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Research on Great Power Competition

The dynamics of the twenty-first century great power competition are only now beginning to gain attention. This project offers a wide-ranging but coordinated examination of that rise, focused on the intersection between geo-economics, geopolitics, international security, and technological innovation.

Traditional boundaries of academic inquiry that studied these dynamics separately or in parallel are outmoded and can be misleading. We seek to examine these elements jointly for a better picture of the whole. This means, for example, having security experts working with trade, finance, and investment specialists and bringing in scientists and engineers to get their perspectives on what the global technology revolution means for great power competition.

The modular design of the project allows experts across the campuses to use their specialized skill sets and provides flexibility in how they carry out their research. Each research group has a specific portfolio of research projects; however, the elements of the proposed research are interconnected and highly relevant to each other. To ensure close coordination and collaboration, each faculty lead serves as an advisor to another of the research groups. They participate in that group’s workshops and other activities to ensure that there is cross-fertilization and diffusion of knowledge and ideas across the modules.

The project will wrap up with an integrated conference to allow researchers to present results across all four modules. Comparing the different perspectives and insights will offer a picture of the overarching nature of great power competition and how the different strands―economic, technological, security, domestic, strategic, and other―interact with each other.


The Geo-Economic and Geostrategic Dimensions of Great Power Competition in the 21st Century Summer Training Course

August 12–16, 2019
More information

Conference on Chinese Industrial Policy

April 5–6, 2019
Agenda (PDF)

Brainstorming Meeting

October 22, 2018
UC San Diego

Kick-off Meeting

May 18, 2018
Burkle Center, UCLA

Module 1: Competition in Security, Technology, Innovation, and Strategy

Research Group Lead: Tai Ming Cheung, UC San Diego

The main areas for direct adversarial competition between the world’s great powers, namely the United States, China, and Russia, is the peacetime rivalry for economic, technological, industrial, and innovation superiority. There are some similarities with the US–Soviet Cold War of the second half of the 20th century, but there are also significant differences. While the US–Soviet confrontation was primarily an ideological, geostrategic, and militarized rivalry between two countries and supporting alliances that were largely sealed from each other, the 21st century rivalry takes place against a backdrop of globalized interdependence, the blurring of military and civilian boundaries, and the growing prominence of geo-economic determinants.

Researchers will examine the intensifying and expanding race that has been underway since the late 2000s between the United States, China, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, other emerging major powers in this more fluid, complex, and intertwined environment across four broad focus areas:

  1. Strategic intent: The near-, medium-, and long-term strategic visions, goals, and intentions of the United States, China, Russia, and other countries such as India and Japan in their efforts to compete for global leadership in science, technology, and innovation, especially in the defense and dual-use domains.
  2. Nature of competition: The nature of strategic competition among the great powers, especially applying conceptual frameworks such as: 1) the competitive strategies approach, which focuses on the interactions between competitors because their strategic choices are often closely shaped by the actions of the other party; and 2) the growing occurrence of security dilemmas and arms races and how they shape threat assessments.
  3. Country-level approaches: How the great powers are pursuing their objectives through the formulation and implementation of development strategies, plans, and policies; the building of industrial and innovation ecosystems; and the mobilization of resource and institutional capabilities. Of special interest is comparing the contrasting approaches of authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia that pursue a top-down, state-led mobilization approach to innovation in the United States that emphasizes a more market-led, bottom-up development model.
  4. Technological and sectoral specifics: Addressing areas of technological and industrial competition in the defense, dual-use, and civilian domains that are likely to be among the most prominent and intensive. This includes emerging sectors like artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced manufacturing, and advanced materials.

Module 2: Economic Strategic Rivalry

Research Group Lead: Vinod Aggarwal, UC Berkeley

In today’s global economy, the key distinction between the Cold War and the current rise of China as a peer competitor is critical. Whereas US trade and investment with the Soviet Union was negligible, the United States and China find themselves in a highly interdependent and contentious relationship. Increasing tensions between the United States and China—and also with the European Union despite close investment and trade ties—suggest that all may not be well. In this module, we focus on three highly interrelated elements of geo-economic competition that have critical implications for strategic rivalry: 1) the pursuit of industrial policy; 2) the creation of new trading arrangements; and 3) the changing landscape of investment.

