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Research Questions

  1. How does China view competition in the gray zone?
  2. What drives and enables China's use of gray zone tactics?
  3. How does China employ gray zone tactics?
  4. Which Chinese tactics could the United States prioritize countering?

Few studies have systematically tracked how China is using gray zone tactics—coercive activities beyond normal diplomacy and trade but below the use of kinetic military force—against multiple U.S. allies and partners. Lacking a foundational empirical baseline, it is difficult to determine patterns and trends in Chinese activities to develop effective counters to them. The authors developed a framework to categorize China's use of gray zone tactics against five U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific and to identify the most problematic People's Republic of China (PRC) tactics that the United States could prioritize countering. Based on open-source material, this report provides a more in-depth understanding of Chinese operations in the gray zone. Among other conclusions, the authors observe that China views gray zone activities as natural extensions of how countries exercise power. China employs such tactics to balance maintaining a stable, favorable external environment with efforts to alter the status quo in China's favor without triggering major pushback or conflict. It has used nearly 80 such tactics on its neighbors, often in relation to territorial disputes.

Key Findings

  • China views gray zone activities as natural extensions of how countries exercise power and employs such tactics to balance maintaining a stable, favorable external environment with efforts to alter the status quo in China's favor without triggering major pushback or conflict.
  • Four factors—centralization of government power; growing geopolitical, economic, and military power; linkages between military and economic growth; and co-optation of a variety of actors for military operations—enable China to engage in a variety of gray zone operations.
  • Over the past decade, China has employed nearly 80 different gray zone tactics across all instruments of national power against Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines.
  • Since the mid-2010s, China has continued to rely on military tactics, exercised caution in using high-profile tactics, wielded more influence in international institutions or via third-party actors, and expanded its grassroots activities via local proxies or influence operations.
  • On the nonmilitary side, China has emphasized geopolitical and bilateral tactics. On the military side, China has relied heavily on air- and maritime-domain tactics.
  • Many of the most challenging tactics to counter involve Chinese military or civilian activities around disputed territories, although several geopolitical, economic, and cyber and information activities also pose significant challenges.
  • There is no agreed-on criterion for assessing which PRC tactics are most problematic, but aggregating three criteria or indicators could provide an inclusive picture: (1) the extent to which PRC tactics undermine U.S. objectives, (2) the difficulty for countries to counter tactics, and (3) how widely China uses the tactics.

Recommendations

  • The U.S. government should hold gray zone scenario discussions with key allies and partners to better understand their concerns, responses, and needs.
  • National Security Council staff or the U.S. Department of State should identify a set of criteria for determining the most problematic PRC gray zone tactics to counter via whole-of-government efforts. Given the three criteria this report lays out, the United States could prioritize countering Chinese activities in disputed territories and responding to PRC geopolitical international tactics and economic tactics.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense should develop gray zone plans similar to existing operational plans but focused on responding to a variety of more-escalatory PRC gray zone scenarios.
  • The U.S. Air Force should continue to build out intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific and to improve regional cyberdefense capabilities to increase domain awareness, identify and attribute PRC activities, and counter PRC cyber and information tactics.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by Pacific Air Forces and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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