Assessing the Fungibility of U.S.-Soviet Competitive Strategies

James P. Micciche is a U.S. Army Strategist and Civil Affairs Officer with deployment and service experience in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan, Europe, and Indo-Pacific. He is currently the G5 at the Security Forces Assistance Command and can be found on Twitter @james_micciche. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessing the Fungibility of U.S.-Soviet Competitive Strategies 

Date Originally Written:  February 13, 2021.

Date Originally Published:  March 22, 2021.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that replicating Soviet Cold War strategy will not guarantee the United States success vis-à-vis China in 2021.  Rather than simply replicating Cold War strategy, the United States’ time would be better spent developing a deeper understanding of itself, its rival, and the operating environment. 

Summary:  Nations build successful competitive strategies around a comprehensive understanding of themselves, their rivals, and the environment in which they compete. As the United States and China enter a geopolitical rivalry there is merit in studying the strategy the United States implemented against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Albeit earlier success, the geopolitical environment of 2021 limits core tenets of U.S. Soviet strategy, requiring a more precise knowledge of the modern milieu to succeed.

Text:  Over the past decade U.S. foreign policy has increasingly focused on a rising geopolitical rivalry between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In 2011, the Obama administration implemented a “pivot to the pacific[1],” establishing a cooperative policy to counter rising Chinese influence throughout the region. The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy, which mentions China 36 times, directly outlined both the global and regional challenges China represents to “American security and prosperity[2].” In his first foreign policy speech President Biden declared his administration will, “take on directly the challenges posed to our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China[3].”  

Sino-focused policy and rhetoric from three consecutive U.S. Presidential administrations has led policymakers, academics, and even the media to declare the United States and China are entering, or already in, a new Cold War. Codifying the relationship between the two powers as Cold War 2.0 creates a dangerous perception that implementing the same strategies used throughout the U.S.-Soviet Cold War will lead to a successful outcome for the United States over China.  While there is much utility in studying the competitive strategy utilized by the United States that contained Soviet expansion and facilitated the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) one cannot simply re-operationalize previous USSR-focused tenets against China and expect similar results.  J.C. Wylie warns of crafting strategy based solely on past success, “such a theory does not necessarily account for what could have happened but did not, and the theory cannot be applied to future events with consistent rigor[4].”  

The lack of fungibility of Soviet-era U.S. Policy to modern Sino-U.S. competition is predicated on the vast differences in the strategic operating environment between the two time periods. Due to the information age, hyper globalization, geographical differences, and the decreasing utility of military force many of the domain-specific advantages that the United States enjoyed in its 40-year struggle with the Soviet Union no longer exist or are in fact now beneficial to the PRC. This lack of domain-specific advantages nullifies portions of the successful U.S. competitive strategy utilized against the USSR which according to Gordon S. Barrass “was based on exploiting America’s sustainable comparative advantage[5].” 

To craft a comprehensive competitive strategy against China U.S. policy makers must understand the USSR and the PRC are different agents, as is the modern United States compared to the United States during the Cold War. Most importantly though, any successful strategy must first define and then operationalize the constraints, challenges, and opportunities that the strategic operating environment presents. 

The Cold War began in the aftermath of the Second World War in which most of Europe and large parts of Asia had suffered immense damage to infrastructure and staggering loss of life. Out of this geopolitical situation emerged a bipolar balance of power between the two nations best positioned at the end of the war: the USSR and the United States. Inversely, the rise of the Sino-U.S. rivalry has occurred in one of the most stable and peaceful time periods in modern history in terms of the number of interstate conflicts. Japan and Germany highlight how dissimilar the starting points between these two rivalries are as those two nations barely had functioning economies in 1947 and now represent the 3rd and 4th largest in terms of Gross Domestic Product[6].  In fact, scholars debate the very balance of power of the modern paradigm with scholastic descriptions ranging from unipolarity[7] to nonpolarity[8],a drastic difference from the bipolarity of 1947-1991. 

The development and expansion of the liberal rules base international order following World War 2 created an underlying hegemonic structure the Soviets were not part of. Instead, the USSR championed an ideological alternative system. Due to hyper globalization and its inclusion in multiple organizations and instruments of the liberal world order, China has become an integral and interdependent part of the global economic and diplomatic network. A revisionist actor who benefits from the same system as its primary competitor will attempt “rules-based revision[9]” by changing the system internally for its benefits, something the USSR could not attempt in the Cold War due to its isolation from and competition against the American led system. For example, in 2019 China accounted for the largest amount of U.S. imports and was the third largest destination for U.S. exports[10], a level of economic interdependence that was unheard of between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and a limiting factor to the types of strategies the U.S. can use against China, particularly in an environment in which military force is not as fungible as it once was[11].

Another marked difference is the ideological exportation of the USSR and the PRC. Throughout the Cold War the USSR and its allies attempted to export communism and while China is a “communist” nation it has not taken up the charge of fomenting a global socialist revolution since the USSR’s fall and in fact been a major part of global capitalism.  Rather, China exports a form of autocratic ideology through loans, projects, and technology enabling authoritarian regimes and leaders to stay in power and establishing corrupt and beneficial relationships for China across the globe especially in developing nations.

The final variance between the two periods is the diffusion of national barriers in the information age. Propaganda and information operations were significant facets of U.S. and Soviet strategies, but their effects were mitigated and diffused by national barriers.  In 2021 states bypass borders directly targeting select populations of rival states. This capability is not uniform and creates a glaring asymmetry between democracies and autocracies as the latter uses the former’s inherent liberties to “cut, razor-like, into the fabric of a society, stoking and amplifying existing divisions[12].” 

The successful competitive strategy the United States operationalized against the USSR in the latter half of the Cold War was predicated on detailed understanding of not just the adversary but more importantly the strategic environment. As the United States reenters a period that some are labeling a new Cold War, it will not succeed as it did against the USSR without redeveloping a comprehensive understanding of itself, its adversary, and the paradigm before it applies any previously successful framework.


[1] Manyin, M. E., Daggett, S., Dolven, B., Lawrence, S. V., Martin, M. F., O’Rourke, R., & Vaughn, B. (2012, March). Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s” Rebalancing” Toward Asia. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS WASHINGTON DC CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE.

[2] Trump, D. J. (2017). National security strategy of the United States of America. Executive Office of The President Washington DC Washington United States.

[3] Biden, Joseph, (2021, February 4). Remarks by President Biden on America’s Place in the World (transcript). The White House.

[4] Wylie Jr, J. C. (2014). Military strategy: a general theory of power control. Naval Institute Press. Pg. 58

[5] Barrass, Gordon. (2012) U.S. Competitive Strategy During the Cold War. Mahnken, T. G. (Ed.). (2012). Competitive strategies for the 21st Century: Theory, history, and practice. Stanford University Press. 86-87

[6] World Bank, World Development Indicators, (2019), GDP (current US$){Data file}.

[7] Sears, Nathan A. (2016). China, Russia, and the Long ‘Unipolar Moment.’ The Diplomat,

[8] Haass, R. N. (2008). The age of nonpolarity: what will follow US dominance. Foreign affairs, 44-56.

[9] Goddard, S. E. (2018). Embedded revisionism: Networks, institutions, and challenges to world order. International Organization, 72(4), 763-797.

[10] Office of the United States Trade Representatives. (2019). The People’s Republic of China. Country and Regions.,was%20%24345.2%20billion%20in%202019.

[11] Baldwin, D. A. (1999). Force, fungibility, and influence.

[12] Walker, C., & Ludwig, J. (2017). From ‘soft power’to ‘sharp power’: Rising authoritarian influence in the democratic world. Sharp power: Rising authoritarian influence, 8-25


Assessment Papers China (People's Republic of China) Cold War Competition Economic Factors Governing Documents and Ideas James P. Micciche Soviet Union United States

U.S. Options for Countering the Belt and Road Initiative in Africa

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Drake Long is an analyst with RadioFreeAsia, covering the South China Sea and other maritime issues. He is also a 2020 Asia-Pacific Fellow for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He can be found on Twitter @DRM_Long and has previously written for RadioFreeAsia, The Diplomat, 9DASHLINE, and the Center for International Maritime Security. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The United States is competing with the People’s Republic of China and its landmark Belt and Road Initiative.

Date Originally Written:  July 30, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  November 4, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes ‘great power competition’ as prescribed by the National Defense Strategy is in reality a competition for the favor of unaligned countries, most especially the economically dynamic middle powers and rising powers in Africa.

Background:  Thirty-nine African countries have signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an infrastructure and investment project that is synonymous with Chinese foreign policy[1]. More African college students attend Chinese universities over that of the U.K. and U.S., largely through programs like the China-Africa Action Plan that recruits 100,000 African civil servants and military officers annually[2]. However, African countries have also grown wary of Chinese investment, renegotiating their debt with China as a bloc this year[3].

Significance:  BRI projects are one method of co-opting African political elites, as the ‘corrosive capital’ of Chinese investment often exacerbates existing inequality and graft issues in developing countries[4]. Certain Chinese State Owned Enterprises (SOE) hold virtual monopolies on certain materials like cobalt, found only in a select few places on the African continent, to secure materials necessary for an advanced economy[5]. On top of this, China’s co-opting of local media means negative coverage of China is suppressed.

Option #1:  The U.S. facilitates local journalism in African countries at the center of China’s Belt and Road Initiative through specialized grants to local news outlets and public-private partnerships to create tertiary journalism schools.

Chinese BRI projects are often signed on opaque or parasitic terms. Exposure in the public press creates upward pressure on African elites to cancel these projects or renegotiate them, hurting Chinese soft power, influence, and economic dominance over certain sectors of the African economy[6].

A free press is ultimately good for elite accountability, and elite accountability spells doom for Chinese influence efforts. In some cases, exposing kleptocracy can lead to a change in government, removing officials previously eager to sign BRI deals for potential kickbacks[7].

If the U.S. were to use existing tools to better support local journalism in small-but-pivotal African states along the BRI, this would facilitate opposition to Chinese influence. Targeted grants to local and sub-regional news outlets is one method of achieving this, but the training of journalists in African countries is pivotal, too. As such, existing agencies could partner with experienced U.S. news organizations to create schools and training initiatives that would seed a new generation of journalists in African countries.

Risk:  Some negative coverage of U.S. investments and multinational companies operating in Africa may also occur.

Gain:  This option will create a stronger network of accountability for African elites susceptible to Chinese corrosive capital, and expose China’s BRI projects without the stigma of being the U.S. government and thus not impartial.

