The flagship of Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, USS Nimitz (CVN 68), transits the Philippine Sea during dual carrier operation with Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group (CSG) Photo Credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet

By Hamzah Taoqeer
The Asia Pacific region holds front row seat in geo-political, economic, and strategic issues in international relations. The pivot to Asia policy of the west following shift of economic and technological base from the Atlantic to the Pacific region which tends to challenge and shift the global balance of power, western led international democratic system, following the economic rise of China. Thus, the emerging challenge put west in a precarious situation in which they felt to defend their hegemony and control over the region. For this purpose the west mainly US called upon using is diplomatic, economic and military elements of national power to contain the rise of China and maintain its hegemony over the region. Thus, the emerging tug of war for power domination in the region have given rise to gray zone conflict in which both sides are engaged in disrupting activities in between the threshold of diplomatic norms and total war. Either it be ongoing trade war, diplomatic and political or military coercion to a level which is short off any direct engagement leading to war and carried out to acquire veiled national interests. Thus, to analyze the gray zone conflicts in the Asia Pacific we can analyze and unfolding increasing hostility in South China Sea region. The ongoing US-China Tariff wars, increase in military diplomacy by the US in Asia Pacific under containment of China policy, use of coercive diplomacy and sanctions by the actors involved. Thus, analyzing and taking these dimensions into consideration we can categorize the contemporary events and policies adopted by the major powers along the sidelines of gray zone tactics.

Gray Zone Conflict

The changing nature of warfare strategies are based on engaging the enemy with an indirect approach which is above the line of normal diplomatic practices and below the threshold of an all-out war. This scenario has been described by various scholars as a Gray Zone Conflict in the strategic studies lexicon which is broad manner means the activities which are conducted beyond the steady state deterrence in an attempt to obtain security objectives without resorting to direct use of sizeable force in conventional manner. The actors involved use various tools ranging from political coercion, disinformation campaigns, political and economic coercion, cyber and space based operations and most importantly use of proxy and state controlled elements are used to carryout the gray zone tactics. The use of these tactics could also be accessed by the analyzing the following toolkits:

Information and Disinformation Information Operations:

Use of print, electronic and cyber media domains to manipulate and distort the information or spread disinformation to create confusion and perish the enemy’s will to resist by spreading propaganda and sowing doubt. US and China both have engaged in a constant disinformation campaign against each other in contemporary era where US is continuously propagating China as a revisionist and oppressive state which is engaged in oppressing Uyghur Muslims in Xingang region, shifting the regional population into re-education camps. US being wary of China’s economic rise and game changing project of BRI is persistent to sabotage China’s growing economic rise and for this purpose has excessively propagative that China’s BRI projects have hidden objectives based on their vague deals, debt trap policy which would exploit weak economic countries giving China exclusive access and control over the resources of the poor states. China on the other hand has recently revived its foreign policy approach and is actively engaged in countering allegations waged upon it in international media which Chinese used to avoid previously. Trump administration has continuously blamed China of involving of corrupt practices blaming it to cover up spread of Coronavirus Covid-19 as early as November 2019, while, the world came to know about it in January 2020 with help of bribing WHO which didn’t carried out its job and helped China in covering the issue, thus, Trump administration tried to hide its own incomitances by articulating this narrative.

Political Coercion:

The use of coercive instruments which can illicit or licit tools to affect and manipulate the decision making and political composition process within a state to reach for a desired outcome. China has over the years tried to assert its control over the Hong Kong which is currently being run under one state two systemspolicy. China recently changed its security and internal prosecution and extradition policies following which riots and civil unrest erupted in Hong Kong. According to Beijing the increase in civil unrest had been fueled by foreign elements mainly UK which is trying to instigate the current situation to increase political instability in the region. China has also openly criticized the role of US intelligence agencies mainly CIA in order to disrupt the political situation in Hong Kong. John Bolton in his memoirs have also accused Trump administration of colluding with Chinese CCP under Xi Jinping to assist Trump government in reelection in 2020 presidential campaign, a claim which is denied by both states. But this highlights the level of political coercion and manipulation among the major powers to acquire control and power.

