Seaman Xi Chan stands lookout on the flight deck of the Arleigh-Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) underway in the Taiwan Strait.

Seaman Xi Chan stands lookout on the flight deck of the Arleigh-Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) underway in the Taiwan Strait. U.S. Navy / Ensign Samuel Hardgrove

Three ideas for countering China in the gray zone

The U.S. ought to pull a few new tools from its military-diplomatic-informational toolbox.

The United States faces a serious policy dilemma in its efforts to confront and constrain China. Thus far, China has refrained from directly attacking any of its neighbors, keeping its actions below the threshold of “international aggression” that could provoke a lawful use of military force in self-defense. Instead, China has engaged in a steady campaign of intimidation, menacing other countries to coerce them to recognize—or at least respect—its excessive maritime and territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. While the U.S. has arguably contributed to deterring any serious acts of military aggression against U.S. allies in the region, it has nonetheless struggled to arrest China’s troubling behavior short of war. The U.S. and China have primarily engaged in a war of words, backed by regular displays of naval and air power, each of which would have been considered a crisis just a few short years ago. 

In recent years, the United States has increased the frequency of its freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPS, to challenge China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea. It has also explicitly stated that it does not recognize China’s claims and will not accede to its demands for prior notification or permission for FONOPS and surveillance missions near China’s claimed features and territorial waters. With respect to Taiwan, the U.S. has moved toward greater strategic clarity and has evidently altered important policies with regard to political and diplomatic engagement with Taiwan, drawing repeated demonstrations of anger from Beijing. U.S. military responses to China’s actions have essentially followed the playbook from past crises over Taiwan, using measured displays of naval power “in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” implicitly to deter China from making a direct move against Taiwan or using military force against competing claimants in the South China Sea. 

Both sides have recognized the dangers of operating in close proximity to one another. Following the Biden-Xi meeting in November, dangerous interceptions of U.S. aircraft have apparently been reduced. However, the frequent use of large-scale military exercises by both sides over the past several years has created a drift towards normalizing the military’s most powerful signals short of armed conflict, raising the ante and gradually reducing their political utility by inflating both sides’ tolerance over time. What’s worse, such a high operational tempo of large exercises badly taxes readiness. It also contributes to a vicious circle of chicken-egg disputes over which side’s military moves are more provocative or threatening, and increases the risks of accidents, miscommunication, and unintended escalation. 

In this way, U.S. actions intended to deter China’s threatening behavior may actually risk encouraging it. Yes, China’s threats need to be defused, but the U.S. needs to use water, not gasoline. It’s time to experiment with alternative approaches to deescalate tensions, restore a sustainable deterrence posture, and seize the initiative in international politics. The Biden administration should consider three experimental approaches that marry peacetime military operations and tactics with diplomatic and informational efforts to target the specific behaviors of concern more effectively, without instigating unnecessary escalation or conflict. 

Maritime security corridor

First, if China’s assertions of territorial and jurisdictional rights in the South China Sea “pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce,” as the U.S. Navy has apparently judged, then it would be appropriate for the United States to focus on galvanizing and organizing international support to preserve freedom of navigation through the South China Sea. The U.S. could build on the model of other international maritime security operations, such as NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield and the Combined Maritime Forces missions set up to deter, deny, or punish attacks on commercial shipping. Similarly, the U.S. could build upon the model of the Maritime Security Transit Corridor and International Recommended Transit Corridor in the Gulf of Aden and organize a multinational maritime security mission for the South China Sea, inviting the participation of all the countries in the region. Providing military escorts for commercial vessels to deter attacks and harassment is a perfectly legitimate peacetime use of military force, targeting no state in particular and posing no threat to anyone other than those who might attack civilian vessels in international waters. 

Multinational maritime patrols to combat illicit trafficking, piracy, and terrorism are nothing new to the region. For example, the Philippines has conducted joint maritime security missions with Indonesia and Malaysia for counterterrorism and law enforcement purposes. The Enforcement Coordination Cell—which includes the Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States—is already enforcing UN sanctions in the region. The Philippines has recently agreed to host more U.S. forces and to conduct more joint naval and air patrols with them. Engaging in regular multilateral patrols of the South China Sea could also provide an opportunity for practical cooperation by the “Quad,” and give ASEAN countries a mission directly in line with their stated commitment to preserving regional peace and stability. This approach may not resolve territorial disputes, but it could assuage some countries’ concerns about “picking sides,” and would deepen regional cooperation to ensure that trade is not interrupted and that disputes are resolved peacefully through negotiations, and not through unilateral military actions. 

