China’s gray zone trap in the West Philippine Sea


The ‘gray zone’ is broadly defined as any situation involving coercion and possibly force, short of declared war. In International Relations, it is characterized by asymmetry, ambiguity, and gradualism. The gray zone operates under the condition of asymmetry where the involved states and actors possess different levels of capability to realize their national interests. Meanwhile, it thrives in ambiguity by distorting information or by creating vagueness about facts. Lastly, its success is determined by the accumulation of small achievements over time until the core or grand objective is achieved at the expense of other states.[1]

As a strategy, it refers to a state’s use of non-military means to achieve political objectives. No matter how provocative such “non-military means” may be, target states are expected to exercise restraint or think twice before taking any concrete action to avoid misinterpretation, miscalculation, and escalation.[2] It then behooves the target states to think that doing nothing could be the best option. Otherwise, they may be accused of being exaggerators, if not aggressors.

This situation is especially true for target states that are relatively small and possess scarce capabilities or hardware to counter the gray zone operations of larger states in a particular region, area, or domain. Hence, they find themselves trapped between two extremes of thought: “doing something to counter it but it might not be enough or it could just make the matter worse” and “doing nothing at all is the safest recourse” — a wait-and-see attitude until such a gray situation turns into something definitive and, only by then and on the instigator’s timings, figure out what rational courses of action can be taken.

It can be argued that such a dilemma faced by most small states is the one that is being taken advantage of by larger states. Gray situations limit the former’s cognition and actions, while the latter can constantly pursue its political objectives. In the long run, the gray zone depiction of actions or situations created by larger states is essentially disempowering for small states.  For the latter, it generates confusion about the realities in which they are operating and limits their decisiveness to respond as necessary. It casts uncertainty and self-doubt about how states can make sense of what is going on and what they can do to advance their national interests.

In today’s vocabulary, this is called gaslighting, which means “to manipulate another person into doubting their perceptions, experiences or understanding of events.”[3] Through a gray zone narrative, for example, and in the case of its dealing with the Philippines, China can cover up its intentions, deny the occurrence or nature of adverse events or situations it has instigated, and manipulate other states’ perceptions or interpretations, i.e., states should see China from its lens and context instead of making critical judgments about its behavior (e.g., Asia versus the West, China as the victim of a century of humiliation, socialism with Chinese characteristics, restoration of historical entitlements, etc.).

For quite some time, many observers and a few government officials in the Philippines loosely describe China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) as a gray zone strategy. At the onset, it sounded beneficial for a country like the Philippines to describe it this way because it exposes China’s determined methods of asserting its ‘nine-dash line’ claim to the entire South China Sea (SCS). I suggest, however, that using the term ‘gray zone’ in reference to actions in the WPS supports China’s interest rather than protecting the Philippines’ national interest. For as long as actions and the situation are categorized as ‘gray,’ then no state can speak about it conclusively and therefore take a clear-cut response without being accused of cynicism or simply aggravating the situation. With everything turning gray, it will be difficult for states to make an accurate depiction of any development in the WPS. Likewise, to say that a state taking a clear-cut response against a perceived gray zone scenario would be labeled as a provocateur or aggressor is the very premise that China is taking advantage of to “gaslight” other states. The term ‘gray zone’ is a tool to silence dissent or resistance in the WPS.

To flesh out this argument, the first part of this article outlines how the Philippines is falling into China’s gray zone narrative, while the second part demonstrates how China is employing its wolf warrior diplomacy to denounce any criticism against it and, ultimately, to frame reality. It concludes with ways forward for the Philippine government in light of China’s continued gray zone trap in the WPS.

China’s Gray Zone Trap

The use of the term ‘gray zone’ to describe the situation in the WPS, particularly in terms of explaining China’s behavior, has saturated academic, editorial, and policy platforms. The series of incidents involving the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia in the Ayungin Shoal were described as China’s way of creating a favorable strategic posture while at the same time avoiding outright armed conflict.[4]

With the CCG and maritime militia at the forefront, China can keep any possibility of war at bay while succeeding on the ground. In this line, it would now be trivial, if not provocative, for the Philippines to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with its only treaty ally, the United States. Under the MDT, any mutual support between the two parties can only be triggered by an attack on a military vessel. The complicating ambiguity is that, whilst under the command of the Central Military Commission, CCG and militia vessels are civilian.[5]

The MDT also provides that the two parties “will consult together… whenever in the opinion of either of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of either of the Parties is threatened by external armed attack in the Pacific.” This would be another stumbling block in the effort of the Philippines to solicit US support for its predicament in the WPS, especially in light of China’s alteration of realities therein.[6] Because the situation is essentially gray and subject to contending interpretations, the burden of convincing its allies and partners, as well as the entire international community, that the situation indeed warrants decisive action, whether unilaterally or collectively, is now placed on the Philippines.

