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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

How Do We Beat China in the Gray Zone?

U.S. Navy LCS
SOUTH CHINA SEA (March 20, 2020) The Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) patrols the South China Sea, March 20, 2020. Gabrielle Giffords, part of Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 7, is on a rotational deployment, operating in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability with partners and serve as a ready-response force.(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brenton Poyser/Released)

Habits of Highly Effective Gray-Zone Competitors: How do we compete to good effect in the gray zone? We do so by developing strategic and operational habits fit for this murky seascape. As human beings, we are our habits. Or as the psychologist William James put it a century ago, we are “bundles of habits.” And we can shape our repertoires, and thus our professional and personal selves, by undertaking conscious and diligent effort. That’s because our character is “plastic,“ especially early in life.

By plastic James means “a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.”

He likens the process to water eroding ruts in soil, a medium that’s pliant yet firm: “water, in flowing, hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before.” Thought and action follow their accustomed course. Youth are not—yet—set in their ways. They can choose where to dig their own ruts so that water traces the same pathways in the future.

We oldtimers find it much harder to recast ourselves, unlearning old ways and updating them with new. Change is an ordeal. Because our ways were formed by past times and we’re less plastic, the young have an advantage in nurturing habits fit for these times. So, dissolute youth, we are depending on you!

I agree with William James about how to cultivate habits, but he was looking back a couple of millennia to classical ideas about how to mold oneself. Aristotle, founder of the Lyceum in ancient Athens and one of the West’s biggest brains ever, is the philosopher of habit. He says that to be virtuous, we should emulate virtuous people while shunning ignoble examples. So we should study biography.

The philosopher counsels us to seek out the “golden mean,” that sweet spot between the excess and the deficiency of some worthwhile trait. The golden mean is where “virtue” lies. Now, striking the mean isn’t just a process of mechanically splitting the difference between extremes. It doesn’t necessarily mean aiming for the exact midpoint. Instead those who crave some virtue should seek out the proper proportion of that trait between the extremes.

To illustrate Aristotle cites the example of courage, a virtue much prized in the profession of arms for obvious reasons. The excess of courage is foolhardiness, meaning courting deadly risk for little compelling reason. The deficit is cowardice. Should an aspirant try to strike the exact mean between these extremes? Not necessarily. It takes a certain amount of personal disregard just to stride onto the field of battle, where you know full well wounds or death may await. Meanwhile, cowards accomplish nothing.

That being the case, Aristotle would probably counsel those who may do battle to err toward an excess rather than a shortfall of physical and moral courage.

The same principle—searching out the mean between extremes—applies no matter what trait you resolve to groom in yourself. Once you figure out where the mean lies, practicing it to make it habit constitutes the challenge. That comes through reps. If you practice virtue, day in and day out, it becomes reflex. You behave virtuously without even trying once a trait is committed to muscle memory. You have dug your ruts.

This is all rather ethereal. How do you actually do it?

It takes concerted effort, even for the greats. Think about an über-talented player like Patrick Mahomes or Jalen Hurts honing his NFL field generalship through constant study and repetition. They are doing nothing more than honing sound habits for the gridiron.

For guidance William James cites the Scottish philosopher Alexander Bain, one of the 19th-century founders of the field of psychology. Bain offers two bits of practical advice. One, if you’re trying to instill one habit in yourself, chances are you’re trying to replace another. That takes resolve; it’s easier to keep doing what you’re accustomed to doing. So Bain advises you to be as “strong and decided” as possible, setting incentives for yourself that encourage the new habit while discouraging the old. Be resolute and imaginative, deploying every aid or trick you can dream up.

And two, make no exceptions to the habit till it is “securely rooted in your life.” Bain maintains that instilling a new habit pits ”two hostile powers” against each other, namely the old and the new trait, “one to be gradually raised into the ascendant over the other.” The new habit must win an unbroken string of victories over the old to solidify its standing as habit. Making exceptions weakens willpower.

James concurs with this while adding his own advice to Bain’s algorithm. He urges aspirants to self-improvement to “seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make.” In other words, take practical action to reinforce the new habit. Exercise it early and often. Otherwise you risk paying lip service to the characteristic you desire rather than actually making it part of your character. And get your reps in, exercising the habit “gratuitously” and regularly “so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh,” you will act out of reflex—no matter how much stress you may be under.

Practice like you want to perform.

So much for the philosophizing. What habits are best suited to the gray zone? First, gray-zone competitors should attend to the basic blocking and tackling of strategy. Cultivate a firm sense of direction. Know where you’re going and what you’re trying to achieve. As the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca put it with a saltwater flair, “if you don’t know what harbor you sail for, no wind is favorable.” Where are the United States, its allies, and its friends going in the South China Sea and other embattled expanses? Determining that and setting a course is what gatherings like this are for.

