China, a world leader in the practice of gray-zone warfare, has suffered through what amounts to a US government gray-zone campaign involving Taiwan during the Trump and Biden administrations.
In the aftermath of the visit to Taiwan by US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, we are seeing through specific Chinese actions how Beijing addresses the more general problem. China is attempting to halt an adversary’s gray-zone activity by a disproportionate display of readiness to escalate to actual war.
“Gray-zone” refers to hostile activities below the threshold that would normally trigger military retaliation from the targeted country. Many of the best examples of it involve China.
A classic case is China’s building military bases on artificial islands in international waters of the South China Sea. During then-incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Senate confirmation hearing in 2017, his instinct was to “send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
That, of course, never became US policy. Beijing correctly anticipated the US would not go to war over the South China Sea bases.
In other instances of gray-zone warfare, China has:
- used swarms of ostensibly civilian fishing boats to occupy disputed features in the South China Sea;
- fought naval skirmishes by ramming or threatening to ram opponents’ ships, as an alternative to gunfire;
- harassed aircraft by releasing chaff into their engines or shining lasers at their pilots, and
- taken sand from Taiwan-held islands close to the Chinese coast.
With Taiwan, however, the usual US and Chinese roles were reversed.
The opening for an American gray-zone campaign begins with a gray area in the original US-China agreement regarding Washington’s relationship with Taiwan.
The foundational documents are the Three Joint Communiques of 1972, 1979 and 1982, wherein the US government affirms it has “no intention of … pursuing a policy of `two Chinas’ or `one China, one Taiwan,’” and pledges to maintain only “unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.”
That clearly precludes official US-Taiwan diplomatic relations, a promise Washington has dutifully kept since 1979. There are, however, innumerable possible interactions, mostly small, between US and Taiwan, or Republic of China, officials. Beijing’s view is that the ban on these interactions must be total. The US side allows for limited interactions, arguing that these do not change the United States’ overall “One China” policy.
The two sides also disagree on the parameters of US arms sales to Taiwan. The 1982 communique says the US “intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan.” Chinese officials complain Washington has violated this commitment since arms sales have not only continued but increased in value since 1982.
The US government counters that its promise to halt arms sales is predicated on Beijing honoring the principle of peaceful settlement of Taiwan’s political status that is enshrined in the communiques.
In recent years the US government has taken many steps that appear to signal increased US support for the Taipei government. These include:
- proposed Taiwan-friendly legislation introduced in Congress;
- US acknowledgment of a small, but growing number of US soldiers working in Taiwan;
- many high-level US government officials visiting Taiwan;
- discussions of changing the name of Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington to sound more like an official embassy, and
- Biden saying publicly, on three occasions, that the US would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an attack by China.
Chinese media have complained that “the US side has significantly eased restrictions on official exchanges with Taiwan, US-Taiwan military interactions have become more frequent and overt and the United States even helps Taiwan expand its so-called ‘international space.’”
Chinese commentators have repeatedly criticized several specific US actions. One is the US government’s basing its Taiwan policy partly on documents beyond the three communiques. Beijing did not agree to these documents and objects to their content. They are:
- the Taiwan Relations Act, a US law that commits Washington to help Taiwan maintain a “sufficient self-defense capability” and
- the Six Assurances, a list of policy guidelines stating in essence that Washington will not sell out Taiwan as a means of improving relations with China, and particularly noting that the US does not recognize China’s sovereignty over Taiwan.
A second specific Chinese criticism stems from an incident in May 2022. The US State Department changed the wording in a section of its website describing US policy toward Taiwan. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted strongly to the removal of a sentence saying the US does not support Taiwan independence. The sentence reappeared a few days later, but the Chinese likely saw the incident as a trial balloon.
A third specific Chinese complaint responds to what Beijing perceives as increased US-Taiwan military cooperation. In addition to continued arms sales, the Chinese point with displeasure to “Washington’s frequent arms sales to the island . . . and blatant defense cooperation between the two sides.”
