The Indo-Pacific looms large as an arena of intensifying geopolitical competition. Typically, governments look to their militaries to balance competitors in such circumstances. But the great-power competition we’re seeing now is not merely military—it’s political, economic, technological and ideological. It’s a competition for strategic advantage, waged in the ‘grey zone’, the no-man’s land that sits between peace and war.
The importance of the grey zone has long been recognised. The Chinese strategist Sun Tzu argued in the 6th century BC that the height of strategic success was to win wars without having to fight. Nowadays, with the costs of war increasingly high and power diffused among a wider range of actors, the grey zone is host to an escalating number of strategic challenges. It has also become somewhat of a catch-all term, stuffed with every anxiety-inducing action from a foreign power.
For the purpose of strategy, however, more is needed than just a list of activities we don’t like. After all, some ostensibly grey-zone activities—influence, competition, funding—may be comparatively benign, or potentially even positive, such as the provision of infrastructure to poorer nations. Nor can we afford to securitise every uncomfortable action short of war or assume every action will lead to war.
There are three characteristics of grey-zone activities that warrant our attention. First, disruptive activities in the grey zone are undertaken by revisionist actors; they seek to modify the global system to their own ends, but not to overthrow it. Second, grey-zone activities are gradual and aim to skate just below the threshold for provoking an armed response. Third, those activities are non-conventional in nature, and assisted or enabled by technology. The Australian government’s 2020 defence strategic update captures the gist, describing the grey zone as comprising ‘activities designed to coerce countries in ways that seek to avoid military conflict’.
It’s a murky area. Pressure may range from asymmetrical leverage to outright displays of dominance, and is as likely to come from strong states as from weak actors. Consider China’s influence campaigns in the South Pacific and its airspace incursions as it seeks to consolidate its accumulated incremental gains in the South China Sea; Russia’s activities in Eastern Europe and, most recently, in Ukraine’s Donbas region; and activities in cyberspace that cost companies and civil society. Nor are other nation-states necessarily the primary objective: the targeting of non-state groups (for example, democracy activists in Hong Kong or the Uyghur population in Xinjiang) and individuals (Jamal Kashoggi, Roman Protasevich, Maria Ressa, the Skripols, Michael Kovrig, Michael Spavor, Cheng Lei) is a common grey-zone tactic.
Such actions are aimed at reinforcing illiberal and authoritarian regimes while weakening liberal democracies and the rules-based order. Revisionist actors are exploiting gaps, fractures, sclerotic institutions and centrifugal forces in the global order. And there’s an asymmetry between the tactical nature of particular activities and the strategic effect sought, whether it’s a weakening of alliances, accommodation of revisionist agendas by regional organisations, or a purchase of a distinct technological advantage.
China’s ‘14 points’ of difference with Australia illustrate the approach perfectly. By itself, each challenge may seem comparatively small, so why would a government want to object, in the interests of a broader relationship? And that’s precisely the point: to shape behaviour and compel acquiescence. If the government were to give in, further demands would be made, to compel Australian deference to Chinese interests and move Canberra away from its ideological and strategic partners.
Democratic governments themselves need to recommit to the foundational structures and concepts we expect from democracy—democratic institutions, norms, behaviours and the rights of individuals, especially in a digital society—for two reasons. First, with a reversion to ideological competition there’s a need to make and demonstrate the case for democracy. Second, revisionists are attacking an existing order based in large part on liberal, free-market, democratic values. Yet, too easily have governments allowed themselves some of the language, tools and attitudes of the authoritarian actors, so contributing to the revisionist cause and undermining their own legitimacy.
Helping to nurture and reinforce democratic institutions is critically important in our own region, where democracy is comparatively new and delicate. It is also indicative of how the means and tools available for strategy and statecraft need to be broadened. Grey-zone activities are notable for their various forms of compellence and coercion—whether diplomatic pressure, economic threats, protectionist behaviours, cyber operations, espionage, corruption, influence campaigns, information warfare or territorial incursion. Governments need more extensive tool kits: variety is needed to counter variety.
That means relying on more than just the military for our defence. We need to help societies and individuals build resilience against the corrosive effects sought by revisionist actors, whether through the implementation of government initiatives like the Pacific step-up, the use of humour to beat disinformation, or the creation of a foundation such as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Siftung or the US German Marshall Fund aimed at promoting democracy. International institutions need to be reformed or created; new norms and standards for cyber and emerging technologies need to be established to allow all to benefit, not simply richer, more capable states and actors; and like-minded actors need to be engaged to strengthen resilience. All those are civilian tasks, requiring funding, capability and presence.
The more that’s done in cooperation with other regional partners, the better. While conventional ways to build relationships and establish presence and persistence are good, we should be open to opportunities to help blunt China’s influence. An obvious one is the response to Covid-19—providing vaccines, support and, over the longer term, health infrastructure and capability.
The military retains an important role in deterring and responding to grey-zone activities, particularly when territorial gains and incursions are involved. Revisionist actors turn to the grey zone when they assess that they can avoid detection, retribution or escalation to conflict.
While precisely mirroring grey-zone activities would be an error and unachievable—we haven’t got a spare ‘fishing fleet’ we can muster to harass shipping vessels in the South China Sea, for example—we do need to compete at the point of leverage, matching presence with presence. There’s scope to increase Australia’s and like-minded partners’ presence and persistence in the region, such as through regional basing and combined patrols. Doing so would help to shift the risk calculus—not just for revisionist powers but also for regional states.
Last, let’s not confuse symptoms with causes. Focusing on addressing behaviours and actions without first identifying the revisionist motives behind them will likely be self-defeating. To that end, Australian policy and strategy would benefit from a deeper understanding of the drivers of competition in the grey zone—and why we can’t just ignore it and hope it will go away.
Lesley Seebeck is an honorary professor at the Australian National University.
This article appeared originally at The Strategist (ASPI).