Gray-Zone Subjugation of Taiwan: A More Acute Risk Than Invasion?

Taiwan is highly accustomed to Chinese harassment in the gray zone between war and peace, but even moderate gray-zone harassment is hard to counter, precisely because responding with force would escalate the situation.

Elisabeth Braw

Taiwan is no stranger to gray-zone aggression. Indeed, it could be said that ever since the island established itself as a self-ruling nation, it has had to defend against Chinese attempts to harm it below the threshold of armed conflict. Today, though, China’s increasing harassment of Taiwan, using tools in the gray zone between war and peace on one hand and Taiwan’s openness and significant dependence on the Chinese market on the other, make it more likely a concerted Chinese gray-zone campaign against the island will happen.

In late February 2021, Beijing announced it was banning imports of pineapples from Taiwan, claiming to have found “harmful creatures” in the tropical fruit.1 Even though Chinese authorities never proved the presence of such creatures, on March 1 the ban came into force. Given that 90 percent of Taiwan’s exports go to mainland China, this was a devastating turn of events for Taiwan’s pineapple growers.2 It was also a move that Taipei could do little to counter. To be sure, the Taiwanese government repeatedly argued that the ban violated World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, but even when appeals to the WTO are successful, as several complaints against China have been, the organization has little enforcement power.

Indeed, this is not the first time Beijing has suspended imports of agricultural products to punish a country for a perceived offense. As Ivar Kolstad notes, after the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in late 2010,

Overt Chinese sanctions against Norwegian exports to China would have been in conflict with WTO rules. There can nevertheless be little doubt that non-tariff barriers to Norwegian exports were introduced following the Nobel peace prize. Norwegian exports of salmon were subjected to more stringent and time-consuming sanitation and veterinary controls at the border, and importers were unable to get licences for larger quantities of Norwegian salmon.3

Between 2011 and 2013 alone, this resulted in losses of up to $176 million for Norway’s fishermen.4 In November 2020, Beijing imposed tariffs of up to 200 percent on Australian wine, an apparent retaliation after Australia’s government called for an independent investigation into the origin of COVID-19. This, too, was a devastating turn of events for the farmers affected, as China is Australian vintners’ main export market.5 And following its ban of Taiwanese pineapples, in September 2021, Beijing banned imports of Taiwanese wax apples and sugar apples. This time, the move appeared to be retaliation against Taiwanese efforts to change the name of its representative office in Washington, DC, to one including the word “Taiwan,” rather than the customary “Taipei.”6

China has also punished companies in other sectors after their home governments offended Beijing. In the spring and summer of 2021, the Swedish telecommunications equipment giant Ericsson saw its sales drop in China even though they rose in the rest of the world as Chinese companies—no doubt acting on Beijing’s instructions—withheld business in retaliation against Sweden’s decision not to include Huawei in its 5G network.7 And at the end of 2021, following Lithuania’s decision to allow Taiwan to open a representative office bearing the name of Taiwan, China retaliated by blocking all imports containing Lithuanian components. While Lithuania’s exports to China are negligible, countless companies across the world—especially those from other EU member states—use Lithuanian components in their products. To these companies’ shock, they discovered that their products were being blocked at Chinese ports. “Imports from Lithuania are no longer being processed by the Chinese customs authority Apparently the Chinese customs authority doesn’t process goods from other EU member states if they contain parts made in Lithuania,” the EU’s trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis, explained in a media interview just before Christmas 2021.8

In all cases, the punished countries and industries acutely felt the pain, but there was little they could do to change China’s behavior or even call it out. They could not prove that Chinese authorities had found no harmful creatures, and Chinese officials flatly denied blocking any cargo containing Lithuanian components. These examples are so instructive because they illustrate the nature and potential of gray-zone aggression. It exploits modern societies’ extreme interconnectedness and liberal democracies’ openness and adherence to international agreements and the rule of law.

To be sure, there are many examples of liberal democracies using subversive means to harm another country—US attempts to remove democratically elected foreign leaders such as Patrice Lumumba and Mohammad Mosaddegh come to mind—but they do not use gray-zone aggression as extensively as do authoritarian states such as China and Russia. Perhaps even more importantly, gray-zone aggression is attractive to China and Russia as they seek to weaken the West because it is both inexpensive and hard to detect. Indeed, gray-zone aggression is the geopolitical version of gaslighting: The aggression’s ambiguous nature leaves the targeted country unsure of whether it is experiencing gray-zone aggression or merely the hustle and bustle of the globalized economy.