Option #2:  The U.S. strengthens labor unions and they more forcefully advocate labor rights in African countries.

Organized labor has played a critical role in exposing worker abuse and poor conditions at the sites of Chinese BRI investment before, most notably in Kenya, where a railway strike in 2018 brought Chinese railway projects to a halt[8].

Many of China’s business and infrastructure projects in certain African countries are facilitated by bribes to local officials. Labor movements bypass this ‘elite capture’ by exposing ties between Chinese and African oligarchs, and pressuring those same elites to cancel BRI projects or negotiate terms that are more favorable to African workers.

At the same time, organized labor in Africa faces steep challenges: labor migration is largely unregulated[9] and labor unions have long been marginalized from developing economies, holding little actual political power in the modern day[10].

If the U.S. were to give labor and trade unions targeted support similar to other civil society initiatives, it would create domestic pressures on Chinese investors in African countries. Expanding the U.S. Department of Labor’s International Labor Affairs Bureau would provide accurate data on labor movements and labor rights, and placing a Labor section on the National Security Council Staff would assist policy coordination.

Risk:  This option would potentially anger non-Chinese multinational corporations with a presence in those countries as well.

Gain:  African labor movements could shut down BRI projects entirely or put pressure on national governments to renegotiate terms with Chinese SOEs.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Risberg, P. (2019). The Give-and-Take of BRI in Africa. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from

[2] Acker, Kevin, Deborah Brautigam, and Yufan Huang. (2020). Debt Relief with Chinese Characteristics. Working Paper No. 2020/39. China Africa Research Initiative, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC. Retrieved from

[3] Natalunya, Paul. (2020). China Promotes Its Party-Army Model in Africa. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from

[4] John Morrell et al. (2018). Channeling the Tide: Protecting Democracies from a Flood of Corrosive Capital. Retrieved from

[5] Jack Farchy and Hayley Warren. (2018) China has a secret weapon in the race to dominate electric cars. Bloomberg News. Retrieved from

[6] Shikongo, Arlana. (2019). ‘Chinese invasion’ claims hit cement factory. The Namibian. Retrieved from

[7] Hursh, John. (2019). A Bump in the Belt and Road: Tanzania pushes back against Chinese port project. Center for International Maritime Security. Retrieved from

[8] Kenyan workers’ strike halts Chinese railway project. (2018). GlobalConstructionReview. Retrieved from

[9] An assessment of labour migration and mobility governance in the IGAD region. (2020). International Labor Organization. Retrieved from—africa/—ro-abidjan/—sro-addis_ababa/documents/publication/wcms_740549.pdf

[10] Pitcher, M. (2007). What Has Happened to Organized Labor in Southern Africa? International Labor and Working-Class History, (72), 134-160. Retrieved August 1, 2020, from

2020 - Contest: PRC Below Threshold Writing Contest Africa China (People's Republic of China) Competition Drake Long Journalism / The Press Option Papers United States

An Assessment of the American National Interest in Sino-American Competition

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Brandon Patterson is a graduate student at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego, whose area of focus is China.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  An Assessment of the American National Interest in Sino-American Competition

Date Originally Written:  July 21, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  November 2, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes the United States, in order to maintain a sense of proportion in dealing with China, must find criteria over which in must resist Beijing.  Additionally, wherever the U.S. makes practical accommodations, in order to transcend Cold War-like conditions, and to create a basic American approach to relations with China that can be passed from one administration to the next with a high degree of continuity, it should do so.

Summary:  As tensions rise between the United States and China, Washington requires a concept of the national interest to serve as a guide in navigating this new dynamic. Wearing ideological blinders nearly tore the American psyche apart at key moments during the Cold War. As competition with China develops, America can prevent itself from falling into the Cold War era Manichaeism that shook domestic consensus on the nature of its task.

Text:  In light of deteriorating relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, emphasis on so-called great power competition enters the American lexicon[1]. Competition implies a victor; yet great power relations are a process with no terminal point. Complicating matters is the fact that the relationship between Washington and Beijing has acquired ideological contours, which serve as a blight on the minds of American policymakers who tend to lose a sense of proportion when facing ideological opponents[2]. Under these conditions, competition becomes an end in itself as foreign policy becomes a struggle between good and evil rather than the threading together of various issues into a relationship neither entirely friendly nor wholly adversarial. A clear set of objectives on the American side of this competition, and how they are enmeshed in a grand strategy aimed at a concept of world order is necessary. In other words, before Washington acts, American policy makers ask themselves:

  • What is this supposed competition about and how should one define success?
  • What threat does China pose to international order?
  • What changes must the United States resist by forceful means?

Though unexceptional, these questions are uniquely crucial for a country lacking a geopolitical tradition. The United States can look beyond the aspects of China’s domestic structure which the U.S. rejects in order to retain a clear conception of how the United States may accommodate China without turning the world over to it. This is the space America is obliged to navigate. The national interest, still so vaguely defined in American strategic thought, will fail unless clearly articulated in order to provide criteria by which America’s relationship with China can be assessed and altered. The emphasis on “competition below the threshold of armed conflict” requires examination. To abjure from the use of force — or to define precisely where one is unwilling to go to war — is to define a limit to the national interest.

The United States is the ultimate guarantor of the global balance of power. In order for there to be stability in the world, equilibrium must prevail. This equilibrium is America’s most vital interest, its primary responsibility to international order, and is thus the limiting condition of its foreign policy. The United States cannot permit any power, or any grouping of powers, to attain hegemony over Eurasia, or any of its constituent sub-regions[3]. The People’s Republic of China, whatever its intentions, by the nature of its power, poses the greatest threat to global equilibrium. Tensions are therefore inherent.

It is equally true, however, that the United States and China are likely to be the twin pillars of world order, and that the peace and progress of mankind will likely depend on their conceiving order as a shared enterprise rather than a Cold War in which one perception emerges dominant. Of course, Beijing retains a vote, and if a Cold War becomes unavoidable, Washington requires a clear conception of its necessities to prevent the wild oscillations between overcommitment and over-withdrawal to which it is prone.

American foreign policy can reflect this Janus-like dynamic. This is when the national interest becomes imperative. The United States and China can convey to one another what interests they consider vital, the violation of which will result in conflict. For America, such a threat is more difficult to determine now than during even the Cold War. The Belt and Road initiative is the most awe inspiring example. This initiative represents a Chinese attempt to restructure Eurasia such that China reemerges as the Middle Kingdom[4]. America for its part cannot permit any single country to achieve hegemony over Eurasia; yet Belt and Road is not a military enterprise, and so the threat it poses remains ambiguous, and the best means of countering it is far from self-evident. It thus becomes imperative that American administrations establish what they consider to be a threat to equilibrium and find means of conveying this to the Chinese.

Keeping this competition below the threshold of armed conflict rests upon the ability of Washington to drive home to Beijing precisely what is likely to lead to war while such threats remain ambiguous, and thus manageable. This also implies an early response to Chinese probing actions — such as in the South China Sea — lest they acquire a false sense of security, prompting more reckless actions down the road.

Calculations of power become more complex for the United States than for China however, as America is steeped in a tradition of idealism for which no corresponding impulse can be found in China. The United States is an historic champion of human rights, spending blood and treasure in its defense on multiple occasions since the end of the Second World War. In order to be true to itself, the United States stands for its basic values — it too is a duty to the world. This finds expression in America’s support for the cause of Hong Kong’s protests[5], for the victims of China’s excesses in Xinjiang[6], and for political prisoners[7].

The question is not whether America should stand for these values, but rather the extent to which it does so, and at what cost. The United States cannot directly influence the internal evolution of an historic culture like China’s, and that attempting to do so will manufacturer tensions over issues with no resolution, which in turn renders practical issues within the realm of foreign policy less soluble, combining the worst of every course of action.

A wise course for American policy makers then, is to use the national interest as a compass in navigating what will be a journey without a clear historical precedent. Equilibrium is the obvious limiting condition and starting point for such an effort. Moral purpose guides pragmatic actions just as pragmatism makes idealism sustainable. Such an approach is not an abrogation of American values, rather it is the best means of vindicating them over a prolonged period. For, in Sino-American relations, there will be no ultimate victory nor final reconciliation.


[1] Jones, B. (February 2020). China and the Return of Great Power Strategic Competition. Retrieved July 1, 2020, from

[2] Debate Over Detente. (1973, November 17). Retrieved July 1, 2020, from

[3] Spykman, N. J. (2007). America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (1st ed., pp. 194-199). Routledge.

[4] Kaplan, R.D. (March 6, 2018). The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century. (pp.). New York: Random House.

[5] Edmundson, C. (2020, July 2). Senate Sends Trump a Bill to Punish Chinese Officials Over Hong Kong. Retrieved July 3, from

[6] Pranshu, V. & Wong, E. (2020, July 9). U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Chinese Officials Over Mass Detention of Muslims. Retrieved July 10, from

[7] Puddington, A. (2018, July 26). China: The Global Leader in Political Prisoners. Retrieved July 10, from

2020 - Contest: PRC Below Threshold Writing Contest Assessment Papers Brandon Patterson China (People's Republic of China) Competition Policy and Strategy United States

Assessing the U.S. and China Competition for Brazilian 5G 

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Martina Victoria Abalo is an Argentinian undergrad student majoring in international affairs from The University of San Andres in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She can be found on Twitter as @Martilux. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessing the U.S. and China Competition for Brazilian 5G

Date Originally Written:  July 24, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  October 5, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is an advanced undergrad student of International Affairs from Argentina.

Summary:  Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump see the world similarly. At the same time, China’s investment in Brazil is significantly more than the U.S. investment. With China trying to put 5G antennas into Brazil, and the U.S. trying to stop China from doing the same worldwide, President Bolsonaro finds himself in a quandary and thus far has not decided to side with the U.S. or China.

Text:  When thinking about China and the U.S., most tend to see the big picture. However, often unseen are the disputes that are going in the shadows for alignment. This article will assess how U.S. tries to counterbalance China in Brazil, as China pursues the alignment of the South American power for 5G.

