Time to stop pivoting: Great power competition is everywhere

By Matthew Ivey

The Department of Defense recently completed its Global Posture Review (GPR), which sets forth its plans for strategic alignment of U.S. military forces.  As expected, the GPR signals a shift from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, marking a transition from counter-insurgency to great power competition.  Similarly, the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which recently passed the House and Senate, authorizes $7.1 billion (over $2 billion more than requested) for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), a subset of the Department of Defense budget for targeted investments in the Indo-Pacific region.  Other geographic areas across the globe were mentioned in GPR briefings and the NDAA, but almost as an afterthought when compared to the emphasis placed on the Indo-Pacific.

To face current and future threats, United States national security strategy needs to evolve at the speed of relevance.  The current geopolitical and economic environment demands more forward-looking and predictive thinking from civilian and military leaders, rather than reactive views based on recent history and antiquated doctrine.  Casting an eye beyond the regionally-focused and traditional planes of national security is essential to competing and succeeding in the era of great power competition.

This latest shift to the Pacific comes over ten years after the Obama Administration announced a “pivot” or “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific region in 2011.  Yet the Obama-era pivot never really came to be and only served as a catalyst for PRC military modernization, the PRC militarization of the South China Sea, and the launch and execution of a series of aggressive trade endeavors, including the Belt and Road Initiative.  All this was done with impunity as the United States remained focused on the Middle East.

The shift to the Indo-Pacific announced by the GPR and backed by the NDAA has come too slowly and too late.  Focusing on a single geographic region for the past twenty years has allowed problems to fester in areas and ways outside of the strategic focus of the United States.  Technology and competitors have outpaced the speed of U.S. national security strategy.

The United States seems poised to takes its eye off the ball again; this time, in Africa.  Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is executing plans to establish a naval base on Africa’s Atlantic coast in Equatorial Guinea to the alarm of U.S. government officials.  The juxtaposition of the U.S. pivot to the Indo-Pacific against the PRC’s plans to establish a base in west Africa highlights three truths the United States must confront regarding its national security strategy: (1) great power competition is not defined by U.S. military doctrine; (2) great power competition is not defined by geography; and (3) great power competition will not be won by the U.S. military alone.

1. Great Power Competition Is Not Defined By U.S. Military Doctrine

As hard as U.S. military strategists may try to shoehorn it in, great power competition does not fit neatly into the boxes historically prescribed by U.S. military doctrine.  United States national security policy towards China over the past decade assumes a clean division between peace and war.  But this approach quickly loses efficacy in the face of PRC strategy.

As one example, China has spent at least the past decade aggressively influencing international technical standards.  Such standards are agreed upon among regional and global bodies with the shared goal of ensuring functionality, interoperability, and safety among products, services, and processes.  While seemingly mundane and highly technical, such international technical standards have profound influence on how the world adopts and uses new technologies.

Initially, China’s standards strategy was mostly limited to protectionist domestic policies, designed to keep foreign products out of China.  In more recent years, however, China has increased its profile on international standards setting bodies, where participants endeavor to develop consensus-based rules deemed in the best interest of industry and consumers.

In numerous cases, governments, business, and others have attested that China uses a variety of tactics to skew the outcomes of standard-setting deliberations, including by abusing leadership positions and pressuring Chinese representatives to vote for PRC proposals regardless of their merits. These practices not only cut against long-standing rules and norms, but they also reduce the technical quality and long-term relevance of international standards.

In addition to influencing international standards bodies, the PRC sets de facto standards by creating dependencies on Chinese technology products and services through its Belt and Road Initiative.   In essence, the PRC exports technology at a subsidized cost, and signs agreements with governments across Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean that formalize and solidify standards favorable to China.  Such arrangements make it legally difficult or cost prohibitive to switch to alternative products, thereby forcing consumers into using PRC technology.

More insidiously, the PRC is influencing standards as part of a military-civil fusion strategy to exploit networks and critical communications infrastructure.  Most notably, Huawei, China’s most successful telecommunications company, is believed to be backed and controlled by the PRC military.  Since Huawei was founded in 1987, the company has faced allegations across the globe ranging from corporate theft to trade agreements and sanctions violations to purposefully installing backdoor vulnerabilities on its products.