This reality faces every liberal democracy. Taiwan, though, occupies a particularly precarious position. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner; in 2020, it accounted for 26.3 percent of total trade and 22.2 percent of Taiwan’s imports. That makes China far more important to Taiwan, in trading terms, than Japan (10.9 percent) and the European Union (8.2 percent) are, especially when one considers that the Hong Kong special administrative region accounts for another 7.9 percent of Taiwan’s trade.9 What is more, China is by far the most important export market for Taiwanese companies. Taiwan, though, is not one of China’s five biggest markets, neither for imports nor for exports.10 This means that China can afford to suspend imports of a range of Taiwanese goods and suspend its own exports to Taiwan without feeling much pain. (A few crucial goods are exceptions: Like all other countries, China depends on computer chips made by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company.)11

Taiwan’s precarious situation extends beyond the economy. Like all other liberal democracies, it is vulnerable precisely because it is a democracy. Indeed, China has for decades exploited this openness through disinformation directed against the island nation. Jude Blanchette et al. note,

The United Front Work Department (UFWD), which reports directly to the CCP Central Committee and acts as a traffic cop for the various domestic and global united front exertions, has long been active in, and focused on, Taiwan and its political dynamics. Traditional channels of influence, including domestic political parties, overseas Taiwanese businesspeople and their extended families, and proliferating ownership of domestic media outlets have allowed the CCP to slowly and methodically build up its influence network in Taiwan since the early-1980s.12

But especially since Taiwan’s 2016 election of the outspokenly pro-independence Tsai Ing-wen as president, these influence efforts have grown and morphed. Blanchette et al. go on to observe that

the UFWD and the larger ecosystem of United Front actors have become an important conduit and messaging channel for Beijing’s preferred narratives and for active efforts to disinform Taiwan citizens, especially as public discourse has shifted onto digital and social media platforms and become increasingly commercialized.13 (Emphasis in the original.)

Disinforming a country’s citizens is, of course, a relatively easy task when the country is open and democratic, with vibrant and often animated debate among citizens on any matter under the sun.

Taiwan is an extremely open and democratic country. In its 2022 “Freedom in the World” report, Freedom House gives Taiwan a 94 of 100 rating, which means the country counts as fully free. At the time of writing, the full 2022 report had not yet been published, but in its 2021 report, Freedom House notes that “Taiwan’s vibrant and competitive democratic system has allowed three peaceful transfers of power between rival parties since 2000, and protections for civil liberties are generally robust.”14 It adds, though, that

ongoing concerns include foreign migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation and the Chinese government’s efforts to influence policymaking, the media, and democratic infrastructure in Taiwan. . . . In January, incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) were returned to power in general elections that drew the highest voter turnout since 2008, despite online disinformation and influence operations targeting the vote that were attributed to the Chinese government.15

A 2019 report by Varieties of Democracy, an international group of academics, concluded that Taiwan was, along with the United States and Latvia, the country most targeted by disinformation. “By circulating misleading information on social media and investing in Taiwanese media outlets, China seeks to interfere in Taiwan’s domestic politics and to engineer a complete unification,” the researchers noted.16 The report also highlighted how China funds Taiwanese media that adopt pro-Beijing messaging, concluding that “Chinese disinformation strategy and resulting online information fractionalization is likely to have a detrimental impact on Taiwan’s democracy.”17 Recent disinformation campaigns have seen hackers and bots spread disinformation on Facebook, Weibo, and similar platforms, and in 2018, Chinese media outlets shared a damning but false story about a Taiwanese diplomat in Japan. The news coverage contributed to the diplomat’s subsequent suicide.18

It is against this background that those interested in the safety of Taiwan should view the current situation. This situation also includes regular incursions by Chinese military aircraft—often several at a time—into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). While an ADIZ is not identical with national airspace, Taiwan’s proximity to mainland China means it patrols its ADIZ more conscientiously than many countries with more geographically distant adversaries patrol the space immediately adjacent to their national airspace. China regularly sends aircraft into Taiwan’s ADIZ in an apparent effort to wear Taiwanese aircraft and crews out. In a mere four days in October 2021, Chinese military aircraft conducted no fewer than 149 sorties into Taiwan’s ADIZ.19 Similarly, Chinese sand-dredging

vessels have been extracting sand off the Matsu archipelago, which belongs to Taiwan. Like most countries, China uses sand for construction, but the vessels’ main purpose appears to be to wear Taiwan down by forcing its coast guard to respond to their intrusions.20

A Hypothetical Scenario

If China wanted to act on its long-standing goal of forcing Taiwan into submission and turning it into a real province of China, not just a theoretical one, it could build on these already existing forms of gray-zone aggression. Consider, for example, the following hypothetical scenario.

