As China Gray Zone Warfare Escalates, U.S. May Stand to Lose First Shooting Battle

The United States and China are engaged in the world's most intense strategic competition. As this feud plays out in the waters of the Asia-Pacific, the two sides are conducting carefully calculated tests of the other's resolve.

But one wrong move could lead to catastrophe, or even all-out conflict. And if a shooting battle does break out, there's a solid chance the U.S. could lose the first fight with the People's Liberation Army.

"It is very plausible to say there is no guarantee of victory in the first phases," Lyle Goldstein, a research professor at the Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute, told Newsweek.

Goldstein, who emphasized that the views he expressed were his own and not reflective of those of the U.S. Navy, noted the scenarios for such a confrontation vary substantially. All of them, however, "are extremely challenging" for U.S. forces, he said.

In fact, it's not just the opening rounds that should concern the U.S. side. Goldstein argued "the situation is actually considerably darker" than that.

"I think China now has adequate forces, including air, missile, electronic warfare, spec ops, naval, undersea and nuclear to likely prevail in the first phase and perhaps in subsequent phases too," Goldstein said.

Weaponry plays a "quite important" role in the matter, he said, yet he largely attributed China's upper hand to three other fundamental factors: "1) favorable geography (and thus interior lines), 2) greater will ('core interests'), and 3) a willingness to strike first."

Beijing has vowed to defend the vast swaths of maritime territory and contested islands it claims in the South and East China Seas from foreign intrusions. And no apple of discord is more bitter than the self-ruling island of Taiwan.

When applying his three factors to the top flashpoints between U.S. and Chinese armed forces, Goldstein said that "the Taiwan scenario exaggerates all these advantages for China."

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A member of the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force conduct training in the Southern Theater Command in this photo published March 3. China commands a formidable rocket and missile arsenal capable of bombarding Taiwan and surface vessels attempting to defend it, along with a variety of anti-aircraft weaponry to deny aerial attacks and a number of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets virtually anywhere across the globe, People's Liberation Army Rocket Force

The modern struggle for Taiwan can be traced back to China's civil war, which ended with a 1949 Communist victory expelling nationalist foes, who established a rival government in Taipei. Just a year later, U.S. troops clashed for the first time with the forces of the newly formed People's Republic during the Korean War, which ended in a bloody stalemate that holds today, with no official ending and no official peace.

Washington and Beijing nearly went to war again as the latter sought to stamp out the exiled government in Taipei, then the internationally recognized leadership of China. Fighting broke out a second time before the end of the decade and a third crisis emerged in the mid-1990s, demonstrating that the cross-strait feud would prove a persistent point of contention.

Today, People's Liberation Army planes perform near-daily sorties across Taiwan's self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed that it is only a matter of time before Taiwan is brought into the fold of the central government, by diplomacy or by force.

Washington followed much of the world in switching recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, an era marking the start of broad reforms for the People's Republic. But the U.S. continues to maintain informal diplomatic ties and supply military assistance to Taiwan.

These measures were expanded under former President Donald Trump, who sought to reshape the U.S.-China relationship with a tougher line against a country projected to soon supplant the U.S. as the world's largest economy.

His successor, President Joe Biden, has also declared support for Taiwan, and has demonstrated it by sending U.S. warships through the disputed Taiwan Strait in his first weeks in office. With Washington seeking to turn up the pressure, Beijing has vowed not to surrender a single territorial claim in the region. But it has also vowed not to expand beyond its declared borders.

"We cannot lose a single inch of the lands we inherited from our ancestors," the Chinese Defense Ministry's Information Bureau said in a statement published Monday, "and we would not take a single cent of others' possessions."

As frictions heighten, Goldstein recommended a diplomatic track to help ease cross-strait tensions before another and potentially more dangerous escalation erupted.

"I advise quiet, but active diplomacy with both Beijing and Taipei that would promote step-by-step de-escalation by both sides," he told Newsweek. "That diplomacy would roughly follow the '92 Consensus, allow for increased integration across the Strait, and might eventuate in a confederation status for Taiwan."

