China Coast Guard 2901, the largest “white hull” cutter in the world. The China Coast Guard is a key element of Beijing’s “gray zone” operations in the South China Sea and East China Sea (USCG) ctto

As competition with China deepens, the nation’s use of gray zone techniques is becoming of increasing importance and interest. China has been using this approach for many years in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the India/China border, to name some prominent examples. Understanding the history behind these is important, but equally so is where China’s gray zone stratagems may be heading. In this, we live in the future, not the past. Understanding the direction towards which Chinese gray zone activities may evolve could give early warning about China’s likely next steps. 

This article discusses three forward-leaning aspects: long-term trends, wild cards, and the shape of China’s future gray zone actions. Considered together, these outline future Chinese gray zone possibilities at the strategic and tactical levels, helping avoid potentially nasty surprises. 

Potential Evolutionary Paths

China has been using gray zone techniques for more than a decade, allowing some high-level trends to be discerned. The first trend is that the more China uses such techniques, the more others become involved in one way or another. China prefers to have bi-lateral relationships with other countries rather than work through multi-lateral channels, but gray zone activities tend to work against this. Others notice China’s assertiveness, worry about being picked off individually, and if not join in, at least passively support the country being targeted by China.

The South China Sea dispute has been running the longest and is now noticeably dragging in more countries. Originally, China sought to negotiate bi-laterally and then only grudgingly agreed to accept multilateral discussions under the ASEAN institutional framework. This has further evolved with many countries now issuing diplomatic Notes Verbales so as to involve the United Nations.

Moreover, the dispute has been part of the rationale for the formation of the Quad, comprising the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. The Quad is steadily becoming a more cohesive, pseudo-alliance grouping, as India’s border troubles with China worsen and China steps up pressure on Japan in the East China Sea. More third parties are piling in with the European Union’s (EU) views of China as a “systemic rival.” The United Kingdom, France, and Germany are now sending naval patrols to the South China Sea.

A second trend is that China is making increasing use of non-military means of coercion, particularly coercive diplomacy and cyber. A recent study found that over the past 10 years, there were 152 cases of such coercion affecting 27 countries and the EU, with a very sharp exponential increase in such tactics since 2018. In terms of cyber, China has long been noted for its cyber intrusions to steal intellectual property and industrial secrets. A recent shift though is towards using cyber means to inflict damage on others as part of a gray zone operation. In a notable recent example, China mounted a broad cyber-campaign against India’s electrical power grid that coincided with the 2020 military border clash. Both coercive diplomacy and cyber have major advantages in terms of giving a global reach. China’s gray zone activities can now impact very distant nations, not just those on its borders.

A third trend is a perceptible movement towards more violent actions, even if these do not involve armed attacks. In June 2020, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers killed twenty Indian soldiers in a border clash. Previously, China’s gray zone actions did not intentionally aim to kill others. The year also saw a PLA Navy warship aim its gun control director at the Philippine Navy’s anti-submarine corvette BRP Conrado Yap in the Spratly Islands. In the naval domain, this can be considered as a hostile act and seems the first time that a Chinese warship has directly threatened a Philippine government vessel in the South China Sea. A second incident involving a PLA Navy warship pointing a laser at a US Navy P-8 maritime patrol aircraft drew criticism from the U.S. Navy as being “unsafe and unprofessional.” This was a new step as such actions, while increasing in the last couple of years, have previously emanated from Chinese fishing vessels, not PLA Navy warships. See more>>