Decoding Beijing’s Gray Zone Tactics: China Coast Guard Activities and the Redefinition of Conflict in the Taiwan Strait

Decoding Beijing’s Gray Zone Tactics: China Coast Guard Activities and the Redefinition of Conflict in the Taiwan Strait

China Coast Guard Masthead
Decoding Beijing’s Gray Zone Tactics: China Coast Guard Activities and the Redefinition of Conflict in the Taiwan Strait

In the aftermath of a February incident near Kinmen Island (金門島) involving an unmarked Chinese craft and a Taiwan Coast Guard vessel, Beijing has seized upon the opportunity to challenge the status quo in the Taiwan Strait—once again contesting Taipei and its allies’ readiness to respond to crises, and actively testing the boundaries of state coercive behavior below the threshold of a conventional confrontation. As the People’s Republic China (PRC) deploys the China Coast Guard (CCG) in the disputed waters, its “gray zone” (灰色地帶) tactics intertwine with legal and cognitive warfare—thereby forming a mutually reinforcing cycle that amplifies Beijing’s political narratives and strategic agendas in operations across multiple domains. It assists in creating favourable conditions for the PRC’s ultimate “reunification” ambitions, prior to a final stage of kinetic warfare.

This article aims to explore the broader significance of the PRC’s gray zone tactics—in particular, how they serve as a part of Beijing’s hybrid strategies to exploit the greatest vulnerabilities in liberal democracies—and to propose a structural framework for analysis and cross-domain deterrence (CDD) as the solution. [1]

A Cycle of Mutual Reinforcement

Under Beijing’s hybrid warfare strategy, gray zone tactics are highly intertwined with influence operations, and legal and cognitive warfare. The relationships between these tactics can be conceptualized as a cycle of ecosystems that mutually reinforce each other.

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Image: The mutual reinforcement between gray zone tactics, influence operations, legal and cognitive warfare, and how they all serve as a part of Beijing’s hybrid warfare strategies. (Image source: Created by the author)

First of all, the PRC’s use of influence operations—the utilization of various tools and tactics by different Chinese state and state-affiliated entities to strategically disseminate and steer public discourse towards Beijing’s political agendas—strengthens the legitimacy and public support of its gray zone activities. In the case of the Kinmen maritime disputes, by adopting terminologies such as “fishing boat” for the Chinese boat that capsized on February 14—instead of acknowledging its status as an illegal vessel [2]—and omitting the crew’s refusal to cooperate with Taiwanese authorities, Chinese influence operations leverage linguistic nuances with cognitive warfare tactics to portray an illusion of innocence and legitimacy in relation to the illegal activity.

The Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 國務院台灣事務辦公室) of the PRC State Council has framed the event as a “vicious incident” (惡性事件) – attributing the cause to Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) administration for treating mainland fishermen in a “violent and dangerous manner” (粗暴和危險的方式). Beijing has manipulated its information ecosystem to amplify this narrative across multiple platforms: including state media, key opinion leaders (KOLs), and online troll armies. For example, the state media channel China Central Television (CCTV)—as well as its sock puppet account Yuyuan Tantian (玉淵譚天)—amplified TAO’s narrative on Weibo and WeChat soon after the latter organization released its statement on February 14. Subsequently, Chinese troll armies like Diba (帝吧) and PRC-affiliated media such as Today Strait (今日海峡) [3] also assisted in disseminating it to international platforms such as Facebook and Line—the latter of which has a more active Taiwanese user base.

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Image: Screenshot of Chinese troll armies like Diba (帝吧) amplifying TAO’s narrative on Facebook. (Image source: Facebook)

In parallel are other rolling narratives such as “the fishermen were murdered” (被謀殺), and “Taiwan plotted this with the US” (美台密謀). Such narratives present a false impression of Taiwan’s wrongdoings and aggression toward “innocent” Chinese citizens, thereby justifying subsequent actions by the China Coast Guard (CCG)—including regular patrols and boarding of a tourist boat under the guise of “maintaining order” and “safeguarding security [of] fishermen’s lives and property” in the waters.

Every drop fills the bucket. These gray zone actions—PLA incursions, incoming balloons, and coast guard patrols—are the droplets. Once these gray zone activities are deployed, they are used to further strengthen PRC assertiveness. The example of forcibly boarding Taiwan’s tourist boat is part of the strategic cycle—an exaggerated act to showcase Beijing’s “control” over the disputed water.

