November 27, 2022

China’s Real Takeaway From the War in Ukraine: Grey Zone Conflict Is Best

China’s Real Takeaway From the War in Ukraine: Grey Zone Conflict Is Best

China’s Real Takeaway From the War in Ukraine: Grey Zone Conflict Is Best

By Tobias Burgers and Scott N. Romaniuk
October 06, 2022

The steep costs of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will bolster China’s continued use of its effective salami-slicing and grey zone tactics.

China’s Grey Remains Grey

Considering the escalatory steps Russia has taken and its failure to achieve success, it is worth assessing what lessons China could take from this.

Observing Chinese behavior in the Taiwan Strait, or for that matter, in many of its geopolitical and security conflicts, illustrates a solid adherence to grey zone tactics and strategies. Indeed, when looking at the Taiwan Strait, the decisiveness with which China has employed grey zone tactics and salami-slicing techniques is evident. China has approached such tactics across a broad spectrum: an increasing number of air intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone; the use of unmanned systems over the island of Kinmen; crossings of the median line in the Taiwan Strait (initially by aerial means, now by both aerial and naval means); efforts to restrict Taiwan’s international diplomatic recognition and political participation; and the ever-increasing use of economic pressure tools.

Given the ubiquity of such techniques in China’s playbook and the obvious failures of Russia’s escalation in Ukraine, it is likely that China will continue its current track. When China has undertaken a discernible movement in long-term tactics away from grey zone tactics and toward more conventional operations, it was only when the operational theater allowed for it. For example, in the South China Sea, we have seen a clear shift from salami-slicing and grey zone operations to regular military operations targeted at maximizing power and influence. Nevertheless, China only intended to do so in this area of operation after establishing de facto military and political authority over the area first with its grey zone techniques.

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