The U.S. failure to counter China’s “gray zone” tactics stems from a lack of will, not a lack of options.
Although the Trump administration is taking an increasingly harder line vis-à-vis Beijing, there is little doubt that the United States has failed to counter Chinese expansion via salami-slicing in the South China Sea (SCS). Current debates imply that this failure is rooted in a lack of imagination or capabilities, as experts continue to propose approaches that the United States can adopt to fight against gray zone tactics, such as those employed by Russia in Ukraine or by China in the SCS. However, we already have an example from history of a successful U.S. response to gray zone pressure: the Berlin Airlift. This strongly suggests that the United States can respond effectively to gray zone tactics when core American interests are at stake. Thus the key issue in the SCS is a lack of U.S. willingness to confront China, not a matter of tactics or strategy.
Into the Gray Zone: New Concept, Old Tactics
Only in recent years have scholars begun talking about “gray zone tactics,” which often consist of coercive actions that are deliberately calibrated to fall below the threshold of open armed conflict. These ambiguous and incremental challenges degrade the target’s ability to respond and minimize the risks of war at the same time. By employing these tactics, the challenger advances its interests while convincing the target that it would be better off making small concessions rather than responding decisively and running the risk of escalation. As such, if successful, gray zone tactics will allow the challenger to “win without fighting” because they circumvent the tripwire that could lead to a strong response from the target.
In 2014, for example, Russia successfully used their “little green men” in tandem with information warfare to create a territorial fait accompli in Crimea. For the past five years, China has steadily consolidated and expanded their presence in the South China Sea through land reclamation efforts and a massive fleet of marititme militia disguised as fishing boats.
While these challenges may seem new, countries have been employing gray zone tactics as early as the Cold War or even earlier. Stalin’s decision to cut off Allied access to Berlin or Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal could both be characterized as gray zone tactics. The only thing that is new about today’s gray zone challenges are the means employed. A hyperconnected world and highly precise weapons have allowed aggressive actors to carry out evermore sophisticated gray zone attacks. Yet the nature of the challenge remains the same and the solution deceptively simple.
Looking Back at the Berlin Airlift
In many ways, the Cold War revolved around the German question and Berlin itself. The first true crisis between the two blocs happened in Berlin, following American and British efforts to introduce the new Deustchmark into Bizonia and West Berlin. In response, the Soviets blocked all major road, rail, and canal links to West Berlin, thus starving the city of all essential supplies. Stalin calculated that his blockade would put sufficient pressure on the West to force concessions in Berlin while avoiding war as he knew that the United States and its allies were not willing to fight through the blockade and risk another major war in Europe.
Western leaders thus faced a conundrum: capitulation would likely lead to Soviet domination of Germany, yet a hardline response to break through the blockade would be too risky, especially given Soviet military superiority in conventional terms. Furthermore, if war broke out as a direct result of Western actions, that could lead to a major propaganda victory for Moscow. Therefore, they had to find a way to circumvent the blockade without waging a war.
In the end, the United States and its allies decided to launch a massive airlift operation, supplying the western sector of Berlin by air rather than land or sea. In doing so, the West undermined the Soviet blockade and put the onus of igniting a shooting war on the Kremlin. American and British policymakers fully understood that although Soviet leaders wanted influence over Berlin, they equally dreaded the prospect of a major armed conflict. The gamble eventually paid off as Stalin called off the blockade in the spring of 1949, giving the West a major victory over the hearts and minds of many Berliners.