China continues its disinformation campaign against Tsai and her government. But instead of focusing primarily on the president, the Chinese hackers, bots, and news outlets single out diplomats, civil servants, and junior political officials unaccustomed to the spotlight. As with the Tokyo-based diplomat, they invent malefactions allegedly committed by specific officials and bureaucrats, who are individually hounded in media and on social media. Some see no choice but to resign, which removes crucial expertise from the ranks of the government.

The atmosphere of constant fear, in which any official or civil servant can become the next target of disinformation campaigns, creates nervousness and unhappiness in the civil service and among political officials. They begin suggesting to their superiors that Tsai’s government should make clear and unequivocal statements that it won’t move toward an official declaration of independence. Tsai and her ministers refuse.

Meanwhile, though, a small but increasingly vocal share of the Taiwanese population, including foreign migrant workers, has been infected by Chinese disinformation and begins to stage demonstrations. While the demonstrators lack a coherent message, they are noisy and voice sundry grievances, including ones invented by the Chinese disinformation campaigns.

At the same time, China again punishes Tsai’s government for an allegedly offensive decision by suspending imports of more Taiwanese products. However, this time Beijing does not announce the punishment: Taiwanese exporters simply discover that Chinese customers no longer buy their products. Beijing’s new, surreptitious approach means the ban lacks a poignancy the world can unite behind. The world has moved on and has no appetite for absorbing the Taiwanese goods now no longer reaching the Chinese market, especially because the goods in question—perhaps plastics—do not easily lend themselves to the type of solidarity campaigns the “freedom pineapples” (or “freedom wine,” in support of Australian vintners) did. “Freedom plastic” would not be a winning campaign.

Although Taiwanese business leaders initially do not criticize Tsai’s policies, after several rounds of suspended exports, they grow exasperated and plead with her government to change course. Tsai’s government, refusing to be blackmailed by China, stands by its position. Unhappiness with the Tsai government grows in the Taiwanese business community, and some executives start talking about relocating their companies’ headquarters to China or another country. Chinese news outlets and social media accounts begin reporting a corporate exodus from Taiwan, inflating Taiwanese business leaders’ concerns.

The Taiwanese public, aware of China’s tactics, knows not to trust Chinese media, but in the muddled media landscape, they struggle to discern which news outlets have Chinese connections and which social media accounts operate on China’s behalf. Knowing of Taiwanese business leaders’ concerns, many Taiwanese citizens conclude that their country’s economy risks ruin because of Tsai’s policies. Some begin protesting in front of government buildings, where migrant foreign workers and others are already airing their grievances. While the protesters do not have any complaints or solutions in common, their protests project to the rest of the country an overpowering fear that Taiwan is facing doom.

The fear is compounded by increasing Chinese sorties into Taiwan’s ADIZ, which puts the Taiwanese air force—air crews, ground crews, and aircraft—under extreme strain. Meanwhile, Chinese diggers increase their sand dredging in the Matsu archipelago, causing Taiwan Coast Guard Administration vessels to spend even more resources patrolling the area. The coast guard vessels, though, cannot force the sand dredgers to leave, as doing so would provoke an incident that could escalate to an armed conflict. The Taiwanese public is thus forced to watch Chinese sand dredgers systematically dig up Taiwanese sand under the eyes of Taiwanese authorities. With slogans like “stop the sand steal,” concerned citizens begin protesting, not just in Taipei but across the country.

Within weeks, the country is engulfed in citizen protests and private-sector lament, and the coast guard and air force are exhausted, the latter even running short of aircraft because of wear and tear caused by constant scrambles. Even with the public deserting her, Tsai does not budge. The Kuomintang opposition party, meanwhile, struggles to identify how the country should respond to the Chinese provocations. Taiwan’s decision-making is paralyzed, even as the protests escalate and the air force and coast guard exhaustion increase.

Out of the ranks of private-sector leaders, though, a voice emerges that seems to have a solution. The CEO of a hitherto unknown company in the high-tech sector presents a package of evidently sensible ideas that will help Taiwan emerge from its precarious situation. Indeed, he forms a new party based on these ideas. Even as it emerges that he has links to the Chinese government, large parts of the Taiwanese public decide that he and his suddenly assembled party are the island’s best chance for the people of Taiwan to be able to live in continued prosperity and relative freedom. Yes, they realize that with a political novice in charge of Taiwan, Beijing could exert considerable influence, but worn down as they are from China’s campaign to weaken their country, they decide that supporting him is the lesser evil.

Tsai, faced with a rebelling country and massive support going to the new political strongman, steps down, leaving a weakened government in charge. In the subsequent general elections, the new party wins an outright majority, and their leader wins the presidency. He immediately declares that Taiwan will join China as a Hong Kong–style autonomous region. Many Taiwanese citizens protest against the move—indeed, their demonstrations dwarf those that protested against Tsai’s government— but the new government pays them no mind.


