Responding to China’s Unending Grey-Zone Prodding

Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea. Courtesy of Philippine Coast Guard

The best way to counter China’s grey-zone activities may be a measured forward-planning approach that proceeds step-by-step.

China remains hard at work using its innovative grey-zone tactics to further its ceaseless quest for strategic advantage over its neighbours. In March it sent some 220 fishing vessels to anchor in neat rows and crowd out Whitsun Reef, a territory claimed by the Philippines. In June, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force conducted a radio-silent formation flight of 16 strategic air transport aircraft across the South China Sea to within around 60 nautical miles north of the East Malaysian coast, sparking an intercept by two Royal Malaysian Air Force Hawk aircraft. More worryingly, in June 2020, as part of its salami-slicing grey-zone tactics on the India–China border, the PLA killed some 20 Indian soldiers.

In a new publication from Canberra’s Air and Space Power Centre, I examine Chinese grey-zone activities and possible responses in some detail. In general, grey-zone activities involve purposefully pursuing political objectives through carefully designed operations; moving cautiously towards objectives rather than seeking decisive results quickly; acting to remain below key escalatory thresholds so as to avoid war; and using all instruments of national power, particularly non-military and non-kinetic tools.

These characteristics mean the grey zone is not the same as hybrid war. The latter is – as the name suggests – a type of warfare, which deliberately uses armed violence to try to conclusively win a campaign, as exemplified by Russia’s involvements in Ukraine, Syria and Libya. Some may also observe that Russia’s hybrid warfare aims for negative outcomes, such as stopping Ukraine joining the EU or NATO, the Assad regime in Syria being overthrown or Libya’s disruptive warlord Khalifa Haftar becoming irrelevant.

In contrast, Chinese grey-zone activities do not use armed violence; the Indian soldiers killed in June 2020 were engaged in a physical altercation that featured wooden clubs and thrown stones. Moreover, China has more positive aims – at least from its point of view – in seeking to gradually gain territory on its periphery without resorting to armed conflict. Beyond this, grey-zone activities aim to gain strategic advantage, in the sense that others will modify their behaviour and actions by taking account of China’s interests.

In broad terms, China uses the grey zone while Russia employs hybrid warfare; the two techniques and countries should not be conflated.

A Carefully Controlled Approach

Given the nature of the grey zone, such actions do not just happen. They are implemented in a well-designed campaign plan approved and controlled by the highest levels of the Communist Party of China and the PLA. Grey-zone actions are not those of tactical commanders freelancing.

Importantly, grey-zone operations are designed to avoid military escalation. This requires the operations to be tightly controlled at the tactical level by senior leaders. Grey-zone activities are, in essence, carefully scripted brinkmanship.

Accordingly, grey-zone operations are appropriate only for a time of resilient peace that is able to absorb a grey-zone shock and bounce back, not a fragile peace that might suddenly shatter and start a war. If the peace is tenuous with all sides postured and ready to fight, grey-zone operations will be too risky to undertake. The implication is that targets of grey-zone actions need to be cooperative; they should be invested in keeping the peace, not wishing to break it. Countries seeking to maintain the status quo are particularly vulnerable to such self-deterrence.

Colourful Responses

The response to China’s grey-zone activities may need to be symmetrical, in the sense of also being incremental and slowly nibbling away at the edges. A measured forward-planning approach that proceeds step-by-step into the future might be apposite. In contrast, conventional planning works backward from an identified end state.

A step-by-step approach could proceed carefully and evolve along the way so as to avoid triggering a military response from China. The Party’s leaders would then adjust to each step and become accustomed to the new normal before the next one develops. This incremental approach means each individual pushback does not appear dangerously threatening or escalatory as it is undertaken.

In thinking about implementing a measured forward-planning approach, some broad issues might be useful to consider.

First, grey-zone actions occur within a deliberately protracted campaign. China’s continuing grey-zone activities in the East China Sea began in earnest around 2012, with air incursions sharply rising from a few dozen annually to several hundred today. Similarly, in the South China Sea, large-scale island construction started in 2013 together with the steadily increasing use of what PLA Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong calls a ‘cabbage strategy’, where a coral reef or atoll is surrounded by Chinese ships – ‘wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage’ – so that other countries’ ships are progressively prevented from gaining access.

Responses to such campaigns may need to be similarly lengthy. A counter-campaign may last years, produce intermittent advances and repeated reversals, and deliver no decisive outcomes. Such drawn-out operations would be taxing for all, China included.

Second, an important part of a successful grey-zone counter is the capability to respond quickly to new developments. Allowing a new Chinese grey-zone step to become the accepted new normal may make reversing it, or even registering disapproval, problematic. However, responding in a timely manner means each country involved needs high-quality crisis management mechanisms. The UK has long experience in such matters, including in developing them using pre-crisis wargaming and scenario exercising. Such expertise may be of particular value for ASEAN states with South China Sea interests: Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. China’s increasing assertiveness makes progressively more serious incidents involving the ASEAN states’ civilian entities and military forces more likely in the future. Existing national crisis management mechanisms could be stress-tested and continually improved to stay in front of the evolution of Chinese grey-zone techniques.

Third, high-quality intelligence is essential. This means not only quantitative intelligence about Chinese military and civilian participants, but also qualitative intelligence about each of the various actors, so as to understand how they might react. For this, first-rate intelligence resources, collection systems and analysts are essential. As the paper discusses, nanosats may be particularly useful; the UK has world-class expertise in this emerging field.

Last, selective institution building among regional participants could usefully develop mechanisms for resolving unexpected grey-zone crises. These may feature military-to-military deconfliction hotlines to help avoid unwanted escalation and accidents. The UK, as a key Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) country, could take the initiative to suggest talks with China to devise South China Sea risk management procedures and processes. Importantly, the FPDA not only has multilateral heft, but in not representing any particular country would not be perceived as unintentionally legitimising China’s South China Sea claims by discussing airspace safety matters with it.

China’s grey-zone activities grind remorselessly on, but in so doing they educate all about the grey zone’s characteristics, while simultaneously generating pushback. In relying on a resilient peace, grey-zone operations are both a feature of our time and a product of it. The UK, while remote to the Indo-Pacific centres of grey-zone activity, could make some useful contributions to their resolution.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Peter Layton

Associate Fellow

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