International Relations (IR), as a discipline, often grapples with understanding the behaviour of states on the world stage. One of its cornerstone theories, Realism, predicates that states operate in a manner driven primarily by their self-interest, particularly emphasizing security and power considerations (Mearsheimer, 2001). Traditionally, this might mean outright conflict or overt displays of military might.

However, in the 21st century, a new form of strategic behaviour has emerged, challenging the clear-cut notions of war and peace espoused by classical Realist thought. This strategy is what's been dubbed as "Gray Zone" activities. The term refers to actions taken by states that are assertive, even aggressive, but stop just short of open, conventional warfare (Mazarr, 2015). It's a liminal space, where state actors, like a chess player making subtle moves, employ non-traditional tools to gain advantages without provoking large-scale military responses. These might include cyberattacks, misinformation campaigns, or covert operations, and are increasingly seen in maritime contexts. As we delve further into this essay, we aim to explore how Gray Zone strategies, particularly in maritime contexts, sit within the Realist paradigm.

Are they merely a modern extension of power politics, or do they challenge traditional Realist tenets? To unpack this, we will navigate through historical maritime strategies, spotlight the South China Sea as a contemporary case study, and finally reflect upon the implications of Gray Zone strategies for IR theory.

Historical realism and maritime strategy

Historically, the vast oceans have been more than just barriers or trade routes; they've been arenas where great powers projected their might and sought dominance. Classical Realism, a prominent lens through which scholars interpret international relations, offers a clear perspective on this.

At its core, Realism emphasizes the role of power and the inherent nature of states to act in their self-interest (Waltz, 1979). When we look at maritime strategies, certain tactics stand out as quintessential representations of these realist principles. Take, for instance, the strategy of blockades. By restricting the access of rival states to essential goods or choking their trade routes, nations didn't just hurt their economies but also displayed their dominance and capability, thereby deterring potential adversaries (Morgenthau, 1948). Similarly, gunboat diplomacy was another strategy where naval might was showcased, not necessarily to wage war but to send a strong message, enforcing political will without engaging in full-scale conflicts. Such tactics mirror the insights provided by some foundational thinkers in Realism.

Thucydides, in his chronicle of the Peloponnesian War, demonstrated how the powerful Athenian navy's actions were driven by their perceived security interests and desire for power (Thucydides, 431 BC). Meanwhile, thinkers like Morgenthau and Waltz have emphasized that in international politics, actions are dictated by power dynamics, resulting in distinct phases of war and peace (Waltz, 1979). These maritime strategies, in essence, are an embodiment of these very principles — tools in the arsenal of states, navigating the treacherous waters of international relations, both literally and metaphorically.

Gray zone as a challenge to realist thought

The emergence of "Gray Zone" tactics has sparked considerable debate and concern within international relations. Notably, these tactics blur the lines between peace and conflict, making it difficult to categorize actions and, subsequently, determine appropriate responses (Mazarr, 2015). The maritime realm has not been immune to these gray tactics, with instances such as artificial island building in disputed waters, the deployment of maritime militias operating under a veil of plausible deniability, and targeted cyber-attacks on naval assets reflecting this evolving landscape. Take, for instance, the significant cyber attack on Maersk in 2017 through the NotPetya malware. It brought the company's operations to a grinding halt, impacting global shipping lines and causing economic disruptions (Greenberg, 2018). Such attacks, though not direct physical aggressions, can be equally crippling. The naval realm has seen similar breaches.

Recent targeted cyber attacks on naval assets reveal the vulnerabilities of technologically advanced fleets, which can be exploited without firing a single torpedo (Brands, 2018). Another grey tactic that stands out is artificial island-building, particularly evidenced in the South China Sea. Instead of outright military conquests, powers, notably China, have strategically created islands to assert territorial claims and expand their maritime influence. These islands often come with airstrips, harbours, and other military infrastructure, subtly altering the balance of power without overt warfare (Mazarr, 2015).

