Taiwan’s Deterrence Equation: Calculating Gray Zone Strategies to Address China’s Assertiveness


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by Dani Belo and David Carment
June 2024


Table of Contents


In contemporary international affairs, major changes in the balance of power do not occur as a consequence of military conquest. In other words, major military powers rely on conventional military force, but such endeavors rarely achieve their broader geopolitical outcomes. We can observe these failures in the cases of U.S military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011, as well as Russia’s 2022 military intervention in Ukraine.

Concurrently, China’s capacity to engage and maintain a military campaign is limited by logistical, technological, and other professional constraints. First, China requires the maintenance of a robust supply chain and logistical infrastructure to support expeditionary kinetic operations. This is currently a major challenge for China. (Chen et al. 2020; Li and Yang 2017; Xiufeng and Chen 2016; Huang 2015) Second, The PLA consists of multiple services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, and Strategic Support Force) that historically operated independently. Integrating these services into cohesive joint operations remains a challenge, as it requires overcoming organizational barriers, improving inter-service coordination, and enhancing joint training and exercises. (Lei and Luo 2019; Li and Lianquin 2018; Li 2017) This logistical delineation of forces is connected to the third challenge of civil-military fusion. China's military-civil fusion strategy aims to leverage civilian technological and industrial capabilities to enhance military modernization, as well as maintain robust political command over the armed forces. Such civil-military fusion has historically been associated with lacking military professionalism, and thus fighting capacity. (Zhang 2018 and Huntington 1957) Even though the impact of these factors on combat capacity remains speculative, the lack of combat experience is most likely to divert China’s strategy away from kinetic operations.

China's military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), has not engaged in large-scale combat operations since the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. The relative lack of recent combat experience may limit the PLA's ability to adapt to modern warfare dynamics, including urban warfare, joint operations, and system of systems approach. (Jacobs 2019; Gartzke and Lindsay 2016) Even though China’s conventional military capacity is relatively limited, its science-like approach to non-military means of influence has enabled Beijing to cultivate a robust infrastructure to compete in the gray zone.    

As a function of these factors, China has expanded its capacity to conduct operations in the gray zone, below the threshold of open warfare. With Beijing’s ability to centrally mobilize political, economic, and cyber resources, it is necessary to formulate and implement a comprehensive non-military strategy of deterrence. (Belo and Rodriguez; Belo 2022; Carment and Belo 2018) Canada and its allies may be able to play a key role in this collective strategy. However, before focusing on what the transatlantic community can do, it is necessary to understand China’s perspective and capabilities in gray zone conflict. 


Gray Zone Engagement in China’s Foreign Policy

China began to formulate a comprehensive strategic approach to non-military conflicts in the post-Cold War era years before the transatlantic security community focused on the issue. This is a function of Beijing’s early understanding that China should not expect military hegemony on the global stage, in the midst of an ever-increasing material cost of war. "Unrestricted warfare" is a concept outlined in a 1999 book titled Unrestricted Warfare, which discusses unconventional methods of warfare that extend beyond traditional military tactics, encompassing a wide range of strategies including economic, technological, psychological, and media warfare.

The concept of "Unrestricted Warfare" as outlined in the book by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui is not officially recognized or endorsed as a guiding principle in Chinese defence or foreign policy. While the book has garnered attention and sparked discussions on unconventional methods of warfare, including within academic and military circles in China, it does not represent the official stance of the Chinese government or its military. (Qiao and Xiangsui 1999)

While unrestricted warfare is not officially recognized or endorsed as a guiding principle in Chinese policy, it is the de-facto emphasis of China’s foreign policy posture amid great power politics in a multipolar world. Official Chinese defence and foreign policy documents typically emphasize principles such as "active defense," which focuses on safeguarding China's sovereignty and territorial integrity while avoiding aggression or expansionism. (Fischer 2017; Dutton 2015; Erickson 2014; Erickson and Chase 2011) Therein, China's military strategy is often articulated through white papers and official statements issued by the Chinese government, which prioritize concepts such as "winning local wars under conditions of informatization" and “operations other than war.” (Blasko 2014; Gong 2008)

The unrestricted warfare concept is directly related to the phenomenon of gray zone conflict. This format of conflict falls below the threshold of traditional armed conflict but involves aggressive and coercive actions by state and non-state actors to achieve strategic objectives. In gray zone conflict, adversaries employ a combination of militarized, economic, diplomatic, cyber, and informational means to achieve their goals while avoiding direct military confrontation or clear attribution of responsibility. (Belo 2024; Mazarr 2015) As a consequence of this de-facto orientation toward non-military means of conflict, Beijing has been able to engage in several gray zone tools and tactics targeting Taiwan.

