The United States is expected to take more planned and pre-emptive measures in response to China’s “grey zone tactics” in the Asia-Pacific region, according to analysts from the US and Australia.
The assessment follows a call on Wednesday by US Navy chief Admiral John Richardson for tougher action against “grey zone” aggression from Russia and China, as a way to prevent maritime tensions from escalating into full-blown conflicts.
A conceptual space between peace and war, grey zone tactics involve coercive actions below a threshold that could typically prompt a conventional military response.
Richardson said the US should seek to enforce rules on China’s coastguard and maritime militia fishing boats – two examples of grey zone non-military vessels with which the US Navy may have close and unprofessional encounters.
Lyle Morris, a senior policy analyst with Rand Corporation in Washington, said Richardson’s remarks represented “an important shift in thinking” by the US, which, he argued, should be proactive rather than reactive in its approach to the grey zone challenge.
“One of the faults of the US grey zone strategy thus far has been the fact that the US and its allies have ceded initiative to Russia and China,” Morris said.
“Grey zone actions often blur the line between military and non-military platforms, actions and attribution for events, and are often, but not always, undertaken to assert territorial claims.”
“The application is simple,” Morris continued. “There are basic rules of the road when it comes to navigation at sea and avoidance of accidents. And these basic rules should include all actors at sea – naval, government and civilian.”
China’s aggressive territorial claims, and America’s efforts to challenge them, have emerged at the centre of their growing geopolitical rivalry in the region, even as Beijing and Washington seek to end a painful trade war before a March 1 deadline, when additional US tariffs on Chinese imports are expected to be imposed if no agreement has been reached.
As part of its efforts to reshape the region’s security landscape, Beijing has significantly advanced its territorial claims over its smaller neighbours in Southeast Asia, intensifying flashpoints between China, the US and its Pacific allies.
Beijing’s grey zone tactics have included the deployment of non-military coastguard vessels and civil militia ships to significantly enlarge China’s presence in the East and South China seas.
According to Morris, who has studied security development in these waters, this non-military presence could coerce other nations out of operating in the contested areas.
Experts from the US and Australia agreed. In a report published on Friday by the University of Sydney and Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based foreign policy research institute, they urged Washington to work more closely with its allies to push back on Beijing’s grey zone coercion.
Measures could include setting explicit red lines and joining capable allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea to strengthen conventional deterrence, the report said.
Yue Gang, a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel, said China would continue its grey zone tactics in “all dimensions” in the face of challenges from the US.
Avoiding armed conflict was a top priority for the policymakers in Beijing, he said.
“China’s grey zone tactics still enjoy a geographical advantage against the US,” Yue said, while pointing out that the region was too far away for the US to conduct similar grey zone operations.
“And, as China’s coastguard has been significantly expanding, it could hardly be challenged by other neighbours in the region, even though pressure from the US and its allies would be on the rise,” he said.