The Future Arenas of Great Power Competition

For two decades, US military leaders have focused almost entirely on training and equipping the force for counter-insurgency operations. With politicians now intent on drawing down the United States’ involvement in the Middle East, the military has shifted its focus to meeting the next major challenge: conflict with another great power. From a security perspective, the two most significant emerging great powers are Russia and China. While scholars disagree on whether or not these two states are likely to develop the capacity to project force globally, both are on track to develop regional hegemony—in Eastern Europe by Russia and in East Asia by China.

In pursuit of this objective, China and Russia have begun to direct their diplomatic, informational, military, and economic power to expand control over strategically significant areas on the periphery of their territory. For Russia, regional expansion in the coming years will increasingly be focused on its northern border, as climate change opens up new access routes into the Arctic. Chinese growth will primarily occur southward, as its leaders see control over Southeast Asia as the key to their economic security. Therefore, in the coming years, these two regions are set to become the primary arenas for great power competition.  

To effectively compete with these emerging powers, the United States needs to focus its foreign policy on combating Chinese and Russian growth in the Arctic and Southeast Asia. In the Arctic, the United States must increase its capacity to conduct naval operations and to secure key territorial claims. In Southeast Asia, American leaders should focus on building, and securing, access to the critical infrastructure required to conduct military operations. Without a distinct focus on combatting expansion in these two areas, the United States could unexpectedly be overwhelmed by Chinese and Russian growth and lose its hegemonic position in these key regions.

The Arctic

The Arctic region includes the entirety of the Arctic Ocean, bounded by the northern territorial holdings of Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States (via Alaska). For hundreds of years statesmen have seen this region’s strategic potential. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Western European monarchs sent a series of explorers to attempt to map a “Northwest Passage” through the waters north of Canada. Throughout the seventeenth century, the northern port of Archangel was the heart of Russia’s Arctic naval power. These attempts to leverage the strategic potential of the Arctic, though, were always limited by the reality that for most of the year the major sea-lanes were blocked or severely restricted by ice. In the past three decades, rising global temperatures have begun to eliminate this environmental constraint. The warming climate has significantly reduced the quantity of Arctic ice, increasing the potential for access to key waterways, valuable resources, and significantly increasing the region’s military and economic value.

Between 1979 and 2017, rising global temperatures decreased the volume of ice in the Arctic Ocean by 43 percent.[1] This reduction in ice has dramatically increased the strategic value of the region. In 2014, the first cargo ship successfully traversed the maritime route north of Canada to transport nickel ore from Canada to China, a distance 40 percent shorter than if the vessel had used the Panama Canal.[2] More significant for US policymakers is the opening of the maritime route north of Russia. This “Northern Sea Route” along the Siberian coastline is becoming increasingly accessible for much of the year.[3] As global temperatures continue to rise—and Arctic ice continues to melt—greater amounts of global maritime shipping will occur through Russian territorial waters, with significant strategic implications for the United States.

In addition to the opening of new transport routes, melting Arctic ice has exposed large deposits of oil, gas, and commercially valuable metals. A 2008 US Geological Survey estimated that 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 44 billion barrels of liquid natural gas, and 90 billion barrels of oil were trapped under the Arctic ice; in addition to reserves of gold, zinc, nickel, and iron.[4] Warming temperatures have allowed drilling in the Arctic to take place for longer periods of time each year and over a greater amount of the sea floor, which significantly increases the potential commercial value of the region.[5]

Russia has been quick to take advantage of the newly accessible Arctic waters. Since the eighteenth century, Russian leaders have sought to secure access to a warm water port to develop into a military and economic hub. Historically, the need for control of such a port has led Russia to expand its borders southwest towards the Black Sea. Now, with the shrinking volume of Arctic ice, this long-sought warm water port may begin to emerge on Russia’s northern coast. In preparation for this development, Russian leaders have rushed to secure territorial claims in the region, and to expand their military presence in order to protect these claims. As Russia continues attempts to expand militarily, and as the Arctic ice continues to melt, the country’s attempts to exert control over the Arctic will likely grow increasingly forceful. In order to check Russian expansion in the region, US policymakers need to focus on two objectives. The first is to secure the United States’ access to major shipping lanes in the region. The second is to expand its military capabilities in the Arctic in order to act as a deterrent against forceful Russian expansion.