The relationship between China and Brazil must be understood in context. Before the impeachment of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, China was Brazil’s most important ally economically and one of the closest politically[1]. However, with the assumption of the Presidency by Jair Bolsonaro in 2019, Brazil’s foreign policy towards China turned 180 degrees[2]. Although Brazil has been famous for having a foreign policy autonomous from their domestic one[3], Bolsonaro’s office changed that and started a close linkage with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Having a similar political outlook, Bolsonaro and Trump have made Brazil and the U.S. closer than they have ever been. Nevertheless, this closeness comes with a price, especially for Brazil, which seems to be playing the role of the second state in a bandwagon for survival relationship[4] with the United States. This role can be seen in the first months of 2019 when Jair tried to follow the U.S. lead in the international community. Though alignment with the U.S. may be well or poorly appreciated, it remains to be seen what impacts Brazil will feel from China following this alignment.

Brazil’s relationship with the U.S. did not last long because no matter how uncomfortable Bolsonaro feels with the Chinese political model, China remains Brazil’s first economic partner. In 2018 the Brazilian Gross Domestic Product GDP was 12,79%[5] and during 2019 China bought assets in Brazil for U.S. $62.871 billion and had total trade of U.S. $98.142 billion[6] between these two countries. In parallel with this, Brazil’s second-best trade partner, the U.S., was far behind China, with a two – way trade of U.S. $59.646 billion. As we know, the United States can not offer to Brazil the economic benefits that China does and clearly, this is no secret in Brazil. With this trade disparity, the question is whether the U.S. can offer something as powerful as China, to persuade Brazil from signing more agreements with China, such as installation of 5G antennas?

Even though 5G antennas are faster than the 4G, there are two concerns around this new technology. The first one is the privacy of the users because it is easy to get the exact user location. The second is that the owner of the 5G network or a hacker could spy on the internet traffic passing through said network[8].

In 2020, the United States is attempting to thwart China from signing agreements to place 5G antennas in countries worldwide. While the United Kingdom and France[9] rejected any kind of deal with China, in Brazil the official decision keeps on being delayed, and as of this writing nobody knows whether Bolsonaro align with China or the U.S.

China is trying to persuade Brazil to sign an agreement with Huawei which aims to develop 5G technology by placing 5G antennas all along Brazil[10]. This quest to convince Brazil to sign with Huawei has been going on for months. Despite the lack of a signed agreement Huawei, who has been operating in Brazil for a long time now, is opening a lab of 5G technology in Brasilia[11].

The U.S. does not have a viable counteroffer to Brazil for the placement of Huawei 5G antennas across the country[12]. The Trump administration keeps trying to persuade their political allies to not sign with Huawei, although the United States has not developed this kind of alternative technology. However, there are some companies interested in placing 5G on Brazil alike the Mexican telecommunications company Claro[13].

President Bolsonaro, in an effort to balance the U.S. and China’s interest in Brazil, will likely have to find a middle way. Regarding the influence of China when it comes to Brazil’s economy, it is naïve to think that there will not be any consequence if Brazil says no to Huawei. Of course, this possible “no” does not mean that China will break any economical entanglement with Brazil, but clearly, China would not be pleased by this decision. A yes decision by Bolsonaro might be a deal-breaker for the Trump-Bolsonaro relationship. Additionally, Bolsonaro started his presidency seeking to be Trump’s southern ally to ensure survival. Bolsonaro remains as hopeful as Jair that Brazil would be a secondary state[14], and that following the U.S. will help Brazil to change their political and economic allies. Finally, the close relationship between the U.S. and Brazil is quite good, and the U.S. can support Bolsonaro politically and diplomatically speaking in ways that China is simply not able.

In conclusion, Brazil is placed between a rock and a hard place and the solution to this matter will not satisfy all participants. It might be rather expensive for the future of Brazil if the U.S. does not back Bolsonaro if he says yes to China, and China might turn back on the Brazilian administration if they say no to Huawei.


[1] Ferreyra, J. E. (n.d.). Acciones de política exterior de Brasil hacia organismos multilaterales durante las presidencias de Lula Da Silva [Grado, Siglo 21].

[2] Guilherme Casarões. (2019, December 20). Making Sense of Bolsonaro’s Foreign Policy at Year One. Americas Quarterly.

[3] Jacaranda Guillén Ayala. (2019). La política exterior del gobierno de Bolsonaro. Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica.

[4] Matias Spektot, & Guilherme Fasolin. (2018). Bandwagoning for Survival: Political Leaders and International Alignments.

[5] Brasil—Exportaciónes de Mercancías 2019. (2019). Datos Macro.

[6] World Integrated Trade Solutions. (2020, July 12). Brasil | Resumen del comercio | 2018 | WITS | Texto. World Integrated Trade Solutions.

[7] World Integrated Trade Solutions. (2020, July 12). Brasil | Resumen del comercio | 2018 | WITS | Texto. World Integrated Trade Solutions.

[8] Vandita Grover. (2019, October 16). In the Age of 5G Internet Is Data Privacy Just A Myth? | MarTech Advisor. Martech Advisor.

[9] George Calhoun. (2020, July 24). Is The UK Ban On Huawei The “Endgame” For Free Trade? Forbes.

[10] Oliver Stunkel. (2020, June 30). Huawei or Not? Brazil Faces a Key Geopolitical Choice. Americas Quarterly.

[11] Huawei to open 5G lab in Brasília. (2020, July 23). BNamericas.Com.

[12] Gabriela Mello. (2020, July 7). Huawei says U.S. pressure on Brazil threatens long delays in 5G rollout. Reuters.

[13] Forbes Staff. (2020, July 8). Claro, de Carlos Slim, iniciará la carrera del 5G en Brasil. Forbes México.

[14] Matias Spektot, & Guilherme Fasolin. (2018). Bandwagoning for Survival: Political Leaders and International Alignments.

Assessment Papers Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) Brazil China (People's Republic of China) Competition Emerging Technology United States

Options for African Nations Regarding Economic Collaboration with the U.S. and China

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Ekene Lionel is the Executive Director for Military Africa.  He can be found on Twitter @LionelfrancisNG.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The United States and the People’s Republic of China are competing below the threshold of war for influence in Africa.

Date Originally Written:  May 19, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  July 27, 2020.

Author and / or Point of View:  The author believes that the possibility of a U.S.-Chinese economic collaboration in Africa is the only way forward, and that this collaboration will be key to competition in Africa below the threshold of war. The article is written from the point of view of Africa’s relationship between both major powers.

Background:  China is an increasingly important player in the politics, economic development, and security of Africa. China has prioritized strong diplomatic relations and political ties with African states. Beijing’s ideological aspiration, anchored on solidarity amongst the Third World countries, is appealing to African states.

Significance:  With China’s focus on Africa’s rich resources is to fuel its own domestic economic growth, this has placed it in direct competition with the United States.

Option #1:  The U.S. increases bilateral trade and investment in Africa to compete with China below the threshold of war.

Although China and the United States employ different strategies and tactics in Africa, they share very similar interests, and that their competition has been largely confined to the economic domain. Even though there is a fundamental distrust between both nations, particularly as the U.S. is cautious of China’s military entry into Africa, there is still much room for their cooperation in promoting peace and economic development on the continent.

With that said, the U.S. currently lacks a comprehensive approach to multilateral issues such as regional trade, governance, and infrastructural development that will serve Africa better than what China offers. Since trade is vital to Africa’s economic future and to improving lives and livelihoods, the U.S. can recognize that much of China’s appeal is its willingness to respond to Africa’s developmental priorities, and to project Africa as a promising hub for foreign investment. For several decades, U.S. investment is still heavily concentrated in the natural resource sector. Instead, for a long-term, sustainable economic growth, and development in Africa, America can identify and promote other sectors where U.S. businesses might have competitive advantages.

The United States can also work with African countries to take full advantage of both African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and worldwide trading opportunities and send exports to emerging markets such as Russia, China, India, and Brazil (BRIC). The AGOA, which was signed between 2002 and 2008, lowers tariff barriers for entry into the United States of African-produced textiles and other commodities[1].

Besides trade and foreign direct investment, America can leverage its relationship with Africa to encourage improvements in human rights practices and the pursuance of Western-style liberal democracy. In contrast, China has a policy of no political strings attached to its aid. Beijing maintains close relations with African governments whether they are democracies, autocracies, military regimes, or Islamists.

Risk:  Increased U.S. trade and investment in Africa angers China, who then takes steps to roll back U.S. efforts in Africa or elsewhere.

Gain:  This option will appeal to African nations on the basis of a common U.S-African interest in trade negotiations. At present, Africa has just 2 percent of all world trade, this is still low considering a large number of resources present in Africa. The U.S. will have to convince companies to invest in the region, and also opening its markets further to African exports.

Option #2:  The U.S. and China collaborate economically in Africa.

Militarily, the United States has a robust presence in Africa, and is particularly active in anti-piracy and counter-terror efforts, operating up to 29 different bases in the continent[2]. China cannot hope to match or contest U.S. military dominance in Africa. Africa is no stranger to conflict as the continent has been subjected to constant warfare for the past several decades. Africa will fiercely resist any attempt of international armed struggle for clout within the continent.

The United States and China use essentially the same political, economic, military, and cultural tools for implementing their policies in Africa. For China, the country has placed itself as the infrastructural vanguard of the new frontier, since Africa is now considered the fastest urbanizing continent globally. According to a 2017 report by the International Monetary Fund, in 2017, Africa boasted seven of the 20 fastest growing economies in the world[3].

Thus, China has position itself to capitalize and exploit this growth. Since 2005, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) China Global Investment Tracker determined that the total value of Chinese investments and construction in Africa is nearing $2 trillion[4]. The Chinese investment is compared with the just $39 billion combined trade value for the United States according to a 2017 United States Agency for International Development report. The U.S. is it Africa’s third-largest trading partner behind China and the European Union.

To consolidate its robust economic influence, China recently launched a $1 billion Belt and Road infrastructure fund for Africa, and a $60 billion African aid package[5]. Even though China is presenting itself humbly in its interaction with Africa, it has been accused of saddling developing countries with substantial volumes of hidden debt through its Belt and Road Initiative. This humility is rapidly changing as China’s political and economic power increases. As China looks to diversify its trade and investment relationships amid the protracted trade war with the U.S, Beijing’s opaqueness in issuing loans means debt burdens for recipient countries, which can cause potential problems for the African economy.

For now, Chinese firms have been actively building ports, roads, and railways to enhance integration and trade between African nations, mainly under the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). AfCFTA intends to bring together all 55 African Union member states into the world’s largest free trade area, covering over 1.2 billion people. Besides, China now has more diplomatic offices in Africa than the U.S., and in some countries, Chinese influence counts for more[6].

