Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Matthew Ader is a second-year undergraduate taking War Studies at King’s College London.  He tweets occasionally from @AderMatthew, and is an editor at the Wavell Room. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  As China rises and the U.S. wants to avoid direct military confrontation, the U.S. requires options to compete with China below the threshold of armed conflict

Date Originally Written:  May 12, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  July 8, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a second-year undergraduate student at King’s College London with a broadly liberal foreign policy view. The article is written from the point of view of the United States towards the People’s Republic of China.

Background:  The United States has identified China as a key competitor and revanchist power seeking to undermine the U.S.-led international order.

Significance:  China is expanding its influence globally through competition below the threshold of armed conflict, to the detriment of U.S. interests. A conventional Sino-American war to counter or roll back these gains would be catastrophic. The below options enable the U.S. to compete against China short of war.

Option #1:  The United States deploys specialist surveillance and training capabilities, along with Coast Guard and Navy vessels, to enhance and expand existing multilateral efforts against maritime lawlessness – particularly illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – in the Indo-Pacific theatre.

Risk:  This option would put US personnel in close contact with Chinese maritime militia, coast guard, and fishing fleets on a regular basis – increasing the possibility of a geopolitical incident. It could also contribute to overstretch in the U.S. 7th Fleet. Further, while maritime lawlessness is recognised as a major problem by all countries in theatre, U.S. enforcement action could be seen as high-handed. One particular concern would be how the U.S. treats Japan – it is a key ally but is also heavy enmeshed in the IUU industry. Too heavy-handed a treatment would alienate Japan; too lenient would make the U.S. seem hypocritical. This option might also embroil the U.S. in regional disputes over maritime border claims.

Gain:  This option would strengthen the U.S. claim of being a status quo power upholding the law and rules-based international order against an aggressive and lawless China. Given that regional trust in the U.S. has sunk dramatically over the course of the Trump administration, this option could constitute a helpful corrective. Substantively, this option could also assist in pushing back on Chinese influence in the South China Sea; the current Freedom of Navigation Operations are inherently transient and can be avoided without change to broader Chinese strategy — persistent presence cannot. Lastly, it would permit U.S. forces to work alongside regional partners, gaining valuable operational expertise and local knowledge.

Option #2:  The United States increases funding for the journalists, civil rights activists, and anti-corruption campaigners in nations involved in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Risk:  This option may be seen as the U.S. meddling unduly in the affairs of foreign countries, and certainly would be portrayed as such by the Chinese state media. It is also difficult to assess the impact of such investments, which, given the kleptocratic or authoritarian nature of many BRI states, may be negligible. Moreover, this option could lead to activists and journalists being labelled as foreign agents. Further, while the material loss to U.S. interests resulting from states cracking down on individuals and organisations who receive U.S. funding is relatively small, the reputational risk is significant.

Gain:  This option allows the U.S. to contest and bog down Chinese BRI expansion in Africa and central Asia, as activists and journalists expose Chinese elite corruption and oppose predatory debt-trap diplomacy. It would involve no risk to U.S. personnel, and limited expenditure compared to more kinetic options. Moreover, this option could, with appropriate messaging, allow the U.S. to portray itself as siding with local populations against an overbearing China and its puppets – an advantage for international media coverage.

Option #3:  China is a highly aggressive and malign actor in cyberspace. The U.S. encourages and facilitates greater global regulation surrounding cyberwarfare and espionage. One specific option would be an international body, likely under United Nations authority, to identify the origin of cyberattacks.

Risk:  The U.S. is highly capable in the cyber domain, and there is a risk that by encouraging more regulation, it would be creating a purity test it cannot itself meet. This would, in turn, create substantial reputational problems for the U.S. Moreover, attributing cyberattacks is difficult, and it is possible that the U.S. might be inadvertently accused of a crime it did not commit. Lastly, while international naming and shaming can be effective, the extent to which it would matter to China is unclear; the option might therefore involve expending substantial U.S. diplomatic capital for limited returns.

Gain:  This option could lead to stronger norms against aggression in cyberspace. This may not discourage China from continuing its current aggressive policy, but it could increase the reputational costs and diplomatic consequences associated with it. Moreover, an impartial and open-source organisation for attributing cyberattacks could be a helpful resource against non-state actors and rogue states – especially given that U.S. efforts at attribution are often hampered by the need to protect sensitive intelligence sources and methods. Lastly, this option, as a recourse to multilateralism, would signal U.S. commitment to the rules-based international order, which may be important in restoring global trust in U.S. leadership.

Other Comments:  Sino-U.S. competition is and will continue to shape this century. New ways for the U.S. to compete below the threshold of armed conflict may be critical assets in assuring U.S. victory.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Larter, D. B. (2019, May 2). Here’s how the Japan-based 7th Fleet has changed since 17 sailors died in accidents 2 years ago. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/navy-league/2019/05/05/heres-how-the-japan-based-7th-fleet-has-changed-since-17-sailors-died-in-accidents-2-years-ago

[2] Mackie, J. (2019, October 18). Japan Has an Illegal Seafood Problem. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from https://www.hakaimagazine.com/news/japan-has-an-illegal-seafood-problem

[3] Rudd, K. (2020, May 6). The Coming Post-COVID Anarchy. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-05-06/coming-post-covid-anarchy