Our ultimate aim, I would submit, is to help regional partners become fully sovereign, able to enforce their rights and privileges under international law despite aggression from hostile coastal states. We should help them help themselves.

Prevailing will demand protracted competition in which no competitor wants to pull the trigger, turning loose missiles or gunfire. That’s why it’s critically important to devise escalatory options beneath the threshold of violent force, also known as “intermediate force capabilities.” Our strategy should be multilayered. We must make a habit of taking the long view while hunting for low-end capabilities, hardware, and software to help us help partners defend their rights as sovereigns.

Second, we should make a habit of gauging the direct strategic and political effects of routine actions. What we do on an everyday basis—and especially what you do as practitioners—matters. The greats explain why. Clausewitz talks about tactical actions that produce direct political import. Coercion and deterrence of potential foes and reassurance of friends stem from what fighting forces do to impress. To coerce, deter,  or reassure we need to mount an impressive display of capability; our political leadership needs to display the willpower to use that capability under circumstances it says it will; and we need to make influential audiences believers that we can and will keep our commitments.

If we succeed potential adversaries will lose heart while friends take solace.

Let’s habituate ourselves to think in those terms. Strategist Edward Luttwak urges fleet commanders to use their movements and actions to cast a “shadow” across councils in hostile capitals. We should design our maneuvers to cast a shadow across Beijing, and execute them with the utmost competence and verve. And the deeper and darker the shadow, the better.

Third, we should make a habit of empathy toward allies, partners, and friends, including humble fishermen and the coastguardsmen and other seafarers who try to protect them so they can make a living. What can we do to empower them, their coast guards and navies, and their governments and larger societies to defy aggression? Whatever the answer is should be our diplomatic and strategic North Star, and we should be guided by it.

Fourth, we should make a habit of empathy—though not sympathy—with aggressors. “Red-team” thinking should come as second nature. The opponent is not a potted plant but an intelligent, impassioned strategic agent determined to flout our will. Think about Admiral Chester Nimitz asking Commander Edwin Layton to be his “Yamamoto” on the U.S. Pacific Fleet staff after Pearl Harbor. We should emulate their red-team ethos.

To come to grips with Chinese strategy, we should habituate ourselves to thinking in Maoist terms. Mao Zedong preached that war is politics with bloodshed while politics is war without bloodshed. Getting beyond the war/peace dichotomy that our adversary rejects is crucial to puzzling out what we should do in the gray zone. So is understanding the Maoist concept of “active defense,” which Beijing reminds us remains the “essence” of how the Chinese Communist Party regards martial affairs. Let’s think like the opponent to counter the opponent.

Fifth, we must make a habit of taking a gimlet-eyed operational outlook on the competition. This too is basic strategy, and it applies in the gray zone as well as in wartime. Clausewitz urges contenders to be strong in general, but more importantly to make themselves stronger relative to the antagonist where it matters, when it matters. In the gray-zone context that means massing force at many places and times across broad expanses. Gray-zone competition is not just protracted in time but dispersed in geographic space. And in a protracted, dispersed competition you’d better be prepared to scatter forces among scenes of impact for an indefinite period of time. You cannot expect to prevail unless you take the field to compete.

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier

INDIAN OCEAN, (Jan 18, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) transits the Indian Ocean. Abraham Lincoln is in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility as part of a deployment to the western Pacific and Indian Oceans to support coalition efforts. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Eric S. Powell/ Released)

This should be our guiding assumption—self-evident and brought to bear on every strategic and operational question. You have to be there—and stay. Otherwise you surrender contested territory.

And lastly, we must instill a sense of urgency in ourselves, our services, our government, and, to the extent we can, the wider society. Let me put a personal spin on the strategic problem. I was in elementary school in 1974, when China’s navy and maritime militia wrested the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam in the waning days of the Vietnam War, ushering in gray-zone competition in the South China Sea. I was applying for Ph.D. studies when China seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines in the mid-1990s. (I’ve been out of Ph.D. studies for a long time.) I am now fifty-seven, and we are still debating how to counter gray-zone warfare. We must step up the pace to compete with any chance of success.

As Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday likes to say, let’s get real, get better. Let’s make a habit of getting real and better in a hurry.

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. 

These remarks will be delivered at the Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center, Maryland, on November 28, 2022. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. pagar

    November 25, 2022 at 6:39 pm

    How ? Exactly how. What ways or what steps are needed.

