Escalating Clarity without Fighting: Countering Gray Zone Warfare against Taiwan (Part 2)

Escalating Clarity without Fighting: Countering Gray Zone Warfare against Taiwan (Part 2)

Escalating Clarity without Fighting: Countering Gray Zone Warfare against Taiwan (Part 2)

Over the last few years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has transformed a largely ineffective, decades-old carrot-and-stick approach to unification with Taiwan into a coordinated gray-zone warfare campaign that seeks to exhaust Taiwan’s defense forces and undermine the morale of Taiwanese people. Against this type of campaign, standard US and Taiwan modes of deterrence and signaling are ineffective—even if the United States were to openly adopt a policy of strategic clarity, which would only come into effect if the People’s Republic of China (PRC) chose to invade. In Part 1, I discussed the utility of creating a set of escalating responses to PRC gray zone warfare in the air, which would serve to both impose costs on the CCP and deter the Party from open warfare. In this part, I will look at the gray zone campaign on the sea, again with possible US and Taiwan responses.

Gray Zone Conflict on the Sea

Whereas People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) gray zone operations are clearly meant to exhaust the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) and militarily intimidate the Taiwan populace, CCP maritime gray zone operations against Taiwan are designed to establish presence with plausible deniability. Thus, the PLA Navy (PLAN) is not the lead for these operations. Instead, the Party relies on People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), followed by the China Coast Guard (CCG). The PLAN acts as the guarantor against armed escalation, all while saber-rattling against Taiwan. These three maritime forces work together in a “cabbage strategy” of layered envelopment, forcing opponents to deal with the increasing strategic, operational, and public relations costs of penetrating each layer. While the strategy has been most often used in the South China Sea, the Party has already begun to utilize this against Taiwan, and will likely accelerate its use in the future.

The PAFMM operates at the forefront of plausible deniability, as “helpers of the PLA” (解放軍的助手) operating in a dual military-civilian structure. The 2012 Scarborough Reef incident was a watershed moment for the PAFMM, as the Party perceived that PAFMM involvement was crucial in allowing Beijing to gain control over a major disputed land feature without serious cost. In 2013, Xi Jinping (習近平) visited the Hainan militia unit (the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company, 潭門海上民兵連)  involved in the incident, praised them, and exhorted them to build ever more sophisticated ships to “catch big fish.” For observers who might not have clearly understood that particular metaphor, the accompanying PLA press release stated that these Tanmen Maritime Militia ships would serve as “moving sea fortresses guarding the sea frontiers of the motherland.”

Currently, the Tanmen Maritime Militia Company remains an elite exception rather than the rule. While certain units of the PAFMM are armed with sea mines and anti-aircraft artillery/missiles and receive professional naval training, the vast majority of the PAFMM are equipped with nothing more than satellite communications and shortwave radio. Part of this is simply the use of their “civilian” status and the PRC flag as protection against retaliation; the other part is that many units of the PAFMM are funded, trained, and equipped locally, so its levels of professionalism vary. On the surface, this sounds like a disadvantage; however, the Party has proven adept in using the elite units when they wish to dominate an area via the cabbage strategy, while using the vast bulk of the PAFMM as a messaging mechanism, as demonstrated by the March 2021 Whitsun Reef occupation. This flexibility is key to PRC gray zone operations in the Taiwan Strait, as these operations have a higher risk for escalation to a great power conflict than the ones in the South China Sea.  

The China Coast Guard is the second layer of the cabbage strategy, working as the paramilitary force deterring opposing maritime forces from reversing the gains made by the PAFMM. Over the last 10 years, the CCG has undergone a significant evolution of capabilities, roles, and legal authorities, which better equip it to carry out this role. After consolidating from five separate maritime organizations in 2013, the CCG was designated as a part of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) under the formal title of the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force Coast Guard Corps (中國人民武裝警察部隊海警總隊). In 2018, the CCG, along with the rest of the PAP, was divested of most of its law-enforcement responsibilities. Instead, its three core missions are now internal security, maritime security, and supporting the PLA during wartime. In January 2021, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed a new China Coast Guard law (海警法) which explicitly authorized the use of force against foreign organizations and in the defense of “sovereignty,” replacing the old domestic law which authorized use of force as a final resort in a law enforcement scenario.

