World / Politics

U.S. military puts 'great power competition' at heart of defense strategy

Kyodo, AP, Reuters

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Friday called for restoring America’s competitive military advantage to deter China and Russia from challenging the United States and its allies and seeking to overturn the free and open postwar international order led by the United States.

The Defense Department identified “the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition” by the two so-called revisionist powers as the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security, as Mattis unveiled the first National Defense Strategy under the administration of President Donald Trump.

“We face growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia are from each other, nations that do seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models, pursuing veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions,” Mattis said.

“We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” Mattis said in a speech presenting the strategy document, the first of its kind since at least 2014.

Aside from bolstering U.S. alliance and partnership structures, Mattis pledged to modernize the U.S. military, including the nuclear triad and field sufficient forces to deter conflict in line with Trump’s call for preserving “peace through strength.”

“It is incumbent upon us to field a more lethal force if our nation is to retain the ability to defend ourselves and what we stand for,” the Pentagon chief said.

According to an unclassified synopsis of the strategy, China “will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”

“China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea,” the 11-page summary said.

Russia seeks to “shutter” NATO and alter European and Middle East security and economic structures in its favor, the document said, criticizing Moscow’s attempts to subvert democratic processes in Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

“China and Russia are now undermining the international order from within the system by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously undercutting its principles and ‘rules of the road,’ ” the summary said.

The document was referring to the free and open order the United States and its allies and partners have built since the end of World War II to better safeguard their liberty and protect their nations from aggression and coercion.

While China and Russia are the main U.S. adversaries in the latest strategy, Mattis said the Pentagon must address “rogue regimes” such as North Korea and Iran, as well as the threat posed by terrorism.

“North Korea seeks to guarantee regime survival and increased leverage by seeking a mixture of nuclear, biological, chemical, conventional, and unconventional weapons and a growing ballistic missile capability to gain coercive influence over South Korea, Japan, and the United States,” according to the summary.

Pyongyang’s continued development of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles is also connected to proliferating “these capabilities to malign actors as demonstrated by Iranian ballistic missile exports,” it said.

The summary condemned Tehran for using state-sponsored terrorist activities, a growing network of proxies and its missile program in an attempt to destabilize the Middle East and vie for regional hegemony.

Despite challenges from revisionist powers and rogue regimes, Mattis said the U.S. military is “still strong,” but that Washington’s competitive edge “has eroded” and “is continuing to erode” in every domain of warfare — air, land, sea, space and cyberspace.

“We’re going to build a more lethal force,” Mattis said. “We will strengthen our traditional alliances and build new partnerships with other nations.”

The summary referenced U.S. efforts to strengthen alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region as a push toward “a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains” in the face of China’s perceived attempt to force a shift in the regional status quo.

Senior Pentagon official Elbridge Colby said the administration needed the new defense strategy, which is the first in a decade, because China and Russia have spent the last 25 years studying ways to deny the United States its greatest military advantage — the ability to deploy forces anywhere in the world and then sustain them.

“The anti-access, anti-denial methods that both Russia and China have developed need to be countered, and this new strategy sets in place the framework around which to build those capabilities,” Colby, deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, told reporters.

Previous defense chiefs long warned about China, and the Obama administration put a greater focus on the Asia-Pacific region, including by adding ships and troops.

Derek Chollet, former senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration and now with the German Marshall Fund in Washington, said much of the strategy is “old wine in a new bottle, but in this context, that’s a good thing.” He said he was “struck by his emphasis on strong diplomacy, getting out from under budget chaos, and the importance of having a healthy democracy. That’s all correct, just seemed to be at variance with what’s happening elsewhere in the government, including the White House.”

While experts praised the document’s targeting of the largest national security threats rather than the longer lists of risks in some previous strategies, some said that without knowing the budget commitments, it was difficult to assess if it was a sound strategy.

“If we don’t actually see where the money is, you know, there is the danger that it could become all words,” said Mara Karlin, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank and a senior defense official in the Obama administration.