    By pulling out all US (and taiwanese, japanese & south korean) companies from china.

    Next, close down the embassies & consulates there and freeze all airline flights to / from china.

    Then stop all imports and exports from the world factory of china and instead focus more on doing really serious trade with latin and south american regions.

    But right now, US under biden and harris and austin, blinken and sullivan are doing all the wrong things. Barking up the wrong alleys and pissing at the wrong fire hydrants.

    US can beat china via peaceful means but chooses to tickle it using warships, warplanes and spyplanes and megaphone diplomacy.

    Result can be seen in recent zhuhai airshow where all kinds of spanking new weapons were unveiled including unmanned platforms and air-launched hypersonic missiles.

    Where’d the money for them come from. From uncle sam’s pocket. Thanks, biden.

  2. Jack

    November 25, 2022 at 10:51 pm

    Pagar….. you are correct !

  3. Jake Dee

    November 26, 2022 at 1:24 am

    “Our ultimate aim, I would submit, is to help regional partners become fully sovereign”
    There is an essential contradiction here which underlies a lot of America’s geo-strategy and it needs to be acknowledged.
    Any nation that relies on another for it’s defense is not fully sovereign. It is to a greater or lesser degree a vassal state. Any defense equipment (hardware, software, intelligence etc.) supplied to another nation by America will have been produced by the American defense industry therefore integrated with it and dependent on it. Washington would never permit the transfer of technology (which could be transferred again) that could possibly be used against it.
    One cannot simultaneous support independence and dependence.

  4. GhostTomahawk

    November 26, 2022 at 2:41 am

    @Pagar. You can thank slick Willie for that. By making China our preferred trade partner he alone ensured their economy would eclipse ours as would their military. Because our businesses are addicted to slave labor we as a nation can’t get unhooked… because our politicians are owned by the corporations.

    Grey zone? Is impossible for the US to have a feasible policy of any sort with elections every 2 years. Our govt is so polarized that every 2 years we have a massive paradigm shift.

    If America wants to end this and repair itself or literally needs a decade and a half of Pro America fascism.

  5. The Rational Thinker

    November 26, 2022 at 9:56 am

    Physician, heal thyself. America’s problem with China isn’t China, it’s ourselves. We pride ourselves on telling others what to do and how and when to do it, and call it “full sovereignty.”

    We pride ourselves on swaggering about with our gunboats and telling others “nothing is off the table” or “we go where we please”, yet it’s always the other fellow who’s the aggressive bully.

    We celebrate our wars, sometimes launched under false pretenses or with manufactured evidence, but trust us, it’s the other person who loves war. To paraphrase a popular comment, America is the nation of peace.

    Applying the same misdiagnosis and erroneous treatment to China as we did to the Vietnam War and the oh-so glorious War on Terror is not going to yield victory any more than it has in the past. We’re not just countering a certain level of aggression with an appropriate response… we’re inoculating ourselves to the reality of a larger and more costly war.

    Remember when the War on Terror was going to be won with special forces only? Or Vietnam was going to be won just with advisors? This lie we’re telling ourselves, that we can beat China if only we slowly introduce more and more military assets into the equation over a certain period of time, is NOT sound military strategy.

    It’s grooming the American public for war.

    And as we’ve lost the past half dozen of them despite having technological, firepower, financial, and diplomatic superiority, maybe we should get some therapy for this fetish we have rather than indulging it against a bigger, meaner, and better-equipped opponent than we’ve faced in the past. It should be noted that while China hasn’t fought a war in over forty years, the US hasn’t fought a near peer or peer opponent in over seventy.

  6. Jacksonian Libertarian

    November 26, 2022 at 8:59 pm

    All of the men and materials necessary to impose a Strategic Blockade of the China Sea and Chinese Ports should be put into place. 98% of China’s trade, and 40% of China’s GDP can instantly be eliminated. Nothing China makes can’t be made elsewhere in higher quality, and with less risk. Given this fact, even a short blockade will permanently destroy much of China’s trade, economy, and world market share.

    Merchant ships should be warned that incase of war, their ships and cargo will be taken as prizes (doing business with the enemy/China is risky, making this clear is influential). International blockade training exercises and boarding operations, should be held every time China gets belligerent (discouraging intimidation operations).

    Public tests of destroying fortified islands like those China has illegally occupied should be performed. A B-2 can carry over 200 SDB smart weapons, they can be used like timed demolition charges in a strip mine, to remove the top of an island, putting it below sea level. Plans to violently remove China’s illegal squatting should be made, materially prepared, and exercised.

    This is how you beat China, strategically.