In contrast, being the leader of the Western world since the end of World War II, the United States is sometimes perceived in Africa as insensitive and arrogant. U.S.-Africa trade has dipped in recent years. Nearly all of the assistance provided to Africa by the United States is in the form of grants and aids to Africa has been running at about $8 billion annually.

If the U.S continues to pursue military dominance or competition with China even below the threshold of war, it risks being a step or even two behind China in Africa for a long time. U.S. interests in Africa remain shaped, to its own detriment, by a perceived competition with China. The U.S. may accomplish more by focusing on areas of current or potential collaboration and to pay less attention to the debilitating debate about U.S-China competition.

Washington can collaborate with China, smoothing the way to trade will help more entrepreneurial African states, especially those with the thriving private business sector, to grow where it would be welcomed by the new generation of dynamic African entrepreneurs.

While there are areas in Africa where China and the United States might compete as major powers, especially below the threshold of war, there are many more areas where they can cooperate. For example, both Countries have a successful agricultural sector, components of which could be combined and adapted to improve production in Africa.

At this point, America likely cannot sit idly while countries such as China become more engaged with the aspirations of Africa’s next generation of leaders. Frankly, China is not a strategic threat to the United States in Africa. However, Beijing could pose serious political and commercial challenges for influence. Nonetheless, by engaging China more on Africa-centric socio-economic, diplomatic, and infrastructural development can the U.S. meet this challenge effectively.

Risk:  Chinese and U.S. investments in Africa further entangle the two nations and cause both to hesitate to take more important actions to preserve national security.

Gain:  A coordinated and dedicated diplomatic, commercial, and security strategy can increase U.S. investment and challenge Chinese influence in Africa.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA),

[2] Nick Turse, Pentagon’s map of US bases in Africa, The Intercept, February 27, 2020,

[3] IMF Annual Report 2017, Promoting inclusive growth, 2017,

[4] AEI, China Global Investment Tracker, 2005-2019,

[5] Silk Road Briefing, US$ 1 Billion Belt & Road Africa Fund Launched, July 04, 2019,

[6] Ben Doherty , The Guardian, China leads world in number of diplomatic posts, leaving US in its wake, Tuesday 26 Nov 2019,

2020 - Contest: PRC Below Threshold Writing Contest Africa Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) China (People's Republic of China) Competition Ekene Lionel Option Papers United States

Assessing African Strategic Needs to Counter Undue Chinese Influence

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Damimola Olawuyi has served as a Geopolitical Analyst for SBM Intelligence. He can be found on Twitter @DAOlawuyi. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessing African Strategic Needs to Counter Undue Chinese Influence

Date Originally Written:  May 2, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  July 13, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that China’s current posture in Africa, if left unchecked, will turn the continent into a battleground for Great Power Competition below the threshold of armed conflict.

Summary:  China, despite its claims of peaceful rise, has steadily exercised its military, economic and diplomatic might. With strong leadership that is not afraid of compromise, African countries can enforce their independence as they ensure peace and prosperity on the continent.

Text:  When Deng Xiaoping liberalized the Chinese economy in 1978[1], his goals were to lift 860 million Chinese from poverty and power the Chinese economy to overtake its neighbors[2]. From an agrarian, state-controlled economy, China is now an industrial, largely private sector-led economic superpower[3]. However, as China’s economic power has grown, concerns about China’s global agenda have emerged[4]. China, along with Russia, is determined to reorder the world in its image[5], making conflict with the West more likely[6]. Yet, despite professing a policy of “Peaceful Rise[7]”, Chinese actions in the South China Sea[8] and its isolation campaign against Taiwan[9] show that Beijing isn’t afraid to flex its diplomatic, economic and military muscles.

Africa has attracted the interest of Great Powers through the ages. Often this interest has been to the detriment of Africans. From the destruction of Carthage[10] to slave trade[11][12] and colonization[13], Africa has faced privations from empires looking to exploit its resources. Even after independence, warring powers continued to interfere in the internal conflicts of African countries[14] throughout the Cold War. With a large and growing African population, sophisticated middle class, and increased connectivity to the rest of the world, Africa will continue to be both a source of materials and destination for goods and services.

As China expands its international footprint, it has deliberately increased its African ties. It supplies weapons to African countries without regard to the human rights practices of their leaders[15]. China is now Africa’s biggest trading partner[16] while providing financing for infrastructural projects through its Belt and Road Initiative. These projects have often been sponsored without regard to their sustainability or economic viability. The inability of countries to repay such loans have forced them to surrender critical infrastructure, with potential military implications[17][18].

As Great Power competition returns and China’s stance becomes more confrontational, and African leaders fail to act, the continent will again become just another front for global rivalries without regard for the well being of Africans. Global powers have fought their wars on African soil since the 18th Century. Regardless of the winners of these conflicts, Africans lose more than they gain. Africans, more than ever, can shape their destinies and work for the 21st Century to become Africa’s Century.

Africa nations can work to secure peace on the continent. By leveraging multilateral organizations operating on the continent, African leaders can make the painful compromises required to settle their inter-state disputes and move to cooperative models that engender peace based on common interests. African leaders can expand intra-African trade through the African Continental Free Trade Area and exploit regional organizations to tackle transnational crimes including human trafficking, illegal extraction of resources, religious extremism, and corruption under joint platforms.

Leaders can resolve the various internal stresses that keep their countries in political crises. Many African countries have been unable to foster a national identity, leaving their people clinging to tribal and religious identities without regard for the state’s interest. By decentralizing power, increasing citizen participation, respecting the rule of law, and reforming governance models for efficient service delivery, populations can begin to develop their sense of nationhood. Food security, public sanitation, healthcare, power, justice, and education programs can be implemented smartly and with consideration to the direct needs of their citizens, to prevent the resentment that bad actors can exploit.

African countries can take deliberate steps to diversify their technical, industrial, and financial sources. Governments can implement open standards, secure sensitive infrastructure from interference, and break up monopolies. As COVID-19 exposes the weakness of China’s role as the world’s manufacturing hub, countries can invest in manufacturing abilities and build capabilities to scale up production of critical items to safeguard their supply chains.

Most importantly, African leaders can declare that China will not be allowed to use its assets on the continent for military purposes in its competition with the West. Individual countries can also demonstrate the will to prevent the militarization of Chinese financed projects in their jurisdictions. Regional blocs can come together and draw up contingencies to retake control, by force if necessary, any dual-use facilities in member states. The status of Chinese bases on the continent can be spelled out, and appropriate contingencies planned should open conflict break out.

Ultimately, Africans can make deliberate decisions about the future of the continent. They have more agency than at any other time in history to shape the direction of the continent. While many may balk at the redirections needed to make themselves independent of Chinese machinations as well as the costs involved, such actions are crucial to ensure that African countries have the freedom to pursue policies most favorable to them.


[1] Le, Y., Rabinovitch, S. (2008, December 8). TIMELINE: China milestones since 1978. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[2] Kopf, D., Lahiri, T. (2018, December 18). The charts that show how Deng Xiaoping unleashed China’s pent-up capitalist energy in 1978. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[3] Brandt, L., Rawski, G. (2008, April 14). China’s Great Economic Transformation.

[4] Arace, A. (2018, August 8). China Doesn’t Want to Play by the World’s Rules. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[5] Stent, A. (2020, February). Russia and China: Axis of Revisionist? Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[6] Kaplan, R. (2019, January 7). A New Cold War Has Begun. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[7] Bijian, Z. Speeches of Zheng Bijian 1997-2004. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from

[8] Axe, D. (2020, March 23). How China is Militarizing the South China Sea with a Ton of Missiles. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from

[9] Myers, S. and Horton, C. (2018, May 25). China Tries to Erase Taiwan, One Ally (and Website) at a Time. Retrieved April 23, 2020, from

[10] Kierana, B. (2004, August 1). The First Genocide: Carthage, 146 BC. Retrieved April 23, 2020, from

[11] M’Bokolo, E. (1998, April). The impact of the slave trade on Africa. Retrieved April 23, 2020, from

[12] Nunn, N. (2017, February 27). Understanding the long-run effects of Africa’s slave trades. Retrieved April 23, 2020, from

[13] Settles, J. (1996). The Impact of Colonialism on African Economic Development. Retrieved April 28, 2020, from

[14] Schmidt, E. (2016, July 26). Conflict in Africa: The Historical Roots of Current Problems. Retrieved April 23, 2020, from

[15] Hull, A. Markov, D. (2012, February 20). Chinese Arms Sales to Africa. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from

[16] Smith, E. (2019, October 9). The US-China Trade Rivalry is Underway in Africa, and Washington is playing catch-up. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from

[17] Abi-Habib, Maria. (2018, June 25). How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Port. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from

[18] Paris, C. (2019, February 21). China Tightens Grip on East African Port. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from

2020 - Contest: PRC Below Threshold Writing Contest Africa Assessment Papers Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) China (People's Republic of China) Competition Damimola Olawuyi Great Powers

Options for the United States to Compete with China Below the Threshold of Armed Conflict

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Matthew Ader is a second-year undergraduate taking War Studies at King’s College London.  He tweets occasionally from @AderMatthew, and is an editor at the Wavell Room. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  As China rises and the U.S. wants to avoid direct military confrontation, the U.S. requires options to compete with China below the threshold of armed conflict

Date Originally Written:  May 12, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  July 8, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a second-year undergraduate student at King’s College London with a broadly liberal foreign policy view. The article is written from the point of view of the United States towards the People’s Republic of China.

Background:  The United States has identified China as a key competitor and revanchist power seeking to undermine the U.S.-led international order.

Significance:  China is expanding its influence globally through competition below the threshold of armed conflict, to the detriment of U.S. interests. A conventional Sino-American war to counter or roll back these gains would be catastrophic. The below options enable the U.S. to compete against China short of war.

Option #1:  The United States deploys specialist surveillance and training capabilities, along with Coast Guard and Navy vessels, to enhance and expand existing multilateral efforts against maritime lawlessness – particularly illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – in the Indo-Pacific theatre.

Risk:  This option would put US personnel in close contact with Chinese maritime militia, coast guard, and fishing fleets on a regular basis – increasing the possibility of a geopolitical incident. It could also contribute to overstretch in the U.S. 7th Fleet. Further, while maritime lawlessness is recognised as a major problem by all countries in theatre, U.S. enforcement action could be seen as high-handed. One particular concern would be how the U.S. treats Japan – it is a key ally but is also heavy enmeshed in the IUU industry. Too heavy-handed a treatment would alienate Japan; too lenient would make the U.S. seem hypocritical. This option might also embroil the U.S. in regional disputes over maritime border claims.

