Yikes: America Has No Good Answer to Chinese ‘Gray Zone’ Warfare

August 18, 2021 Topic: China Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: WorldMilitarySouth China SeaChinaU.S.-China RelationsDefenseWar

Yikes: America Has No Good Answer to Chinese ‘Gray Zone’ Warfare

Deterring aggression in the “gray zone” is hard.


It’s one thing to deter an aggressor from seizing ground, quite another to evict an aggressor from ground it has already seized. Island-building tactics of all three varieties have left China in possession of territory—and it’s hard to see how such gains can be reversed short of open warfare. Beijing has, in essence, forced the region and the United States to live with a new and largely irreversible strategic reality.

This typology of gray-zone tactics suggests that China is bringing to bear all elements of national power on the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. Beijing has employed legal, diplomatic, maritime and material elements of statecraft to chip away at the U.S.-led liberal international order. Even its construction prowess, honed over decades of massive infrastructure-building, has been on dazzling display in the heart of the South China Sea—contributing to strategic success.


For custodians of the current order, consequently, it is not enough to think exclusively about the marine dimensions of strategy. To balk China’s gray-zone stratagems, Washington and its allies must take a page from Beijing and adopt a holistic, grand-strategic posture that applies patient, vigilant countervailing pressure on many fronts simultaneously. In short, the defenders of the status quo must think in shades of gray and must accustom themselves to acting in the twilight between peace and war. To do any less would concede to China the initiative—and the future shape of the regional order.

Thomas Schelling would nod knowingly at the challenges before Washington and its partners. Unlike his milquetoast parents, let’s muster some strategic discipline.

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.

Toshi Yoshihara, also a coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

This article first appeared in May 2017.

Image: Reuters