Geopolitical competition is increasingly playing out in the gray zone—the space beyond diplomacy and short of conventional war. The nature of this competition is forcing the United States to confront the liabilities of its strengths. This report assesses current U.S. government actions to deter, campaign through, and respond to competitors’ gray zone tactics.
If the U.S. is truly planning for a competition with China, it will need to plan for a long-term effort. The planning should be clear about who and what are opposed, what the U.S. expects from China to avoid conflict escalation, the minimal acceptable change it seeks from the Chinese government, and how far the U.S. is willing to go.
In October 2018, leaks revealed that the White House was considering banning Chinese students from entering the United States. Then in late November, Reuters reported that the Trump administration may step up vetting measures of Chinese students. Yet, for an administration promising to compete more effectively with China, this is a particularly counterproductive proposal, not only on legal and ethical grounds, but also from a purely competitive standpoint.
Now in its fifth year of implementation, there is enough evidence to suggest that Belt and Road Initiative is much more than a liberal economic development plan. The United States needs a more comprehensive counterstrategy to BRI that looks after the interests of vulnerable nations and hedges against the geopolitical advantages China is gaining.
The release of the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy offers a window to evaluate current and ongoing U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific region. But while the documents offer bold, clear strategic direction at a time the United States and the world need clear guideposts, the administration’s actions are at odds with the strategies.