Gain:  This option would strengthen the U.S. claim of being a status quo power upholding the law and rules-based international order against an aggressive and lawless China. Given that regional trust in the U.S. has sunk dramatically over the course of the Trump administration, this option could constitute a helpful corrective. Substantively, this option could also assist in pushing back on Chinese influence in the South China Sea; the current Freedom of Navigation Operations are inherently transient and can be avoided without change to broader Chinese strategy — persistent presence cannot. Lastly, it would permit U.S. forces to work alongside regional partners, gaining valuable operational expertise and local knowledge.

Option #2:  The United States increases funding for the journalists, civil rights activists, and anti-corruption campaigners in nations involved in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Risk:  This option may be seen as the U.S. meddling unduly in the affairs of foreign countries, and certainly would be portrayed as such by the Chinese state media. It is also difficult to assess the impact of such investments, which, given the kleptocratic or authoritarian nature of many BRI states, may be negligible. Moreover, this option could lead to activists and journalists being labelled as foreign agents. Further, while the material loss to U.S. interests resulting from states cracking down on individuals and organisations who receive U.S. funding is relatively small, the reputational risk is significant.

Gain:  This option allows the U.S. to contest and bog down Chinese BRI expansion in Africa and central Asia, as activists and journalists expose Chinese elite corruption and oppose predatory debt-trap diplomacy. It would involve no risk to U.S. personnel, and limited expenditure compared to more kinetic options. Moreover, this option could, with appropriate messaging, allow the U.S. to portray itself as siding with local populations against an overbearing China and its puppets – an advantage for international media coverage.

Option #3:  China is a highly aggressive and malign actor in cyberspace. The U.S. encourages and facilitates greater global regulation surrounding cyberwarfare and espionage. One specific option would be an international body, likely under United Nations authority, to identify the origin of cyberattacks.

Risk:  The U.S. is highly capable in the cyber domain, and there is a risk that by encouraging more regulation, it would be creating a purity test it cannot itself meet. This would, in turn, create substantial reputational problems for the U.S. Moreover, attributing cyberattacks is difficult, and it is possible that the U.S. might be inadvertently accused of a crime it did not commit. Lastly, while international naming and shaming can be effective, the extent to which it would matter to China is unclear; the option might therefore involve expending substantial U.S. diplomatic capital for limited returns.

Gain:  This option could lead to stronger norms against aggression in cyberspace. This may not discourage China from continuing its current aggressive policy, but it could increase the reputational costs and diplomatic consequences associated with it. Moreover, an impartial and open-source organisation for attributing cyberattacks could be a helpful resource against non-state actors and rogue states – especially given that U.S. efforts at attribution are often hampered by the need to protect sensitive intelligence sources and methods. Lastly, this option, as a recourse to multilateralism, would signal U.S. commitment to the rules-based international order, which may be important in restoring global trust in U.S. leadership.

Other Comments:  Sino-U.S. competition is and will continue to shape this century. New ways for the U.S. to compete below the threshold of armed conflict may be critical assets in assuring U.S. victory.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Larter, D. B. (2019, May 2). Here’s how the Japan-based 7th Fleet has changed since 17 sailors died in accidents 2 years ago. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from

[2] Mackie, J. (2019, October 18). Japan Has an Illegal Seafood Problem. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from

[3] Rudd, K. (2020, May 6). The Coming Post-COVID Anarchy. Retrieved from

2020 - Contest: PRC Below Threshold Writing Contest Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) China (People's Republic of China) Competition Matthew Ader Option Papers

Options for a Five Eyes Response to Below Threshold Competition with China

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Alexander Craig works in the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization or any group.

National Security Situation:  Competition with China below the threshold of armed conflict.

Date Originally Written:  May 4, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  July 1, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the perspective of the ‘Five Eyes’ nations: the United States, the United Kingdom (UK), Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

Background:  The Five Eyes nations are united not just by security cooperation, but by shared history, language, culture and a commitment to democracy, free market institutions and the rule of law. Being few in number compared to the European Union’s 27 members and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 30, the Five Eyes have the potential to act with depth and agility against a common challenge on the world stage beyond that of other international affiliations.

Significance:  China is promoting its authoritarian model abroad as a superior alternative to liberal democracy and the free market[1]. In doing so China is seeking to undermine the current rules based international order; with Xi Jinping openly stating in 2014 that China should be “constructing international playgrounds” and “creating the rules”[2]. If left unchecked, this below threshold competition will undermine democratic norms, support for the free market, and subvert global institutions.

Option #1:  The UK grants full citizenship to Hong Kong’s British Overseas Nationals.
There are approximately 250,000 holders of British National (Overseas) (BN(O)) passports.[3] Holders are permanent Hong Kong residents who voluntarily registered prior to 1997. They are not afforded the protection and right that full British citizenship would bring.

Risk:  It is likely that the Chinese government would seek to portray this as an act of interference in its domestic affairs. There is a possibility that BN(O) holders would be seen by the authorities as a suspect group, and this measure could be the catalyst for the victimisation of BN(O) passport holders. Domestically, there would likely be concern in the UK about the possible impact of the instant granting of citizenship to quarter of a million people.

Gain:  By granting full citizenship, the UK demonstrates its support to these citizens of Hong Kong. This act would reassure the people of Hong Kong that international support did not just amount to words; and demonstrates that there can be effective soft power responses to China’s use of hard power against its own citizens.

Option #2:  The Five Eyes nations establish their own Free Trade Agreement.

China uses access to its markets as a tool of both influence and punishment, as seen in recent threats levelled towards Australia[4]. Several unconnected arrangements already link most of the Five Eyes nations such as free trade agreements between the United States, Australia and Canada[5][6]. The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union presents an opportunity to simplify and formalise arrangements between the five nations.

Risk:  Free trade agreements can prove controversial[7] and domestic support for free trade often fluctuates, especially in the United States[8]. Increased rhetoric regarding the need for protectionism and claims that the coronavirus has highlighted the fragility of global supply chains could combine to make the early 2020s a difficult period for advancing ambitious free trade agreements[9].

Gain: The establishment of a simple and transparent free trade area by democratic nations deeply committed to the institutions of the free market and the rule of law (and with already existing security arrangements) would provide a global market where participants need not be at the mercy of an autocratic state. This free trade area would be the largest in the world, with a combined Gross Domestic Product of 26.73 trillion dollars, almost double that of China and exceeding the European Union’s[10].

Option #3:  The Five Eye nations give Taiwan full diplomatic recognition.

Currently 15 nations recognise Taiwan, a decrease of seven since 2016. This is primarily a result of pressure placed on smaller nations by China[11].

Risk:  The recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign nation would be highly provocative and would almost certainly be met with a response from China. U.S. President Donald Trump recently signed into law the TAIPEI Act[12], which prompted the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson to respond “We urge the United States to correct its mistakes, not implement the law, or obstruct the development of relations between other countries and China, otherwise it will inevitably encounter a resolute strike back by China[13].” This option might entail having to be prepared to face this threatened ‘strike back’.

Gain:  The Chinese government’s opposition to international recognition of a prosperous free market democracy is enforced through threats and coercion. Recognition would be a declaration that, on the world stage, aggressive rhetoric and punitive use of boycotts and market access by larger nations do not trump the rule of law, democracy, and the sovereignty of smaller nations. If China does attempt a forced reunification, previous recognition of Taiwan makes clear what crime has been committed: the invasion of a sovereign nation by another – not a conclusion to the civil war, or the reigning in of a secessionist province.

Other Comments:  Suggestions for addressing the risks posed by Chinese competition are often reactive in nature and assume China has the initiative: preventing dominance of 5G networks, preventing mass corporate theft, reducing the influence of Confucius Institutes etc. While each suggestion is valid, there is a risk that the assumption of Chinese advantage fosters a pessimistic attitude. Instead, what authoritarian regimes often see as the West’s weaknesses are often strengths, and in the words of U.S. Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, “we have far more leverage than we are employing[14].”

Recommendation:  None.


[1] McMaster, H. 2020. How China sees the World. The Atlantic.

[2] Economy, E. 2018. China’s New Revolution. Foreign Affairs.

[3] UK House of Commons. 2020. British Overseas Passport Holders in Hong Kong. Hansard

[4] McCullough, D. 2020. China threatens to stop Australian imports. Canberra Times.

[5] Office of the United States Trade Representative. 2020. Free Trade Agreements.

[6] Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. 2020. Free Trade Agreements.

[7] Pengelly, M. 2017.Trump threatens to terminate Nafta, renews calls for Mexico to pay for wall. The Guardian.

[8] Wofe, R., & Acquaviva, 2018 Where does the public sit on NAFTA? Policy Options.

[9] O’Leary, L. 2020. The Modern Supply Chain is Snapping. The Atlantic.

[10] The World Bank. 2020. GDP (current US$). The World Bank.

[11] Lyons, K. 2020. Taiwan loses second ally in a week as Kiribati switches to China. The Guardian.

[12] Hille, K. 2020. US steps up support of Taiwan in open rebuke to China. The Financial Times.

[13] Blanchard, B., & Tian, Y. U.S. increases support for Taiwan, China threatens to strike back.

[14] McMaster, H. 2020. How China sees the World. The Atlantic.

2020 - Contest: PRC Below Threshold Writing Contest Alexander Craig Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) China (People's Republic of China) Competition Option Papers

U.S. Aircraft Basing Options in Competition and Conflict with China

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Captain Walker D. Mills is a Marine infantry officer. He is currently serving as an exchange officer with the Colombian Marine Corps. He is also pursuing an MA in international relations and contemporary war from King’s College London.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization or any group.

National Security Situation:  The U.S. and China are competing below the threshold of armed conflict and trying to best position themselves should conflict occur.  One area of competition focuses on Chinese rockets and missiles, and their potential use against U.S. aviation facilities.

Date Originally Written:  March 3, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  May 27, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is an active-duty military member with a stake in potential future competition and conflict with China in the Pacific. The options are presented from the point of view of the United States.

