War, What is it Good For? Almost Everything: Chinese Strategic Thought and a New U.S. Approach to Gray Zone Competition

China and Taiwan at night


It has become a recurring theme: in the aftermath of various Chinese or Russian gray zone operations, Congress calls military and government leadership to testify as to whether the subject action was “an act of war.”  From a purely legal perspective, this is the wrong question; rather, the questioner should ask if a particular gray zone action rises to the level of a use of force or armed attack as contemplated in the U.N. Charter, such that the U.S. would be legally justified in using force as a response.  Elizabeth K. Kiessling, Gray Zone Tactics and the Principle of Non-Intervention: Can “One of the Vaguest Branches of International Law” Solve the Gray Zone Problem? (2020).  The reason these tactics are in the “gray zone” is that the answer is frankly uncertain, an ambiguity China seeks to exploit.  In general, some countries posit that physical damage or injury is required before an action rises to that level; others do not.  Bret A. White, Reordering the Law for a China World Order: China’s Legal Warfare Strategy in Outer Space and Cyberspace (2021)This is further complicated in cyberspace, as China in particular argues that the traditional Law of Armed Conflict is always inapplicable in cyberspace.  That is not the end of the inquiry, however, as the legal construct is a binary distinction between the presence or absence of armed conflictSee Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, Common Arts. 2, 3.  The question of whether a gray zone action amounts to an “act of war,” is (at least domestically) a political rather than legal determination, to be made by Congress and the President.

The weakness in the Constitutional framework used to determine whether the United States is “at war” is the binary nature of the question.  This is inconsistent with the Chinese conception of the nature of war.  Furthermore, this binary approach is inconsistent with nearly two centuries of theory on the practice and application of war.  Carl von Clausewitz conceptualized an “ideal” war, in which maximum force was used to achieve maximum political ends.  However, this “ideal war” was merely a theoretical construct, never approached in practice, as a host of real-world factors played a moderating influence on war.  Carl von Clausewitz, On War (1832).  In this construct, war exists as a spectrum between “ideal war” and absolute peace.  Christopher Bassford,Clausewitz’s Categories of War (2020).  Finally, the binary nature of war is also undermined by U.S. legislative practice, in which Congress has repeatedly authorized the use of force absent a declaration of war.  Against this backdrop, the U.S. must revisit the binary construct of war, revising it to reflect a spectrum from armed conflict to peace, leveraging all elements of national power.

  1. China at War

China does not view war as limited to armed conflict.  Chinese strategic thought is heavily influenced by ancient military theorists.  Sun Tzu for instance articulated the value of winning a war without engaging in armed combat.  Sun Tzu, The Art of War (Oxford Univ. Press. Ed.), (1963). Sun Tzu also advocated the importance of undermining or disrupting an opponent’s strategy or alliances as preferable to fighting an army in the field. Ancient Chinese military theorist Zhuge Liang discussed the importance of opportunity, and how by recognizing trends the prudent strategist may plan for and exploit opportunities when they present.  Zhuge Liang, Mastering the Art of War (Thomas Cleary Ed.), (1989).  In this way, the general “conquers an enemy already defeated.”  The Art of War.

This predilection to view war as extending below the threshold of armed conflict is also reflected in modern Chinese thinking.  This is perhaps best represented by China’s current Three Warfares construct, comprised of: (1) Psychological Warfare; (2) Media Warfare; and (3) Legal Warfare.  Psychological Warfare seeks to impede the enemy’s decision-making through deception, propaganda, and coercion.  Media Warfare seeks to influence public opinion, both domestically and abroad, through widespread information operations campaigns.  Finally, Legal Warfare seeks to advance China’s interests through both domestic and international law as a means to deflect or frustrate negative reactions to China’s gray zone activities.  Orde F. Kittrie, Lawfare: Law as a Weapon of War (2016)Examples of these can be seen in China’s practice of establishing Confucius Institutes—public education and cultural outreach programs affiliated with the Chinese Government—to advance its ideological views overseas, or China’s advocacy of controversial legal interpretations with respect to maritime rights, or outer space.  Through tactics like these, China seeks to influence and take advantage of the natural propensity of events in order to achieve its goals as a sort of fait accompli or foregone conclusion.

What then are China’s goals?  Simply put, the overarching goal is a remade international order with China as the preeminent state actor.  This would restore China’s historic place as the “Middle Kingdom,” a culturally and morally superior state at the center of world affairs.  This also accords with the concept of tianxia (“all under heaven”), in which China is the central and most powerful state – one to which other states pay tribute, in recognition of her preeminent position.  White.   Should China get her way, this is likely to proceed in two parts: first, a Chinese-dominated region in the short-term, then shifting to a China-led international order in the long-term.  With that understanding, the U.S. must understand China’s relative strengths and weaknesses in order to craft a coherent strategy to counter Chinese efforts to remake the current rules-based international order.

