February 1, 2023

China — Gray Zone

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses gray zone tactics worldwide to further its interests.

By Laurence F. Sanford, Senior Analyst, American Security Council Foundation

Gray zone tactics are coercive actions that are shy of armed conflict but beyond normal diplomatic and economic actions.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses gray zone tactics worldwide to further its interests. It is particularly active against countries that border its seas — the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Countries affected include Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

South China Sea gray zone tactics by the CCP include:

  1. Claiming the entire South China Sea based on a nine-dash line map that China designed and that only China recognizes.

  2. Building military bases on islands and shoals. President Xi of China promised President Obama in the White House Rose Garden in 2015 that he would not militarize the islands and shoals of the South China Sea. Xi was lying (never trust a communist). Satellite images showed the islands and shoals taken by China were bristling with military missiles and facilities.

  3. Denying fishing rights and energy drilling to neighboring countries through threats and force by the Chinese Navy, its Coast Guard, and the Chinese fishing fleet.

  4. Challenging nations, including the U.S. Navy, over freedom of the seas and air passage. Over $5 trillion a year in ship-borne trade passes through the South China Sea.

The Philippines challenged China’s claim to the South China Sea in the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. In 2016 the court ruled China had no historic title over the waters and that it had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights.

China denounced the ruling and said its armed forces would defend its interests.

The South China Sea contains vast quantities of oil and gas deposits. China is threatening countries that attempt to develop resources within their exclusive economic zones (EEZ). China does not recognize any other nation’s EEZ claim within the nine-dash line map.

Gray zone tactics by Chinese fishing fleets are an extension of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). China has from 200,000 to 800,000 fishing boats (obtaining the true number or truth from the CCP is an arduous, if not impossible, task). The distant water fleet count is from 2,600 to 17,000 and fish in distant waters of West Africa and Latin America. They deplete fishing stocks worldwide and harm local fishermen and economies.

In the South China Sea, the Chinese fishing fleets are often accompanied by military-class Coast Guard ships, which intimidate and drive local fishermen away from fishing grounds. The ramming and sinking of local fishing vessels is not unknown.

The Galapagos Islands off Ecuador are a unique Unesco world heritage site and were recently plundered by a 300-Chinese fishing fleet harvesting thousands of tons of squid and fish. Squid is essential to the diets of fur seals, endangered fish species, and other fish upon which local economies depend.

The East China Sea gray zone tactics include:

Taiwan — The CCP’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surface vessels intrude into Taiwanese air and sea space in acts of intimidation. China claims independent Taiwan is part of China and should be under Beijing’s control. President Xi has repeatedly vowed to incorporate Taiwan into China; not if but when is the question. Complicating the issue is that for many years Taiwan itself claimed to be part of China as the Republic of China.

President Biden has affirmed (the first time a U.S. president has done so) that the U.S. will come to the aid of Taiwan if the CCP launches military action against Taiwan. U.S. Navy Admiral Charles Richard, commander of the United States Strategic Command from 2019 until December 2022, has stated: “U.S. capabilities are not what they should be to deter China. Our level of deterrence against China, the ship is slowly sinking.” The Chinese Navy has more ships than the U.S. Navy and has hundreds, if not thousands, of missiles capable of sinking all ships, including aircraft carriers. Is the United States prepared to lose aircraft carrier task forces with thousands of lives and billions of dollars in equipment to defend Taiwan? Is the U.S. prepared to engage in a nuclear war?

Japan — Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin claims Japan controlled the Senkaku Islands, “China’s inherent territory,” and referred to them as “Diaoyu.” Chinese Coast Guard ships regularly test Japanese resolve in protecting the islands. China recently passed a law giving its Coast Guard ships permission to fire upon foreign vessels operating within its claimed territorial waters.


How does America counter CCP gray zone tactics? Not only do CCP tactics encompass the activities described above, but they include cyber, information, economic, and political activities below employing the use of kinetic military force to further Chinese interests.

Recommendations to counter CCP gray zone activities:

  1. Peace Through Strength — Build up military capabilities to fight a future war, not a past war. Sadly, the U.S. has not won a war since World War II (i.e., Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia, Vietnam, and Korea.)
    a. Build a fleet of missile-carrying ships (refurbished double-hull oil tankers?).
    b. Build diesel-electric submarines at one-tenth the cost of nuclear submarines.
    c. Increase cyber warfare capabilities.
    d. Strengthen space force offensive and defensive systems.

  2. Work with key allies to develop responses. Cultivate a firm sense of direction and purpose. The U.S. should help regional partners assert their sovereign rights under international law in the South and East China Seas. The strategy should be multilayered and devise options to prevent violent actions.

  3. Develop the culture and willpower to fight the “long war.” Honor our commitments that should be based on U.S. national interests.

  4. Educate Americans on Chinese intentions and strategies. Learn to think like the opponent to counter the opponent.

Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday’s call to action: “Let’s get real, get better. Let’s make a habit of getting real and better in a hurry.”

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