Chinese media also took issue with two US military transport aircraft landing in Taiwan within a few weeks during the summer of 2021. One was a C-146A delivering a package to the American Institute in Taiwan (Washington’s unofficial embassy). The other was a C-17 that brought a shipment of vaccines escorted by three US senators.
As the Chinese government has realized, the US could take an endless number of actions that marginally strengthened US-Taiwan cooperation but that were not large enough to justify a strong response from Beijing such as recalling its ambassador from Washington.
The situation was reminiscent of gray-zone warfare. At the same time, Washington continually restated that America still followed a “One China” policy, which provided top cover for the micro-aggressions beneath.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Defense spokespersons as well as Chinese analysts quoted in Chinese media have described recent US policy toward Taiwan as “salami-slicing” or “hollowing out of the One-China principle.” (Washington actually has a “One-China” policy, which Beijing consistently misstated.)
Such metaphors capture the Chinese government’s sense of frustration at the lack of an effective Chinese response to an American policy that has been accumulating small unilateral gains for the US seemingly at will.
When the news broke of Pelosi’s plans, several prominent Republican politicians also expressed interest in visiting Taiwan, indicating to observers in China that both major US political parties now see a pro-Taiwan stance as politically advantageous.
Facing the likelihood that this American gray-zone campaign will continue indefinitely and gradually expand, Beijing chose the Pelosi visit to make a stand. Pelosi’s status as the third-in-line to the US presidency made her visit look like an escalation by the US.
Her visit came during the same week as the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), seemingly a symbolic insult. And Chinese President Xi Jinping, who hopes to win a third term as paramount leader later this year, needed to show he could manage the Taiwan portfolio.
Beijing’s response was a grand statement across multiple domains for maximum impact. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it “extreme, disproportionate and escalatory,” but this was by design, as the apparent goal was to make the cost too high for Washington and Taipei to consider doing anything similar in the future.
The most prominent part of the response was military: intimidation through training maneuvers near Taiwan plus a reminder that China can effectively blockade Taiwan’s ports or international airport through announced missile exercises.
Accompanying the military signaling were cyber attacks and a disinformation campaign. An additional element of the retaliation was economic punishment. Beijing halted the import of certain kinds of fruit and fish from Taiwan and cut off the sale of natural sand (an essential construction material) to Taiwan.
As is typical when it practices economic coercion, Beijing claimed the bans were not politically motivated.
The Chinese government announced unspecified sanctions against Pelosi and her family, but far more serious is Beijing’s suspension of cooperation with the US on crisis management mechanisms and combating climate change. Beijing again demonstrates its willingness to exploit any issue Washington cares about as leverage in narrow political disputes, even to the detriment of global well-being.
Finally, Beijing carried out an international strategic communications blitz arguing that China’s actions are correct and that Taiwan and the US are in the wrong.
This episode has implications for how Washington and its security partners will deal with Chinese gray-zone activities in areas such as the East China Sea and South China Sea.
Beijing is unintentionally telegraphing that the kind of actions it took during August against Taiwan and the US might also work against China, and for the same reason: a fear in the mind of the targeted adversary that the situation might escalate into war. The presumption is that the adversary fears war more than it values the gains from the gray-zone activity.
US actions in the South China Sea and Japanese actions in the East China Sea in response to aggressive Chinese activities have so far been cautious and predictable. A demand that Beijing cease a certain kind of behavior, combined with a show of willingness to escalate, could convince the Chinese government that its gains are no longer cost-free.
Importantly, China itself does not appear eager to get into a real fight. Its “aggressive” moves are invariably below its opponents’ red lines. Beijing’s strategy for achieving its hoped-for annexation of Taiwan has thus far been an unmitigated failure.
Even if this latest gambit succeeds in discouraging Taipei and Washington from deepening their bilateral engagement, one clear counterproductive outcome from Beijing’s standpoint has been to push countries such as Japan, Australia and some in Western Europe closer to the position that their own interests would be endangered by a Chinese war against Taiwan.
Beijing has fared better when confining its activity to the gray zone.
Denny Roy (RoyD@EastWestCenter.org) is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu. He specializes in strategic and international security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Follow him on Twitter: @Denny_Roy808.