Diplomatic Isolation

China seeks to limit Taiwan's international space by pressuring countries and international organizations to reduce or sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of recognizing the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the legitimate government of China. A key part of that strategy is diplomatic efforts to persuade countries to switch recognition from Taiwan to the PRC. In 2018, El Salvador severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan and established relations with China, following a similar move by Panama in 2017. (Landler and Semple 2019) China also pressures organizers of international summits and conferences to exclude Taiwan or limit its participation. In 2019, Taiwan was denied participation in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly in Montreal due to objections from China. (Taipei Times 2019)

In another instance, China has worked to block Taiwan's participation in international events and organizations that it perceives as undermining its "One China" principle. For example, Taiwan was excluded from participating in the World Health Assembly in 2017 and 2018, despite international calls for its inclusion. (Health Policy Watch 2023)

Economic Coercion

China uses economic tools to exert pressure on Taiwan, often by isolating the island from Western trade partners. For instance, in 2020, China suspended a bilateral trade agreement with Australia amid tensions over Australia's support for Taiwan's participation in the World Health Assembly. (Health Policy Watch 2023) In 2016, China suspended many official communication channels with Taiwan and imposed restrictions on cross-strait trade and exchanges due to Taiwan’s newly elected government’s refusal to officially recognize the “One China” principle.  

Cyber Intrusions

Chinese hackers have targeted Taiwanese government agencies, critical infrastructure, and businesses with cyberattacks aimed at stealing sensitive information, disrupting operations, or undermining confidence in Taiwan's cybersecurity defenses. For example, Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups believed to be affiliated with China, such as APT10 and APT30, have been linked to cyber espionage activities targeting Taiwanese government agencies, military institutions, and defense contractors. These groups use sophisticated techniques to infiltrate networks, steal classified information, and monitor Taiwan's defense capabilities. (Council on Foreign Relations 2022)

Information Space

China employs propaganda, disinformation, and psychological warfare to shape public opinion in Taiwan and abroad, including through media manipulation, social media campaigns, and influencing narratives on sensitive issues related to Taiwan's status. These are done to influence Taiwan's domestic politics by supporting pro-China political parties or candidates, spreading disinformation to undermine Taiwan's democratic institutions, and exerting pressure on international organizations to limit Taiwan's participation.

The 2018 series of local elections and the 2020 Presidential Election in Taiwan saw one of the most severe levels of intervention by China’s state organs. Ahead of the 2018 local elections in Taiwan, there were reports of Chinese efforts to interfere in the electoral process. (Foreign Policy 2020 and Council on Foreign Relations 2019) This included alleged disinformation campaigns spread through social media platforms and online forums, aiming to influence voter perceptions and sway election outcomes in favor of pro-China candidates or parties. During the 2020 presidential election campaign in Taiwan, there were reports of cyberattacks targeting candidates and political parties. These cyberattacks were suspected to be carried out by Chinese state-sponsored actors and aimed to disrupt campaign operations and influence public opinion. However, among these challenges, there are specific policy solutions that reinforce the long-term strategic interests of Canada and the transatlantic security community.


Accepting China’s Permanence and Emphasis on Deterrence

One critical conceptual realization that must occur in the transatlantic security community is that competing great powers like China and Russia can no longer be defeated – they may only be deterred. Thus, it is important to recognize China as a permanent geopolitical competitor in contemporary Western policy doctrine to avoid false optimism, and spending, based on a policy of strategic defeat. Deterrence aims to prevent an adversary from taking a particular action by convincing them that the costs or consequences of that action would outweigh any potential benefits. It relies on the threat of retaliation or punishment to dissuade an adversary from engaging in hostile behavior. On the other hand, defeat refers to the decisive victory over an adversary and its elimination as a geopolitical competitor.

Accepting China's status as a permanent competitor means recognizing that it has its own sphere of influence within a multipolar system. It is essential that the transatlantic security community accept that political-security reality, adapt its strategies and policies accordingly, and ensure the preservation of shared values, interests, and security priorities in an era characterized by heightened geopolitical competition and complexity. The question is how does a focus on deterrence differ from that of defeat?