Economic Coercion:

The use of coercive economic and financial tools, use of sanctions, illicit financing, effect the exchange rate, balance of trade of an adversary to achieve desired objective. US-China world leading military and economic powers were engaged in trade war during July 2018 when US imposed tariffs and restrictions upon imports from China as it felt threatened that its economy was engaged into unfair and unequal trade with China which also violated the intellectual property codes and conducted corporate espionage harming US industrial sector. US was suffering from over $ 336 billion trade deficit and over $566 billion net trade deficit. Thus, President Trump placed tariffs over Chinese imports and China retaliated in kind. In July 2018 Trump administration imposed 25% tariffs on $50-300 billion worth of imports from China and China as a result imposed 25% of US goods comprising $34-60 billion.

The emerging trade wars between US and China is not isolated only to the trade wars but has its implications infringed into complex global economic system which is interdependent and proportionally linked with the policies and economic decisions made by one state impact others directly. China’s economy during 2000 was barely at par with US until China became part of World Trade Organization WTO in 2001. This gave China exponential growth opportunities for building its export relations ships with other states resulting in 10-40% turn over ultimately making its GDP over $14.2 trillion second to US only which had a GDP of over $21.44 trillion. China accounts for 50% of global growth and 30% of global prospects. The economic tensions resulting from US-China trade wars amid the pandemic had negative impact on global economy.

The trade wars among major economic giants have impacted the global economic integration with impact on businesses not only in US and China but have placed the global economic fabric in a flux and tension. US initiated trade wars against China to destabilize its economy, bring back the industries and factories back to US mainland from China. But according to wall street journal in January 2019 reported that China’s trade surplus amounted to $ 323.32 billion following US tariffs implementations despite Trumps efforts to restrict imports from China. This highlights that the enormous amount of imports and control of global trade market by China has over shadowed the US attempts to impact it. But it had adverse impact on global economic growth as according to IMF world economic outlook report the global economic growth had decreased from 3.6% in 2018 to 3.3% in 2019 following US China trade wars.

Due to the impositions of tariffs US economy faced a drop of 0.3% of its GDP while its real consumption decreased by 0.3% and private investment by 1.3%. The economic rift between US and China also caused the stock exchange market of US to lose investment and over 1000 points in foreign exchange in August 2019. In contrast China was able to withstand the impact following the economic battle with US due to its control over the world economic supply chain. Thus, giving an insight that the US was much more vulnerable and dependent upon Chinese economy for its normal economic growth and consistency in supply chain. Following this, the US retracted from its economic war and lower the tariffs on imports from China by reducing over 15% of its tariff from over $120 billion imports while maintaining a tariff ban of over 25% on $ 250 billion worth of goods import. In response China reduced tariffs over $75 billion import trade from US. Following the peace trade agreement both states will work on enhancing their economic cooperation, improve and carry out legislative trade reforms. Thus, analyzing this situation the complex economic interdependence had forced both major powers to retract from their aggressive economic posture and negotiate their way out as the survival for their economies depend upon relative gains approach.

Cyber Operations:

Use of cyber domain to wage attacks in cyber domain by hacking, using viruses, trojan attacks, attack critical infrastructure, carry out disruption in communication, distortion of information and manipulation of political processes using malicious malware in cyber domain. US and China have both engaged in organized cyber operations against each other. While US had blamed China for carrying out industrial and corporate espionage, intellectual property theft using cyber domain. US has banned various Chinese electronic gadgets and devices, telecom giants and revamped its own technological coordination from China based upon allegations of espionage and intellectual property theft conducted by China. The recent ban on Chinese tech giant Huawei from US and arrest of its CEO from Toronto Canada has been made under this context.

