Chinese maritime Gray Zone operations

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China’s strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific maritime zone have inevitably brought it into conflict with neighbouring states ever since the declaration of the People’s Republic of China‭ (‬PRC‭) ‬in 1949‭. ‬The early years after the end of the Second World War drew the battle lines in the East‭, ‬when‭ ‬the US signed collective defence treaties with the Philippines‭ (‬in 1951‭) ‬and with Japan‭ (‬in 1960‭) ‬with the objective of stemming the tide of Communism‭. ‬A stand-off over the status of Taiwan as an independent state has also been a source of simmering tension‭. ‬

The 1990s saw a number of developments that changed the calculus‭, ‬and by the beginning of the twentieth century‭, ‬more direct confrontations with the US and its regional allies showed that a strategy of developing a blue-water navy with power projection over the whole region were becoming central to Chinese military planning‭. ‬Onlookers now perceive the situation as part of a conscious new strategy of‭ ‬“hybrid”‭ ‬or‭ ‬“gray”‭ ‬operations‭, ‬in which China incrementally achieves strategic gains while dropping just short of all-out war with the US and its‭ ‬allies‭. ‬The perceived shift in Chinese military strategy was described in the title of an influential new volume by the US Navy’s China Maritime Studies Institute in the US in 2019‭, ‬entitled‭ ‬“China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations”‭. ‬

The history

Despite developing as an organised‭, ‬centralised state much earlier than other major powers to the West‭, ