• 22 June, 2024
Foreign Affairs, Geopolitics & National Security

India’s Offensive Against China Should Be in the Grey Zone

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd) Fri, 07 Jan 2022   |  Reading Time: 6 minutes

Grey zone is not a fixed concept but a hypothetical place between peace and war. Until now grey zone activities were generally restricted to psychological warfare, subversion of political systems, and covert paramilitary and information operations. China is expanding that envelope. Off late it has aggressively started encroaching upon the land and maritime boundaries of its neighbours using unarmed soldiers, law enforcement and maritime militias. They terrorize the local populace and deny them the use of living and nonliving resources.

China applied the same tactics with India. Even though it has achieved a military build-up in Tibet bordering Indian union territory of Ladakh and the state of Arunachal Pradesh, it kept sending soldiers with rudimentary and unconventional arms to change the status quo. It continues to launch cyberattacks and pokes India with its proxies in the region. It continues to stroke anti-India sentiment in the region and sends its anti-India teams to South Asia with impunity.

India is of course enhancing its conventional capacities and capabilities like never before, but every Indian step looks defensive. It is time to initiate an offensive in the grey zone against China and its cronies in the region. Else, beyond 2025, we are staring at a bleak and scary future.

Where to Begin

There should be two thrust areas, the Indian neighbourhood and the Chinese neighbourhood. India should work on safeguarding South Asia from the Chinese offensive as well as go on the offensive against China in the region. The activities should reach their acme especially during the visits of Chinese officials. India should also make inroads into the countries neighbouring China with similar goals.

The Indian Neighbourhood

China’s Afghan dream has come crashing down, as fast as it had ascended. They had high hopes of exploiting Afghan natural resources, but the good news is that the Taliban has remained as undependable as ever. That is also the silver lining for India in an otherwise gloomy scenario. India needs to keep the region simmering. Building up slowly and steady anti-China sentiment in Afghanistan should be the aim.

India is doing fine in Pakistan and should not rock the boat. India is also on the right track in Bangladesh. Besides a few riots against the Hindu minorities or staged demonstrations against visiting Indian politicians, the situation is generally under control.

Nepal is a country where India needs to step up its activities. Exposing China and creating an anti-China environment should be done on priority. There is a lot of accumulated anger in Nepal against Chinese company Huawei. They have been involved in the hacking of around 200 Nepali websites. They have also stolen the personal data of Nepali citizens. Nepal is also rife with China’s land grab stories – 6 hectares in the Bhagdare river, 4 hectares in Karnali district, 6 hectares in Sanjen river, 10 hectares in Sindhupalchowk district, and 9 hectares in Sankhuwasabha. Following Nepali territories have also been subsumed into Tibet – Jambhu Khola of Rasuwa, areas around Kamukhola, Arun river and Sumjung river. China’s free run of the last 15 years in Nepal has surely slowed down. However, they are still a force to reckon with. India shouldn’t rest until they are completely routed.

Sri Lanka and the Maldives are almost on a similar footing when it comes to China. They sway between India and China to garner benefits from both nations. However, China has been successful in rousing anti-India sentiments in the Maldives. India should have taken that as a challenge and given a befitting reply to China.

In Sri Lanka, the Chinese Ambassador Qi Zenhong freely visited Tamil-dominated Northern Province Jaffna. India should have reminded the local populace of the Chinese complicity in the Tamil genocide in the region. There should have been demonstrations against him and disruptions of his program. Nothing of that sort happened. Similarly, the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi should have been marred by demonstrations and ‘China Go Back’ slogans, but unfortunately, India remained passive.

Challenging China in its Backyard

India is hosting the presidents of five Central Asian countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as chief guests at the Republic Day celebrations on 26 January 2022. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan share a land border with Afghanistan, whereas Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan share a border with China. Therefore both ways, it makes them a very important group.

China has been spreading its tentacles in this region to the dismay of Russia. Demonstrations and rallies against China are common occurrences in big cities like Nur-Sultan, Shymkent and Almaty. This bitterness should be exploited to disrupt the Chinese energy dependence on Kazakhstan.

Kyrgyzstan’s citizens are aware of China’s territory grab in their country. Skirmishes between locals and Chinese mining workers are a regular feature. Exploitative Chinese debt, illegal Chinese workers and Kyrgyz-Chinese marriages are some of the explosive issues which should be exploited.

