Escalating Clarity without Fighting: Countering “Gray Zone” Warfare against Taiwan (Part 1)

Escalating Clarity without Fighting: Countering “Gray Zone” Warfare against Taiwan (Part 1)

Escalating Clarity without Fighting: Countering “Gray Zone” Warfare against Taiwan (Part 1)

The recent conclusion of the PRC’s annual “Two Sessions” (兩會) of the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference (CPPCC, 中國人民政治協商會議) and the National People’s Congress (NPC, 全國人民代表大會) has resulted in some uncertainty on the part of Western China-watchers regarding People’s Republic of China (PRC) Taiwan policy intentions for the coming year. While top-level leadership statements from the “Two Sessions” seem to indicate that the focus over the next year will be the implementation of the Hong Kong “electoral reform,” lower-level official commentary and media discussions have also made clear that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rejects Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) January 2021 olive branch for the “joint promotion of meaningful dialogue.” 

This uncertainty is magnified by the PLA’s gray zone warfare against Taiwan, which has reached new highs of intensity. Meanwhile, the budget of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is scheduled to be increased yet again, this time by 6.8 percent. All of this follows the somewhat mysterious October 2020 CCP highlight of a 2027 centennial milestone for the PLA. Media discussions on this latter point have speculated whether this means that Xi Jinping (習近平) has ordered the PLA to speed up its modernization plans. Indeed, the Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), Admiral Phil Davidson, was perhaps obliquely referring to this in his March 9 Senate Armed Services committee testimony, in which he remarked that “Taiwan is clearly one of their [the CCP’s] ambitions before then. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”

Regardless of the specific timeframe for forcible unification, these indications point to a dual challenge for US and Taiwan policymakers. The statements from the “Two Sessions,” combined with Xi’s earlier pronouncements, indicate that the PRC gray zone warfare campaign against Taiwan will continue unabated, even as the PLA speeds up preparations for a future invasion contingency. Focusing on one while ignoring the other is a recipe for defeat. Fortunately, through escalating clarity, it is possible to develop a complementary approach. In this two-part article, I will look at methods of escalating clarity against PRC gray zone tactics in the air and on the sea. 

Strategic Clarity Does Not Need to Be Binary 

Discussions of the concept of strategic ambiguity versus strategic clarity tend to focus on binary risk. For instance, advocates of strategic ambiguity emphasize the risks of clarity in creating a situation that would “force” an armed PRC response. The CCP is well aware that US and Taiwan policymakers tend to be risk averse; thus, their response to recent proposals of a security guarantee or permanent basing of heavy ground forces in Taiwan has been to use non-authoritative state media to “affirm” fears of risk escalation by stating that these actions are a “red line.” Moreover, even such bold actions would largely be toothless against the type of systems confrontation-style, gray zone warfare that the CCP currently employs against Taiwan. Armor is wonderful for deterring an amphibious invasion, but would do little against CCP political warfare. US Navy Taiwan Strait transits are designed to demonstrate US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, but cannot stop PRC sand-dredgers

Image: A Taiwan coast guard officer observes a Chinese dredging ship operating in the vicinity of Matsu Island on January 28, 2021. (Source: Channel News Asia)

However, strategic clarity does not need to be binary in nature, and in fact, shouldn’t be. Unlike strategic ambiguity, which is meant to deter both the PRC and Taiwan, the purpose of strategic clarity is to deter the PRC while reassuring Taiwan. This can have escalating gradients, both as a method of risk—or escalation—management and as a method of deterring and shaping PRC gray zone warfare. 

The appropriate response to the PRC’s end of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan and the start of PRC gray zone warfare should be the development and implementation of a partnered US-Taiwan gray zone response. 

Fighting in the Gray Zone 

The CCP’s use of multimodal gray zone warfare against Taiwan is relatively new, and designed with the main objective of unification with Taiwan without provoking an American armed response. Underneath this main objective are two parallel lines of effort: exhausting Taiwan’s national defense capability and subverting Taiwan’s political system. 

On the political front, Taiwan’s recent bipartisan pushback against the CCP’s political and economic pressure, as well as its success in confronting disinformation, demonstrate that subversion is not succeeding. However, the effort to exhaust Taiwanese national defense is significantly harder for Taiwan to deal with alone; the ham-fisted, attritional style that tends to backfire in diplomacy can work militarily, given enough resources. In Part 1, I will examine PRC gray zone warfare in the air and possible US/Taiwan responses; Part 2 will focus on the sea. 


