Over the last decade, China’s strategists have devised an imaginative grey-zone approach that leverages perceived fundamental geo-strategic trends to give China a persistent strategic advantage over others. This grey-zone strategy is incremental, slowly nibbling at the edges, making use of diverse military and non-military measures, being careful not to drive others into a major war, controlled at the highest Party levels and enduring. A pushback by another country may mean a temporary Chinese pullback, but China’s grey-zone strategists will be back better than ever having learnt from their short-term reversal.
Australia is now concerned by China’s ongoing grey-zone actions. In a key judgment, Australia’s Defence Strategic Update 2020 determined that, ‘Defence must be better prepared to respond to these activities, including by working more closely with other elements of Australia’s national power.’ This is no simple task. The Communist Party’s grey-zone approach is innovative. The solutions to it will also need to be.
This paper initially discusses the background to China’s contemporary grey-zone activities. This includes the conceptual frameworks within which China’s grey-zone operations fit and an examination of three current Chinese grey-zone activities: the seminal South China Sea activities, the air incursions in the East China Sea, and the violent clash between Indian and Chinese armed forces in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas. The paper’s second half moves forward in time to set out how China’s grey-zone operations may evolve over the next decade. This forms the basis for discussing strategic-level responses including a possible measured forward planning approach, deterrence concerns and organisational changes. The final chapter further narrows down into just air and space power matters and involves air policing, crisis hotlines, surveillance drones and emerging technology.
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