Capitalizing on codes and conventions

Second, while the vast majority of interactions between U.S. and Chinese forces have been professional, there have been many notable exceptions. The U.S. and China have both signed on to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, or CUES, a non-binding agreement among 21 nations for avoiding unintended escalation between naval forces. Unfortunately, this does little to address challenges presented by the China Coast Guard, or CCG. China often uses its coast guard rather than PLAN warships to conduct aggressive and unprofessional maneuvers, including targeting U.S. allies such as the Philippines. CCG vessels have used coercive tactics such as pointing military-grade lasers at Philippine coast guard ships, temporarily blinding the crew members. In 2022 alone, the Philippines issued 200 formal protests against Chinese aggression in disputed waters—particularly surrounding the Second Thomas Shoal. This week saw two collisions between CCG and Philippines vessels.

The U.S. should continue to scrupulously adhere to CUES, but it should also press to widen and strengthen the agreement to include more types of official vessels, such as coast guard ships, and add binding mechanisms for arbitration and dispute settlement. Ideally, CUES could eventually be incorporated into international law, for example through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, which the U.S. could also sign and ratify. While all this admittedly makes for a tall order for American policymakers and diplomats, multilateral agreements like CUES and UNCLOS will be especially important as China’s Coast Guard acts as the vanguard force for asserting China’s unilateral maritime claims. 

The U.S. and other parties to CUES should also raise concerns about violations and bad behavior at the highest diplomatic levels and continue to amplify these issues in the domain of public information. Consistent naming and shaming leverages China’s real concerns for its international reputation, so long as it’s done in a judicious and verifiable way. The Philippines policy of “assertive transparency” and the Office of Naval Research’s “Fleet Visual Information Challenge” are both excellent examples of this approach in practice. Ongoing multilateral negotiations on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea could help forge a greater consensus on how to identify and create accountability for bad behavior. The U.S. should strongly support multilateral agreements like a binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea

Preemptive PASSEX

Third, when the Navy conducts presence operations, FONOPS, or even routine transits in the South China Sea, it should consider preparing the battlefield and seizing the initiative with a subtle diplomatic offensive: Invite the PLA Navy to join a Passing Exercise

China routinely claims that U.S. ships conducting FONOPS are operating illegally and dispatches naval forces to “warn off” the ships. The U.S. generally responds that they are asserting navigational rights consistent with international law. Given China’s history of attempted interference with U.S. FONOPS, it is safe to assume that FONOPS will trigger a similar response every time. 

Knowing this, the U.S. Navy should consider changing the script by preemptively inviting the PLAN to join in a PASSEX as a matter of routine. This would not need to be done before a transit or FONOP (i.e., providing advance notice), but rather, overtures could be communicated early on during the cruise before any interception or communication of warning by the Chinese side. Even if the PLAN regularly rejects the offer, such a small change in procedure could shift the initiative, imposing a new decision point between participating in a professional PASSEX or slapping an outstretched hand, placing politics and diplomacy at the center of the engagement. At a minimum, this could force PLAN captains to involve their political officers in tactical decisions while simultaneously depriving China of any narrative about perceived hostile intent, taking the wind out of their sails. At best, it may actually help to ease tensions over time by demonstrating the U.S. commitment to peaceful and professional interactions, and could provide the U.S. with an edge in the diplomatic and information domains.

Deterrence AND diplomacy

The admittedly ambitious proposals sketched here are principally meant to highlight a simple fact: the United States has many options available besides the persistent FONOPS and shows of force that have thus far largely defined the U.S. military’s operational approach to confronting China. There are occasions on which blunt displays of the U.S.’ overwhelming and unrivaled power-projection capabilities are warranted—yet these are generally few and far between. In the competitive space between, U.S. strategy must be designed to advance and achieve limited political aims—preserving the sovereignty and security of its allies, freedom of the seas, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded commerce—without starting a war. The U.S. has demonstrated its commitment to defending these objectives, as well as its ability to do so. Now the challenge is finding a sustainable level of deterrence while continuing to demonstrate resolve. As such, the Biden administration should introduce new diplomatic and informational initiatives to reenforce existing advantages in conventional military power with more multilateral cooperation and an overt commitment to regional stability.

James Siebens is a Fellow with the Stimson Center’s Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program, where he leads the Defense Strategy and Planning project.