The United States government has taken note of this behavior as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designated Chinese tech companies, including Huawei, ZTE, and others, as “threats to national security.”  And in November 2021, President Biden signed a bill into law barring the FCC from authorizing products made by companies considered a threat to national security.  But these measures are largely defensive and only apply domestically.

To compete with China, U.S. strategy must counter PRC strategy on the global stage, not just in the Indo-Pacific.  In terms of international standards, few bodies are more important than the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The ITU is a treaty-based United Nations organization with representation from almost every nation in the world.  The ITU governs the global use of the electromagnetic spectrum, assigns satellite orbits, and plays a significant role in setting global telecommunications and internet standards.

In 2022, the ITU is scheduled to convene in Bucharest, Romania to elect its next Secretary General.  Responsible, forward-looking, and transparent leadership of the ITU is vital to global industry as well as international security.  Currently, there are two leading candidates.  One is Rashid Ismailov, a former deputy chief of the Russian communications ministry and, as it happens, a former executive at Huawei.  The second is Doreen Bogdan-Martin, from the United States. Bogdan-Martin is currently the Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, where she is working to transform the global digital landscape to improve connectivity, close gaps in infrastructure, and make the digital future more inclusive and sustainable.  If elected, Ms. Bogdan-Martin would be the first woman to lead the ITU.

Although Bogdan-Martin has the support and endorsement of the U.S. government, this will not be enough to win the election.  The winner of the election must obtain the majority of the votes from representatives across the 193 participating nations.

Notably, the largest and, therefore most critical, block of voters for the ITU election reside not in the most powerful countries in the world, but in Africa.  And Africa deserves the attention of national security professionals for other reasons as well.

2. Great Power Competition Is Not Confined By Geography

While the U.S. remains regionally focused and competing within traditional planes of national security, the world is in the midst of an era not defined by geography, but by networks and new technologies.  The greatest untapped potential is in Africa; and the PRC realized this some time ago.

Despite the pervasiveness of the internet in all aspects of life in advanced economies, much of the developing world still lacks access to affordable and reliable connectivity.  Nearly 3.7 billion people (or roughly half of the global population) do not have internet access.  Low earth orbit (LEO) satellites are projected to increase global satellite internet capacity by tenfoldby the end of 2021 and by thirtyfold by 2030.  Because of their proximity to Earth, LEO satellite constellations can circle the globe many times a day, providing continuous and high-quality connectivity for any given area.

The goal of bringing the internet to underdeveloped nations is not a novel aspiration.  But previous efforts were hampered by a lack of access to electricity in the poorest countries.  While there is still more work to be done, due to a concerted effort by the World Health Organization, a $5 billion investment by the World Bank, and advances in off-grid technologies, the global electrification rate has increased dramatically over the last decade; as of 2020, over 90 percent of the world’s population has access to electricity.

The potential to bring reliable internet to remote and underserved populations across the globe could have profound impacts on the availability of information and how it is received, consumed, and transmitted, as well as on national security, the economy, and the international world order.  Because of market demand, the potential for economic growth, and population demographics, no region of the world will be more affected by the increased availability of the internet than Africa.

Thus far, fifty African countries have signed up for the Belt and Road Initiative.  Huawei is engaged in 25 projectsthroughout continent and has already secured seventy percent of Africa’s 4G network.  Further, PRC companies have built over 100 commercial ports in Africa over the past twenty years, and help fund other major infrastructure projects throughout the continent.

The PRC’s efforts to develop a base on the western coast of Africa in Equatorial Guinea should come as no surprise.  In the spring of 2021, U.S. Africa Command Commander, General Stephen Townsend testified that China was seeking to establish “a port where they can rearm with munitions and repair naval vessels.”  General Townsend further stated: “The Chinese are outmaneuvering the U.S. in select countries in Africa.  Port projects, economic endeavors, infrastructure and their agreements and contracts will lead to greater access in the future. They are hedging their bets and making big bets on Africa.”

