By Lucas Donovan, March 16, 2020
Hybrid warfare and gray zone tactics have become a growing part of our popular lexicon when assessing the global security landscape. Such tactics utilize conventional (state vs. state, armed forces, military targets, etc.) and unconventional (unmarked troops, cyber capabilities, guerrilla warfare, civilian targets, etc.) military tactics to achieve strategic foreign policy goals, all while avoiding the threshold of open conflict and war.
To date, we understand what these two concepts generally mean. However, we do not always understand what they look like, due to the sheer range in possible conventional and unconventional tactics that make up hybrid warfare and gray zone operations. This also raises the question of how best to tailor responses to these tactics.
Russia is most frequently cited when discussing hybrid warfare and gray zone conflicts because of its actions in Eastern Ukraine. In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and sparked a conflict in Ukraine’s Eastern regions that continues to this day. Russia did so by deploying unmarked special forces that came to be known as ‘Little Green Men,’ held an illiberal referendum which saw the citizens of Crimea vote to become part of the Russian Federation, and initially denied any responsibility for these developments. These actions violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Russia has received an exhaustive amount of attention from the media, academia and government with regards to its use of hybrid and gray zone tactics – and for good reason, given that it has a direct impact on the security of NATO, of which Canada is a member. Yet it would be a mistake to define such concepts purely through the lens of Russian behavior. Indeed, China’s actions present an important opportunity to better understand the development of these concepts and how to best respond to them.
In the South China Sea, China has become more assertive in its pursuits of laying claim to this important body of water. China has been constructing islands by dumping sand onto reefs in the Spratly Islands archipelago, which undermines the territorial waters of neighboring countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. China also has a maritime militia that is tasked with targeting other countries’ navies as they transit the South China Sea. They do so by concealing their identity through the use of civilian fishing vessels, blurring the rules of engagement. These maritime militias have similarly been coined as ‘Little Blue Men.’
We can see a similar development occurring in the East China Sea regarding Chinese activities around Japan’s Senkaku islands (which are also claimed by China and referred to as the Diaoyu). China has been assertive in its efforts, establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the airspace over these islands that overlaps with Japan’s own pre-exisiting ADIZ (in addition to that of South Korea). China also blurs the lines between law enforcement and military action by utilizing its Coast Guard (alongside its maritime militia – a combination of commercial vessels, fishing ships and coast guard cutters) to aggressively drive away other foreign vessels from these islands and to assert their control over the area.
While there are some clear similarities between both Russia’s and China’s approach to hybrid warfare and gray zone conflicts, their main motivations stand in stark contrast to one another. For Russia, it is trying to regain its superpower status. It desires a sphere of influence in its near abroad and neighborhood that it lost following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It desires a multipolar world in which Russia has a say in international relations. Whereas China is an emerging superpower, attempting to establish its place in the international order and dictate international relations throughout the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.
The use of these hybrid and gray zone tactics pose a serious threat to the established rules-based international order, which seeks to preserve international peace and security. These tactics manipulate and subvert international law. They also damage the very core of the Charter of the United Nations which states that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” Both Russia and China have adopted the Charter and are permanent members on the United Nations Security Council, however they have threatened and used force against the territorial integrity and political independence of their neighbors.
Additionally, China’s attempts at laying historical claim to the disputed South China Sea with its 9-dash line violates the territorial waters of neighboring countries established by the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). Among other things, UNCLOS secured that each country is entitled to 12 nautical miles of territorial sea and a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) where permissible. As mentioned before, China’s 9-dash line combined with its construction of islands in the South China Sea violates these principles established by UNCLOS, and encroaches on the EEZs of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.
This begs the question, what can be done?
Canada’s response to Russia’s actions have been clear and decisive. Canada placed economic sanctions on Russian citizens and entities involved in the annexation of Crimea to condemn Russia. Also, the Canadian Armed Forces are involved in Operation UNIFIER which is aimed at assisting Ukraine’s security forces to enhance their capacity and capability.
Alternatively, Canada’s response to China’s actions and its involvement in the greater Indo-Pacific region has been limited. The Indo-Pacific is a region in which Canada is seeking greater engagement. Take for example the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which will open doors to vast economic opportunities and preferential access to markets. Also, Canada has deployed Navy vessels such as HMSC Ottawa, HMSC Winnipeg, and more recently HMSC Chicoutimi (the first ever deployment of one of Canada’s Victoria class submarines to the Indo-Pacific) to enhance the security of the region. However, Canada’s unwillingness to commit to the long-term security of the region has often hampered such ambitious goals. Indeed, for many years, Canada has often been viewed by Asian countries as a “fair-weather friend, easily distracted by concerns in the Middle East or Europe.”
Canada does contribute to multinational naval exercises like RIMPAC, and its naval forces have increasingly transited both the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. Yet its engagement in the region has often been more symbolic than substantive, as exemplified by Trudeau’s trips to China in December 2017, India in February 2018, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting in November 2018. These trips have been largely viewed as failures of Canadian foreign policy, and Canada’s actual presence remains infrequent if not inconsistent. As a result, despite its stated desire for a seat, Canada has so far not been invited to participate in some of the key strategic regional dialogues, such as the annual East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting-Plus.
If it hopes to be seen as a serious player in the Indo-Pacific, Canada needs to formulate a more robust and coherent approach to the region. One possible avenue that Canada should pursue is in the burgeoning concept of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). First introduced by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, FOIP has since been incorporated in the regional initiatives of a number of key countries, including the United States, Australia, Indonesia and India.
FOIP contains some characteristics that are security-focused, such as freedom of navigation operations. But it is not limited to such concerns, with FOIP also emphasizing economic, institutional, and infrastructure connectivity across the region. The extent to which FOIP is also aimed at China is ambiguous; countries like the United States envision FOIP as a counter to China’s military activities in the South China Sea and its infrastructure ambitions with the Belt and Road, while those like Japan remain far more circumspect. Clearly, however, the FOIP strategy or vision is about strengthening the current rules-based international order, which is being increasingly challenged by China.
The Trudeau government has paid some tentative lip service on FOIP, such as during Trudeau’s 2018 visit to India and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s 2019 visit to Japan. Yet the government needs to go beyond simply rhetoric in its response to FOIP. Instead, it needs to ask itself what concrete policy proposals it should put forward under the rubric of FOIP. Some possibilities include situating its naval deployments more fully within FOIP’s emphasis on freedom of navigation or allocating funds for infrastructure development in FOIP’s focus on connectivity.
Canada has the opportunity to engage substantively with key regional powers such as Japan and India, alongside its most important ally, the United States. By participating more fully in FOIP, Canada can finally shift away from mere rhetoric and present a strong commitment to the region through infrastructure projects, investment, and other activities. Such a commitment will enable Canada to help maintain a rules-based international order and do so in conjunction with our regional allies and friends.
Lucas Donovan is a Master of Arts candidate in European, Russia and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University and an Intern for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.