China’s primary strength is its national unity.  Andrew Scobell, China and Strategic Culture, (2002).  Despite experiencing a number of “mass incidents,” or political unrest on an annual basis, it appears that the root cause of the unrest is often attributed to local governments or officials, with Beijing maintaining relatively strong support.  Jonathan Walton, China Plans for Internal Unrest: People’s Armed Police and Public Security Approaches to ‘Mass Incidents’ (2015).  This unity is supported by several Chinese cultural constructs.  Among these are the traditional “Five Bonds,” or Confucian relationships: Ruler-Ruled; Father-Son; Husband-Wife; Ender Brother-Younger Brother; and Friend-Friend.  He Huaihong, Social Ethics in a Changing China (2015).  Only the last of these has the character of a relationship among equals, the other four being that of superior/subordinate or an “obedience relationship.”  Furthermore, in addition to the subject owing obedience to the ruler under traditional Chinese culture, rulers enjoy the mandate of heaven; wherein effective rule is indicative of the favor of heaven.  Burton Watson, The Analects of Confucius (2009).  In modern times, similar requirements for national unity can be seen in the concepts of “centralized democracy,” or the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”  Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung (1965).  These constructs require that the government listen to the opinions of the people. Once the government makes a policy determination, however, no dissent or contrary action will be tolerated, and dissenters risk being branded as counter-revolutionary or enemy agents.

China also draws strength from its ability to mobilize its population.  In his discussion of protracted war, Mao Tse-Tung discussed the need to mobilize not just the military, and not just the government, but the whole of society for the conduct of revolutionary war.  Selected Works of Mao.  This construct carries through today, as the concept of mobilizing the whole of Chinese society to achieve strategic goals under the concept of the “People’s warfare.”  Peng Guangqian, Deng Xiaoping Strategic Thought (1997).  Thus, China’s cultural and societal tendencies towards obedience, unity, and mass mobilization provides a critical strength. 

This strength is undermined, however, by China’s lack of strong relationships.  Despite China’s massive population and tendency towards national unity, China’s strategic tendency is to act alone.  In general, China doesn’t engage in formal defense alliances.  This is even true of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which China’s Central Military Committee describes as based upon principles of “non-alliance.”  While the Chinese government engages in security cooperation, it expresses a preference for “partnerships” over alliances.  The result is that China’s only real defense alliance is with the marginalized Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).  In addition to lacking formal defense alliances, Chinese gray zone activities and coercive tactics have alienated a number of Pacific states.

Japan remains concerned about Chinese militarization of the East China Sea, and has engaged in a number of domestic actions to counter the Chinese military threat.  Roy Kamphausen and David Lai, The Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2025 (2015).  Similarly, despite Chinese efforts to engage with and influence the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), divisions have emerged within the organization along three camps: those such as Vietnam and the Philippines with direct territorial or sovereignty conflicts with China; those such as Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, with significant interests in the outcome of territorial disputes, even if not having any direct dispute themselves; and those apt to accommodate Chinese actions, such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand among others.  PLA in 2025.  India also has significant concerns with China’s “maritime silk road,” and has increased cooperation with the U.S., Australia, and Japan in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; even going so far as to host the 2020 iteration of the Quad’s annual maritime security exercise, Malabar.  Francine R. Frankel, The Breakout of China-India Strategic Rivalry in Asia and the Indian Ocean (2011). These concerns are not limited to maritime or military threats.  Despite a robust and long-term trade relationship, Australia and China have experienced significant mutual tensions over Australian calls to ban Huawei 5G infrastructure and for an enquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in a number of Chinese coercive economic actions.

  1. A New U.S. Approach

In order to exploit the Chinese vulnerability of self-reliance, the U.S. needs a new conception of war.  In short, the U.S. must embrace the gray zone, and seek to leverage all elements of national power to both attract allies, and counter Chinese coercive actions.  In many ways the Department of Defense is already well on its way, though perhaps a little late.  The Department of Defense has conceptualized a “competition continuum.”  This continuum is broken out into three categories: armed conflict, competition below armed conflict, and cooperation.  Despite this categorization being somewhat constraining, it is at least preferable to the binary conflict/peace construct of the past.  The DoD’s efforts are also somewhat confusing as cooperation is discussed both in terms of cooperating with an adversary, as well as cooperation with partners and allies.  However, the DoD’s position is not without flaw, only discussing coordination with the U.S. interagency in one instance, and a token mention at that.

