As military manoeuvres between the United States and China continue, it seems that the East Asian powerhouse is beating the United States in the so-called ‘gray zone’. This may be an obtuse concept to many people, but the term gray zone refers to the attempts of a nation to make military gains at the expense of a strategic competitor via somewhat covert tactics. Although these tactics may be aggressive, they are still ultimately intended to remain below the level that usually constitutes conventional military retaliation.
China’s South Sea Strategy
The most notable example of this has been China’s South China Sea strategy. In 2012, China began its manoeuvres in the region, establishing a permanent presence on the previously occupied Scarborough Shoal. Since then the Chinese effort in the South China Sea has become increasingly sustained and emboldened, and although the United States is clearly monitoring the region, the chances of any military retaliation at the time of writing seem to be fairly remote.
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Officially, the actions of China in the region violate an agreement between Beijing and Manila that was previously brokered by Washington. But Beijing has suffered no real consequences for this breach, with the most serious outcome being diplomatic protests.
As the South China Sea situation develops, it is becoming a key theater in the ongoing geopolitical battle between the United States and China. There is no doubt that these two nations will remain in conflict with one another, at least figuratively, for the remainder of the 21st century, as both China and the United States have established themselves as economic powerhouses.
There is a huge debate regarding the way that this conflict will ultimately work out, but the existence of it is not seriously debated. The coming prominence of China was predicted by Zbgniew Brzezinski in his magnum opus, The Grand Chessboard, and many of the geopolitical themes that Brzezinski floated have indeed come to fruition at the beginning of the 21st century.
Meanwhile, China continues to implement the tactic of ordnance-free naval combat in the South China Sea, as its imperialistic strategy in the region develops. This has been evident for at least 12 months, since back in 2014 a significant flotilla of PRC escort vessels were utilized in order to protect a significant Chinese oil rig in the region. The Chinese policy at this time could certainly be considered hawkish, as it involved ramming Vietnamese boats, ultimately sinking one and forcing others to retire from the area in order to seek repair.
China evades US surveillance
Such activities would naturally attract maritime surveillance, particularly from a major power such as the United States. It has already been reported that the US is monitoring Chinese manoeuvres in the region extremely closely, yet China has warded off this suspicion to a certain extent.
China has utilized cost-exchange ratio as a weapon against the United States. China has implemented a fleet of fishing boats, which have been internationally manoeuvring in order to create the risk of a collision. This previously drove a US surveillance ship by the name of Impeccable out of the region in 2009. China repeated his tactic in 2013, compelling the US cruiser worship Cowpens to abandon its observation of a Chinese naval exercise.
The achievement of China to rapidly construct artificial islands in the disputed Spratlys earlier this year can certainly be seen as the latest Chinese gray zone victory. The audacity of the East Asian superpower to construct what are effectively military bases slap bang in the middle of an international waterway was shocking to the region and the United States administration, yet there has been minimal action against the Chinese policy in the region.
Washington ultimately responded through a statement by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, but this was considered a rather limp effort considering the self-proclaimed military power of the US. Once upon a time, it was presumed that the United States could respond militarily to any situation without consideration, but it seems that the military might of China, coupled with its shrewd strategy in the region, has scuppered any US intelligence or ability to intervene.
Additionally, the attempts of China to engage in gray zone activities should not be considered limited to the South China Sea. Cyber attacks can certainly be considered part of this effort, and the Chinese state has sponsored numerous such efforts since the concept of state-sponsored cyber warfare became a mainstream media focus point.
Gray zone response evolving
It is certainly the case that cyber attacks could ultimately result in death and destruction, but although the scale of the cyber warfare can be considered comparable to traditional war, the reality is that governments are still developing responses and expectations to such stratagems. China has taken full advantage of this uncertainty and gray area, with the United States still developing its policy in this arena.
The gray zone strategy of China can be considered particularly important, considering that the nation is probably the only real rival to US supremacy in the world. China and Russia have formed a clear allegiance in the last decade or so, as part of the BRICS grouping, and the two nations are increasingly acting in accordance on geopolitical issues.
While the United States remains an incredible force in the world, there is no doubt that the combination of China and Russia represents a threat to US hegemony. So the US Administration will unquestionably wish to monitor the activities of China very closely, but any ability of the East Asian powerhouse to avoid such surveillance will certainly aid the position of China in the world.
With this in mind, there will be pressure on the United States to respond to China’s gray zone activities, not merely with regard to monitoring and understanding them more clearly, but also by developing its own unique strategy. The United States certainly has the potential to leverage its superior capabilities, what remains to be seen is whether strategists in the US are capable of demonstrating the same level of geopolitical cunning and dexterity as their Chinese rivals.