To undertake systematic research on industrial policy, as well as the types of intervention countries pursue that might affect trade, we perform a comparative study across major cases to characterize their respective views of industrial policy as a tool for international strategic rivalry. We use government documents, interviews, and the Global Trade Alert database created by Simon Evenett, which collects all intervention measures by any county since 2008, as our data sources.

The pursuit of regional and trans-regional trading accords that intentionally exclude various parts of the world raises important questions about the creation of economic spheres of influence. Great powers have increasingly turned to multilateral venues and regional blocs through which they compete via their respective trade relationships. How these alternative trade accords evolve is a central thrust of our research focus. We use comparative analytics across the major cases (the United States, China, Russia, India, the European Union, and Brazil) to characterize their respective views of trade as a tool for inter-national strategic rivalry and to engage with theoretical questions related to the causes and consequences of trade policy on strategic rivalry.

Finally, investment has seen the rise of both new major government-promoted initiatives and concerns about foreign direct investment flows. China’s investment efforts in Central Asia and Africa have clear security overtones. On trans-border investment, there are increasing calls for the United States to use its interagency approach to investment approval more aggressively to block “hostile” investment efforts in sectors judged to be essential for national security. The concern is that China and other countries will acquire critically sensitive technologies through investment, particularly in Silicon Valley and in industries as diverse as cybersecurity, nuclear, artificial intelligence, robotics, and quantum computing. To examine investment flows, we draw on OECD and WTO data, government documents outlining the rules for foreign direct investment, and regulations developed to deal with investment in industries deemed to be of critical national importance.

Module 3: The Role of Design and Production Networks in Great Power and Regional Cooperation and Competition

Research Group Lead: Etel Solingen, UC Irvine

The project examines the role of design and production networks (DPNS, also called value chains) in competition and cooperation among East Asia’s regional powers and between them and the United States. East Asia is of particular interest because DPNs have boomed in the shadow of enduring tensions, disputes, and rivalries that affect not only US–China relations but also China–Japan, China–Korea, Japan–Korea, and China–Taiwan relations. The project explores the extent to which DPNs alter the relationship between economics and security in different ways than previous forms of economic exchange may have.

One approach in international relations argues that greater economic interdependence (that is, globalization) heightens the costs of major armed conflict, lowering its probability. A competing approach stipulates that such interdependence has not and cannot prevent major armed conflict. DPNs require a high level of integration and cooperation; however, systematic evidence regarding the relationship between DPNs and levels of conflict is not available currently in published studies.

In this module we will:

  1. develop quantitative measures of growth or contraction of DPNs in East Asia for 1990–2016;
  2. explore their association with varying conflict levels between relevant country dyads; and
  3. compare conflict levels predicted by existing models (given territorial/maritime disputes and other measures) with actual levels.

The qualitative study will rely on field research in East Asia to complement quantitative techniques, especially for causal variables that are harder to quantify, such as the place of DPNs in the grand strategy of East Asia’s internationalizing models. Fieldwork will also enable collection of material for detailed case studies on DPNs and their role in the management of security risks by major powers in East Asia.

Module 4: International Dynamics and Domestic Politics of Great Power Security Competition

Research Group Lead: Kal Raustiala, School of Law, UCLA

The nature and intensity of great power rivalries depend on aspects of the international strategic context and on domestic political configurations within the powers. In this module, we study the domestic and international processes that produce conflict through three innovative research designs. We explore:

  1. the traits of leaders that influence decisions for war;
  2. the dynamics of public opinion that mitigate for and against international tension; and
  3. the conditions under which crises build upon each other to the point where one side chooses to employ force.

Together, these three research components will provide new ways to understand the likely future course of great power rivalries today. Results related to observable leader traits such as age, political party, time in office, and face height-width ratio will enable leader specific analysis of the likelihood of militarized conflict. An understanding of the effects of popular sentiment will provide another measurable predictor. Finally, the analysis of the influence of past crises will facilitate contingent, dynamic predictions about the course of rivalries.