In gray zone competition, the Department of Defense should play a supporting role, taking a backseat role to departments and agencies such as the Departments of State and Treasury, the Intelligence Community, and Law Enforcement.  The misprioritization of efforts is not solely one by the DoD.  The Department of State’s own analysis of competition with China puts military efforts as the United States’ second priority, while not discussing strengthening U.S. alliances and partnerships until fifth priority.  However, this is a trend which President Biden is keen to reverse, boldly announcing that “[d]iplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” and specifically calling out the need to engage with both China and regional partners and allies to push back against Chinese gray zone tactics.

Other efforts to counter Chinese actions should seek to build upon the successes of other agencies.  For instance, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has blocked Chinese investment in certain U.S. interests with national security implications.  The Department of Treasury is also uniquely positioned to take advantage of global financial institutions to engage in targeted or “smart” sanctions against China, or to provide incentives to regional allies and partners to engage with the U.S.  Law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, may also have a role to play, as they seek to both attribute gray zone activities to Chinese actors and establish standards of conduct in international relations amongst like-minded states.

Another, less frequently discussed, tool is covert action.  Covert actions can provide a useful supplement to traditional tools of foreign policy, so long as they remain small, discrete, and deniable.  Furthermore, there is extensive precedent for the exercise of covert action as a tool of state/Great Power competition from the Cold War.  A host of activities ranging from political action and propaganda to paramilitary efforts could be employed to undermine domestic and regional support for the PRC. 

In pursuing these efforts, the U.S. faces at least one significant hurdle: its greatest weakness in a Great Power competition against China is that internal division or domestic public opinion can undermine foreign policy.  One such example was the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  Despite the fact that the agreement would have brought a number of states in the Pacific region into closer economic cooperation with the United States, and provide a useful counterpoint to China, the U.S. ultimately did not enter into the agreement for domestic political reasons.  The agreement was opposed by both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Trump on the grounds that it would negatively impact domestic employment.  This provided an opening, into which China gladly stepped by creating its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.  In order to mitigate this damage, the U.S. must carefully consider the domestic implications of foreign policy actions, and seek to address those domestic concerns prior to pursuing any particular foreign policy.

That said, the United States enjoys a particular asymmetric advantage against China in gray zone competition – its greatest strength.  Unlike China’s approach of self-reliance, the United States enjoys a broad host of partners and allies in the region.  The U.S. has formal defense agreements with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia.  Additionally, as discussed previously, a number of potential partners in the region are disenchanted with China.  India’s cooperation with the Quad and Naval Exercise Malabar is but one example.  While most states in the region would prefer not to be forced to choose between the U.S. and China, many have expressed publicly (or more discretely) pleasure with America’s planned “rebalance” to the Pacific.  Robert G. Sutter, Michael E. Brown, and Timothy J.A. Adamson, Balancing Acts: The U.S. Rebalance and Asia-Pacific Stability (2013).  This perception appears based on the fact that regional states largely mistrust China’s intentions, and are wary of Chinese aggressive actions.  Evelyn Goh, Great Powers and Hierarchical Order in Southeast Asia: Analyzing Regional Security Strategies (2008).  Similarly, the U.S. still represents the world’s largest market, and is a preferable trade partner to China in most instances.

  1. Recommendations

In order to best compete against China, the U.S. should adopt a threefold strategic posture.  First, the U.S. must move away from a binary conception of war versus peace.  Rather, the U.S. must recognize that “war” with China will exist primarily below the threshold of armed conflict, and approach the situation accordingly.  Second, the U.S. should shift from viewing the effort to counter China as a primarily military one.  The U.S. should adopt a comprehensive program of diplomatic outreach, economic penalties and incentives, law enforcement, and intelligence efforts (to include covert action) to counter Chinese gray zone tactics.  The Department of Defense will retain a role in this competition, but should play a secondary role to other efforts.  Finally, the U.S. must recognize that we enjoy an asymmetric advantage from our defense alliances and military/diplomatic partnerships, which China lacks.  Furthermore, if not pressed to choose between the U.S. and China, most regional partners will view the U.S. as a partner of choice to secure their own interests against a resurgent and more assertive China.

By Peter Combe

Lt. Col. Combe is a Judge Advocate, and student at Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting. His previous operational assignments include a deployment to Afghanistan as a member of the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, International Security Assistance Force, and multiple deployments in support of special operations in multiple Geographic Combatant Commands.

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