Over the past two decades, Russian leaders have vigorously sought international recognition of key territorial claims in the Arctic. The most significant of these claims is over the Lomonosov Ridge, an eleven-hundred-mile underwater ridge stretching into the heart of the Arctic Ocean. For years, Russian leaders have petitioned the United Nations-affiliated Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to consider this underwater feature a natural extension of the Russian continental shelf.[6] The status of this ridge is critical: in accordance with Article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country can claim exclusive territorial rights over the waters up to 350 miles off of their coastline, as long as they can convince the commission that their continental shelf stretches to that extent.[7] The expansion of Russian territorial rights into the Arctic is vital to the country’s continued growth. President Putin has publicly stated that he views the potential oil reserves trapped in this region as the country’s “strategic [energy] reserve for the twenty-first century.”[8] Mindful of the importance of defending access to these resources, Russian leaders in recent years have significantly expanded their military presence in the region.

Russian leaders have been much more focused than their American counterparts on preparing for a military conflict in the Arctic. The “Murmusk Brigades,” a specially trained and equipped Russian Army unit for Arctic Operations, has been conducting highly visible exercises along the country’s northwest boarder since 2014.[9] Moreover, Russia’s navy has begun to dominate the Arctic Sea. As of 2013, the Russian Navy already had forty-four modern icebreakers operating in the region, including the only five nuclear-powered variants in the world.[10] Since then, Russia has continued to expand and modernize its fleet. Meanwhile, the United States has retained only a single aging icebreaker capable of operating in the region.[11] As Russia continues its expansion into the Arctic, it is likely to come into a territorial dispute with the United States or one of its close allies. At that point, the US military’s limited ability to project power in the region will leave the country with few options as to how to respond. 

The most likely epicenter for this dispute is the remote Svalbard Islands. This small island chain off the northern tip of Norway is of immense strategic value. Located at the entrance to the Barents Sea, which is the westernmost edge of Russian territorial waters, they control access into and out of the shipping lanes along Russia’s northern coast. The islands are internationally recognized as part of the Norway’s Exclusive Economic Zone along the Gakkel Ridge.[12] But for the past decade, Russia has been slowly attempting to establish a competing claim for ownership of the islands. On the island of Spitzbergen, the largest in the chain, a number of Russian-owned mines are attracting increasing numbers of Russian settlers. In the coming years, these settlements could be used by Russia to make a renewed claim for territorial rights over the islands.[13] Having made a claim over the island chain, it seems likely that Russian leaders would move part of their massive Arctic naval fleet into a position to threaten the use of force against the islands. Such a brazen threat to Norway, a close US ally and a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, would require a forceful response. However, the United States would be left largely without options; without a substantial naval force capable of operating in the region, it would be unable to mount an effective military response, and would have no leverage to open diplomatic negotiations. As the strategic importance of the Arctic region continues to grow, the United States could be headed for a nightmare scenario where Russia, with superior military capabilities in the region, threatens military action against a key NATO ally, and the United States is left with no credible response.

US Policy Recommendations for the Arctic

In order to compete with Russia in the Arctic, US policymakers need to focus their activity in two areas. The first is protecting the territorial rights of the United States and its close allies. The second is enhancing the US military’s ability to rapidly project force into the region.

The first of these tasks, protection of territorial rights, requires the United States to become more vocal in countering Russia’s expanding claims in the Arctic Sea. US diplomats need to leverage their influence in well-established international organizations, such as the Arctic Council, to counteract Russian claims to the Lomonosov Ridge and the Svalbard Islands. Additionally, the United States needs to deepen its partnerships with key allies in the region, such as Norway and Canada, to assist them in securing territorial claims.

The second task for the United States is to increase its ability to project military force in the region. The majority of Arctic resource deposits can only be accessed by sea; therefore, this military expansion must focus on naval power. Naval forces in the Arctic should have two key tasks. The first is to provide a credible threat of force in the case of Russian military activity against the United States or one of its allies, such as in the Svalbard Island scenario outlined earlier. It is crucial that the United States maintains a wide variety of naval forces capable of operating in the region. With multiple options for response, US leaders can apply just enough pressure to Russia to force them into a diplomatic solution. The second mission is to ensure that the newly accessible northern shipping lanes remain safe and open for commercial use. Foreign policy scholar Robert Kaplan describes the United States as a, “maritime power…whose mission is to defend a free trading order from which we ourselves benefit,” by maintaining the naval power necessary to protect the key arteries of commerce.[14] As the new commercial sea-ways in the Arctic become more accessible, the United States must ensure that it is able to protect and control traffic through the region or it may be unable to reap its economic benefits.  

Southeast Asia

The Southeast Asia region begins at the western edge of Bangladesh, and stretches eastward, hugging the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea, until it reaches the easternmost point along the coastline of Vietnam. With the exception of Bangladesh, which is nearly consumed on three sides by its border with India, these states all stretch across the southern edge of China. Other key states in the region, including Indonesia, Brunei, and Malasyia, do not share a land border with China, but control key access routes into and out of Chinese-controled waters.

