Lighting Up the Gray Zone: The Philippines-Taiwan Counter-Coercion Toolkit

Perry World House's Thomas Shattuck and Robin Garcia are out with an important new white paper which recommends the public release of visual information to counter China's coercive activities, using the Philippines and Taiwan as examples. As the champions of "assertive transparency", SeaLight enthusiastically welcomes this timely new scholarship!
Ray Powell | MARCH 19, 2024
Lighting Up the Gray Zone: The Philippines-Taiwan Counter-Coercion Toolkit

Ray Powell




Hot off the presses from Perry World House, Thomas Shattuck and Robin Michael Garcia have just published an important new white paper, Responses Against China's Coercion in the Indo-Pacific: Developing a Toolkit from the Philippines and Taiwan. In it they highlight the importance of learning from recent actions taken by the Philippines and Taiwan against gray-zone coercion by their common adversary, the People's Republic of China. 

This is crucial and timely scholarship, because it builds upon the question of what we urgently need to learn, adapt and implement from the Philippines' assertive transparency campaign (and Taiwan's similar efforts) toward the larger goal of deterring and defeating gray zone activities and their perpetrators.

Shattuck and Garcia refer to the SeaLight-coined "assertive transparency" concept as an example of "communicative activism, or the deliberate and systematic release of photos and video for public consumption." They go on to expand on some of the same themes as Ben Goirigolzarri and I did in our own report:

Screenshot 2024-01-12 at 8.15.09 AM.png
Conceptual framework from "Game Changer: The Philippines' Assertive Transparency Campaign" (Powell & Goirigolzarri, Stratbase ADRi, Jan 2024)

[SeaLight] Strengthen National Resilience

[Shattuck/Garcia] "The objective is to galvanize a domestic and international audience against China by placing its gray zone tactics under the spotlight ... [In the Philippines,] Congress adopted resolutions that condemned the PRC, detailing its illegal activities that have become increasingly dangerous ... Various agencies sought a politically dramatic realignment of the national budget to fund external and maritime defense." 

[SeaLight] Build International Support 

[Shattuck/Garcia] "The more international actors care about the issue, the more likely they are to carry out low-cost actions to support them. It can come in various forms; for the Philippines, it is joint patrols and rhetorical statements. If a country can make the case that its security and stability is beneficial to the international community or global economy, then it will likely have greater success. As with the case of the media, there is a limited timeframe for these types of actions to have success. Resources from third parties, especially non-treaty allies, will eventually get directed to other, more pressing crises."

[SeaLight] Impose Reputational Costs

[Shattuck/Garcia] "Media reports also force the aggressor to respond to the evidence and make it difficult to deny that they occurred. When diplomats from authoritarian governments are forced to address the incidents, they engage in Orwellian rhetorical gymnastics to deny them ... By making the coercion more costly by bringing in allies, partners, and international organizations as quickly as possible, the targeted country will increase the monetary and reputational costs and risks to the coercing actor.

Shattuck and Garcia conclude with four strong recommendations for governments to consider for inclusion in their counter-coercion toolkits:

  1. Utilize mass and major media as quickly as possible, for as long as possible.
  2. Involve high-level politicians and  government officials in responses.
  3. Internationalize the issue as quickly as possible.
  4. Force direct confrontation on suitable terms.

Since Ben and I published our "assertive transparency" report in January, we've repeatedly emphasized that we hoped it would not be treated as the end of the matter, but would help serve to begin a larger conversation about countering China and other sophisticated gray-zone actors. In their brilliant white paper, Shattuck and Garcia have contributed significant new thinking into this evolving discussion, so please read the whole thing!

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.

More Articles

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.
It's time for U.S. troops to visit Thitu Island
The U.S. has long kept its distance from the occupied South China Sea features, holding to the notion that keeping the status quo was crucial to avoiding conflict. Unfortunately, Beijing interpreted this reticence as weakness and gutted that status quo, while America's treaty ally, the Philippines, bore the brunt of China's gray-zone expansionism. The journey toward reclaiming the initiative can start with a single, modest step--sending U.S. & Philippine military doctors and engineers to Thitu Island.
Infographic: Chinese Provocations in the South China Sea
A quick-reference guide to South China Sea hotspots.
sealight logo
Contact Us