March 29, 2024

New CNAS Report Offers Policy Roadmap to Counter Chinese Gray Zone Activities and Bullying in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean

Washington, March 29, 2024 — Today, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) released a new report, Countering Coercion: Managing Chinese Gray Zone Activity in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean Region, by authors Lisa Curtis and Nilanthi Samaranayake.

The new report examines the increasingly aggressive gray zone activities conducted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. China’s gray zone activities are maritime actions designed to bully and coerce regional states in a manner that changes the status quo in China’s favor without triggering a major conflict. The report argues that these activities violate international laws and norms and must be confronted more directly by the United States and its regional partners to deter China from future maritime and territorial aggression. The report recommends strategic steps that the United States can take to build confidence among its allies, while shoring up the regional security architecture to keep the seaways free and open.

“Beijing has been undeterred in asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea, assessing it can coerce and intimidate the Southeast Asian nations to eventually accept its illegal assertions,” write the report authors.

The report charts China’s goals and activities in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, as well as how the U.S. and other international actors have responded to the uptick in maritime tensions between the Philippines and China.

The report concludes with policy recommendations for the U.S. and its allies, aimed at creating a multilateral response that reestablishes the rule of law and provides a strong counter to Chinese gray zone activity.

The report recommends that the United States

  • Deepens commitment to its relationship with the Philippines and enhances partnerships with other Southeast Asian nations, both diplomatically and militarily;
  • Encourages Southeast Asian nations to employ creative and peaceful steps to protect their own sovereignty and to highlight Chinese encroachments when they occur;
  • Maintains the tempo of multilateral naval exercises and joint patrols and sails to signal solidarity among U.S. allies and partners;
  • Invests in regional architecture and norms; and
  • Continues to raise the issue of China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea in the newly resumed U.S.-China military-to-military talks.

For more information or to schedule an interview with the report’s authors, please contact Alexa Whaley at

Indo-Pacific Security

Countering Coercion

The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC or China) has been engaging in gray zone activity—coercive behavior that is aimed at changing the status quo but that is below a threshol...

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