Small Wars Journal

Countering China’s Gray Zone Strategy

Sun, 10/10/2021 - 3:43am

Countering China’s Gray Zone Strategy

By Dr. Peter Layton


China’s gray zone activities grind remorseless on but in so doing are creating an opposing pushback. As is customary, the paradoxical nature of war applies in that those impacted by a damaging strategy will over time devise optimized counter-moves.

In general, gray-zone activities involve purposefully pursuing political objectives through carefully designed operations; moving cautiously towards the 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 gray zone is not hybrid war. This is, as the name suggests, a type of warfare, that deliberately uses armed violence to try to conclusively win a campaign, as Russia’s involvements in the Ukraine, Syria and Libya highlight.  Some argue that modern Russian hybrid war approach uses all means up to conventional military operations to support an information campaign aiming to gain “control over the fundamental worldview and orientation of a state”, shift its geostrategic alignment, and shape its governance.  China’s gray zone actions aim for strategic advantage as is explained below, but today’s Russian hybrid war model much more ambitiously tries for regime change.

China’s Strategy

Today’s China is an interesting case in having a long tradition of strategic thinking devised centuries before the country forcibly expanded to its current territorial extent.  The actions of its predecessor East Asian states led to the formulation of strategic principles that in some respects are quite different to the strategic principles devised in Greece at a similar time, and on which European strategic thinkers later built. 

Arguably, this difference is most evident in the early Chinese notion that strategies effectively have no endpoint. Time is perceived as a river that flows ever onwards with reality a process that continually unfolds. Drawing on Sun Tzu, Francois Jullien (p.127), writes:

“Winning a hundred battles in a hundred battles” is really no more than “a mediocre result,” however grandiose it seems. In truth, the acme of the military art is to get the enemy to “give in” in advance and to do so discreetly, by intervening upstream before the conflict unfolds and thus without having to join serious battle subsequently. …By detecting the conditions for various possibilities in advance, such a strategist can mastermind the evolution of a situation from a distance, steering it in the desired direction.

If European strategic thinkers placed great emphasis on using one’s agency to shape the world, early Chinese strategic thinkers stressed exploiting the course the world was already on.  For the Chinese, the old investment saying, “The trend is your friend,” has held true.

Given such a foundation, this is seemingly a great time for today’s Chinese Communist Party strategists. Gaining strategic advantage, or shi, deemed by some as the foundational principle behind most Chinese actions in the international system, mainly involves working with the flow.  China simply needs to manipulate and reinforce what are seen as very favorable great trends to succeed.

The most important trend perceived by the Party and its followers is that ‘the East is rising, the West is in decline and the tide of history is flowing in China’s favour.’  Within this idea are three nested notions: the international system is understood as becoming multipolar and so providing abundant space for China to strategically maneuver within; China’s strongest card, economics, is the dominant force shaping the world today and not military might; and modern Chinese culture is morally superior based on the Party’s repetitive marketing of it having peaceful intentions.

China’s gray zone activities are both made possible by these self-perceived trends and designed to bolster them.  The Party’s strategists use gray zone tactics to try to give China a persistent, enduring strategic advantage over others. In contrast, Western strategists would instead seek to achieve a well-defined objective by a certain time. Maintaining a permanent strategic advantage requires China to use gray zone forever.

Strategic advantage is a somewhat vague term. In the gray zone context, it means having control of the situation when taking all factors into account, an ability to set the agenda of the issue in question, having the initiative, forcing the opponent to always consider your response first before they take any action, the opponent respecting your capabilities and potentially self-policing, and annexing others’ imaginations and so constraining their strategic thinking. Strategic advantage is thus a belief about the present context rather than a quantifiable material circumstance, although such a belief may be influenced by the local military force disposition.

The PLA Science of Military Strategy (pp. 193-211) details how China’s gray zone strategy is consequently incremental, slowly nibbling away at the edges, making use of diverse military and non-military measures, being careful not to drive others into a major war, controlled at the highest Party levels and enduring. A pushback by another country may mean a temporary Chinese pullback, but the Party’s gray zone strategists will be back better than ever having learnt from their short-term reversal. China’s particular gray zone model is an approach that is a forever drain on the other, smaller country’s resources.


