Our partner publication, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, recently released a new issue on the theme of “Trade and Conflict”. Below is a summary of Dani Belo’s article “Conflict in the absence of war: a comparative analysis of China and Russia engagement in gray zone conflicts“. 

Wars between states, especially great powers, are now fought in the gray zone, in which elements of soft and unconventional power now dominate the arsenal. In this format of interaction, states rely primarily on covert operations such as information campaigns, disruptive cyber operations, non-state actors, and economic blackmail, which never pass the threshold of war. Globalization, the permeability of international borders, and weak international legal frameworks are key prerequisites for engagement in the gray zone. All of these elements make gray zone conflicts exceptionally resistant to resolution Moreover, permissive and advantageous conditions are created for illiberal states like China and Russia to effectively conduct operations in the gray zone against democratic adversaries.

However, engagement in gray zone conflicts should not be treated as a homogenous phenomenon to characterize all contemporary interstate disputes. Belo’s article highlights that all participants use their distinct tools and combination of techniques, which should be countered with tailored approaches.

Building on his previous research, Belo examines the cases of Russia and China which successfully use various hybrid tactics to promote their strategic agendas. He argues that Russia and China’s use of different tools and technique combinations in their engagement in gray zone conflicts can substantially be attributed to two distinct geostrategic momenta, which he calls “offensive hybridism,” used by China, and “hybridism in retreat,” associated with Russia’s actions. Geostrategic momenta determine both the likelihood as well as the intensity of use of a specific combination of tools and techniques within gray zone conflicts.

A state’s strategic momentum, whether it is on the retreat or on the offensive, is both determined by its own behavior as well as the relative power of other major state actors in the system. It is frequently argued that offensive operations by Russia in its campaign in Ukraine signal its broader empire-building ambitions. In fact, it is the exact opposite. Much of the antagonistic policy by Russia is more characteristic of retreating behavior and an effort to slow its relative decline in power. States on the decline, or on the retreating momentum like Russia, are more likely to use hard power elements to cut losses, as military solutions and certain economic tools are faster and more decisive, especially against weaker opponents. On the other hand, states on the offensive like China possess the privilege of careful long-term planning of tactics to compromise America’s orbit.

A key question Belo’s article addresses is how Canada and its allies should engage China and Russia in the gray zone.

His research finds that with regard to China, there is a need for increased vigilance and development of sophisticated arsenal of tools and methods to monitor person-to-person contacts between China’s agents and public servants, political representatives. However, to prevent democratic backsliding, these must be in concordance with established democratic principles. On the other hand, the solution to deterring Russia’s gray zone techniques should not be a military one, but rather through elements of soft power such as protection of minority rights and ceasing of NATO expansion.

This article builds on the following research:

Grey-Zone Conflict: Implications for Conflict Management by Dani Belo and David Carment

Protecting Minority Rights to Undermine Russia’s Compatriots Strategy by Dani Belo and David Carment https://www.cgai.ca/protecting_minority_rights_to_undermine_russias_compatriots_strategy

War’s Future: The Risks and Rewards of Grey-Zone Conflict and Hybrid Warfare by David Carment and Dani Belo https://www.cgai.ca/wars_future_the_risks_and_rewards_of_grey_zone_conflict_and_hybrid_warfare#Hybrid

Gray Zone Mediation in the Ukraine crisis: Comparing Crimea and Donbas in Research by David Carment, Milana Nikolko, and Dani Belo in Handbook on Mediating International Crises Ed. Wilkenfeld, Beadsley and Quinn.

Photo by Vladimir Kondriianenko on Unsplash

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