$8.2 billion Tajikistan economy runs on $3.1 billion external debt (38% of the GDP), almost half of it, Tajikistan owes to China. It has ceded mining rights and 0.7% (1158 square kilometres) of its land to China. Growing trade imbalance, presence of Chinese military on Tajik soil and exploitation of the economy by 350 Chinese companies are testing the patience of the local populace. These sentiments should be turned into a major uprising against China.

Russia-China bonhomie should not be taken at its face value. There are a lot of undercurrents between the two nations. The Russian Federal Security Service is increasingly more vocal about Chinese spying and stealing. The conviction of Alexei Vorobev, associate professor of the rocket engines department of the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI) on charges of passing secrets to China was a strong public statement. If India in some way help Russia reduce its financial dependence on China, that would go a long way in restraining the Dragon.

Citizens of Laos, Myanmar, and Mongolia also have huge resentment against the exploitative nature of the Chinese companies. These countries are in the bed with China because of corrupt leaders.

China is seen as an aggressor in Vietnam since 1979. The Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea (the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands), and sinking of Vietnamese fishing vessels is more than enough to stir up passions. Soon after the outbreak of COVID, many companies shifted their base from China to Vietnam. This has not gone down well with China. So China doesn’t lose any opportunity to disrupt the Vietnamese supply chain. Such information should be given wide coverage in Vietnam at regular intervals.

Maritime neighbours like Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea, have huge territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Taiwan’s existence itself is a dispute. These countries are eager to help out any responsible nation taking on China.

How Do We Achieve It

Grey zone activities involve consciously seeking political objectives through meticulously planned operations. These activities do not demand quick results therefore moving cautiously and patiently towards goals is the only way forward. The main purpose of grey zone activities is to keep the warfare non-kinetic, keeping it below the threshold level of war (kinetic). The grey zone techniques frustrate and confuse the enemy but they still do not have enough reasons to go in for a war. When India adopts the grey zone techniques it should do it with the full might of the national power, devoid of all bureaucratic stings.

China is an export-oriented nation. The Chinese leader Xi Jinping may go hoarse shouting ‘dual circulation’, denial-of-service attacks, would cripple the Chinese economy. Fishing boats with armour hull running into and crippling Chinese merchant vessels can also cast a shadow over the Chinese business empire.

India also needs to understand that China has already isolated its citizens from the world. The Chinese students, tourists, businessmen and bureaucrats are the only ones available for their regular propaganda. Therefore, disinformation campaigns inside China would need innovative approaches. To implement these techniques India would need a hybrid warfare toolkit. Some recommendations:

  • India should identify and initiate grey zone activities rather than reacting to it
  • Create a national grey zone policy and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)
  • SOP should recommend a moderate grey zone stance at all times
  • Spell out under what circumstances to shift from moderate to aggressive stance
  • Indicate when the enemy has crossed a red line and shifting to kinetic warfare is desirable
  • Specify how kinetic and non-kinetic strategies would coexist in a conflict
  • Attempt and lead through multilateral processes and institutions
  • Be ready for a “go-it-alone” strategy
  • Use every method to subdue paid Chinese propagandists in the Western Hemisphere
  • Plan now for phase 2: India should challenge the Chinese bases and business interests in Africa and the Middle East

Remember that China is already doing what I am trying to advocate here. So, if India doesn’t get better at proactively, ruthlessly, and unabashedly engaging and shaping the grey zone, it would be left behind.

India should also be ready for a counter-attack by China, where it will try to push the envelope. India has already seen that during the Galwan Valley standoff. For normal citizens it was shocking, but for China watchers, it was played by the book.

“Firm military stance is the best reply to those nations who provoke you. A befitting asymmetric reply is like icing on the cake.” Insightful Geopolitics



A veteran of the Indian Navy, Cdr Dhawan served in the Navy from 1988 to 2009. He was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Flying Instructor. He is a geopolitical analyst and writes for various online websites and organizations.


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Mar 27, 2022
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elizabeth dunn

Jan 24, 2022
Hi Sando! Not sure you rcvd my first comment so wanted to let you know I am no longer posting on Unleashed so if convenient for you, could you add my e-mail to your "send" list? Best, Liz


Jan 20, 2022
Sandy! you have hit the nail on the head! I fully endorse your views! its high time India and all affected nations garner courage and stand up unitedly in their own ways to take an aggressive stance against this rouge nation china! we all have been mute spectators long enough now and it has been proven that the more you keep quiet the more crap you will get! My personal assessment is that most countries are indeed running out of patience and by 2025 the response of most countries is going to get aggressive. China will eventually get sorted out unless it mends its ways! Well written article partner. kudos to your analytical capability and intense research on this important topic! Bravo Zulu!