While the CCG is conducting “law enforcement patrols” (執法巡查行動) and “comprehensive law enforcement drills“ (綜合執法演練) around Kinmen, the PRC not only amplified the news but utilized language—such as the CCG “commanding” (命令) the yacht to “submit to inspection”—in order to imply China’s administration and law enforcement capability in the waters. This further denies the existence of Taipei’s prohibited and restricted waters, which was set by the latter in 1992 and had formerly been respected by China.

Stating the obvious, Beijing also invoked United Nations Resolution 2758 as a “legal basis” in its influence operations to argue that Taiwan is a part of the PRC—when in fact, the resolution never dealt with the Taiwan representation issue. This sophistry reciprocally makes China and its audience feel more justified to explicitly challenge existing international narratives, and further legitimizes its increasing presence in the region.

Creating New Norms of State Behavior

Beijing’s recent gray zone activities aim at declaring Chinese sovereignty and jurisdiction, as well as demonstrating its administrative and law enforcement power over the disputed area—which are all key elements constituting the principle of “effectivités” (i.e., effective control) in international law. The extent of legitimate “effective control” considers all kinds of factors, such as historical titles and temporal dimensions: for instance, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have been under Japanese control since 1972—and therefore, the CCG’s activities of “exercising control” in the East China Sea are not likely to advance their legal argument. The crux of gray zone actions is not whether or not they could logically be considered as a legitimatized claim under international law, but rather the ways in which China will always take advantage of them to invent and advance its political claims and contest the international rules-based order.

As Beijing creates “new norms” (新常態) to normalize its presence in Taiwan’s territorial waters, it challenges the status quo in the Strait by insidiously contesting—slightly below the threshold of military confrontation—Taipei’s ability to exercise its sovereignty, and jurisdictional and law enforcement rights. It paves the way for Beijing to exercise full control over the area while putting Taipei and its allies in a difficult position: one in which inaction would further erode its sovereignty, yet risking an escalation of (military) conflict if the situation is not handled properly. Under these circumstances, the PRC could constantly push back these “red lines”—actively redefining what constitutes unacceptable behavior below the threshold of a kinetic war.

In short, gray zone tactics accompany, strengthen, and reinforce other hybrid warfare strategies like legal and cognitive warfare. Multi-dimensional tactics are deployed cohesively—creating a cycle that mutually reinforces China’s political narratives and strategic agendas, and eventually formulating a comprehensive approach that maximizes operational impact. Therefore, gray zone tactics should be viewed as part of broader hybrid warfare strategies.

Structural Framework Analysis – How to View Beijing’s Gray Zone Tactics

Referencing the CCG’s established practices in the East and South China Sea (and previous studies), these activities could be classified into four phases.

  • Phase One: After the accidental death of two Chinese “fishermen,” the China Coast Guard first entered Taiwan’s restricted/ prohibited waters in mid-February, 2024—thereby initiating the gray zone operation to contest Taipei’s “red line” below the threshold of a kinetic conflict.
  • Phase Two: This phase is intended to normalize Beijing’s presence in the disputed waters. Since its first incursion, the CCG has boarded civilian vessels for inspection and conducted regular patrols and drills. This period of time is not long enough to have its presence “normalized,” despite the assertion of Beijing’s claim to exercise control over the area.
  • Phase Three: In the upcoming months, the world can expect a third phase of exercising effective control, which will expand without effective countermeasures by Taipei. This will involve more frequent and prolonged presence of the CCG in the Taiwan Strait, akin to their previous actions in the East China Sea. In addition, the “routine law enforcement patrols” (常態執法巡查) would also presumably be extend to Penghu and Matsu Islands.
  • Phase Four: The final phase would be an invasion to take over full control of the islands, and Taiwan itself.

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Image: Different phases of gray zone tactics via the case study of China Coast Guard incursion into Taiwan’s restricted/prohibited waters. (Image source: Created by the author)

Gray Zone Operations within a Hybrid Warfare Framework

Beijing’s gray zone tactics are employed not only because it does not currently possess sufficient military power for a full-scale invasion, but also as an early stage of operations to maximize possibilities for its victory in the future. It should be considered an early phase in the war.

To understand how the recent CCG activities fit into Beijing’s larger hybrid warfare strategy, other gray zone activities should also be examined. The PRC militarization in the East and South China Seas—such as the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, with infrastructure like operational airfields and deployment of fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) on those islands—serves one sole purpose: to provide forward bases and logistical support in times of war.