Although the United States has made efforts to blunt China’s influence in Africa, unilateral efforts have not achieved desired effects.  In October, President Biden’s Principal Deputy National Security Adviser, Jon Finer, met with President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea to seek favor, but this comes on the heels of a series of U.S. diplomatic and legal actions over the past decade targeting Equatorial Guinean government corruption and kleptocracy.  Prospects of curbing Equatorial Guinea’s blossoming partnership with China appear dim.

To effectively counter great powers – especially in Africa – the United States cannot do it alone. 

3. Military Power Alone Is Not the Path To Success In Great Power Competition

Just two months ago, Australia cancelled a long-standing $88 billion diesel submarine contract with France, opting instead to procure nuclear submarines through a trilateral security partnership with the United States and the United Kingdom.  Seemingly surprised by this development, President Macron immediately recalled French ambassadors in the United States and Australia and cancelled a symbolic security cooperation event in Washington commemorating the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes.  According to France Foreign Affairs Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian: “It was a stab in the back. We had established a relationship of trust with Australia. This trust has been betrayed.”

While the United States government has not articulated the rationale behind the decision, Australia has indicated dissatisfaction with French contract performance and the urgent need for a stronger submarine force to challenge the PRC in the South China Sea.  Analysts have observed that even if this particular crisis passes quickly, the United States’ alliance with France will remain damaged, suggesting that the strategic value of the pivot to the Pacific outweighed the potential harm to relationships with France.

Australian submarines in the Pacific likely will be inconsequential to the outcome of great power competition.  Frayed partnerships and a lack of meaningful presence in other parts of the globe will not.  The consequences of the diplomatic fallout between the U.S. and France, however, may go well beyond the South China Sea, the United States, and France.  Instead, it will hurt shared efforts everywhere, including in Africa.

Although Françafrique has waned in recent years, France still maintains considerable influence in Africa founded on deep personal relationships and “family-like” networks as well as a common language in many instances.  Additionally, France retains the largest military presence in Africa of any foreign power.  Throughout the last two decades of counterterrorism operations, France have provided U.S. special forces with otherwise unattainable placement and access.  The value of French partnerships in Africa cannot be overstated.

France would also benefit from U.S. partnership.  In some African countries, France is still viewed negatively as neo-colonial power.  The United States, on the other hand, is a preferred partner in many nations on the continent.  According to General Townsend: “We were never a colonizing power in Africa, and we are regarded as an honest broker by many nations.”  As one recent example, in April 2021, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to move the U.S. Africa Command headquarters from Stuttgart, Germany to Africa.  This is significant as the Nigeran government was the most vocal opponent of establishing an U.S. Africa Command presence in Africa when the command was first created in 2007.

To effectively deter the PRC in Africa and anywhere else, the United States, France and other likeminded nations are stronger and more effective together.  As demonstrated by the submarine deal gone awry, however, we are not on the right track.  As recently as December 9, France declined joining the United States in boycotting the Beijing Olympics, signifying a huge setback for U.S. diplomacy and the continuation of a widening rift between the strategic alignment of democratic nations.  Similarly, Singapore and other key U.S. partners expressed frustration by not being among the 100 nations invited to President Biden’s virtual Summit on Democracy in favor of blatantly authoritarian governments.  China and Russia are undoubtedly reveling in these developments.


The threats emanating from China and the Indo-Pacific region remain significant, but such a strong focus on one specific geographic area overlooks how great power competition is understood and employed by our competitors.  We are in the midst of an era that will be defined not by geography, but by new technologies and networks.  Technology and our competitors have outpaced the speed of U.S. national security strategy.

The United States needs to take heed and recognize that the modern battle field for great power competition is happening everywhere, all the time, and in the shadows of legal agreements and commercial partnerships. And at the moment, an important center of gravity is emerging in Africa.

Matthew Ivey is a retired Naval Officer and currently serves as Vice President of Legislative Affairs and National Security at Freedom Technologies, Inc.  The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official views of Foreign Policy News, Freedom Technologies, Inc., or any other entity.

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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