Commodore Manoj Agarwal, Retd

Jan 15, 2022
It's really commendable Sandeep for u to be able to research & put forward your views so coherently! Sorry I hv been just lazy for not been able to put comments online. Hats off to U dear Sandeep!

Surendra Mohanty

Jan 15, 2022
Very nice analysis of the burning issue. Indian strategy should be offensive and not defensive.

Rudra N Rebbapragada

Jan 11, 2022
Firstly, India has to adhere to the principles of democratic governance which involves the pillars of transparency and public accountability. The idea of launching any kind of governmental operation without public oversight, scrutiny, and discussion would contribute and aggravates the problem of corruption. Since these operations involve government officials, it will promote a culture of hiding information to facilitate private profit. It is true to claim that China has been using corruption as its tool to accomplish its expansionist agenda and these corrupt practices must be fully exposed. China secures several lucrative deals by bribing officials who regulate trade and commerce. It must be countered by promoting transparency and public accountability.


Jan 09, 2022
Sir, the strategies proposed by you are, no doubt, excellent but working in the grey zone is a costly and time consuming process. Add to that various elements inside our country who constantly work against our national interests and it makes such endeavours all the more difficult. These, foreign funded, ‘Pseudo-Intellectuals’ have placed themselves in various critical areas of our society and they will do their best to thwart all such endeavours. The first thing that our government should do is to eliminate such people regardless of their social status or political affiliations. Given the state of our legal constitution, it’s almost impossible to legally prosecute such individuals and, at the end of the day, it will just be a waste of our taxpayers money. So, our government will have to resort to extra-judicial methods to eliminate such elements. That will send a strong message to all anti-nationals that there is a very heavy price to be paid if they try to mess with Indian national interests. Secondly, most of China’s neighbours do hate China but don’t have the guts to take on China. Also, the US and the west, based on their personal interests, make it very difficult for these countries to stand up against China. Therefore, it’s imperative that India, regardless of western pressures, takes the first step in that direction by starting a major offensive against China, not only in the grey zone, but by also starting a limited military offensive against China in order to provoke them for massive retaliation. If China doesn’t retaliate against us as expected then Xi Jinping will lose face in his country and might end up losing his place in the CCP and If China falls for it and starts with some serious warfare against us then, on account of massive domestic pressures, the US and the West will be forced to join India in this battle against China. This will automatically spur other neighbours of China to join us in this confrontation against China. If we play our cards correctly then, in a few years’ time, we have a good chance of getting back all our lost territories like POK, Aksai Chin, Tibet etc.

Raman Gupta

Jan 09, 2022
Chinese policy coherence is so great that it seems to be behaving like a personal n rather than a country. Any counter to china can not be successful without a similar coherence in policy and execution. Very well laid out

Keith Kenny

Jan 08, 2022
China's encroachment is always accompanied by denial, counter-accusation, rhetorical mythology, and strategic bribery of the greedy and morally weak. This is seen in every country where they operate, and, indeed, they have their eyes on every country. Of course, India is a major threat, but Pakistan will also be targeted once China tires of indulging them.

Rakesh p

Jan 08, 2022
Hard-hitting and very relevant. Would our government show some courage.

Sudarshana n kasabe

Jan 08, 2022
1. China is already waging grey zone warfare through its well organised network of govt,quasi govt and collusive state/ non state actors. 2. The battlefield space is not just the neighbouring countries as elucidated but through out the world where there can be asymmetric defeat and time - now ( yes it has already started ) 3. We as a nation need to organise the efforts by different stake holders, the present actions are not enough. 4. Armed forces are not the only stake holders, a separate organization with wherewithal and powers to paln, execute , authorise strikes( non kinetic, may be protective reactive or responsive) and lien over stakeholders which have enoug capabilities and resources is the need of the hour.

Mariyam Kazi

Jan 08, 2022
Hard-hitting, informative, factual, apt and brilliantly well-researched.