In regards to Taiwan, Chinese influence operations legitimize “reunification” by force. PLA fighter jets have been trespassing the median line since August 2022, once again formulating “new norms” to deny Taiwan’s sovereignty. The “salami-slicing” approach lowers awareness by overwhelming the normal human attention span via the saturation of information space and the exploitation of normalcy bias, thus constructing more favorable conditions for a future military preemptive strike.

Influence operations targeting the Taiwanese also aim at lowering their willingness to fight while coercing and seducing them to surrender, especially in terms of psychological warfare against military personnel and political figures. Indeed, soon after Beijing morphed the Kinmen accident into an escalated situation, a swirl of disinformation was circulated online. This included stories such as “Chinese fishing boats had started retaliation against Taiwan’s Coast Guard by ramming their vessels,” and “China deployed a hundred fishing boats to besiege Kinmen”—all of which were later proven to be fake news by independent fact-checking agencies. At the same time, messages targeting international audiences serve to divide public opinion, thereby slowing the response time of other states and undermining support for assisting Taiwan. Gray zone tactics alone may not be able to accomplish Beijing’s ambition for “national reunification” with Taiwan, yet they could create more favorable conditions for  “reunification” prior to conventional warfare.

The Greatest Vulnerability: Lack of Consensus on the Taiwan Issue, and the Hybrid Warfare Threshold

As China takes advantage of gray zone activities to advance its political claims and to contest the international rules-based order more normatively, its aggression goes beyond Taiwan. The PRC’s attempt to rewrite international law broadly has implications for many countries, especially in terms of sovereignty disputes. Beijing has already done this with the Japanese over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and is doing it with the Philippines around the Scarborough Shoal. If this works for Taiwan, these tactics could be deployed whenever and wherever Beijing needs to advance its strategic agenda. Beijing’s effort to reinvent international law with these gray zone activities challenges the status quo—not only in the Taiwan Strait, but in the entirety of the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and beyond.

As the nature of hybrid warfare exploits the vulnerabilities in liberal democracies, Beijing takes advantage of gray zone tactics to exploit the greatest weakness between them: the lack of consensus on what constitutes war and a clear threshold of unacceptable behaviors. Like-minded democracies, including Taiwan and the G7+ countries, find it difficult to foster a collective response package for countering China’s hybrid warfare. This is due to: (1) strategic ambiguity; (2) differences concerning Taiwan’s legal status; and (3) the lack of shared data standards, unified languages, and framework for Chinese hybrid threat monitoring and analysis across governments and civil organizations.

Previous research has overwhelmingly focused on military and economic factors surrounding a conflict—such as wargaming a cross-strait conflict, or an international economic crisis due to disruption of the island’s semiconductor supply chain. These are all legitimate concerns that impact the world. Yet, Beijing is conducting a new form of hybrid warfare—integrating strategies and tactics in multiple domains and simultaneously deploying them in a single operation to maximize their impact. Under these circumstances, mere economic sanctions or traditional military deterrence would not be sufficient—only cross-domain deterrence could provide an answer.

To respond to this challenge, we need an open-source framework that conceptualizes and operationalizes deterrence by denial and punishment across multiple domains—including the gray zone, and the informational, cyber, space, military, and economic realms. This would help establish a transparent and universal discipline for Chinese hybrid threat monitoring and analysis, as well as facilitating discussion on collective countermeasures across the G7+ countries.

As Beijing challenges the boundaries of both Taiwan and the world, a comprehensive approach of cross-domain deterrence is imperative for crafting tailored strategies for a unified international response to deter PRC aggression at the brink of war.

The storm is brewing—and the world has to be ready for it.

The main point: Beijing’s recently displayed gray zone operations around Kinmen Island intertwine with legal and cognitive warfare—thereby forming a mutually reinforcing cycle that amplifies Beijing’s political narratives and strategic agendas. Accordingly, Taiwan and its international allies must develop concepts to operationalize deterrence across multiple domains.

[1] Cross-domain deterrence is the discipline of crafting potential “retaliatory threats from one domain to prevent attacks from another.” See: James Scouras, Edward Smyth, and Thomas Mahnken, “Cross-Domain Deterrence in US–China Strategy,” Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (2014), https://www.jhuapl.edu/sites/default/files/2022-12/CrossDomainWeb.pdf.

[2] The vessel was operating as what has been called a “three nos” vessel (叄無船舶): no ship name, no ship certificate, and no ship registration at the port of registry.

[3] Today Strait (今日海峡) is a Facebook page managed by Fujian Straits Satellite TV (福建海峡电视台).