Mirroring China’s incrementalism by responding with a measured forward planning approach might be effective and efficient.  Each individual pushback taken would be a separate and discrete step in itself, evaluated for success after use, adjusted or abandoned as necessary, and a means to sense and understand the Chinese gray zone environment.

To achieve success, Chinese gray-zone activities integrate a number of different means across multiple domains. For example, in the South China Sea case, the so-called ‘cabbage strategy’ can include commercial fishing boats, the armed maritime militia, fisheries patrol vessels, Coast Guard ships and naval warships of various types, PLA Navy and PLA Air Force aircraft, and at times oil rig platforms. These may all operate in conjunction with social media campaigns, radio misdirection, cyberwarfare and GPS interference. This array of means when combined are much more formidable in prosecuting a gray-zone action than if used individually.

A measured approach might accept this and not try to deter the gray-zone activity as a whole. Instead, such a concept might aim to disaggregate the collective threat into individual un-supporting means, and then counter specific vulnerable components of China’s gray zone operation as was practical.  This could be further customised in each of the various regions in which China is undertaking gray-zone activities. The land border with India, the South China Sea, and the Senkaku Islands all feature different types of gray-zone activities, although all strive to advance incrementally.

Accordingly, the aim might be to disaggregate the collective threat into individual un-supporting means, and then counter specific vulnerable components of China’s gray zone operation as was practical. This means seeking marginal gains. Just as the impact of gray-zone activities stems from the cumulative effect of carefully coordinated actions, a measured approach seeks to tip the balance in small steps.

A way to consider this is to think of it as a performance. The measured approach is then built around the defending elements considered most likely to be useable in a gray-zone situation, rather than around the most capable elements in terms of dispensing punishment.  These most capable defending elements may not be credible to Chinese decision-makers as they may think their use is improbable given all involved have a strong desire to avoid military escalation.

As part of this measured approach the decision-makers involved would be factored in. The specific decision-makers at the various levels controlling a local gray-zone activity may have goals, motivations and vulnerabilities that can be worked out and exploited. The more these actors can be understood, the more personalized the pushback measures can be made and the more effective they will be.

The overall intent of these steps is to frustrate, undermine, and deny the individual Chinese elements being used in a combined manner in the local gray-zone action. As frustrations mount up, these may tip the balance away from gray-zone activities being an attractive option for Chinese statecraft.

The measured approach is not containment or even rollback in the territorial understanding of these words. Instead, it’s a response to an unwanted activity, leaving China with the unwelcome choice of other stopping its activity or moving to escalate. The latter is improbable given the success of China’s gray zone activities rely on today’s peace holding.  Escalation would globally signal a significant Chinese Communist Party failure. Nevertheless, any pushback, even verbal complaints, carries risk and would need managing.

The Chinese Communist Party’s gray zone activities are both a feature of our time and reflective of them.  In terms of the life cycle of a strategy, Chinese gray zone activities have arguably reached their Clausewitzian culminating point.  Countries are starting to take actions in response, reorient their defence force structures accordingly and, most worryingly for China, beginning to come together to act collectively. The Party’s chosen strategy has reached a point where it might have achieved the greatest effects for the effort expended. Beyond this point, greater efforts may well yield diminishing effects and bring only marginally greater benefits.

China could sense this and move to another strategy, hopefully abandoning its present course and shifting to a better future where it plays by the rules. On the other hand, the Party may double down, embracing a downwards spiral into belligerence and wolf-warrior antagonism. The deaths of Indian soldiers on its border with China in mid-2020 are very concerning in that they suggest Chinese gray zone activities may grow more aggressive and violent. The future is uncertain and so prudence would suggest being prepared, both today and tomorrow, for good and bad possibilities.

About the Author(s)

Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. A former RAAF Group Captain, he has extensive defense experience, including in the Pentagon and at National Defense University. He holds a doctorate in grand strategy. He is the author of the book ‘Grand Strategy’.