The question that arises is how these grey tactics align with the foundational tenets of Realism. Scholars like Michael Mazarr argue that while Gray Zone tactics may seem like deviations, they still fundamentally revolve around the age-old pursuit of power and security. The tools have changed, but the game remains the same (Mazarr, 2015). However, others, like Hal Brands, posit that these tactics represent a deviation from traditional realist thought. The "in-between" nature of Gray Zone actions, neither full peace nor open war, challenges the binary paradigm offered by classical realism (Brands, 2018).

For realists, power politics historically had a clear demarcation: war and peace. But with grey tactics, this boundary becomes murky. When a maritime militia, seemingly a group of fishermen but operating with state backing, confronts another country's naval vessel, it's neither a civilian encounter nor a military skirmish. Similarly, when a nation witnesses a cyber breach in its naval assets, the act is too strategic to be a mere criminal enterprise but lacks the overt aggression of a military strike. In conclusion, while Gray Zone tactics in maritime scenarios build upon the realist foundations of power and security, they also challenge and expand our understanding of these concepts. In a world increasingly defined by these "gray" tactics, it becomes imperative for scholars and policymakers alike to understand, adapt, and respond to this evolving landscape.

Case study South China sea

China's strategic actions in the South China Sea epitomize the nuanced nature of "Gray Zone" tactics. These tactics can be understood as those which are assertive, even confrontational, yet meticulously calibrated to avoid sparking a full-blown military response from adversaries, such as the U.S. or its allies. China's activities in the gray zone are not random acts of aggression but a carefully orchestrated strategy aligned with the People's Republic of China (PRC) leadership's broader objectives in the Indo-Pacific. They seek a more favorable external environment, attempting to tweak the regional status quo in their favor.

A balancing act is evident here: on one hand, they aim for regional dominance; on the other, they ensure they don't cross the threshold that would elicit a militarized response from powers like the United States or neighboring states (RAND Corporation). For instance, China’s maritime militia, directly under the aegis of the Chinese Communist Party, local governments, and the military, has been instrumental in asserting its interests. By harnessing both the militia and local governmental bodies, Beijing ensures that the militia is not just a group of fishermen but a diverse conglomerate of individuals, including local officials, CCP members, and veterans, among others (Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies, 2023). Their purpose is multifaceted, ranging from daily fishery production to more intense paramilitary operations. In essence, the maritime militia becomes an extension of China's strategic influence, navigating gray areas, avoiding outright confrontation, yet achieving Beijing’s objectives. Recent incidents have highlighted the adeptness of this strategy.

The 2016 situation around the Senkaku Islands, where hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels ventured into the waters, was an exercise in power projection without crossing into open hostility. The use of lasers targeting helicopters from the Royal Australian Navy flagship HMAS Canberra from purported Chinese fishing vessels in Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 is another instance. Although direct involvement of the maritime militia in these events remains unconfirmed, the events underscore the way China uses these non-military assets for strategic advantage.

But what drives this behavior? The key lies in understanding the Realist concept of the balance of power. Realism posits that states act primarily out of self-interest, especially in terms of security and power (Waltz, 1979). China’s gray zone strategies reflect a keen understanding of this principle. They have an expanding toolkit at their disposal – spanning geopolitical, economic, military, and cyber/information operations domains. Instead of escalating in any single domain, they can sequence actions, starting with non-military domains, and escalating to military activities only if necessary (RAND Corporation).

For instance, in geopolitical and economic realms, China has demonstrated restraint, often leveraging its influence in international institutions or via third-party actors. However, in the military domain, there’s a noticeable tilt towards air- and maritime-domain tactics. These tactics don't just exemplify power projection but also a recalibration of how power dynamics are understood and acted upon in the 21st century. Relating this to the Realist paradigm, one can argue that China's Gray Zone strategies in the South China Sea present a contemporary form of power balancing. They're not abandoning the fundamental tenets of Realism but adapting them to the present-day context. In the classical sense, the balance of power often involved overt displays of might or alliances to deter adversaries. In the modern context, China’s approach is more layered, using a combination of geopolitical, economic, military, and cyber/information operations to assert their interests without provoking a full military confrontation.