Space Operation:

Outer Space has become a competing zone for major power actors and they are in constant friction to maintain their dominance and hegemony by disrupting the competitors position of advantage by interfering in space-enabled services, equipment, communication and satellites data uplink procedures. Both China and US are actively engaged in claiming the cosmos for themselves. Space is considered the battlefield of the future, with major states including the USA, China, and Russia maintains a constellation of 1327, 263 and 192 respectively out of over 2666 satellites in space. The majority of satellites used by these states act as important ISR platforms, communication relay bases, with scientific and environmental applications. The USA is the first state which has inaugurated its space force as a separate armed force on 21 December 2019 with a hefty budget of over $1.4 trillion. These space forces are designated to perform three major functions in strategic military roles which are to collect ISR, enhance protected communication and protected data link within the command hierarchy and also to protect own space assets while destroying and targeting enemy space-based assets by using kinetic kill vehicles such as Anti-Satellite Weapons ASAT or directed energy weapons. Both China and US have developed orbital and space missions to outer space in which China has gained subsequent advancement which was marked by landing its spacecraft Chang’e 4 on dark side of the moon for the first time in history. China recently also launched its orbital and rover mission to Mars naming Tianwen-1 consisting of a lander, rover and an orbiter in a single space flight which is also a remarkable feat in itself.

Proxy Support:

Use of non-state, quasi state elements to wage or obtain military objective or control a certain territory to influence or achieve specific political outcomes.

Provocation by State Controlled Proxies:

The use of paramilitary elements in conjunction with private entities while aiding and financing them to achieve certain interests through informal use of force. This also includes sabotage activities, clandestine intelligence operations and use of private military contractors which operate outside the realm of normal state control and authority.

SCS is one of the major focal point of friction between China and the West. The region is estimated to be a rich source of energy and natural resources, a major sea lane of communication with geo-strategic implications. China has been asserting its control over the region under its revisionist policies claiming on historic suzerainty claims and 1948 nine-dash line. China has actively gained its control over the region by creating military bases on artificial islands in Spratly and Paracel islands, carried out extensive geo-logical surveys for extracting resources in the region while rejecting the concerns of regional states by deploying Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) strategy. While US has been actively engaged in enhancing its diplomatic and military cooperation with regional states to coerce China under the premise of Freedom of Navigation (FoN), increasing its military cooperation and carrying out routine naval and aerial patrols in the region. During May 270July 2020, US had carried out various air sorties of its strategic air command over the South China Sea and near Taiwan Strait in a blatant and blunt act of aggression and assertion against the Chinese A2AD and claims over SCS. China also had carried out month long naval exercises in the SCS region in response. US had also deployed strategic weapons in Okinawa, Japan and in South Korea by deploying Terminal High Altitude Area Defense THAAD, and Patroit Air Defense Systems (PAC) to keep China in check. US has also enhanced its ambit of operations in the region by creating Indo-Pacific Command on May 30, 2018 which is under the area of responsibility of US 7th Fleet. Thus, the SCS have the potential to be a major flash point of confrontation between the major powers in the future if the brinkmanship has not been maintained by the either side if balance of power in the region is shifted. US also has engaged in Quadrilateral military partnership which include US, Australia, Japan and India. US had recently arrested and convicted a Chinese female PLA officer on charges of espionage and VISA fraud as she was working on cancer research in US on false identity along with three other people on similar charges.


In contemporary era various geo-strategic and political events are unfolding in Asia Pacific region. While, the major powers are trying to reinstate and assert their control, hegemony while the revisionist state is upon the verge of consolidating its own strength over the region to further counter and challenge the status quo. While the Thucydides trap is a prevailing phenomenon when we talk about the competition in Asia Pacific region. Thus, by observing the situation in the context of above mentioned toolkit that helps in analyzing the role of gray zone techniques, we can say that US and China is engaged in gray zone conflict in Asia Pacific region, where both actors are trying to avoid crossing the threshold of a conventional and total war and deterrence and perusing their veiled interests by engaging political, economic, cyber and space operations and proxies. The region is also engaged in a complex economic interdependence situation which tends to effect and impact the global economy in an adverse manner. The outcome for a major power competition as defined by Thucydides is based on a zero sum game / absolute gains, while such a scenario can emerge if both states are unable to maintain the brinkmanship and cross the threshold of total war based upon misconception and wrong interpretation of each others actions.