Although each country in the region is culturally and politically distinct, they share some commonalities. Historically, each has had a primarily agrarian economy supplemented by international commerce, and remained underdeveloped through most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries due to exploitation by colonial powers and recurring conflict. Now, with independence and relative stability, each is seeking to grow economically by attracting investment and partnerships with, both Western powers and strong East Asian states.

With close proximity to China, and hunger for foreign investment, Southeast Asia is situated to become a primary venue for Chinese expansion. Chinese growth in the region will primarily be economically driven. China will offer developing states funding for strategically significant infrastructure projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative and will ensure that they remain open for Chinese use.

While China has multiple objectives in Southeast Asia, its primary concern is on overcoming the geographic constraint imposed by the Strait of Malacca to ensure a reliable flow of oil from the Middle East. The 550-mile-wide channel separating Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula represents the final barrier before Chinese ships carrying Middle Eastern oil can reach the relative safety of the South China Sea. Most concerning for Chinese strategists, this maritime bottleneck also represents the most logical point at which a hostile power could cut off the country’s energy supply. Estimates suggest that in the coming years more than eighty-five percent of the crude oil fueling China’s massive economic expansion will pass through the strait.[15] A blockade of the strait could cut off the mega-cities on China’s eastern coast, the engines of the country’s economic growth, from their primary source of energy. To counteract this geographic weakness, Chinese leaders have sought to gain control of their own commercial port on the Indian Ocean and to develop a network of roads, railways, and pipelines to transport petroleum products directly into the country without having to pass through this chokepoint.

China’s first major attempt at circumventing the strait came with the development of the Pakistani port of Gwadar. In 2000, China, on request from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, began the nearly $200 million development project. The goal was to create a modern deep-water port, connected to China by a series of highways and pipelines, which could transport petroleum products into the heart of the country, without having to navigate the Strait of Malacca.[16] But despite significant investment, Gwadar has fallen well short of expectations. The level of development needed in order to make the port meet Chinese needs has overwhelmed planners. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s growing instability has made the country a less desirable site for such a project. To meet its objective, China needs to find a new outlet to the Indian Ocean. Southeast Asia, with its close proximity to Southern China and its emerging economies desperately seeking foreign investment, appears to be China’s best hope.

Burma offers China one of the most promising options for a partnership in the region. Like its neighbors, Burma is vigorously seeking foreign investment to modernize its economy, but as the country becomes plagued with claims of human rights abuses, its leaders can expect any Western aid to come with condemnation and a requirement for major social reform. China offers an outlet for aid free from such conditions. In late 2017, as the international community became increasingly concerned with the Burma’s harsh treatment of its Muslim minorities, its leaders opened up talks with the Chinese on the creation of an “economic corridor” between the two countries.[17] The multi-million dollar project would include the development of a deep-water port in Arakan, which would be linked to China by a modern railway network.[18] The corridor represents China’s newest attempt to secure access to an Indian Ocean port in order to break out of the geographic restraints set by the Strait of Malacca.    

US Policy Recommendations for Southeast Asia

In order to compete with China, the US policy in Southeast Asia needs to be focused on securing access to key infrastructure in the region. In doing so, American policymakers should have two goals. The first is to check Chinese influence in the region by overriding them as the primary investors in developing states. The second is for the United States to ensure continued access to the ports, airfields, and roads needed to quickly move military forces in the region.

The first of these two objectives, financing infrastructure development to counter Chinese expansion, requires the United States to design a more effective method for using investment in foreign countries to meet strategic aims. For developing countries in the region, signing on to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative, as discussed above, is often the only option to secure significant funding for infrastructure projects. The United States needs a counter to China’s program, which could offer developing countries in Southeast Asia financial and technical assistance, without the predatory stipulations of the Belt and Road initiative. Such a program would informally draw participating states into a closer relationship with the United States both economically and politically and would allow them to continue economic development without inadvertently supporting Chinese strategic designs on the region.

In addressing the United States’ limited capacity to use economic investment to project power abroad, Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates identifies the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) as the optimal agency to lead US strategic investment strategy.[19] Whether the United States choses to expand an existing agency like the DFC, or to create an entirely new one, the country needs a more robust foreign development program to counter the Chinese Belt and Road initiative. Such a program would need the resources to support major infrastructure development projects in multiple Southeast Asian states. Additionally, this agency would require close coordination with the State Department, Defense Department, and various intelligence agencies in order to identify the states most vulnerable to Chinese incursion, and to offer the right resources to effectively counter Chinese offers. By failing to counter Chinese financial activity in Southeast Asia, US policymakers are allowing China to become increasingly more dominant in the region.