In short, both the PAFMM and the CCG have been re-designed to wage China’s risky, aggressive gray zone warfare campaign more effectively. Given past incidents in the South China Sea such as Whitsun Reef and Haiyang Shi You 981 (海洋石油 981), the Party has kept in reserve a number of escalatory techniques that may be used against Taiwan in the near future.

Possible Responses by Taiwan and the United States

Taiwan and the United States have a number of available counters for these gray zone techniques.

1. Extend multilateral Coast Guard cooperation or basing.

The Taiwan and US Coast Guards have recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish a Coast Guard Working Group that will “improve communications, build cooperation, and share information.” This is an excellent start, and points the way to the use of multilateral partnerships to impose strategic costs on the Party for gray zone warfare. Signing similar MOUs with the Japan, Philippine, Australian, and possibly even the Vietnam Coast Guard would go far towards signaling regional bandwagoning against aggression, while providing an avenue to resolve the various maritime disputes Taiwan has had in the past with the Philippines and Vietnam. As the next step beyond MOUs, coordinated exercises, basing, or even patrols would force the CCP to contend with the prospect of involving multiple regional nations in any gray zone crisis, again raising the cost of escalation.

2. Begin targeted sanctions against PRC localities hosting aggressive PAFMM units.

PAFMM units rely on the obfuscating factor of their dual civilian-military status to encourage paralysis in the gray zone. There are some PAFMM units which simply provide support for law enforcement, natural disasters, and search and rescue efforts, part and parcel of any nation’s maritime service. There are also PAFMM units which are specifically trained by the PLAN, coordinate with the PLAN, and participate in military exercises. These are the units that most frequently participate in the riskiest gray zone missions where escalation control is important. Taiwan, the United States, and other allied and partner nations can impose costs on the localities in which these units are based by imposing a targeted tariff or sanctions regime; or at the very least, by ensuring that no friendly foreign economic investment goes into those localities. For Taiwan, this may mean further identifying existing Taishang (Taiwanese entrepreneurs operating in the PRC, 臺商) investment in those specific localities, and providing assistance in transitioning them to other domestic or foreign investment opportunities.  

3. Practice rapid SINKEX. 

PAFMM/CCG gray zone operations are designed to exhaust Taiwan’s national defense resources and undermine civilian morale. Similarly, PLAN operations are designed to demonstrate PRC naval dominance about the island. This type of over-aweing is important both in the context of “winning without fighting” and in the outbreak of actual open warfare, where the PLA would be in a race against time to secure Taiwan capitulation prior to US intervention. PLA systems confrontation warfare does not intend to annihilate the enemy, but rather to paralyze and collapse enemy morale. In this case, there is utility in Taiwan demonstrating resolve and resiliency against the prospect of immediate political collapse, even if Taiwan military forces face setbacks.

One method of doing so would be to practice a SINKEX—a “sink at-sea live-fire training exercise.” In this case, demonstrations could be performed to show how fast and how completely Taiwan military forces could, as a last resort, make its own western ports inoperable in a scenario where PLA forces secure an island lodgment. The recent example of the difficulties surrounding the removal of one container ship, the Ever Given—and under peacetime conditions—is a powerful demonstration of the difficulties of clearing an enemy port under fire to the point where logistics can be sustained for an invasion force. Demonstrating to the CCP that PLA island lodgment would just be the start, and not the end, of their military difficulties would be a powerful deterrent against both morale-sapping gray zone warfare as well as an outright invasion. 


The recent US foreign policy discussion of whether or not to establish a policy of “strategic clarity” is incomplete. Strategic clarity by itself is not sufficient to counter PRC gray zone warfare. In this series, I have looked at the utility of escalating clarity as the appropriate counter. However, it should be noted that escalating clarity does not refer to the stance of the United States alone. Taiwan, both by itself and in conjunction with the United States and other partners, must adopt policies that will not just deter but impose costs on the PRC for its gray zone warfare; otherwise, the Party will certainly continue and expand its attrition-based campaign, using lessons learned from its various activities in the South China Sea. 

The main point: PRC gray zone warfare on the sea involves establishing presence with plausible deniability, while using the threat of armed force just beneath the level of open warfare to paralyze the opponent. The PRC has yet to use its full range of gray zone tools against Taiwan; this will likely change in the future. Through the use of escalating clarity, the United States and Taiwan can exercise graduated options that can incur costs on the CCP in the gray zone, as well as provide greater deterrence against an outright invasion.