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

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

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

In this Feb. 10, 2020, file photo released by the Republic of China (ROC) Ministry of National Defense, a Taiwanese Air Force F-16 in foreground flies on the flank of a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) H-6 bomber as it passes near Taiwan.

Credit: Ministry of National Defense, ROC (Taiwan)

How the Russian invasion of Ukraine can shed light on a hypothetical conflict in the Taiwan Strait has been the subject of much international discussion and debate. Numerous publications have compared the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, paying particular attention to the lessons learned regarding air-ground coordination, the necessity of training, the function of civil defense forces, the requirement for skilled military leadership, and finally the quality of armaments. However, many of these articles deal with the potential for a full-scale military invasion of Taiwan’s main island; as a result, most of the lessons are concentrated on the planning and execution of conventional military operations.

A comparative approach should consider the different kinds of conflicts that might occur in the Taiwan Strait rather than focusing exclusively on the lessons acquired from conventional military combat. With that in mind, the key lesson from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that China will continue to use its effective salami-slicing and earlier grey zone tactics.

We anticipate a situation in which China will try to further encircle Taiwan’s international standing and endanger its economic and political existence through diplomatic, economic, and military measures, possibly using aerial and/or naval blockades. However, switching to an aerial and naval blockade could be a risky strategy for China. This results in a deadlock since China will need to expand its operations qualitatively and quantitatively in the grey zone, but at the same time it must make sure that these actions do not unintentionally or intentionally escalate the situation beyond the grey zone.

Moving From Grey to Black-and-White

One of the key lessons to be learned from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict – which did not begin with Russia’s full-scale invasion in February – is the economic, military, and political utility and effectiveness of grey zone operations and strategies versus the high costs of conventional war.

The conflict in Ukraine has significant epistemological implications when treated as a complex grey zone conflict as opposed to a traditional military combat scenario. Putin had successfully employed his “little green men” and grey zone techniques in earlier acts, notably the successful annexation of Crimea as part of the Russo-Ukrainian War that started in 2014. Putin’s deft employment of unacknowledged Russian troops in terms of military and political control enabled him to successfully maintain political control over Crimea.

Meanwhile, (Western) nation-states and the public responded to these activities in the grey zone in a measured manner. There was virtually no inclination to take military action in opposition to these Russian grey zone maneuvers. In contrast, the Western response was primarily comprised of moderate economic pressure, limited political and diplomatic pressure against Russia, and military assistance to Ukraine. For example, even after Russia was kicked out of the G-8, foreign leaders continued to try to contact Russia and its authorities. For years after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, multiple U.S. presidents and EU leaders met with Putin and other prominent Russian authorities. In addition, there were no in-depth discussions about broad sanctions as (economic) weapons, with economic relations between the European Union and Russia remaining stable and cordial.

That all changed after Russia escalated to a full-fledged conventional war against Ukraine in February 2022.

It is clear from the Russian invasion that the political and economic objectives of the protagonists are undermined by turning a political and constrained military battle, carried out through grey zone operations, into a full-fledged conventional war. This case is supported by three important lessons from the Russian invasion of Ukraine that are relevant to the current situation in the Taiwan Strait:

  1. Traditional military operations have innately higher failure rates, and, from a military standpoint, escalations frequently do not produce the desired outcome.
  2. The Russian invasion demonstrated that, even at the most brutal level of warfare, military intrusions affect political and economic endeavors and are further complicated by popular perceptions of and reactions to military aggression, particularly when it is explicitly targeted at civilians.
  3. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shows many signs of a strategic failure and has little chance of being politically successful.

The ongoing struggle in Ukraine, the disputed status of the territory Russia’s occupies, and the absence of widespread support for Russian political rule mean that, despite Russia’s prior military successes, mostly in southern and eastern Ukraine, it is still far from having achieved even a moderate operational or strategic victory. Conversely, Russian military forces are actively embroiled in an escalating insurgency while their political power in these regions is also limited and disputed.

Second, from a non-military perspective, conflict escalation outside the grey zone has been shown to be unsuccessful when considering economic, political, and sociological factors. Military-intensive operations, particularly those that last for an extended period, demand significant resources, indicating the need to move away from a peace economy in the social, economic, and political spheres, which could lead to significant upheavals and political and economic instability. This is true in both democratic and non-democratic nations. However, authoritarian leaders have higher stakes: failure, societal upheaval, and discontent can create potential conflict that threatens regime stability and survival.