Indonesia’s recent history offers a case-study on the potential for American investment to support US strategic aims in the region. The fourth most populous country in the world, as well as the most populous Muslim-majority country, Indonesia has the potential to exert enormous influence in Southeast Asia. Additionally, its territory includes the majority of the land bordering the Strait of Malaca, meaning that for the United States, a positive relationship with Indonesia is the key to controlling Chinese shipping through the Indian Ocean. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Indonsia maintained a firm policy of non-allignement with other major powers. Early in the twenty-first century, relations with the United States began to warm, a change most clearly illustrated during President Obama’s high-profile official visit to the country in 2010. Indonesian interest in expanding global economic engagement, as well as shared concern with the United States over Chinese treatment of the Uighur Muslims, offered the potential for an enduring alliance. However, widespread popular unrest over Indonesia’s Omnibus Law on Job Creation, a law enacted in November of 2020 to encourage investment in the country by reducing environmental and worker protection regulations, could threated the country’s continued stability and growth. An American economic program, which offered significant investment in Indonesia and supported environmental and worker protection laws, could have secured and strengthened the budding Indonesian-American alliance. Instead, widespread popular unrest in the country could now threaten the future of Indonesian-US relations.

In addition to a focus on infrastructure investment, the second goal for US policymakers should be to secure access to the infrastructure required to rapidly move military forces into the region. John Mearsheimer, in discussing the primacy of land power as a military tool, argues that while water is not a significant barrier when vessels are being used to transport soldiers into friendly territory, it represents a “forbidding barrier when a navy attempts to deliver an army into a territory controlled and well-defended by a rival great power.”[20] The United States could gain a substantial advantage in the Sino-American conflict by ensuring that it can land soldiers uncontested in a position that allows them to threaten China over land. In order to meet this goal, the United States must maintain control of ports and airports free of influence by a potential enemy. Additionally, the United States must maintain access to a road network that would allow it to move soldiers into defensive positions away from the key ports of entry, thus allowing additional forces to be moved into the region uncontested. The US military continues to vastly outperform its Chinese counterpart, but it maintains a small permanent footprint in Southeast Asia. Success or failure in responding to a Chinese threat would likely hinge on how quickly US forces could move unopposed into the region.


For two decades, the US military has struggled to detangle itself from a primary focus on Iraq and Afghanistan. Recently, a consensus has begun to emerge about a new direction for its military forces: preparation for great power conflict. Despite this clear intention, the United States has continued to remain largely reactionary in its responses to Russian and Chinese expansion. In order to be competitive in this new era, policymakers need to focus on firming up US control over key areas on the periphery of Russian and Chinese territory.

As a reduction in Arctic ice increases the region’s strategic value, Russia will partially pivot its focus from expansion into Central Europe to control of the Arctic. To counteract Russian hegemony, the United States needs to rebut new Russian territorial claims, and to strengthen its ability to conduct naval operations in the region. While China will continue to secure its control of the waters to its east, it will become increasingly more focused on developing infrastructure in Southeast Asia. To counteract Chinese objectives, the United States must increase its capacity to fund large infrastructure development projects in the region, and to secure access to the ports, airports, and roads needed to rapidly move military forces into positions to counter Chinese activity.  

Great power competition will require the United States to project the full range of its diplomatic, informational, military, and economic forces. However, in order to effectively channel its power, the United States needs a clear policy that is focused in the most critical regions of conflict and is targeted against the specific methods of future Russian and Chinese expansion. Failure to do so now could leave the United States unprepared to effectively compete with these emerging great powers.  


[1] Michael T. Klare, All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019), 125.

[2] Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography (London: Elliot and Thompson Ltd., 2015), 277.

[3] Ibd.

[4] Ibd. 278.

[5] Klare, 126.

[6] Ibd. 134.

[7] Sharveen Persand, “A Practical Overview of Article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Mauritius Oceanographic Institute,

[8] Marshall, 281.

[9] Ibd.

[10] Ibd. 283.

[11] Ibd.

[12] Ibd. 280.

[13] Ibd.

[14] Robert D. Kaplan, The Return of Marco Polo’s World (New York: Random House LLC, 2019), 38

[15] Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (New York: Random House, 2011), 8

[16] Ibd. 70

[17] Thant Myint-U, The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020), 247

[18] Ibd.

[19] Robert M. Gates, “The Overmilitarization of American Foreign Policy” (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2020), 130.

[20] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 2014), 114.

Mark Vicik
Mark Vicik

Mark Vicik has a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Middle East and North Africa Studies from Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies. He is a Lieutenant in the United States Army, currently stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.