Grey zone warfare
March 4, 2024

Why in news?

  • On the last day of the 2024 Raisina Dialogue, India’s Chief of Defence Staff General Anil Chauhan said that grey zone warfare is the latest in informal warfare.
  • During a discussion titled ‘The New Wars: Policies, Practices, and Preparation’, he gave an example of the situation in the South China Sea.
    • Occasionally, confrontational incidents involving small boats have been reported in the region, over the fact that several countries have extended competing territorial claims here.

What’s in today’s article?

  • Grey zone warfare

What does grey zone warfare mean?

  • About
    • Grey zone warfare generally means a middle, unclear space that exists between direct conflict and peace in international relations.
    • Multitude of activities fall into this zone — from nefarious economic activities, influence operations, and cyberattacks to mercenary operations, assassinations, and disinformation campaigns.
    • Other experts include economic actions too, such as debt traps and economic sanctions.
  • Features
    • Activities in the grey zone have always been a feature of great-power competition.
    • Proxy wars, destabilizing insurgencies, legal warfare (lawfare), and information warfare—by adversaries and allies alike—have been a feature of this conflict.
    • Experts claim that such methods are often employed by parties who have not had access to massive resources or power, traditionally. Therefore, such tactics can help gain an advantage over a more technically well-equipped adversary that is more used to conventional warfare.
  • Origin
    • Experts believe the Cold War era, which began after the end of the Second World War in 1945, led to conditions that favoured grey zone warfare.
    • Amid the US-USSR rivalry for ideological and economic dominance, the knowledge that both parties were armed with nuclear weapons meant direct conflicts had to be restrained.
    • In today's nuclear age, the price of traditional wars has become too high, and the danger of things getting worse is very serious.
    • Because of this, countries are trying to achieve their goals by being aggressive in secret or by hiding.

What grey zone warfare looks like?

  • Experts from the US and Europe have characterised certain Russian and Chinese actions of late as examples of grey zone warfare.
  • It includes the Chinese military’s presence in the South China Sea.
    • The Philippines is one of the countries which has challenged China’s claims, extending over around 80 per cent of the region.
    • In December 2023, it termed the presence of more than 135 Chinese maritime militia vessels near a disputed reef as illegal.
    • It accused China of firing water cannons at its boats and ramming into others, while the Chinese coast guard blamed the Philippines for hitting Chinese boats.
  • A recent Reuters report mentioned that Taiwan has been expressing concerns for the past four years about increased military actions by China.
    • This includes Chinese fighter jets flying over the strait regularly.
    • It is part of China's strategy to pressure Taiwan with activities that fall just short of starting a full-scale conflict.
  • Analysts claim that the US has also engaged in similar tactics.
    • These include its economic sanctions against China and imposition of duties on Chinese imports to the US, along with maritime reconnaissance.

Why is grey zone warfare seen as a separate category of action?

  • The challenges that grey zone warfare poses differ from those of an open conflict.
    • Here, action is often covert or indirect, meaning a country’s response needs to be appropriate in terms of its scale.
    • These actions could be designed to bait the other party into escalation.
    • If this happens, the use of force would then be legitimised as a form of self-defence or response in kind to what the other party does.
  • Other reasons for engaging in such tactics include the projection of strength, and to normalise disputed territorial claims by repeatedly marking a presence in those regions.
  • Judging by its appearance, grey zone conflict seems mild when compared to traditional strategic competition.
  • However, the limited intensity does not make grey zone conflict less vicious.
  • Rather than escalate in one-dimension, grey zone conflict tends to escalate in multiple dimensions and leads to unintended over-escalation, creating a nightmare for crisis management.