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Security

The U.S. Updates Its Cold-War Era Competition Strategy Against China

Jul 30 , 2019
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science

On June 3, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff released a Joint Doctrine Note (JDN) 1-19 describing the competition continuum, providing a military definition of “competition,” and signaling that the U.S. military has begun implementing its “competition strategy 2.0” in earnest, an update of the U.S.-USSR competition.

First, as stated in JDN 1-19, competition is a fundamental aspect of international relations, but the historical background of U.S.’s “competition strategy 1.0” against the Soviet Union is somewhat different.

During the Cold War, the two superpowers had ideological differences, geopolitical contradictions, independent economies, opposing alliances, and a fierce arms race. This was a competition across a great distance. In our times, though, we see a great developmental difference: China and the U.S. are not caught in a life-and-death duel, though there are conflicting interests, the two countries are bound together by economic interdependence and social integration. Though the two militaries are preparing for worst-case scenarios, both sides explicitly do not want to have direct military confrontations.

Second, although JDN 1-10 defines competition as a continuum consisting of a mixture of cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict, the focal points of the old and new versions of competition strategy are different.

During the Cold War, there was no direct armed conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but both supported proxies to conduct violent competition in the Third World. Competition below armed conflict focused on diplomatic isolation, economic blockade, political subversion, and intelligence activities. The aim of limited cooperation on strategic communication, crisis management, and arms control was to avoid head-on collision and keep pace in the arms race. Some special cooperation between strategic rivals served to maintain a rational competition between the two blocks. The keynote of the U.S.-USSR competition was the nuclear arms race and “mutually-assured destruction” (MAD) nuclear deterrence. To keep a strategic balance, the U.S. side was doing some “subtraction” on its losses, trying to deter a nuclear war, maintain stability, and consolidate the bipolar system.

At present, there are security risks between China and the U.S., but no direct or indirect armed conflict has erupted yet. The main battlefield of China-U.S. competition is the so-called “gray zone” below armed conflict, covering trade, science and technology, people-to-people exchanges, and military contacts. With increasing difficulties, the window of cooperation is closing. By incorporating the concept of competition into the military field, JDN 1-19 requires the U.S. armed forces to compete in the “gray zone,” i.e., deter by both nuclear and conventional forces and win by decisive advantages. To stop losses and increase gains, the U.S. side is doing some “addition” in trying not only to gain advantages in “gray zone” competition, but also persistently preventing strategic competitors from winning at the various stages of cooperation, deterrence, crisis, and conflict.

Third, as mentioned by JDN 1-19, successful competition requires the skillful combination of cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and, when appropriate, armed conflict in conjunction with diplomatic, informational, military, and economic efforts to achieve and sustain strategic objectives. It is an “integrated campaign” rather than a single campaign.

During the Cold War, the United States adopted a number of competition tactics against the Soviet Union. In the intelligence field, many think tanks set up research programs on the Soviet Union, and the U.S. intelligence community undertook frequent operations to gain deep insight into Soviet decision-making. In the technological field, the U.S. used technology transfer restrictions to make the acquisition of advanced technologies difficult and expensive, forcing the Soviet Union to undertake costly domestic technology development. In the military field, the U.S. Army and Air Force put forward the AirLand Battle (in the 1970s), the Navy proposed its Maritime Strategy (in the 1980s), and there was great fanfare in the Reagan administration over the Strategic Defense Initiative. In addition, the U.S. developed and fielded low-observable (“stealth”) aircrafts and low-signature (silent) submarines, rendering existing USSR air defense systems obsolete and confining the conventional USSR naval forces to offshore waters. The USSR notably consumed a great number of its defense resources in dealing with these evolving U.S. threats.

At present, the U.S. is engaged in a full-government competition against China. In order to gain competitive advantages, it will make full use of upgraded instruments, combining military and para-military measures with trade, political, and information warfare. The aim is to push back, stop losses, and increase benefits. The general principle is to prepare for a “protracted” competition by blurring the line between peace and war and integrating both military and civilian efforts. Specific tools might include intelligence activities, information manipulation, cyberspace sabotage, confinement by rules, and even proxy wars — all of which have already been described in such newly-revised outlines as the Joint Operating Environment (JOE) 2035, the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, and the Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment (JCOIE).

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