Background:  In recent decades, the People’s Liberation Army within the People’s Republic of China has invested heavily in conventional cruise and ballistic missiles of several types. Today the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force has thousands of missiles with ranges of up to 2,000 kilometers[1]. Their rocket force is among the premier in the world – U.S. and Russian militaries have not kept pace with Chinese missile development and deployment because, until recently, they were constrained by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

Chinese missiles are more than capable of targeting fixed U.S. bases and ships. A recent Center for New American Security report noted that “…a preemptive missile strike against the forward bases that underpin U.S. military power in the Western Pacific could be a real possibility” and named it “the greatest military threat” to U.S. interests in Asia[2]. Analysis of images from missile ranges in the Gobi Desert indicates that the primary targets for these missiles are U.S. aircraft carriers and fixed aviation facilities like airplane hangers and runways[3]. The missiles have repeatedly been highlighted in military parades and are the cornerstone of the PLA’s capability to defeat and deter U.S. military action in the South and East China Seas and their anti-access, area-denial network[4].

Significance:  The increasing threat from Chinese missiles will prevent U.S. forces from being able to credibly threaten the use of force in the seas around China and the First Island Chain because of the extreme risk to U.S. bases and large ships. Without the credible ability to employ force in support of foreign policy objectives in the region, the U.S. may be unable to fulfill treaty obligations to allies in the region and will cede one of its primary tools for competition and foreign policy. The capability to credibly threaten the use of force is the cornerstone of U.S. deterrence in the region.

Option #1:  The United States can embark on a multi-national, multi-agency effort to build dual-use aviation facilities across the First Island Chain. Because the most of the First Island Chain is comprised of U.S. treaty allies, the U.S. can work with allies and partners to rapidly construct a large number of runways and aviation facilities for civilian and military use by foreign partners, which would become available for U.S. military use in the event of a conflict. There are also dozens if not hundreds of derelict runways from the Second World War across the First Island Chain that could be renovated at lower cost than new construction.

Risk:  Such a building program would be expensive, and would have to significantly increase the number of available airfields to achieve the desired effect. This option is also contingent up U.S. partners and allies accepting the U.S. construction programs and the proliferation of airfields on their sovereign territory which may face local political resistance. There is also a risk that this option could spur an arms race with China or spur increased missile development.

Gain:  A significant proliferation of dual-use runways in the First Island Chain would complicate Chinese targeting and force the PLA to spread out their missiles across many more targets, limiting their effectiveness. This building plan would also serve as a type of foreign aid – is it a non-confrontational approach to competition with China and would be a gift to our partners because the airfields and support facilities would be intended for partner use and civilian use in times short of armed conflict.

Option #2:  The U.S. can invest in amphibious aircraft that do not need to operate from runways. Legacy U.S. amphibious aircraft like the PBY-Catalina, also call the ‘Flying Boat’ and the Grumman Albatross were highly effective as utility transports, search and rescue, and maritime patrol craft during the Second World War into the 1980s in the case of the Albatross. These aircraft are capable of operating from conventional runways or directly from the sea – which makes strikes on runways and traditional aviation facilities ineffective towards preventing their operation. These planes are able to operate from any coastal area or inland waterway. Other militaries in the region including the Chinese, Russian and Japanese are already modernizing and upgrading their respective fleets of amphibious aircraft.

Risk:  The risk to this option is that reinvestment in amphibious aircraft could be expensive for the U.S. military or too much of a burden for a niche capability. The risk is also that amphibious aircraft are not capable of performing the necessary roles or do not posses the necessary capabilities for operations in against a peer-adversary like China. There is also a risk that this option could spur an arms race with China or spur increased missile development.

Gain:  The advantage of this option is that it mitigates the risk to U.S. aircraft in the First Island Chain by creating a reserve of aircraft not tied to easily targeted, fixed-bases. Also, amphibious aircraft can be deployed worldwide – and are relevant beyond East Asia. This option does not depend on allies or partners and the capability to operate from the water can be employed in any theater, against any threat, not just in the Pacific.

Other Comments:  Other types of unconventional aircraft may also be considered for development and acquisition. Wing-in-Ground-Effect vehicles can function like aircraft and operate completely from the water and aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing capability can also be employed without traditional runways though struggle with logistics and maintenance in austere environments.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] RAND Corporation. (2017). The U.S. – China Military Scorecard. Retrieved from

[2] Shugart, Thomas. (2017). First Strike: China’s Missile Threat to US Bases in Asia. Retrieved from

[3] DeFraia, Daniel. (2013). China tests DF-21D missile on mock US aircraft carrier in Gobi Desert. Agence France-Presse. Retrived from

[4] RT. (2015, September 3). China’s V-Day military parade in Beijing 2015 [Video File]. Retrieved from

2020 - Contest: PRC Below Threshold Writing Contest A2AD (Anti Access and Area Denial) Air Forces Artillery / Rockets/ Missiles China (People's Republic of China) Competition Option Papers United States Walker D. Mills

Assessing Russia’s Pursuit of Great Power

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Civil Affairs Association and Divergent Options Writing Contest which took place from April 7, 2020 to July 7, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Stuart E. Gallagher has served as a Military Advisor to the United States Department of State during the outset of the Ukraine crisis and is a recognized subject matter expert on Russian / Ukrainian affairs. He can be contacted at: Divergent Options content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization or any group.

Title:  Assessing Russia’s Pursuit of Great Power

Date Originally Written:  April 20, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  May 20, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author serves as a subject matter expert on Russian / Ukrainian affairs. The author contends that Russia has and will continue to pursue great power status seeking legitimacy from the international community.

Summary:  The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 forced Russia to cede its Superpower status. This event embarrassed Russian leadership who then retooled Russia’s instruments of national power and redefined how Russia engaged globally. This ceding of power also motivated Vladimir Putin and his retinue to pursue Great Power status. Russia will use crises to their advantage, including COVID-19, viewing global power as a zero sum game thereby strengthening itself at the expense of the west.

Text:  As the world embarks on a new decade looking to the horizon and 2035, it is important to take pause and consider the United States future relationship with Russia. Looking back, the United States’ relationship with Russia changed dramatically in the summer of 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union leaving the United States as the sole Superpower in the world. Russia struggled throughout the 1990’s politically, economically, and militarily. In the early 2000’s Russia began to get back on its feet showing early aspirations of returning to great power status as evidenced by systematically retooling and bolstering its instruments of national power (diplomacy, information, military, economic or DIME). In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, a sovereign territory of Ukraine, and destabilized southeastern Ukraine employing what is now commonly referred to as New Generation Warfare. These actions redefined the contemporary security environment in a way not seen since the Cold War. Yet, 2020 ushered in a new and unexpected challenge to the contemporary security environment – the virus called COVID-19. Russia used COVID-19 to its advantage by exploiting the unpreparedness of other countries. Considering Russia’s past actions, it is safe to assume that it will use future events of this nature in the same manner to “legitimately,” in its view, return to Great Power status thereby re-establishing a new level of parity with the United States and other great power nations throughout the world.

A Great Power is “a sovereign state that is recognized as having the ability and expertise to exert its influence on a global scale. Great powers characteristically possess military and economic strength, as well as diplomatic and soft power influence, which may cause middle or small powers to consider the Great Powers’ opinions before taking actions of their own[1].” Russia was thoroughly embarrassed with the collapse of the Soviet Union as demonstrated in an address to the nation by President Putin where he stated that the collapse of the Soviet empire “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century[2].” At the turn of the century, when Vladimir Putin was about to enter the office of President of Russia, he delivered his manifesto. This manifesto focused on Russia’s past, present, and future struggles, providing a form of road map for what was required to return to great power status[3].

Since the turn of the century, Russia has taken many actions leveraging its vertically aligned instruments of national power to increase its standing in the world. Russia’s most profound action was the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of southeastern Ukraine by Russian backed separatist forces in 2014. However, today, with COVID-19 threatening the world, Russia has adopted a new mantle – that of savior. During a time when the world scrambles to contain COVID-19 and muster resources, Russia has swooped in to the rescue providing expertise and medical supplies to hard-hit Italy, affectionately referred to as “from Russia with love[4].” This assistance was viewed by “senior European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization diplomats less as generosity and more as a geopolitical move asserting Russian power and extending influence[5].” These diplomatic views are understandable considering the dubious, unsolicited “humanitarian assistance” Russia provided in eastern Ukraine in 2014[6]. In another recent instance, Russia provided an Antonov cargo plane full of medical supplies to help ease the burden as the United States struggled with the escalation of COVID-19 on its populace. These acts demonstrated that Russia could do what Great Powers should do in times of world crisis – help. Consequently, a United States concern about Russia’s actions providing legitimacy to their Great Power status quest is justified. Not only will the Kremlin use global-reaching events to highlight their humanity and power, but they will also manipulate these situations in a way that displays the weakness of the west.

One of the banner events the United States had to address in 2014 that redefined the contemporary security environment was the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia. This annexation caught the United States senior leadership off guard resulting in significantly delayed reaction time(s). However, now that Russia has reasserted itself on the world stage as a Great Power, it is time to define Great Power Competition. At present, the United States government does not have a policy or a single working definition for great power competition. Simply put, “without a single definition – they [stakeholders to include: US military, the defense industry, elements of diplomacy and US policymakers] will inevitably develop different, and possibly competing, interpretations of great-power competition, with consequent effects for US national security and foreign policy[7].”

So, as the United States sits in the year 2020 and looks to the future, will Russia’s Great Power status be granted, and what are the second and third order effects of doing so? To complicate these questions further, “there are no set or defined characteristics of a great power. These characteristics have often been treated as empirical, self-evident to the assessor[8].” In other words, granting legitimacy to a state is completely subjective in nature. Considering this fact, Russia could effectively grant itself legitimacy as a Great Power. Whether or not the international community would recognize this legitimacy is another issue altogether. On the other hand, by virtue of its position in the world, if the United States were to grant legitimacy to Russia, the international community would be inclined, if not compelled, to recognize this status as well. This granting of status would also reveal a paradox. The United States granting legitimacy to Russia as a Great Power would arguably re-establish parity more quickly, which would be especially helpful during times of world crisis, such as COVID-19 pandemic. However, this granting could also come at a high price, possibly resulting in another arms race, a series of proxy wars or worse. Regardless, at some point, the United States will be required to address this issue and the outcomes, for said decision(s) will have far-reaching impacts on both United States/Russia relations and the security environment well beyond 2035.


[1] Neumann, Iver B. “Russia as a Great Power, 1815–2007.” Journal of International Relations and Development 11.2 (2008): 128-151.