In one study, the Philippine government was cited as lacking the capability to understand and match China’s gray zone campaign.[7] The Philippines then is somewhat expected to adjust its behavior according to China’s own constructed ’gray‘ realities rather than establishing its own based on the facts and its perceptions and defined interests.

China’s Gaslighting

As a result of the above, the gray zone narrative has captured the minds of decision-makers, academics, pundits, and even the general public, which has led to the latent acceptance of such a version of reality in the WPS. From China’s perspective, keeping the situation ‘gray’ would keep the status quo in the WPS because there are no solid grounds or drivers for any state to employ the use of force – be it in the context of civilian maritime law enforcement or military operations. This presents an ironic situation. Due to the Philippines’ and other states’ acknowledgment and echoing of the narrative that China’s actions in the WPS are indeed a demonstration of a gray zone strategy, it only strengthens the ambiguity and stickiness of the term. Because the situation is gray, any state action to counter it must therefore be kept at the very minimum for the simple reason that there is, after all, no imminent armed conflict. Meanwhile, China is constantly belying on any occurrence of aggression at sea whilst threatening the personal safety, livelihood, and human dignity of fisherfolks who have become everyday victims of the CCGs and maritime militia methods of harassment.

Recently, however, the Philippines has learned its lesson. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) had become vocal and straightforward about China’s aggressive actions in the WPS. Under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the Philippine government had been consistently publicizing its regular rotation and resupply (RORE) missions.[8] This is in stark contrast to the policy of the previous administration where incidents in the WPS were kept at a low profile to not damage Philippines-China bilateral relations. China’s aggression in the WPS appears to have become even more prevalent since the new leadership in June 2022. This is likely due to Marcos’ early pronouncement that the country “will not lose an inch” of territory.[9] In addition to this is the announcement from the Philippine government regarding additional sites that shall be covered by the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA)[10] and, very recently, the talks for expanding the security ties between the Philippines and Japan.[11]

Among the many previous incidents of Chinese vessels’ harassment of Filipino vessels in the WPS, the recent development was reported last on 12 November 2023. Accordingly, there were 38 Chinese vessels in the vicinity of the shoal, 11 of which “actively participated” in harassing Filipino boats to impede the RORE mission. This is the highest recorded number of Chinese vessels (both from the PLAN, the CCG, and maritime militia) to date.[12] In all these incidents combined, China is consistent in its gaslighting response, which can be narrowed into the following themes: scapegoating, reality questioning, and trivializing.

The first is reflected by China’s consistent articulation of its narrative that it is the Philippines’ alliance with the US that is destabilizing regional security.[13] The more the Philippines invokes the alliance, the more it aggravates the situation. Hence, China is deflecting its responsibilities for its misconduct and dismissing them as merely natural consequences of another country’s actions. Second, the Philippines is hyping up the incidents in the WPS. Here China wants it to appear that it wants to work with the Philippines in “good faith” but the Philippines chooses to make noise about it through the internationalization of the SCS issue and, lately, its consistent publication of its RORE missions. In effect, the Philippines finds itself in a position of second-guessing China’s intention: a benefit-of-the-doubt scenario for the Philippines, a buying time tactic for China. Lastly, China is trivializing the Philippines’ actions in the WPS. For instance, China stated that the PCG’s removal of barriers around the Scarborough Shoal was “nothing more than self-amusement.”[14] Within the exclusive walls of government offices, these kinds of inferences may be shrugged off as merely political bravado or catfights between states. But when they are repeatedly circulated in different platforms (worse, when outside of context and detached from empirical data), they are bound to create parallel realities in the minds of individuals. In the long run, it may create a new set of reality regardless of whether it is based on truth or not.