People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) hit a record high last year and are on pace to exceed that this year. Moreover, the incursions are increasing in both size and complexity, featuring fighter escorts of nuclear-capable H-6 bombers as well as Y-8 reconnaissance aircraft. The Republic of China Air Force’s (ROCAF) initial response to these incursions was to increase fighter intercepts, which resulted in an additional 1000 hours of flight time, resulting in an increase of maintenance and fuel costs. After this proved too costly, the ROCAF shifted to the use of intercepts with C-130H and P-3C reconnaissance aircraft instead of fighters when the PLA used Y-8s. However, given the pace of the incursions, even this prioritization has proven to be insufficient, and the ROCAF has now shifted to land-based missile tracking. While this strategy is far more economical, it effectively entails ceding direct airspace control. 

There are a number of methods that can be used as a counter, in order to escalate clarity:

1. US assistance in ROCAF procurement of MQ-9 unmanned patrol aircraft for intercepts.

Medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial systems (MALE UAS) are a far more sustainable method of conducting intercepts of hostile aircraft. Additionally, MALE UAS would also provide reconnaissance and early warning of any impending cross-Strait invasion. The last sale of four Sea Guardian MQ-9B maritime patrol aircraft in November 2020 was an excellent start; however, four Sea Guardians are not sufficient to execute both intercept and reconnaissance missions. With US assistance under the proposed US Pacific Deterrence Initiative and the US Pacific Reassurance Initiative, additional ROCAF procurement of these systems would be a relatively easy way to counter the intercepts and force the PLA to incur disproportionate costs for their aggression.  

2. Increased US and Japanese participation in the annual Han Kuang exercise (漢光演習). 

The United States has traditionally sent observers to Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang anti-invasion exercise, while Japan last sent observers to the cyber simulation portion of Han Kuang in 2005 and 2006. The level of partner observation at Han Kuang is carefully noted by the PRC. Thus, from an allies and partners perspective, participation in Han Kuang is a cost-effective, scalable method of signaling. The return of Japanese observers in all portions of the exercise would be the first such level of signaling—as well as practical, given the concerns that both Taiwan and Japan share about potential PLA island invasions, as well as gray zone tactics. The second level would be publicizing American and Japanese participation, similar to the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) publicizing ROCAF air refueling at Luke Air Force Base in the United States in 2020. The third level of clarity could be US involvement in Han Kuang, ranging from symbolic (a flyby that coincides with the conclusion of the exercise) to active participation (practicing air resupply under attack, etc.).  

3. USAF exercises off the coast of Taiwan, with the potential for short-term landing on Taiwan. 

The most aggressive form of signaling would be for the US Air Force (USAF) to conduct Agile Combat Employment (ACE) at frequent but operationally unpredictable periods close to Taiwan, in quiet partnership with the ROCAF—similar to USAF cooperation with the Japan Air Self-Defense Forces/Koku-Jieitai. This would impose additional costs and choices on the PLA, as continued incursions into the Taiwan ADIZ would lower their ability to react to ACE in a timely fashion. ACE is scalable as well, as previous exercises have utilized everything from joint fighter integration to partnered rapid refueling of bombers. As a firm demonstration of USAF support and as practice for an invasion scenario, landings could also be conducted on short notice at ROCAF bases, as demonstrated when two USN F-18s conducted an emergency landing at Tainan Air Base in 2015


As COVID-19 fears subside, the CCP has rapidly re-started and escalated gray zone warfare against Taiwan. Current methods of deterrence and signaling do little to stop the gray zone threat, while discussions of strategic ambiguity versus strategic clarity only apply in the narrow scenario of a cross-Strait invasion. By utilizing escalating clarity, US and Taiwan policymakers can begin to establish deterrence and impose costs on the CCP in the gray zone without triggering open warfare. In my next installment, I will discuss how this concept can be used against PRC gray zone tactics at sea, and more broadly how Taiwan can signal resolve. 

The main point: Despite the recent discussion regarding a Taiwan invasion by 2027, the CCP is far more likely to instead expand gray zone warfare against Taiwan. Through the use of escalating clarity, the US and Taiwan can exercise graduated options that can both incur costs on the CCP and PLA in the gray zone as well as provide greater deterrence against an outright invasion.