[2] “Putin: Soviet Collapse a ‘Genuine Tragedy.’” World New on NBC (2005). Retrieved April 20, 2020 from:

[3] Putin, Vladimir. “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium.” Nezavisimaia Gazeta 4, Rossiia Na Rubezhe Tysiacheletii (1999): pp. 209-229. Retrieved April 18, 2020 from:

[4] Emmott, Robin and Andrew Osborn. “Russian Aid to Italy Leaves EU Exposed.” Reuters, World News (2020): Retrieved April 21, 2020 from:

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Ukraine Crisis: Russian Convoy ‘Invades Ukraine.’” BBC News. (2014): Retrieved April 21, 2020 from:

[7] Boroff, Alexander. “What is Great-Power Competition Anyway?” Modern War Institute. (17 April 2020). Retrieved from:

[8] Waltz, Kenneth N (1979). Theory of International Politics. McGraw-Hill. p. 131.

2020 - Contest: Civil Affairs Association Writing Contest Assessment Papers Civil Affairs Association Competition Great Powers Russia Stuart E. Gallagher

Assessing COVID-19’s Impact on the Philippines in the Context of Great Power Competition

Hugh Harsono is currently serving as an Officer in the United States Army. He writes regularly for multiple publications about cyberspace, economics, foreign affairs, and technology. He can be found on LinkedIn @HughHarsono. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization or any group. 

Title:  Assessing COVID-19’s Impact on the Philippines in the Context of Great Power Competition

Date Originally Written:  April 20, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  May 6, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that the Philippines are important to U.S. national security efforts and is concerned that China will use the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to further exacerbate U.S.-Philippine relations.

Summary:  The Philippines is currently at a pivotal crossroads, with the coronavirus hastening the Philippines’ decision to choose a strategic partner in light of actions by Philippine President Duterte. Choosing between a historic relationship with the United States or a newer one with either China or Russia, the Philippines’ actions in the immediate future will set the stage for world history.

Text:  The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has placed the Philippines at a critical point in history in terms of Great Power Competition. Through a variety of extraneous factors, the COVID-19 pandemic has hastened the Philippines’ decision to choose between its close historic relationships with America and a potentially prosperous economic future with its more regionally-aligned Chinese and Russian neighbors. Through careful analysis, readers will be able to understand how and why this sole event has forced the Philippines to this point in history, with this pivotal time potentially shaping the future of Asia for the next millennia.

The Philippines and the United States share a myriad of close ties, many of them deeply rooted in both nation’s histories. For example, the Philippines and America enjoy very close military bonds. In fact, the Armed Forces of the Philippines’s force structure closely mirrors that of America’s, to include similar civilian control mechanisms providing oversight over military actions, in addition to existing close relationships between the Philippine and United States’ Military Academies[1]. These relationships are further strengthened through events such as annual bilaterally-led Balikatan exercises, combined with a myriad of episodic engagements to include military Joint Combined Exchange Training, Balance Pistons[2], law-enforcement oriented Badge Pistons[3], counter-narcotics Baker Pistons[4], and regular civil-military events[5]. The Philippines and the United States’ close relationships have even extended into the cultural realm, with a mutual shared love of fast food, basketball, and American pop culture[6]. These factors, combined with the Filipino diaspora in the West and high rates of positive perceptions of America in the Philippines[7], showcase the close bonds between the Philippines and America.

However, since his election in May 2016, Filipino President Duterte has made it a point to form increasingly close relationships with China. Just several months after his election in October 2016, President Duterte announced a “separation” from the United States, with his trade secretary simultaneously announcing over $13 billion dollars of trade deals[8]. President Duterte has also regularly supported China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) development project, going so far as to court Chinese tourists to the point where mainland Chinese tourists account for the Philippines’ second-largest source of tourist arrivals, with a 41% increase from 2018 to 2019 and a projected 30% average growth by 2022[9]. Additionally, China’s seizure of the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 has so far gone uncontested during President Duterte’s reign, to the point where China is developing military facilities on Scarborough Shoal, among other areas in the South China Sea[10]. This pursuance of Chinese military favor through inaction has also paid off for President Duterte, with China supplying the Philippines with aid ranging from rifles in October 2017 to boats and rocket launchers in July 2018[11][12], and even a state-of-the-art surveillance system in November 2019[13], culminating recently in the first-ever Philippines/Chinese joint maritime exercise in January 2020[14].

On a similar note, President Duterte has also sought closer ties between the Philippines and Russia. In October 2019, the Philippines and Russia signed several business agreements focused on infrastructure development, agriculture, and even nuclear power plant growth[15]. On the military front, Russia has so far made a landmark donation of weapons and equipment to the Philippines through two military deals in October 2017[16], with an additional promise of further equipment procurement in September 2019[17]. These landmark military procurement efforts have also been seen in military cooperation through the posting of respective defense attachés to both nations’ capitals, marking a new era of defense cooperation[18].

Despite being able to effectively balance between supporting historic partnerships with the United States and its new ones with China and Russia, the Philippines has now been forced to choose between the three due to implications stemming from the coronavirus. While President Duterte announced his decision to pursue “separation” from the United States in October 2016, the announcement of the revocation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between America and the Philippines was not made until February 2020, with an effective termination date of August 2020[19]. Under normal conditions, this revocation would allow the United States a total of six months to plan for full retrograde of personnel and equipment from the Philippines. However, the coronavirus has hastened this process, with an emphasis on force protection measures and a tightening of international and local travel restrictions throughout the Philippines[20]. As a result, this revocation opens immense opportunities for both China and Russia, particularly as these developing bi-lateral security pacts become an increasing reality.

The preceding is where the Philippines become a primary pivotal point in terms of Great Power Competition. The Philippines has enjoyed a long-standing and stable relationship with the West with America being a stabilizing regional guarantor, a fact highlighted in the chaotic aftermath of the American withdrawal from the Philippines in the 1990s[21]. At the same time, many other nations are looking at the Philippines as a test ground of China’s BRI, particularly amidst allegations of predatory lending and “debt-trap diplomacy[22] [23].” On the same note, others see the Philippines as being the key to forging a free trade agreement between the Russian-centric Eurasian Economic Union and the Association of South East Asian Nations community, further showcasing the critical importance of the Philippines at this pivotal time in history[24].

There is no question that multi-domain partnerships will a play important role for the Philippines to select a future strategic partner. America’s historic relationships and nuanced expertise in security programming create a strong choice for the United States as a strategic partner. However, economic and matériel promise by both China and Russia also make these two countries enticing strategic partners, particularly as Filipino financial markets struggle amidst the coronavirus[25]. The world will watch this evolving situation closely, particularly as the Philippines precariously approaches a crossroads in terms of selecting a strategic partner.


[1] Steffen J. (2015). The Role of the U.S. Military in the Professionalization of the Armed Forces of Liberia (Master’s thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, United States of America). Retrieved from

[2] Leuthner, S. & Cabahug, S. (2015). Joint Combined Exchange Training Evaluation Framework: A Crucial Tool in Security Cooperation Assessment (Master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterrey, California, United States of America). Retrieved from

[3] U.S. and Philippine Forces Conduct Joint Training in Negros Occidental. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from

[4] Taboada, J. (2019, August 30). Baker Piston 19-2 holds counter-narcotics simulated exercise. Retrieved March 19, 2020, from

[5] U.S. and Philippine Service Members Jointly Volunteer at Day Care. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[6] Meyers, J. (2019, October 29). Ties between the U.S. and Philippines run deep. It won’t be easy for Rodrigo Duterte to unravel them. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from

[7] Poushter, J. & Bishop, C. (2017, September 21). People in the Philippines Still Favor U.S. Over China, but Gap Is Narrowing. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[8] Reuters (2016). Duterte: Philippines is separating from US and realigning with China. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from

[9] Xinhua. Philippines expects to attract 4 mln Chinese tourists annually by end of 2022. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from

[10] CIMSEC (2020). China’s Military Modernization Is Becoming A Real Problem For America. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[11] Zheng, S. (2017, October 5). China arms Philippine police for counterterrorism mission. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[12] Reuters. (2018, July 30). China donates small boats and RPG launders to Philippines. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[13] CNN. (2019, November 22). DILG launches Chinese CCTV surveillance system in Metro Manila. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[14] Maitem J. (2020, January 15). Philippine, Chinese Coast Guards Stage Joint Drill in South China Sea. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[15] ABS-CBN News. 2019, October 04). Philippines, Russia ink 10 business agreements. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[16] Mogato, M. (2017, October 25). Philippines, Russia sign two military deals. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[17] Simes, D. (2019, November 4). Why Russia is arming a longtime US ally in Asia. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[18] Russia posts first defense attaché to Philippines. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from

[19] Esguerra, D. (2020, February 11). Philippines officially terminates VFA with US. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from

[20] Santos, A. (2020, March 09). Crossing the Pacific to beat the Philippines’ coronavirus lockdown. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from

[21] Winger, G. (2020, February 06). For want of a visa? Values and Institutions in U.S.-Philippine Relations. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[22] Green, M. (2019, April 25). China’s Debt Diplomacy. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from

[23] Pandey, A. (2019, September 05). China: A loan shark or the good Samaritan? Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[24] Ramani, S. (2017, January 07). The Growing Russia-Philippines Partnership. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[25] Tu, L. & Sayson, I. (2020, March 17). Philippines becomes first country to shut financial markets thanks to virus. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from

Assessment Papers China (People's Republic of China) Competition COVID-19 Great Powers Hugh Harsono Philippines United States

Assessing U.S. Relative Decline

Adam A. Azim is a writer and entrepreneur based in Northern Virginia. His areas of interest include U.S. foreign policy and strategy, as well as political philosophy and theory. He can be found on Twitter @adamazim1988.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessing U.S. Relative Decline

Date Originally Written:  March 7, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  March 23, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from an American point of view, in regards to U.S. relative decline vis-à-vis Russia and China.

Summary:  American policy since World War II imposed “world order,” which is fraught with the inability to enforce as well as aspirations exceeding capabilities. As a result, America is entangled in futile Middle Eastern conflicts, plagued with populism and President Trump, faced with the rise of Russia and China, debt, polarization, and public health issues. This situation prompts a paradigm shift from excess militarization to the elevation of national spirit.

Text:  In the early 20th century, a British historian named E.H. Carr made an odd proclamation: “Only the West is in decline.” The author sought to explore this idea by writing a book titled “Is The West in Decline? A Study of World Order and U.S. Relative Decline” published January 2018. This article seeks to summarize the findings of this book by making a few key points.

The United States, as the linchpin of Western civilization after Europe’s collapse in the 20th century, is not going through absolute decline. Rather, the United States is experiencing what Joseph Nye of Harvard University calls “relative decline,” which means other countries are rising as a result of America’s slowdown which can turn around. But the slowdown is yet to be a cause for severe concern. In a short book titled “Is the American Century Over?” Nye conducts an assessment and concludes that the United States is at least fifty years ahead of its nearest competitors in terms of military and economic capabilities.

