of the road will be the means to that end. This means that the Biden administration has inherited the pessimistic judgment of the previous administration and that the world will return to the law of the jungle. The difference is that the global nature of strategic competition has led it to see that competition does not fully define global trends and that the U.S. should still seek global cooperation in weak political areas.

In addition, the Biden administration has emphasized that it’s urgent for the U.S. to respond to global changes, even as the exaggerated threat perception in the full text reflects the unease of the U.S. strategic community. For the first time, the new report sets a time frame for strategic competition among major powers, with six references to a “decisive decade.” It argues that the terms of geopolitical competition will be determined over the next few years. 

Dual-track approach 

The new regional strategy in the report promotes affirmative engagement with U.S. allies and partners and reflects certain traits. For example, the report makes a distinction between goals for various engagement regions in terms of strategic positioning. The promotion of a “free and open” concept is prioritized in the Indo-Pacific and tops the regional agenda. The need to unite with allies to win the great power competition and address the Ukrainian crisis also drives the report’s emphasis on alliances with European allies and calls for expanding and deepening transatlantic ties. Issues in the Western Hemisphere, the Middle East and Africa are given less attention.

Regarding strategic goals, the report focuses on inter-regional connections and the collaboration of all parties to advance a global agenda. In order to connect up in both the Indo-Pacific and transatlantic directions and improve collaboration, for instance, the report urges deeper relations between Indo-Pacific countries and the European Union. The Biden administration, unlike Trump’s “America first” policy, views friends not as a burden but as strategic assets, adopting a more clearly coordinated approach to gain a competitive edge while influencing the global strategic environment to address shared concerns.

As a driving and balancing mechanism to assure improved international collaboration in the context of strategic competition, the report suggests a dual-track strategic path. It advocates strengthening a latticework of strong, resilient and mutually reinforcing relationships with the democracies at the core of the alliance, while suggesting cooperation with nations — even competitors — on shared challenges. 

China policy defined by competition 

The view on China presented in the report is not unexpected. It remains the Biden administration’s long-range approach on China, and is in line with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s China policy speech in May. On one hand, the report inherits and upgrades the Trump administration’s negative positioning and claims about China; on the other, it summarizes Biden's policies toward China after he took office.

First, from the perspective of strategic goals, the United States has once again made clear that out-competing China is its core goal. The report defines China as “a major competitor in the coming decade” and declares that China “is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective.” This positioning of China echoes an important part of the current U.S. government’s worldview, namely the full return of great power competition. China is clearly an important actor in defining the competitive landscape.

Second, from a strategic point of view, the Biden administration will continue to implement its three-point theory — invest, align and compete — in its approach to China. The report does not make much adjustment in this regard, and these three points are reflected in different forms in various chapters such as “Investing in Our Strength,” “Our Global Priorities” and “Our Strategy by Region.” It repeatedly emphasizes that the next decade will be decisive and it highlights the strong sense of anxiety on the part of the U.S. regarding competition with China.

Third, the Biden administration intends to bind China and Russia but also to distinguish between the two. Since the escalation of the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. has been playing up the China-Russia tie-up theory, using the crisis to create and exaggerate a narrative featuring democracy versus authoritarianism in an attempt to create a global ideological divide. The report’s juxtaposition of China and Russia in the “global priorities” list is another new attempt.

At the same time, the Biden administration is reluctant to put China and Russia on equal footing, arguing that China needs to be out-competed, while Russia needs to be constrained. This reflects the Biden administration’s different perceptions of the challenges between China and Russia: While China is a long-term and more consequential challenge, Russia is a more short-term and urgent one.

The China policy laid out in the report seeks an ideal state characterized by both fish and bear’s paw. It hopes that the U.S. can win the strategic competition with China in a peaceful manner. But there are obvious contradictions in this vision. The report defines China as the greatest geopolitical challenge while affirming the possibility of peaceful coexistence and claiming that it does not seek to transform competition into confrontation or a new cold war. It does not provide a realistic way to walk this balance beam but rather emphasizes competing with and even squeezing China’s influence — not the dual-track approach imagined by Washington.

Thus, the biggest overlapping factor in the three strategic views is that “China,” coupled with the word “competition,” is the main theme throughout. On the whole, the new report is new in terms of framework and structure, but its content is lackluster. It is an inventory and summary of U.S. national security policies and actions since Biden took office, and it has never been able to break out of the “strategic competition” rut.

The U.S. strategic community once thought the current China-U.S. relationship was like a game of cards and that the U.S. held more good cards. However, the threat perception and the race-to-win strategy exhibited in the new report reflect the strategic anxiety of the U.S. to a certain extent. The essence of the report is that, despite the increased length and content of the report on global cooperation, the Biden administration’s perception of strategic competition with China has not evolved beyond that of Trump. Rather, it is increasingly shifting the spectrum of bilateral relations toward competition. It neither advances global peace and development nor prevents the two countries from heading into confrontation.

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