This hypothetical chain of events is clearly not inevitable or even likely. It is, however, no less likely to occur than a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan. Indeed, aggression in the gray zone would be far more attractive to China than a military assault, primarily because China would incur minimal loss of blood or treasure. It would also be attractive because the Taiwanese government and public would struggle to determine whether a concerted gray-zone campaign against their country was taking place.

Taiwan is highly accustomed to Chinese harassment in the gray zone between war and peace, but even moderate gray-zone harassment is hard to counter, precisely because responding with force would escalate the situation. While it is clearly desirable to forcefully respond to a gray-zone campaign aimed at a country’s subjugation, it is virtually impossible to distinguish such an assault from the regular drumbeat of gray-zone harassment. For the same reason, it would also be difficult for Taiwan’s friends and allies to respond to a campaign of this kind.

This is also the reason that an often-proposed “economic Article 5,”21 akin to NATO’s military Article 5 that asserts an attack on one member is an attack on all members, is unrealistic. An attack on another country’s economy does not present itself as starkly as a military attack does. Indeed, like almost all gray-zone aggression, it arrives gradually, with the targeted country unable to discern whether what is taking place is simply another imperfection of the globalized economy or, on the contrary, gray-zone aggression. Because China has denied punishing the economies of Australia, Lithuania, Norway, and Taiwan, the targeted countries and their allies have struggled to respond.

The challenge liberal democracies face is that they can never fully prevent gray-zone aggression. Indeed, their openness and adherence to rule of law and international diplomatic standards mean that in the gray zone, they are always at a disadvantage vis-à-vis authoritarian countries wishing to harm them. This clearly does not mean that liberal democracy is doomed or that liberal democracies should retreat from the globalized economy. In the case of Taiwan, however, it does mean that it should increase its already impressive efforts to involve all parts of society in keeping the country safe. Especially in light of Beijing’s gradual but ironfisted reversal of democratic liberties in Hong Kong, most citizens of Taiwan are bound to appreciate the benefits of their free and open country and see the need for everyone to do their part to help it continue to prosper.


  1. Yimou Lee, “Forbidden Fruit: Taiwan Urges People to Eat More Pineapples After China Ban,” Reuters, February 26, 2021, forbidden-fruit-taiwan-urges-people-eat-more-pineapples-after-china-ban-2021-02-26/
  2. Lee, “Forbidden Fruit.”
  3. Ivar Kolstad, “Too Big to Fault? Effects of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize on Norwegian Exports to China and Foreign Policy” (working paper, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen, Norway, 2016),
  4. Kolstad, “Too Big to Fault?”
  5. BBC, “Australia Takes Wine Dispute with China to WTO,” June 19, 2021,
  6. Dong Xing, “First Pineapples, Now Sugar Apples. Taiwan Threatens to Take China to WTO over New Fruit Import Ban,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, September 21, 2021,
  7. Elisabeth Braw, “How Do You Stop Beijing from Bullying? Take Away Its Prada Bags,” Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2021,
  8. Tobias Kaiser, “Autozulieferer zwischen den Fronten—Litauens Streit mit China trifft deutsche Firmen” [Automotive Suppliers Between the Fronts—Lithuania’s Dispute with China Hits German Firms], Die Welt, December 23, 2021,
  9. US Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, “Taiwan—Country Commercial Guide,” September 13, 2021,
  10. World Bank, World Integrated Trade Solution, “Trade Summary for China 2019,” 2019,
  11. Yimou Lee, Norihiko Shirouzu, and David Lague, Silicon Fortress: T-Day, the Battle for Taiwan, Reuters, December 27, 2021,
  12. Jude Blanchette et al., Protecting Democracy in an Age of Disinformation: Lessons from Taiwan, Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 2021, 6,
  13. Blanchette et al., Protecting Democracy in an Age of Disinformation.
  14. Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2021: Taiwan,”
  15. Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2021.”
  16. University of Gothenburg, Varieties of Democracy, Democracy Facing Global Challenges: V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2019, 35,
  17. University of Gothenburg, Varieties of Democracy, Democracy Facing Global Challenges.
  18. Joshua Kurlantzick, “How China Is Interfering in Taiwan’s Election,” Council on Foreign Relations, November 7, 2019,
  19. Adrian Ang U-Jin and Olli Pekka Suorsa, “Explaining the PLA’s Record-Setting Air Incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ,” Diplomat, October 14, 2021,
  20. Elisabeth Braw, The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 2022), 139.
  21. Jonas Parello-Plesner, “An ‘Economic Article 5’ to Counter China,” Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2021,
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