  7. David Chang

    November 27, 2022 at 7:25 am

    God bless people in the world.

    U.S. Navy should not combat near coast because we should avoid sinking aircraft carrier by socialism parties.

    The constitution thought of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero is not the justice of God. They teach people for pursuing personal honor or national honor, so they teach people doing evil, such as murder, rob, and cheat. But many scholars say that their Sin is the glory of democracy, and describe murder, rob, and cheat as act of courage. So Augustine try to explain the wrong constitutional thought of people in Greece-Roman.

    Because of the wrong thought as Ivy League and Hoover Institution, scholars think about politic with socialism and evolution. But they will make our military repeat the wrong in Vietnam War and Afghan War. Therefore, U.S. Navy should stay away from coast.

    Moreover, if we regard Navy fleet as bigger Field artillery battalion on surface, we will understand the difficulty of Army in war, like Vietnam Fire Support Base.

    “Fire Support Bases were one of the strategic and tactical success of the war in Vietnam. While an FSB was not the most comfortable or safe place for a Soldier, it was an island home in a sea of hostility.”

    Because of socialism education, Taiwan-province and Okinawa-ken are Gray Zone already. As Admiral Charles A. Richard say, U.S. military shall have major risk, even if C.C.P. will not attack our military with First Strike, but socialism parties will attack U.S. logistics fleet in Western Pacific easily.

    International law is about morality, justice of God, not about people-made law. So East Asia Countries should admit that socialism parties behavior in East Asia waters is like piracy, rob on the water.

    And East Asia countries should defend Western Pacific and South China Sea by themselves, like N.A.T.O.. So, Vietnam, Philippine, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia should oppose socialism, comply with finance discipline, and increase defense budgets. People in Asia should obey Ten Commandments for stopping socialism warfare.

    God bless America.

  8. Bill

    November 27, 2022 at 7:52 am

    Let’s start “inspecting “ oil tankers in the IO heading for China. Time to expand the gray zone rather than playing to Chinese strengths. I heard something about a pipeline in Pakistan as well.

  9. from Russia with love

    November 29, 2022 at 2:52 am

    The US buys nearly $1 trillion worth of highly processed goods from China. these are microelectronics, composites, household appliances, components, steel and other metals. how can the US replace these products? European goods? from that Europe in which the energy crisis is now and factories are closing? great idea.?‍♂️
    those who propose to block sea supplies of energy resources to China where they taught geography? in an American school? Do they think China is an island? for reference, China has a land border with Russia. in the end, this idea with a naval blockade will simply give China the legal right to launch symmetrical retaliatory actions. while China will retain access to energy resources. second great idea.?‍♂️

  10. Ezra Teter

    November 29, 2022 at 11:14 pm

    Getting in a fight with China over Taiwan is just stupid. They would defeat us. Conversely, they are smart enough to not come over here and get in a fight over some small island 100 miles off of our coast. While we were pissing away $26 trillion on the Global War on Terror (and losing that war) they were building thousands of miles of bullet trains.

  11. Walter Lee

    December 23, 2022 at 11:50 pm

    Von Clauswitz asserts war is an extended form of politics. We know politics is an extended form of economics. By transitory logic A then B and B then C we conclude A then C, or war is an extended form of economics. We know that economic must be sustainable if the politics is to be sustainable and thus if war is to be sustainable or having a chance of being winnable. Sun Tzu in the Art of War says that All wars committed are won or lost before they are fought. That is, an aggressor does not commit to war unless they can justify their economic base supporters that the war is winneable. To Win a War against China, China must lose the war before it can be fought. This means setting up the economic conditions to make sure we and our allies can sustain a war effort and footing as long or longer than China can. Hence, no only must we succeed but our alliance / allies must succeed because alliances are only as strong as we weakest links. Strong relationships make for strong alliances.

  12. Walter Lee

    December 24, 2022 at 12:08 am

    China’s current economy plan is to supplement existing developed markets with establish social economic politics with alternative younger underdeveloped markets that are more plastic that China can influence easier and be less resistant to Chinese economic and political forces. Economically this means China will court Africa and South American economies as well as the subcontinent economies. China knows it will meet resistance elsewhere. The War with China is mainly economic but China Naval build up does pose a risk that China will eventually challenge America and her allies in the future. China’s current conventional fossil fuel naval force depends on forward refueling stations to assert a blue water mission. However, we can predict how China will behave by how it runs its coastal missions and points to an economically aggressive territorial policy with restrictive navigational rights. Why does China’s Communist Party need such an oppressive hegemony to coexist? What economic purpose does it fullfill?

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