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June 15, 2023
Notes from the Pentagon

China, Russia stage ‘gray zone’ operations to expand influence in opposition to U.S.

By Bill Gertz
China and Russia are waging “gray zone” warfare against the U.S. below the threshold of traditional combat, “gaining benefits without suffering significant consequences,” according to a report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board.

The board outlined the new warfare techniques in a report made public in April that warns that China is using gray zone attacks to settle territorial disputes with India and Taiwan in its favor. Beijing is also employing its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure financing program to advance its security goals in the new low-level clash.

“Their instruments for manipulating national power, economic and financial resources, arms transfers, etc. are often complementary, mutually supporting in gray zone campaigns and not always readily attributed,” the report said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine came after the successful use of gray zone tactics and combat operations in a range of conflicts: Chechnya, Georgia, Belarus, Crimea and Syria. Russia has also conducted assassinations on foreign soil, interfered in elections in the U.S. and other nations, and deployed its “little green men” — combat troops wearing thinly disguised military uniforms during takeover operations, the report said.

Gray zone operations are defined as the use of military methods short of open combat and employing an array of tactics to include economic coercion, cyber espionage, disinformation and “unattributed” military forces.

“China and Russia seek regional and global hegemony, though neither now has the capability to impose political will globally by military means (however, China may be striving for such capability),” the report said. “Both countries have developed new means of projecting their influence globally; in short, new dimensions of conflict.”

Use of lower-level warfare has allowed both states to expand global power and influence without the substantial expense of establishing a global military footprint. It also allows Beijing and Moscow to avoid for now a direct military conflict with the United States that they would likely lose, the report said.

Another challenge for U.S. officials is that the gray zone warfare capabilities are difficult to counter and mitigate given American values and norms.

“These dimensions of conflict can be employed in complex ways over time in the form of ‘campaigns’ that can long precede kinetic operations and may be able to achieve objectives without resorting to kinetic means,” the report said.

The board concluded that traditional military tools are limited in gray zone conflict. In many cases, intelligence operations, economic measures, diplomacy and information operations carried out by other agencies “may prove more effective,” the report said.

The Defense Department “needs to rediscover its lost art of integrating operational concepts, technology, experimentation and demonstrations to generate new capabilities to surprise adversaries, attack their strategies and put them on the defensive,” the report said.

One of five new dimensions of conflict identified in the report is China’s efforts to control the global information infrastructure that connects people, companies and nations.

“China’s success would foster the global spread of authoritarian power and undermine U.S. relations with allies, partners and countries of strategic interest,” the report said. “The result could be as consequential as other historical global hegemonies such as Britain’s rule of the seas in the 19th century. Envision a world where an authoritarian government surveils, controls, or intervenes in all digital transactions: commerce, education, social, trade, health care, government, i.e., the current situation in Xinjiang Province on a global scale.”

China’s strategy for global control of information infrastructure is comprehensive and seeks control of technical standards, patents, components and systems, and intellectual property ownership.

An example is the Digital Silk Road, part of the Belt and Road Initiative, that pressures debtor nations using Chinese infrastructure money to put up control of their ports and mines as collateral for loans.

“These resources will come under Chinese control when that country becomes unable to honor its debt obligations,” the report said.

The report, “New Dimensions of Conflict,” was originally set for release in 2020, the last year of the Trump administration, but its production and release was delayed by the pandemic.

“The report provides key recommendations to avoid future surprises and explore how such dimensions of conflict might be exploited by near-peer competitors, Russia and China, and adversaries to impose their will on other nations,” Eric Evans, the board chair, said in the report’s introduction.

China‘s security blueprint seeks to preempt U.S.
China’s defense minister recently outlined in a speech in Singapore how Beijing is promoting an international security initiative in a bid to expand its power and influence.

Gen. Li Shangfu said the global security initiative first introduced by President Xi Jinping calls for “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security” along with a “new path” that seeks dialogue over confrontation and partnership over alliances. The initiative “contributes China‘s wisdom to addressing global security challenges,” the general said.

He accused the United States of “bullying” and rejected Washington’s repeated demands that China abide by rules-based international norms.

The initiative is one of three Chinese initiatives being promoted in an apparent bid to counter successful U.S. alliance-building in the region.

Rising fears of Chinese military aggression and coercion have led several Asian states to move closer to the United States in recent years. That has been a key objective of the Biden administration in seeking expanded and strengthened ties to allies and partners.

In the face of pressure from Beijing, key allies such as Japan and South Korea, along with the Philippines, Australia, India and Taiwan, have all moved to bolster ties with Washington.

Reflecting Mr. Xi’s Marxist orientation, China outlined the global security initiative in February, asserting that “historical trends” of peace and development are unstoppable and that six concepts of security are part of a “dialectical unity.”

China’s brand of communism is based on Marxist dialectical materialism that asserts all things exist as material, that matter is in constant change, and that it is interconnected and interdependent as societies develop. Historical materialism, another Chinese communist ideological concept, asserts history is moving through stages from capitalism to socialism and, eventually, to an ideal communist state.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed skepticism about Gen. Li’s speech, telling reporters at a major security conference in Singapore earlier this month that Chinese rhetoric must be backed by positive actions.

“It’s interesting to listen to what he says,” Mr. Austin said. “What’s most important is … watch what they do,” he said.

The most recent annual U.S. intelligence threat assessment dismisses the global security initiative as part of Beijing‘s larger campaign to expand its influence in seeking to displace the United States as a world leader.

“Beijing will try to expand its influence abroad and its efforts to be viewed as a champion of global development via several initiatives,” the report said, citing the Belt and Road Initiative as a key example. “Beijing has attempted to use these programs and initiatives to promote a China-led alternative to often U.S. and Western-dominated international development and security forums and frameworks.”

China “will use these programs and initiatives to promote modifications to international norms to favor state sovereignty and political stability over individual rights,” the joint intelligence assessment concluded.

Peter Mattis, a former National Security Agency analyst, said in recent congressional testimony that China‘s ruling Communist Party is working to expand influence globally through “united front work” to achieve national rejuvenation.

“Mao Zedong described ‘united front work’ as mobilizing one’s friends to strike at one’s enemies,” he said. “More broadly, the purpose of united front work is to control, mobilize and otherwise make use of individuals outside the party to achieve its objectives.”

Mr. Mattis said China expansively defines security as an absence of all threats, not the ability to manage them.

“This unlimited view pushes the Chinese Communist Party toward pre-empting threats and preventing their emergence,” he said. “Second, security issues extend to the domain of ideas — what people think is potentially dangerous. The combination of these themes … creates an imperative for the party to alter the world in which it operates [and] to shape how China and its current party-state are understood in the minds of foreign elites.”

Report: Biden to allow chipmakers to continue in China
Alan Estevez, undersecretary of commerce for industry and security, disclosed recently that the Biden administration will exempt semiconductor manufacturers in Taiwan and South Korea from export curbs designed to limit China’s military.

Mr. Estevez told a group of industry leaders that the exemptions will allow the chipmakers to maintain and expand their business in China, a move analysts say will weaken U.S. export controls aimed at slowing Beijing’s technical advance, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday, quoting participants in the meeting.

In October, the administration imposed curbs on China’s semiconductor sector, while providing one-year exemptions to several companies, including South Korea’s Samsung Electronics and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Both have invested billions of dollars in building facilities in China.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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