Third, from a diplomatic and political perspective, Putin’s escalation of the crisis and the conflict has been shown to be a bad bet and poor judgment, leading almost immediately to a sincere and robust response to Russia’s invasion, with the West significantly contributing political, economic, and military support to Ukraine. Regardless of whether their citizens supported them or not, many Western governments have demonstrated a substantial willingness to continue helping Ukraine as the crisis worsens, despite rising energy prices and inflation. At the same time, Russia’s economy has suffered severe effects and appears to be “imploding,” isolating it politically and turning it into a pariah on the global stage.

Putin’s decision to escalate the conflict into a full-fledged war has made the geopolitical situation on the globe even more unpredictable and dangerous. The considerable political costs (sanctions, isolation) that Russia has already experienced and will continue to incur appear to be persistent characteristics of the political and economic environment for the foreseeable future.

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.

However, in the context of the Taiwan Strait conflict, such a shift appears improbable. First, the Taiwan Strait’s military balance is different from the South China Sea’s. China is gaining military advantages, but control and supremacy have not yet been achieved. It is unclear whether China will succeed in establishing military control through the deployment of grey zone and salami-slicing methods after observing the current scenario and Taiwan’s responses.

Second, while other nations frequently respond passively to Chinese initiatives and methods in the South China Sea, this is obviously not the case in the Taiwan Strait. In the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan, the U.S., and even Japan are retaliating against Chinese grey zone actions by putting those retaliations into action.

What Would Grey Zone Escalation Look Like?

The logic of China’s salami-slicing tactics, however, implies that pressure accumulation is unavoidable. Simply maintaining the status quo is insufficient. As we have already established, the scope and difficulty of a successful escalation campaign in the conventional arena make this an unpalatable option. This begs the question: what other (escalatory) choices are available?

We might be able to glimpse a probable direction in the Chinese reaction to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in early August. In reaction to her visit, the People’s Liberation Army launched a series of aerial and naval activities reminiscent of an early effort to construct a potential blockade around Taiwan’s main island. It is therefore worthwhile analyzing China’s recent campaign to reduce Taiwan’s naval and aerial connectivity, which essentially sought to isolate the island and put pressure on Taiwan and its allies to break a Chinese embargo.

A gradually tightening chokehold of the Taiwanese islands, including the main island, would fit seamlessly into China’s decades-long grey zone tactics applied in the Taiwan Strait conflict. As a result, it may be the next logical move by the Chinese government to limit international collaboration, recognition, and financial support for Taiwan while also exerting additional political and economic pressure on the island nation.

Throughout history, states have efficiently applied aerial and naval blockades to pressure and coerce states to yield to their political demands. The difficulty in measuring the efficiency of such blockades, however, is eclipsed by the unforeseen consequences and outcomes of the action. For such a move to be successful, China would need to assess several conditions.

China would have to deal with the problem of establishing and maintaining control over the surrounding aerial and naval environment. This raises the question of whether China’s armed forces are powerful enough to establish a full-circle aerial and naval blockade of Taiwan. It not only needs to have sufficient forces to counter any Taiwanese armed forces attempting to break the blockade, but it also must plan for possible interdiction efforts by the U.S., other states, or even a coalition of other major powers (notably Japan, South Korea, and possibly European military forces) attempting to break the blockade.

Second, China is vulnerable to counterblockades; sanctions, trade barriers, and land and sea blockades may have an impact on China’s economy even if they do not occur immediately. A formal blockade is unlikely when considering the resources that China would need to maintain one effectively. Furthermore, there is a high risk of conflict escalation not only between China and Taiwan but also between other actors such as the United States and Japan. Finally, China would likely struggle to manage the consequences of such an embargo. A state’s direct control over the outcomes of a blockade is tenuous, and reputational costs could easily surpass acceptable levels.


The Russian invasion of Ukraine provided us an important lesson: attempting to escalate from grey zone tactics to conventional military operations is likely to reduce the odds of long-term political (and military) success. Furthermore, beyond the direct dimension of the conflict, the actor seeking the escalation is likely to face additional economic, diplomatic, and technological pressures, illustrating that the decision to escalate is more likely than not to have a negative impact on both the narrow and broader conflict.

Given that lesson from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s successful history of using grey zone tactics, China is likely to pursue them further. But the nature of salami-slicing necessitates constant boundary-pushing. China may find it difficult to maintain its grey zone tactics without risking an escalation, whether intentional or unintentional, that would effectively reverse any gains made over the previous decades.

China’s likely next escalatory move – a possible aerial and naval blockade – presents itself as a realistic scenario that would lead to conflict and inter-state war, likely beyond the grey zone domain.