China beats the USA in the “Gray Zone”

China beats the USA in the “Gray Zone”

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  1. The “gray zone” refers to an arena of strategic competition where states take semi-aggressive actions that remain below the level that usually triggers military retaliation by another state.  China is currently excelling in this area, making gains at the expense of its neighbors and undermining US leadership in Asia.

    American military capability, universally recognized as superior to China’s is sidelines and rendered irrelevant as Beijing finds new ways to advance China’s strategic agenda without crossing red lines.  The Chinese, whose civilization produced Sun Zi’s Art of War (which includes the famous principle “to win without fighting is the acme of skill”), are huge fans of the idea that a clever strategy can deliver victory over a materially stronger opponent.  

    The South China Sea dispute provides several examples of China’s gray zone prowess.  In 2012, the Chinese established a permanent presence on previously unoccupied Scarborough Shoal.  This disputed feature is well within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, a US ally.  China’s action violated an agreement between Beijing and Manila brokered by Washington.  Beijing, however, suffered no consequences beyond diplomatic protests.

    China has implemented the tactic of ordnance-free naval combat in the South China Sea.  This was evident in 2014 when a large flotilla of PRC escort vessels protected a large Chinese oil rig deployed into a disputed area by ramming Vietnamese boats, sinking one and forcing others to retire for repairs.  To ward off maritime surveillance within China’s EEZ (allowed by the Law of the Sea Treaty of which China is a signatory), the Chinese have used cost-exchange ratio as a weapon against the United States.  Fishing boats intentionally maneuvering to create the risk of collision drove off the high-tech but unarmed US surveillance ship Impeccable in 2009.  The same Chinese tactic worked in 2013, when an LST played chicken with the US cruiser Cowpens in international waters and forced the US warship to abandon its observation of a Chinese naval exercise.  The Chinese ship was probably worth about $200 million, the Cowpens about $1 billion.  

    China’s rapid construction of artificial islands earlier this year in the disputed Spratlys group was Beijing’s latest and greatest gray zone victory in the South China Sea.  China’s audacity in building what are expected to become military bases in the middle of an international waterway shocked the region, but Washington was left with no response other than Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s lame and unheeded demand that the Chinese stop immediately.

    US-China gray zone contention is not limited to the South China Sea.  The cyber attacks sponsored by the Chinese government also fall into this category.  Although a cyber attack could potentially cause death and destruction comparable to a traditional act of war, the issue is new enough that governments have not yet developed standards responses and expectations.  China has taken full and effective advantage of this uncertainty, repeatedly raiding US computer systems with near-impunity.

    The gains China realizes through these opportunistic tactics in the gray zone are not equivalent to victory in a hegemonic war, but they are substantial.  Beijing pockets tangible winnings such as new islands under Chinese occupation and advanced technical data stolen from foreign industries.  The PRC also strengthens the perception that Chinese power is waxing while US power wanes, implying that US friends in the region should stop relying on America for protection and start accommodating China’s wishes.

    Some kind of response is necessary if the United States intends to continue playing its accustomed leadership role.  A direct response might include challenges by US ships and aircraft to the zones of exclusion the Chinese are claiming for their piles of sand in the South China Sea.  Other policies might include increased joint US and partner naval patrols in the South China Sea, arming the other South China Sea claimant countries, tough sanctions in retaliation for Chinese cyber theft, and retaliatory US cyber attacks against Chinese entities.  In any case, Washington should immediately apply US intellectual and material assets toward competing with China in the gray zone, demonstrating the kind of cunning and dexterity the Chinese have exhibited.



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