Policy implications of deterrence involve a focus on maintaining credible military capabilities, including both defensive and offensive capabilities, to dissuade potential adversaries from hostile actions. At the same time, deterrence policies also prioritize diplomacy, negotiation, and the establishment of clear communication channels to manage crises and reduce the risk of misperception or miscalculation.

Policies aimed at achieving defeat typically involve a willingness to use military force decisively to achieve specific objectives or end hostilities. Defeat-oriented policies may prioritize military preparedness, force modernization, and operational planning to ensure the ability to achieve victory in conflict situations. Diplomatic efforts may still play a role in defeat-oriented policies, but they are often focused on shaping international coalitions and securing support from allies. This is a policy orientation that is unlikely to work. On the other hand, a decisive orientation toward deterrence can provide the policy backdrop to adopt a whole-of-society, or a comprehensive approach, to addressing China’s assertiveness in relation to Taiwan.

Moreover, deterring China presents a distinct challenge compared to deterrence against the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. Unlike the Warsaw Pact, a coalition of multiple states under Soviet influence, China is a single, cohesive, and powerful state. In 1985, the Soviet Union was beginning to show significant internal cracks, both economically and politically, leading to its eventual dissolution. Furthermore, scholars such as Sarotte (2011), Kotrkin (2008), and Gaddis (2005) argue that internal challenges, not NATO, are responsible for the demise of the Warsaw Pact. In contrast, China's regime does not exhibit similar signs of instability or internal division. Consequently, strategies to deter China must account for its robust and centralized governance, requiring a more nuanced and resilient approach.

Finally, the difference between the Cold War era and the contemporary security environment is the refocus from the military to gray zone tools and tactics as the cornerstone of the global balance of power. In other words, military capabilities are necessary but insufficient to shift the balance of power, and unconventional tools and tactics are needed to tip the scale. Thus, a movement toward a comprehensive approach appears to be a strategy that corresponds with the characteristics of the conflict environment.


Emphasis on a Comprehensive Approach to Deterrence

As the threat of military confrontation with China, especially over Taiwan, is low, it becomes imperative to focus on establishing a collective security agenda that can sustainably meet the challenges of gray zone conflict. Therein, a prudent choice would be an emphasis on the comprehensive approach.

Even though Taiwan cannot become a member of the organization or join the Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative, NATO may create an ad-hoc non-treaty mechanism for cooperation with Taiwan. (Petersen 2017; Dershowitz 2016) Canada does not officially recognize Taiwan as a separate, sovereign state. Similar to the United States, Canada takes note of the "One China" policy, which recognizes the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the sole legal government of China and acknowledges Beijing's position that Taiwan is part of China. This presents a challenge for direct cooperation through treaties. However, existing cooperation platforms such as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canada and the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 provide cooperation mechanisms that are qualitatively similar to NATO’s relationships with non-member states.

The comprehensive approach by NATO refers to a strategy that involves integrating military, civilian, and diplomatic efforts to address complex security challenges effectively. It was first developed as a concept at the Bucharest Summit in 2011. This approach recognizes that security threats often have multiple dimensions and cannot be adequately addressed through military means alone. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of cooperation and coordination among NATO member states, international organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other actors to achieve comprehensive and sustainable security outcomes. However, this approach has yet to become the cornerstone of NATO. (NATO 2018; Ministry of Defence UK 2013; NATO 2010)

By emphasizing three key components of this approach, the transatlantic security community has a much better chance at deterring against gray zone conflict threats, as well as de-escalating conflict in relation to China. First, the approach places importance on cooperation between military and civilian actors in addressing security challenges. This includes collaboration with international organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union, as well as with NGOs, humanitarian agencies, and local governments to coordinate efforts in areas such as crisis response, disaster relief, and post-conflict reconstruction.

Such incorporation of civilianized means of addressing security challenges directly involves the second one: diplomatic engagement. By engaging in diplomatic efforts and dialogue with China, NATO can work to prevent conflicts and reduce tensions. Constructive dialogue can help clarify intentions, address misunderstandings, and find peaceful solutions to disputes that risk military, economic, or political escalation. Third, the comprehensive approach recognizes the growing importance of cybersecurity and the need to develop strategies and capabilities to defend against cyber threats. This includes enhancing the resilience of NATO's networks and infrastructure, conducting cyber defense exercises, and cooperating with partner nations and international organizations to address cyber threats collectively.