But there are clear symptoms of American relative decline vis-à-vis other countries. In a number of public lectures, Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago argues that there are three evident symptoms of American decline: entanglement in Middle Eastern conflicts, the rise of Russia and China, and the emergence of President Donald Trump. In addition to this are three internal symptoms that result from Mearsheimer’s list of external symptoms: the growing national debt, polarization, and a downturn in public health. One can argue that the national debt is the biggest threat to national security. As a result of debt, the United States barely has the capacity to stem the rise of polarization as evinced by problems such as domestic terrorism and health problems such as the recent opioid crisis and the mental health epidemic. When combining these six symptoms, the resulting decline in American power is evident. For example, one of America’s key tasks during the post-World War II period was to keep Europe united within political institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. These institutions are presently fraying as a result of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and Britain’s faltering relationship with Germany.

From a big picture perspective, American foreign policy boils down to the fulfillment of one task after it emerged as the world’s foremost power subsequent to World War II, which was the maintenance of what is known as “world order.” During Sir Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” Speech in Fulton, Missouri, Britain passed the responsibility of managing world affairs to the United States after its empire had severely contracted during the 1940’s. Now, the United States no longer seeks to shoulder the entire burden of maintaining world order. President Donald Trump has made “America First” the main priority of his political agenda. World Order has always been fraught with two permanent conditions. For one, aspirations always exceed capabilities, as noted by Pankaj Mishra in a book titled “The Age of Anger.” Second is the issue of enforcement, as noted by Henry Kissinger in his last book titled “World Order.” It is simply impossible for one nation, despite their capabilities, to enforce law and order on the entire world.

These conditions have led to the failure of liberal democracy as a system that can be imposed on the world.  The result is the United States incurring ongoing costs by defaulting to a realpolitik approach towards Russia and China, and in turn the costs have led to polarization and populism domestically. America is now faced with the option of experimenting with a constructivist foreign policy and a paradigm shift from a militaristic and costly realpolitik approach to a diplomatic approach that brings multiple parties together in the way of a burden-sharing approach to world order. Combined, Europe and East Asia have a higher GDP than America; it would be remiss to not ask these two regions to increase their share of defense spending. America will eventually be forced to advance its security and economic interests to contribute its fair share to world order, while considering a shift from an offensive approach to a defensive approach to national security. Overreach and America’s unnecessary entanglement in Afghanistan, which is considered “The Graveyard of Empires”, has led to the neglect of America’s first ever foreign policy proclamation, namely, “The Monroe Doctrine.” Because of Afghanistan, which Andrew Bacevich has called “a flight of fancy,” Russia and China have found apparent holes in American defense and have penetrated Africa and Latin America to the detriment of America’s hemispheric security.

For a long time, America has traded off a truly free market system, education, and health care for militarization and the imposition of world order. International relations theorists call this “the security dilemma.” John Herz, an international relations theorist, has called it “the absolute predicament and irreducible dilemma,” which is the inability to allocate resources to social welfare due to security concerns. As a result, radical leaders like President Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders who appeal to American pathos are gaining momentum. Europe, Arab Gulf Countries, and East Asia have long prospered from the U.S. security umbrella by enjoying U.S. defense subsidies that enable these regions to invest in human development instead of defense, to the detriment of American citizens. To resolve this “security dilemma,” one must evaluate the main threat, which is not a physical one; rather, the threat is a moral and spiritual one. Baudelaire wrote of the “baseness of men’s hearts” that will lead to what Kierkegaard called “the common plight of man.” From a realist perspective, this threat is relevant. Hans Morgenthau, in “The Politics of Nations,” identified six dimensions of power: military, economic, population, territory, natural resources, and spirit. As long as there is a disproportionate amount of focus on militarization at the expense of national spirit, the United States will not be able to reverse what is known as “relative decline” vis-à-vis Russia and China.


[1] Azim, A. A. (2018). Is The West In Decline? A Study of World Order and U.S. Relative Decline. Brandylane Publishing. /

Adam A. Azim Assessment Papers Budgets and Resources Competition United States

An Assessment of the Concept of Competition as a Foundation to Military Planning

Jeffrey Alston is a member of the United States Army National Guard and a graduate of the United States Army War College.  He can be found on Twitter @jeffreymalston.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  An Assessment of the Concept of Competition as a Foundation to Military Planning

Date Originally Written:  February 23, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  March 26, 2020.

Author and / Article Point of View:  The author is a field-grade, maneuver officer with nearly 30 years of commissioned service. The article is written from the point of view of an American strategic analyst viewing the developments in the national security space since the release of the 2017 National Security Strategy.

Summary:  The U.S. Military is overextending its intellectual resources regarding great power competition and is losing its focus on core warfighting concepts. Recent national security documents have codified the great power security environment. The absence of any coherent foreign policy and subsequent strategy, coupled with over reliance on the military as the single foreign policy tool, puts U.S. military planning at a critical juncture.

Text:  Dutifully, the U.S. Armed Services (Services) seized upon the competition task following publication of the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and has-especially at the Joint Staff level-expended considerable effort framing[1] the military aspects of competition. At the same time, the Services are attempting to realize fundamental concepts which embrace the new challenges of a multi-domain environment with the vocabulary of competition seeping into its foundational documents. Without question, a nation’s military makes up part of its power and in the case of the U.S., holds the charge that they fight and persecute the nation’s wars securing victory through its unique capabilities. Logically, it follows then, the expansive idea of competition-at heart an international relations framework- should not be the sole conceptual focus of its military planning.

Seizing upon competition as a framework for structure and employment of the Services is understandable given recent history. The genesis of today’s U.S.’s strategic atrophy coincides with the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union left America with a sense of winning-if not hubris. The spectacular victory in Desert Shield/Desert Storm clinched this idea of a unipolar moment for the U.S. The promise of the “fog-lifting” Revolution in Military Affairs, the lack of an ideological or near peer competitor and selective military engagements (Bosnia, Somalia, Desert Fox in Iraq / Kuwait, et al) did not place demands for any type of comprehensive national strategy thinking let alone theory development. Operationally, the military was unsurpassed in its capability.

Then the 9/11 attacks occurred and the nation entered the Global War on Terror (GWOT). The opening phases of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, initially about regime change, were successful. However, lack of a meaningful goals for the successive phases of the GWOT, a lack of sustained, whole of nation effort to conduct the GWOT saw counterinsurgency and counter terrorism tactics elevate to take the place of actual strategy[2]. Simultaneously, debates about the utility of military force in such environments became more frequent in political and scholarship spheres. Frustration with quantifiable or sustainable goals in either campaign began to center on simple timelines and troop levels. Two decades of GWOT was exacerbating this period of strategic atrophy.

The military was not going to give up the initiative as it sought to make lasting impacts in the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. The military design movement began to find leverage in the Services as formations struggled to achieve sustainable outcomes in their areas of operations. Design “how-to’s” began to fill the pages of military journals, institutional curricula and be integrated into exercises. Tactical formations were left to seek the best way to leverage their capabilities in the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan[3].  Attempting to leverage design was further evidence of an absence of strategy. Design was an awkward and uncomfortable translation into formations which normally are assigned an objective set of mission essential tasks to master and execute.

Enter the 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy and the corresponding concept of great power competition (GPC). Correctly identifying today’s national security realities, strategic competition is-in the context of the current environment-a concept requiring more thought and analysis for it to be a useful national security construct[4]. “Competition,” as a government wide framework, is not encouraging. The U.S. Department of State strategic plan for 2018-2022 mentions the term “competition” three times; the Treasury Department’s equivalent, once. While not an exhaustive review of interdepartmental policy coordination, it stands witness to the lack of whole of nation integration, if not linkage of competition at the national level. In the absence of a definitive “competition” strategy at the national level, the Joint Staff and Services must resist the temptation to unnecessarily militarize GPC.

The NSS and NDS provide the Services a framework to begin their realignment within an environment of GPC. However, as documents such as the Joint Staff’s Competition Continuum[1] frame the role of the Services as a function of competition. This is a mistake. Strategic competition is an environment for the military and is best if it informs broad decisions in the Services’ role of man, train and equip, but not its warfighting approaches. The Continuum document reflects a tremendous amount of intellectual capacity devoted to and carefully considering the aspects of competition: it is thought provoking, but misplaced. The American military would do well to resist, once again, elevating its capabilities to fulfill a strategic gap at the national levels and instead focus on core warfighting abilities and tasks.

The Services are at a crucial stage in the planning and programming for the out years; all with fresh eyes towards their obligations in an era of GPC. The U.S. Army has initiated a well-intentioned intellectual renaissance on large scale combat operations. The U.S. Army and Air Force (and the others) are collaborating and struggling with realizing Multidomain Operations[5]. In reviving and focusing on these ideas, the Services can appropriately complement national power as an element of GPC vice being its foundation. Until workable GPC foreign policy goals are established, acceptable political risks are identified and corresponding national strategies are in place, best would be for the Services to carefully navigate the contours of GPC.

The Joint Doctrine notes mentioned earlier and related documents (ie. Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning) are not helping in this cognitive framework. Their prominent use of a continuum of conflict[6] as a foundational model conflates national strategy formulation with military campaigning. While these sample documents speak to the role of interagency contributions to competition, recent campaigns make such whole of government intentions suspect. Most notably, the continuum of completion-conflict-competition is fertile ground for obscuring definitive political objectives. A lack of political objectives upends strategy formulation. Combined, this is not the space to expand military planning efforts. Competition is without a doubt, part of the global security environment, but it is a condition of that environment, not a principle of warfighting planning.


[1] U.S. Department of Defense. (2019). Joint Doctrine Note 1-19, Competition Continuum. Washington, DC. From

[2] Stachan, H. (2013). The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

[3] Keller, J. (2018, January 22). The 1st SFAB’s Afghan Deployment Is A Moment Of Truth For The Global War On Terror. Retrieved December 12, 2019, from

[4] Wyne, A. (2019, February 11). America’s Blind Ambition Could Make It a Victim of Global Competition. Retrieved February 13, 2020, from

[5] Air Force, Army Developing Multidomain Doctrine. (2018, January 25). Retrieved January 7, 2020, from

[6] U.S. Department of Defense. (2018). Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning. Washington, DC. p. 8 From

Assessment Papers Competition Defense and Military Reform Great Powers United States