Both Beijing and Taipei agree there's only "One China" through the 92 Consensus, though they have come no closer to reconciling their opposing interpretations.

Goldstein worried that Washington, with its newfound hardened approach to Beijing, was no longer capable of assuming this mediating position. He hoped that other potential arbiters such as Germany, South Korea or Singapore "could take up this difficult, but essential role in a serious way."

In the absence of diplomacy, both powers have been flexing their military muscles.

Every time the U.S. has transited China-claimed waters, often under the pretext of "freedom of navigation" operations, the People's Liberation Army has never been far behind, scrambling air and naval assets to monitor the perceived trespass.

Having evolved rapidly from its guerilla warfare days, the People's Liberation Army today embodies a modern, technologically advanced force with ambitions to become a "world-class" military by the middle of the century.

The Pentagon's latest annual assessment of People's Liberation Army power found that "China has already achieved parity with — or even exceeded — the United States in several military modernization areas, including shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems."

All three of these categories would prove decisive in a hypothetical fight over Taiwan or other disputed areas in the East and South China Seas.

"Over the course of the past two decades the PRC has changed the military balance of power across the Indo-Pacific," James E. Fanell, a retired U.S. Navy captain who served as director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told Newsweek.

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A tank driven by a member of the People's Liberation Army Navy Southern Theater Command storms an island during South China Sea exercises in this video published March 3. The world's largest military has openly trained not only to take islands of the East and South China Seas, but Taiwan itself. Chinese People's Liberation Army

Unlike the U.S. and Russia, whose mid-range missile capabilities were restricted by the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty until August 2019, China has been free to amass a sizable arsenal of medium- and intermediate-range weapons that put U.S. ships in firing range.

And when it comes to surface warfare, China is pulling ahead as well.

"Beyond out-producing the U.S. Navy in the number of warships at a rate of four to one, the PLA Strategic Rocket Force has put U.S. aircraft carriers at risk with the fielding of the DF-21D and DF-26 anti-carrier ballistic missiles," Fanell said.

The Chinese have also gained a strategic edge, he said.

"The PLA's 'counter intervention' strategy, just a concept two decades ago, is now a reality within the Second Island Chain," Fanell said, " and continues to expand at an alarming rate across the rest of the region."

The goal of this strategy is to deny access to the islands spotting the Asia-Pacific, preventing the type of island-hopping campaign that the U.S. employed so successfully in World War II against the Japanese.

World War II also marks the last time a U.S. aircraft carrier — widely seen as the foremost symbol of U.S. military might — was sunk.

But the People's Liberation Army Navy, which already boasts two such vessels, has quickly begun to rival the U.S. Navy, along with its allies in the region.

"China's recent investments in both the PLA Navy and the China Coast Guard have started to create a naval and coast guard imbalance in the Western Pacific vis-a-vis the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and allied Pacific Asian navies and coast guards," Rockford Weitz, director of Tuft University's Fletcher Maritime Studies Program and president of the Institute for Global Maritime Studies, told Newsweek.

He broke down the recent additions to China's sprawling sea power, which include not only a Coast Guard to complement conventional forces, but also a maritime paramilitary force joining it in gray zone and hybrid warfare techniques that straddle the line between war and peace.

"Over the last 10 years, China has built out three maritime forces: (i) PLA Navy, (ii) China Coast Guard, and (iii) Chinese maritime militia," Weitz said. "The China Coast Guard and maritime militia are focused on gray zone and maritime hybrid warfare techniques near Taiwan and near disputed islands in both the East and South China Seas."

China's official reasoning, as Weitz describes it, is "protecting its fishing vessels from other country's coast guards and navies, and to be enforcing fishing regulations and other laws."

But the U.S. and nations in the region have issued complaints.