Sukhjit singh

Jan 08, 2022
A very well written article which brings about the need of the hour. Indian traditional mindset is defensive, we shy away from being offensive hence are always firefighting. There is an urgent need to integrate the plethora of agencies that we have and start holding people responsible for lapses. Change of mindset is urgently needed


Jan 08, 2022
With expanding populations and shrinking resources, the world of internecine and proxy war is flourishing with China being a master of such sub war level strategies. It's high time that our strategic thinking and actions keep pace because only defensive thinking will perennially keep us on the back foot, and also keep us predictable. Counter actions to the covertly aggressive actions of our neighbour will keep them preoccupied and less likely to persist in such strategies as they will need to either escalate or back off. A well thought out article which needs to be read widely at the top echelons to create the mindset change necessary to achieve our goals going ahead

Wendell Bruges

Jan 08, 2022
I just wonder why the democratic world is on the backfoot. Tyrants and dictators across the world are having a field day, exploiting this inherent weakness in their systems. Your country is going to suffer the most as you are sitting next to two belligerent nations. India has to decide its own course. If you think the US or the European Union would come to help you out, you are sadly mistaken.


Jan 08, 2022
Detailed and Informative.

Seema Sharma

Jan 08, 2022
This should be shared widely and made to reach relevant people.


Jan 08, 2022
India does not seem to have the political will to indulge in it....all we need to do is to announce creation of a forum at the global level for pressing for reparation for this covid pandemic and commence insisting on a understanding to stop payment of outstanding dues to China....the mere announcement will make the Chinese to become a liquid mess because their economy would implode....India needs to grow out of its own petty politics and become an alternative economic destination for the world...it's only then we can have a say and fight in any zone, leave alone the grey zone


Jan 08, 2022
Cdr Sandeep Dhawan has covered all the neighbouring countries and articulated the grey zone strategy well.

Cdr Deepak Singh

Jan 07, 2022
Interesting. I will share with interested like minded friends. Waiting for your next article Sandeep.


Jan 07, 2022
Good article. The support and goodwill that the Dalai Lama enjoys in India irritates China no end. How do we continue this after the exit of the current Tibetan Leader? Why don't we issue attached paper visas to Chinese citizens from Tibet Xinjiang and Uighur regions like they do for our athletes and visitors from Arunachal. Unfortunately the leverage on the economic front is rather limited because not just India but the world is dependant on Chinese goods. The biggest option is to go back on India's recognition of Tibet as integral part of China. To the Int'l community it may not mean much because what anyone thinks of Tibet makes no difference to China but coming from India it would anger China. At what point would China charge at us, is like guessing when an irritated tiger would stop snarling and actually charge. One would have to be a very astute reader of the body language.

Ashish Popli

Jan 07, 2022
Precise use of words. Informative. Touches a not so openly discussed part of the spectrum of sub ki etic warfare. For the discerning audience, reading between the lines would spell out what is being hinted at...maybe we are not so passive..but certainly a more aggressive posture in this field would pay out of proportion dividends.

Deepak Adhar

Jan 07, 2022
I hope the relevant people are listening Sandeep!

KS Uppal

Jan 07, 2022
An educative and well articulated article. India need to increase grey zone activities however it must not be at the cost of our economic growth. We must see the parity of national GDP in two countries. Kudos 👌👌👌

Capt Saikumar

Jan 07, 2022
The concept of asymmetric warfare maybe as old as mankind and used successfully during the WW2 by deceptive crypto communication, deceitful dummy logistic movements, constant recruiting, training, deployment and cross spying across the world etc. The islamic movement thru ISIS etc gave new name and shape like inflicting a thousand cuts indiscretely and expanding the race in population to achieve take over without war. India at this point would do well the strengthen cocepts brought out in the article above while creating on a war footing improvements, restructuring, and deploying effective reforms in internal Policing, internal intelligence, readiness, law enforcement and propmt Judicial disposition managed by good pro indian journalism. Internal threats and weakness across the administration, law enforcement, intelligence, jounalism and Judiciary need urgent attention and reforms.

Deovrat Pagay

Jan 07, 2022
China has very quickly expanded its economic & political footprint. The big powers are struggling to grapple with the implications. Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka are examples of China’s covert and overt strategies. India needs to reboot. It’s time we created Indian presence in the Asian region. The cyber spectrum, AI, Diplomacy need a revamp.

GP Singh

Jan 07, 2022
Aptly analysed. Well researched.

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