Canada’s Role as a Middle Power

Canada’s role as a middle power limits Ottawa’s reach while enabling it to establish a less confrontational approach with China in the long-run, relative to the United States. (Belo 2022) In the short-run, Canada must navigate a strenuous relationship with Beijing as a function of various diplomatic incidents such as the arrest of Meng Wanzhou in 2018, the reciprocal detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, as well as various differences in values around governance. However, any country’s strategic foresight must look beyond the near future.

As a middle power, Canada is constrained in terms of material resources and political influence to unilaterally affect China’s actions in relation to Taiwan. Thus, it must act within its existing bilateral and multilateral alliance structures, most prominently within NATO. Therein, as a middle power, Canada can contribute to the effort of deterrence against gray zone strategies, which requires a collective approach. As gray zone conflict mostly takes place through political pressure, manipulation, coercive economic tactics like sanctions, and propaganda, Canada can contribute to a collective effort to support Taiwan through two peaceful strategies.

First, Canada can support Taiwan by maintaining strong bilateral economic and diplomatic ties. Canada can provide diplomatic support to Taiwan by advocating for its interests in international forums. Concurrently, Canada can promote trade and investment ties, providing economic assistance, and helping Taiwan dilute its reliance on China as its key trade partner. In other words, Ottawa may continue to invest in initiatives such as the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Arrangement of December 2023. (Government of Canada 2023)

Second, even though Canada and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic relations through an embassy, Canada can share intelligence and information with Taiwan to support its defense and security efforts. This can include cooperation on counterterrorism, and cybersecurity, as well as raise concerns about local political interference and propaganda red flags.

Finally, democracies like Canada must remain vigilant against the threat of democratic backsliding as it formulates a strategy addressing gray zone tools and tactics in information space. There exists a temptation toward censorship as a means of maintaining control over information space. However, proactive measures should be taken to strengthen democratic institutions, promote transparency, and ensure accountability at all levels of government. By remaining steadfast in its defense of democratic values and actively addressing potential vulnerabilities, Canada can effectively guard against the erosion of its democratic foundation. Ultimately there is no better strategy to deter illiberalism than to demonstrate the strengths of liberal democracy.



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About the Authors

Dani Belo is a teacher and scholar of international relations specializing in conflict management and security. He is currently an Assistant Professor of International Relations and leads the Global Policy Horizons Research Lab at Webster University in St. Louis, USA. Dr. Belo is also a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) and the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa, Canada. His research focuses on gray-zone and hybrid conflicts, transatlantic security, grand strategy, NATO–Russia relations, ethnic conflicts, and the post-Soviet region. Belo also worked as a policy analyst for the Government of Canada. His research on unconventional conflicts was featured at the U.S Army Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, the Royal Military College of Canada, University of Pennsylvania Law School Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, and the European Commission. Dani led international research projects in Poland and Estonia, focusing on inter-ethnic relations and security. Several of his publications and presentations were used to inform international policy development at the U.S. State Department and Global Affairs Canada in relation to the conflict in Ukraine.

Dr. Belo has authored and co-authored numerous peer-reviewed articles, chapters, and policy papers focused on unconventional security threats, NATO, conflict management, ethnic-based conflicts, the conflict in Ukraine, and Russian foreign policy.


David Carment is a professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He is series editor for Palgrave’s Canada and International Affairs, editor of Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. His research focuses on Canadian foreign policy, conflict analysis, mediation and negotiation, fragile states and diaspora politics. He has held Fellows at the Hoover Institution and Harvard's Belfer Center. He is the author, editor or co-editor of 21 books and has authored or co-authored over 90 peer reviewed journal articles and book chapters. His most recent books focus on diaspora cooperation, corruption in Canada, branding Canadian foreign policy and state fragility. In 2017, Carment was a visiting scholar at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, Finland and in 2015 a Fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, Germany.


Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

The Institute was created to bridge the gap between what Canadians need to know about Canadian international activities and what they do know. Historically Canadians have tended to look abroad out of a search for markets because Canada depends heavily on foreign trade. In the modern post-Cold War world, however, global security and stability have become the bedrocks of global commerce and the free movement of people, goods and ideas across international boundaries. Canada has striven to open the world since the 1930s and was a driving factor behind the adoption of the main structures which underpin globalization such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and emerging free trade networks connecting dozens of international economies. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute recognizes Canada’s contribution to a globalized world and aims to inform Canadians about Canada’s role in that process and the connection between globalization and security.

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