To conclude, China's actions in the South China Sea underscore a shift in the application of Realist theories in contemporary international relations. While the core tenets of power and self-interest remain central, the means of achieving and asserting these have evolved. China's Gray Zone strategies, through their maritime tactics and beyond, are a testament to this evolution. By smartly navigating the intricacies of modern geopolitics, they manage to pursue regional dominance while preventing an escalation that could be detrimental to their broader objectives. In a world that increasingly blurs the lines between overt confrontation and strategic influence, understanding these Gray Zone tactics becomes pivotal for global stakeholders (RAND Corporation; Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies, 2023).

Implications for realism and international relations (IR)

The emergence of Gray Zone strategies, as exhibited by China's manoeuvres in the South China Sea, offers a fresh perspective on traditional Realist paradigms in International Relations. Classic Realism postulates that nations are principally driven by the desire to maximize power and ensure self-preservation in an anarchic international system (Mearsheimer, 2001). In this light, one might view China's Gray Zone tactics as simply another method of power maximization. Yet, these strategies reveal a more nuanced approach, suggesting an adaptation or evolution of Realist principles. Take, for example, China's utilization of its maritime militia. While superficially appearing as just fishermen, they operate at the intersection of civilian and military domains, backed by state apparatuses such as local governments and the Chinese Communist Party (Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies, 2023). This is not the conventional military power that Realists might traditionally focus on. Instead, it's a blend of hard power (military might) with the soft power of non-military state assets, revealing a multi-faceted strategy that doesn't merely rely on overt shows of force.

Given these adaptations, some scholars might argue for evolution within Realist thought, coining terms like "Neorealism" or "Gray Realism" to capture the intricacies of such state behaviour. Neorealism, as initially proposed by scholars like Waltz (1979), emphasizes the systemic nature of international politics. The advent of "Gray Realism" could potentially incorporate the nuanced, non-binary strategies states employ within this system, strategies that are neither fully peaceful nor overtly warlike. However, one might also question whether other IR theories might offer better explanations for Gray Zone tactics. Constructivism posits that state actions are heavily influenced by ideational factors such as beliefs, identities, and norms (Wendt, 1992). From this perspective, China's Gray Zone actions can be seen as an articulation of its evolving identity as a global power and its desire to reshape regional norms without direct conflict.

Liberalism, with its emphasis on international cooperation and institutions (Keohane & Nye, 1977), might argue that China's restraint from full-blown aggression reveals a respect or acknowledgement of international institutions and a recognition of the interdependence of modern states. Yet, this interpretation might be too optimistic, given the assertive nature of Gray Zone tactics. In essence, while Realism, with its focus on power dynamics, provides a foundational lens to understand China's Gray Zone manoeuvres, these tactics challenge traditional Realist paradigms by their very nature. They showcase a sophisticated blend of various forms of power, employed strategically to navigate the complexities of modern geopolitics. As such, Gray Zone strategies perhaps signify not just an evolution within Realism but also the increasing relevance of integrating multiple IR theories for a comprehensive understanding of state behaviour in the 21st century.


Gray Zone strategies, as demonstrated by manoeuvres like China's activities in the South China Sea, pose a significant challenge to the foundational assumptions of traditional Realism. Whereas classic Realism foregrounds direct displays of military might as the primary instrument of power (Mearsheimer, 2001), Gray Zone tactics, such as the use of maritime militias, unveil a more intricate dance of influence, balancing aggression with calculated restraint (Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies, 2023). Such developments underscore the imperative for adapting our theoretical lenses. To genuinely grasp the depth and breadth of modern maritime challenges, there's a pressing need to refine, or even redefine, established paradigms within International Relations. This evolution will ensure that academia and policy-making remain attuned to the fluid and multifaceted nature of statecraft in the 21st century.