There are two (2) important considerations for the Philippines. At the state level, the Philippines is on the right track of increasing its maritime patrols and investing in necessary physical assets to implement it, as well as in proactively publicizing China’s actions in the WPS.[15] However, there must be a radical change of mindset among individual decision-makers: the Philippines is not in a gray zone situation, in a simple misencounter, or on the verge of armed conflict. Adhering to such kinds of mis-contextualization and/or interpretation when trying to make sense of the developments in the WPS only renders China the opportunity to contest the truth. If this is the case, then, the Philippines would remain trapped in China’s own constructed reality of the gray zone and its gaslighting scheme. The Philippines should just leave the toxic conversation and stand firmly in the truth reflected in the facts. It must tell its story of the WPS as it is – fact by fact alone and without any further context, interpretations, or insinuations: China is intimidating Philippine vessels, it is endangering the lives of human beings at sea, depriving them of access to their livelihoods, and it is destroying the global commons ecology by its abusive consumption of maritime resources. In short, the Philippines ought to call out China’s actions for what they truly are instead of shoving them under the banner of the ‘gray zone.’

At the regional level, forging a more proactive information-sharing and, more importantly, information-dissemination cooperation with like-minded states and other ASEAN members is called for. Considering the success of the Philippines’ whole-of-government publicizing drive regarding China’s actions in the WPS, it is in the best position to set the agenda of having a real-time information-sharing and information-dissemination platform, as well as the establishment of a regional fact-checking protocol and unit within the ASEAN Secretariat, with a special focus on maritime activities in the Indo-Pacific. Likewise, non-state actors such as the media, think tanks, the academia, and the greater epistemic community also play a significant role as partners of the ASEAN and other like-minded states in information-sharing and dissemination not least because of their wide range of networks across the globe and their ability to influence decision-makers through their scientific rigor.

In an age of cognitive warfare — defined as “a strategy that focuses on altering how a target population thinks and through that how it acts”[16] — the fastest way of gathering and publicizing verifiable and real-time information is crucial in shaping international relations because perceptions are created within individual minds in a matter of a scroll in social media. If the Philippines and other like-minded states truly want the truth to prevail in the WPS or the SCS in general, then it must invest not in responding to whatever China has to say. Rather than religiously responding to China, it would be more strategic for the Philippines and other regional players to rechannel their energies to the furtherance of Track 1.5 and Track 2.0 dialogues. These mechanisms, while not new in international relations, are promising platforms for states where open, candid, and facts-based conversations on a highly-political topic such as the SCS may thrive.

Hence, the crucial task ahead is to just get the bare facts out and let China be trapped in its lies.


The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the official positions, views, and opinions of the Philippine government, particularly, the Department of National Defense and its bureau the National Defense College of the Philippines. Any errors or shortcomings found in the article are those of the author alone.


  1. Michael Green, et. al, “Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 9, 2017,
  2. Anthony Robertson, “What is Grey Zone confrontation and why is it important?” The Cove: Australian Profession of Arms, July 18, 2022,
  3. “Gaslight,” APA Dictionary of Psychology, accessed December 5, 2023,
  4. Renato C. De Castro, “The August 5 Ayungin Shoal incident: Confronting Chinese grey zone ops in West Philippine Sea,” The Philippine Star, August 19, 2023,
  5. Brad Lendon, “‘Little blue men’: Is a militia Beijing says doesn’t exist causing trouble in the South China Sea?,” CNN Philippines, August 12, 2023,
  6. Erick Nielson C. Javier, “Rethinking the Philippines’ Deterrence in the South China Sea,” The Diplomat, March 26, 2022,
  7. Rommel R. Cordova, “Philippine Strategic Approaches to Address China’s Gray Zone Strategy in the South China Sea,” Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation (APPPF), January 22, 2020, 
  8. See for example Cliff Harvey Venzon, “Inside the Philippines’ Dangerous Mission in the South China Sea”, Bloomberg, November 12, 2023,
  9. Al Jazeera, “Philippine president says nation won’t lose ‘inch’ of territory”, February 18, 2023,
  10. United States Department of Defence, “Philippines, U.S. Announce Locations of Four New EDCA Sites,” April 3, 2023,
  11. Gabriel Dominguez, “Japan and Philippines agree to take defense ties to next level”, The Japan Times, November 4, 2023,
  12. Frances Mangosing, “Latest blockade try involved 38 Chinese ships – PCG,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 12, 2023,,impede%20the%20trip%20on%20Friday.
  13. Ditas B. Lopez, “China Slams US for Expanding Military Access in Philippines,” Bloomberg Politics, March 13, 2023,
  14. Gaea Katreena Cabico, “China says Scarborough barrier removal 'nothing more than self-amusement”, The Philippine Star, September 28, 2023,
  15. Jim Gomez, “Philippines launches strategy of publicizing Chinese actions,” Associated Press, March 8, 2023,
  16. Oliver Backes and Andrew Swab, Cognitive Warfare: The Russian Threat to Election Integrity in the Baltic States, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Cambridge, 2019.

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