The Debate

China’s Maritime Operation: The ‘Gray Zone’ in Black and White

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The Debate

China’s Maritime Operation: The ‘Gray Zone’ in Black and White

There is no problem in the “gray zone” because the “gray zone” does not exist.

Much has been made lately of China’s maritime operations in the “gray zone,” referring to operations achieving military objectives like island seizure while using non-military forces, namely China’s Coast Guard and Maritime Militia (the China Maritime Studies Institute has extensive resources here, in particular this), in order to avoid conflict. U.S. leaders and scholars worry about the implications of the presence on the battlefield of civilians, or troops posing as civilians (for example here, here, and most recently here). But why all the concern about the seemingly minor threat of non-military forces?

According to Michael J. Mazarr of RAND, “several major powers are making extensive use of gray zone campaigns” and “some new technologies have made them more effective than ever,” leaving the United States “grappling with the practical implications of gray zone strategies.” U.S. Army Captain John Chambers believes the United States is vulnerable because gray zone operations are “exploiting the fact that the [U.S.] Defense Department often is not the lead agency in the gray zone,” thus complicating the decision making process.

Former U.S. Coast Guard liaison to China, Captain Barney Moreland (ret.), is more suspicious of the term, saying “We use ‘gray zone’ as a euphemism to avoid direct discussion of the issues.”

I would even go further and say the experts are using the term “gray zone” as a fig leaf for U.S. lack of will to respond with concrete action. The term “gray zone” conjures up visions of a nuanced conflict area in which it is difficult to distinguish friend, foe, and neutral, an asymmetric dystopia in which Gulliver is powerless against the Lilliputians. But the United States is fooling itself about the impracticality of operating in the “gray zone.”

Why all the hand wringing? First of all, no country desires war. Indeed the very idea of using gray zone “micro-aggressions” is to make gains while avoiding war. Of course, allowing China its gains without consequences is no proof against war.

For several of the writers in the links above, the gray zone makes a good case for the use of Army special operations forces. We should, however, keep in mind that all armed forces may and should be able to operate at that level of war.

Finally, some fear the United States will be seen as the aggressor should it use military force against nominally non-military targets. Beijing indeed has and will continue to howl about U.S. “militarization” of the South China Sea. But Beijing is of course using the functional equivalent of military forces in increasing numbers, giving the lie to that argument.

Consider the Chinese seizure of Scarborough Shoal off the Philippine coast in 2012. So calm was the American response (Ely Ratner of the Council on Foreign Relations termed it a “mediator” between Beijing and Manila) that many in China came to question the treasured notion of U.S. “containment” of China. The chart below shows the number of Google hits for the term “America contains China” (in Chinese without quotes) by year for the last 11 years. 2013 and 2014 were the only years in which the count dipped, suggesting a decreased sense of America constraining China.

Year – Hits (thousands)

  • 2007 – 14.9
  • 2008 – 18.1
  • 2009 – 28.5
  • 2010 – 41.8
  • 2011 – 89.9
  • 2012 – 152
  • 2013 – 144
  • 2014 – 130
  • 2015 – 162
  • 2016 – 264
  • 2017 – 290 to date

Captain Moreland said, “It’s too painful to admit that the United States allowed China to seize sovereign maritime rights from a U.S. ally while we did nothing about it. It was an armed robbery in broad daylight, but ‘gray zone operation’ sounds much better.”

Whether it’s “little blue men” in the South China Sea or “little green men” in Crimea, let us be clear: disguising military forces to undermine international law is no different than sending properly uniformed troops to break the law. We can debate the most effective response, but we should not feign confusion to avoid a decision about using military force.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.