US National Defence Strategy signals key shift back to competition with great powers

The United States' National Defence Strategy (NDS) provides a large part of the jigsaw of America's foreign policy under President Donald Trump - and marks a key strategic shift in policy.

The NDS signals a significant shift back to big power competition, even as terrorism, and ongoing conflicts and crises, continue to demand attention and resources.

A second part of the jigsaw will follow next month in the form of the military budget, which will indicate how the NDS will be implemented. That will be followed by the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which will reportedly call for enhanced deterrence.

The NDS builds on the National Security Strategy (NSS) Mr Trump announced on Dec 18 - which emphasised "principled realism, guided by our vital national interests."

Rolling out the NSS, President Trump had said : "Whether we like it or not, we are engaged in a new era of competition."

The opening salvo of the 11-page, unclassified synopsis of the NDS rolled out last week by Defence Secretary James Mattis - currently on a visit to Indonesia and Vietnam - states that the US is "emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding."

Those days, the document essentially states, are over. "There can be no complacency," it reads. "We must make difficult choices and prioritise what is most important to field a lethal, resilient, and rapidly adapting Joint Force." The words "lethal" and "lethality" appear 20 times in the synopsis.


US President Donald Trump delivers remarks regarding the Administration's National Security Strategy, on Dec 18, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

"Two things stand out," Dr Zachary Abuza, Professor at the National War College in Washington DC told The Straits Times.

"One is the shift from transnational terrorism which is now treated as a tactical, rather than a strategic threat, to state-borne threats - China and Russia.

"Second, the NDS… unequivocally states that China and Russia are not only territorially aggressive, but that they are revisionist states, out to undermine the international system."

Before 9/11, major power competition drove the US's agenda, Dr Patrick Cronin, Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) told The Straits Times.

"9/11 changed that, driving the agenda until the Trump administration consciously said it's… definitely transnational terrorism but we need to focus (on) Chinese and Russian competition."

The post-war rules-based order was seen to be increasingly unfavourable for the United States, Dr Cronin said. "If you look at how Russia and China have been allowed to revise and challenge the post-war system, we need to drive better bargains and become more competitive and that means challenging a lot of the existing agreements but it doesn't mean upending the system.

 
 
 

"It doesn't mean... go to war, or tear up the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or the United Nations, it means reform them, revise them, make them more favourable so the US can be and remain competitive with a rising China and a revisionist Russia."

"This is not a strategy of confrontation, but it is strategy that recognises the reality of competition" Mr Elbridge Colby, deputy assistant secretary of defence for strategy and force development, told Pentagon reporters on the eve of the rollout last week.

Ms Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told the Washington Examiner: "The last administration did not explicitly prioritise among the five challenges of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorism. The new strategy clearly puts China as first among equals in the threat prioritisation list."

"In reality, however, I suspect this team… will attempt to break out of the 'tyranny of the now' but will wind up spending the majority of time on current operations, including Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and North Korea."

Dr Cronin told The Straits Times: "The strategy says all the right things in my view, but it comes to the test when you budget and allocate. It's always a balancing act."