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.
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. 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.” 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.