by General Bikram Singh, Former Chief of Army Staff
Grey zone operations have emerged as a preferred option for countries to achieve their politico-military objectives as they are conducted below a threshold that would invite a conventional military response and, largely, they blur attribution. The incremental modus operandi adopted in such operations, makes various activities appear innocuous and insignificant until their cumulative effects presents a fait accompli, which makes a counter response difficult. These operations employ multiple instruments of national power along with hybrid and asymmetric warfare tactics. Subversion of political systems, aggressive diplomatic posturing, calibrated military actions, espionage, disinformation, psychological operations, economic coercion, infiltrating non state actors to destabilize target areas and cyber-attacks are some of the tools for grey zone warfare. It is no longer an option of the weak. Many leading countries like US, Russia and China have been employing grey zone strategies to pursue their national interests.
Beijing’s grey zone operations in South Asia are a subset of its global strategy to attain the great power status. Having developed its comprehensive national power, Beijing has proactively engaged with various regions on the political, diplomatic, economic and military fronts to shape a favorable geostrategic and geopolitical environment that will facilitate its journey to the world’s centre stage. Its information operations have been actively promoting their system of governance and developmental model, projecting Xi Jinping as a world leader, countering anti-China rhetoric and planting narratives to manage perceptions and undermine the US and its partners.
Over the last two decades, China has enhanced its presence and influence employing adaptive strategies and grey zone maneuvers in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives. ‘Salami slicing’ describes its incremental and gradualist approach, which employs both inducements and coercive means. Under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing has made huge investments to develop Infrastructure including roads, railways, ports and airfields. However, the manipulation of some BRI projects to lure countries into debt trap has raised doubts on its stated benign intentions. In the region, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Maldives are facing heavy debt distress. Sri Lanka’s inability to pay back the funding capital debt has led to the lease of Hambantota port to a Chinese firm for 99-years. These machinations coupled with the highhanded attitude of Chinese workers and discrimination in salaries and benefits have elicited sharp international criticism and cautioned other countries to reassess their stance towards the initiative.
Confident of its military might, China has also opened multiple fronts with its assertive and expansionist behavior. Its military incursions in eastern Ladakh to unilaterally alter the Line of Actual Control have strained the relations between the two countries. Apart from the military operations, which as part of the grey zone strategy, have been calibrated to obviate an all-out conflict, Beijing has made several attempts to intrude into our cyber space and even employed information operations to target Indian minds. Besides India, China has made irredentist claims in Nepal and Bhutan as well.
The India-US strategic partnership has great potential for growth as it serves the strategic interests of both and helps balance the regional power equations. However, the upgraded relations should not make one complacent in pursuing the military modernisation and infrastructure development goals. For regaining strategic advantage, India needs to enhance its comprehensive national power with special focus on the military and economic might. The ‘neighborhood first policy’ should to be revitalised and zealously pursued with renewed political, diplomatic, economic, military and informational initiatives. Since most militaries in India’s neighborhood enjoy special status in their countries and are significantly involved in policymaking, military diplomacy’s potential should be optimally leveraged to supplement various initiatives. This interface should also be exploited to develop joint mechanisms for sharing intelligence, best practices, organising training and evolving processes to deal with grey zone threats.
As the SAARC has not been able to deliver on its mandate owing to its structural inadequacies and the distrust amongst some member states, perhaps India should take the lead to create another forum for fostering regional unity and promoting active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, educational, security, technical and scientific fields. However, another option that could be examined is of enhancing the scope of BIMSTEC to include Afghanistan and Maldives. Pakistan’s inclusion should be considered only if it dismantles the terrorist infrastructure and gives a firm commitment on abjuring violence. Now, apart from the security concerns, the region requires a joint strategy to combat the coronavirus pandemic, mitigate its impact on the regional debt-ridden economies and prevent their falling prey to Chinese grey zone exploitation.
A regional response strategy, inter alia, must play on Chinese sensitivities and concerns, which stem from the evolving regional partnerships and the BRI related risks that it fears can militate against its interests. Beijing has not been at ease with the strengthening of India–US bilateral relations and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), which it continues to portray as a military alliance, designed to impede its interests in the Indo-Pacific region. Their state-backed Global Times, before the first QUAD Leaders’ virtual summit on March 12, 2021, cautioned India of the negative impact it would have on its stature in the other multilateral forums. Later, on May 10, 2021 its envoy to Bangladesh, in typical ‘wolf-warrior’ style also warned Dhaka to stay away from the grouping. Therefore, given the Chinese concerns, bolstering QUAD would be an effective countervailing move. The growth of this forum, however, will depend on the US strategy towards Taiwan. As of now, Washington’s past record does not inspire confidence in other regional players to join the Dialogue. It’s premature exit from Iraq and now Afghanistan casts doubts on its reliability as a partner. To reinforce trust, US will have to demonstrate an unflinching and enduring commitment towards the democratic aspirations of Taipei besides supporting other countries in dealing with China’s coercive designs.
In the grey zone, adversaries also engineer and fuel internal conflicts by exploiting fault lines in the social fabric to spread disaffection and to undermine national leadership and legitimate government. Social media platforms and cyber operations are effectively employed to subvert people and spread disorder. Therefore, in addition to honing the intelligence apparatus, we need to augment our cyber capabilities by evolving relevant policies and processes, investing in state of the art technologies and most importantly, educating our people of their role in reducing and preventing attacks. As per the IBM X-Force threat intelligence index report, India faced the second highest number of cyber-attacks after Japan in the Asia-Pacific region in 2020. Cyber security should become an indispensable part of the curriculum in all schools, colleges and academic institutions. India should consider establishing a regional centre for training personnel of the region.
In short, the strategy to counter the Chinese grey zone operations and to regain strategic advantage should be evolved on a premise that there is enough strategic space for both to grow simultaneously. Therefore, while avoiding confrontation; regional initiatives should be carried forward with cordiality, which consistently underscores our benign intentions. An augmented and spruced up intelligence acquisition capability should be able to take note of all grey zone maneuvers in and around the homeland, which in the initial stages appear insignificant but over time, could create serious situations. Alongside, the information operations campaign, an important prong of any strategy, should help shape perceptions of various stakeholders in the domestic, regional and global arenas. To deter hostile maneuvers by China, the evolving regional security arrangements and partnerships should be appropriately portrayed. In addition, the US technology and expertise in grey zone operations should be optimally leveraged to refine regional strategy. Some countries have even gone in for a dedicated organisation in view of the heavy requirements of monitoring and coordination. Perhaps at some stage, it should be considered creating one to further regional interests with a sharpened focus. South Asia is extremely important for India, as its trajectory to stardom in the international arena has to begin from its land and maritime neighborhood.