"China's use of gray zone and maritime hybrid warfare tactics near Taiwan and near disputed islands in the East and South China Seas are a way to push the boundaries of sea control in those waters," Weitz said, "and longstanding maritime boundary disputes with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia."

In the East China Sea, the Japanese Coast Guard has run into such Chinese vessels operating near the disputed Pinnacle Islands at an unprecedented rate this year. China-controlled, artificially reclaimed military land formations in the South China Sea's Spratly Islands also serve as military logistics centers and aerial power projection points to repel enemy forces.

Fanell pointed out how China's irregular armada could be used to overwhelm and take out much larger U.S. Navy warships.

"The PRC's 'grey zone' strategy is designed to use the PRC's fishing fleets to swarm disputed waters in the East and South China Sea, now supported by armed Chinese Coast Guard cutters leveraging their status as 'non-combatants' in order to get in close and be able to overwhelm U.S. Navy warship sensors and defense perimeters," he said.

As such, the dramatic development of the People's Liberation Army troubles the U.S. Navy.

"The entirety of People's Liberation Army Navy growth in both capacity and capability is concerning," U.S. Navy Assistant Chief of Information Commander Courtney Hillson told Newsweek.

She said the triple threat posed by China's maritime might combined with an unmatched missile force contributes greatly to the country's posture across the Asia-Pacific, and especially in the traffic-heavy, resource-rich South China Sea.

"China deploys a multilayered fleet that includes the PLAN, the China Coast Guard, and the People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia—naval auxiliaries disguised as civilian vessels—to undermine other nations' sovereignty and enforce unlawful claims," Hillson said. "It continues to coerce vital resources from the exclusive economic zones of other nations, militarize disputed features in the South China Sea, and develop the world's largest missile force."

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The Chinese People's Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command fires missiles in a promotional video with the patriotic tagline "If war breaks out today, this is our answer" shared September 21. Eastern Theater Command/Chinese People's Liberation Army

So far, there have been no serious U.S.-China confrontations in recent years. A Pentagon spokesperson recently told Newsweek that "the vast majority of U.S. military interactions with the PLA, not just in the South China Sea but throughout the region, are safe and in accordance with international norms."

Regarding Chinese military warnings over U.S. military actions, the spokesperson said that "attempts to misconstrue or sensationalize our operations are irresponsible and counterproductive."

But given the level of firepower and geopolitical tension involved, experts agree even a minor miscalculation could spiral into violence with unforeseen, possibly unprecedented consequences.

"The U.S. and its Pacific Asian allies are highly concerned that a Chinese escalation or a U.S. or allied overreaction could trigger a wider conflict that could quickly escalate," Weitz told Newsweek.

Such a perilous prospect is also envisioned by the South China Sea Probing Initiative, a China-based think tank that monitors U.S. military movements in the region.

The project's team took note of the Biden administration's references to "areas of cooperation" with China as divergent from Trump's more aggressive trajectory, but also saw the prevailing depiction of China as a challenge among U.S. officials as indicative of a fierce rivalry for years to come.

"Usually, U.S. military strategy and policy are more stable than that of trade and diplomacy," the South China Sea Probing Initiative said. "Intensified competition is a long-term trend, and one difference is that the Biden administration wants the competition to be controllable."

But history has shown how such heated feuds have a way of spinning out of control, and there may be nowhere else in the world where the stakes are higher.

"The U.S. recent increasing military activities in the SCS and around Taiwan may be a sign of strengthening deterrence against China, however, which could backfire," the Initiative said. "Overreaction inevitably begets overreaction from the other side."

us, navy, south, china, sea
Aircraft assigned to Carrier Air Wing 17 fly over the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group in the South China Sea, February 9, 2021. Despite Chinese warnings, the U.S. Navy has vowed "to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows in accordance with international norms and our agreements." Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Deirdre Marsac/USS Theodore Roosevelt Public Affairs/U.S. Navy

This article has been updated to include a statement by U.S. Navy Assistant Chief of Information Commander Courtney Hillson.