Gray Zone Tactics Playbook: Pretext to Escalate

While other countries treat maritime incidents as crises to be deescalated, Beijing seizes upon them as pretext for calculated escalations, by which it means to reset the board in its favor.
Ray Powell | MARCH 4, 2024
Gray Zone Tactics Playbook: Pretext to Escalate
The Taiwan Coast Guard surveys the scene after an illegal Chinese vessel capsized while fleeing from Kinmen Island. Source: Taiwan Coast Guard

Ray Powell




Pretext (noun): a purpose or motive alleged or an appearance assumed in order to cloak the real intention or state of affairs.

On 14 February 2024, a Chinese speedboat operating within restricted waters along the coast of Taiwan's Kinmen Island was approached by the Taiwan Coast Guard and directed to submit for inspection. The speedboat fled the scene but then capsized, leading to the deaths of two of its crew. China has since boosted its own coast guard patrols around Kinmen, and further indicated that this increase will be permanent.


The Kinmen incident is just the latest example in a well-established pattern by which Beijing exploits incidents and confrontations as a pretext to escalate, while laying the responsibility for its own escalation on the other party. 

In this case, Beijing immediately announced its intent to tighten its grip around the vulnerable island. Its spokesperson immediately labeled the Taiwan Coast Guard's actions as "outrageous" and "inhumane", saying the Chinese crew had been treated in a "rough and dangerous way", and throwing in for good measure that its occurrence during Lunar New Year made it especially egregious. 

Having laid this pretextual groundwork, she then foreshadowed and prejustified Beijing's escalation, stating that China "reserves the right to take further measures, and all consequences will be borne by the Taiwan side.”

The China Coast Guard then proceeded to increase the intensity of its patrols around Kinmen, while Beijing's English-language propagandists went into high gear to explain that it intends to make this a one-way ratchet up the escalatory scale: 

The Chinese mainland's maritime law enforcement authorities on Sunday conducted more patrols in waters near Kinmen in a move to safeguard the safety of fishermen's lives and property, after Taiwan authorities brutally assaulted a mainland fishing boat in the region earlier this month which led to the death of two crew members.

The combined effect of the fatal incident and continued "Taiwan independence" activities by the secessionist Taiwan authorities will see such patrols become routine, experts said.

Note how Beijing's "experts" also took the opportunity to gratuitously add the recent victory by the more hawkish Democratic People's Party candidate in Taiwan's presidential elections to its list of pretextual justifications. 

I recently explained this pretext-to-escalation phenomenon during an appearance on TaiwanPlus News:

Q: Is this situation in Kinmen with the increased presence of Chinese coast guard ships ... going to escalate?

A: [The situation] is escalating now, but that is pretty typical of how China conducts maritime gray zone operations--is it seeks opportunities to escalate, believing that it has a greater appetite for escalation than its opponent ... [T]his shows us how China uses pretext as a method for advancing its strategic objectives ...

Q: As we're seeing more and more Chinese coast guard ships patrol these waters, is this a sign of a new normal?

A: Well they've practically announced it, right? [China's English-language newspaper] Global Times just came out with an article that said that we're now going to normalize these activities. And so they've told you already that ... their entire intent is to give you a new normal ... [T]his meets entirely with this pattern that we've seen from China over the years of using the pretext of some event ... by which it then takes that next step and then settles everybody in at that next new normal, so that there can be in the future another new normal.

This is only the latest example of the pretext-to-escalate tactic, and it's crucial to understand its pivotal place in China's gray-zone tactics playbook.

China's fishing vessels--together with its shadowy maritime militia who claim innocuous "fishing" status--often play a central role in setting the pretext-to-escalation tactic into motion. This was demonstrated as early as its 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands with South Vietnam, in which the first (pretextual) advance was made by Chinese "fishermen", who occupied two South Vietnam-claimed islands and drew Saigon's navy into the skirmish that resulted in its defeat and the islands' conquest by Beijing, as Carl Shuster explains:

Saigon believed it had blocked Beijing’s latest attempt in a six-month intimidation campaign to take the western half of the Paracel chain.

Armed Chinese fisherman had all but driven South Vietnamese fishermen from the area, and at least two Chinese fishing boats had been caught operating in waters claimed by South Vietnam.

The latest Chinese activity, however, was the start of a new phase in an effort to seize all of the Paracels. This time the “fishermen” were members of the People’s Maritime Militia, a paramilitary arm of the Chinese navy.

The two fishing boats off Robert Island reported to China’s South Sea Fleet headquarters.

A similar (though less bloody) sequence set in motion the 2012 standoff that resulted in China's seizure of Scarborough Shoal. This incident--which also started with an attempt to evict Chinese fishing ships--demonstrated how China's adversaries often fail to grasp its designs. Diplomats in Manila and Washington treated the Scarborough Shoal standoff as a crisis to be deescalated, while Beijing recognized a pretextual opportunity to use escalation to reset the board in its favor. 

This last example neatly sums up what China seeks to accomplish through its pretext-to-escalate tactic, and how other countries need to appreciate how China sees crises and escalation not as bugs but as features in achieving its maritime objectives.

Ray Powell

Ray is the Director of SeaLight and Project Lead for Project Myoushu at Stanford University's Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. He's a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and was a 2021 Fellow at Stanford's Distinguished Careers Institute.

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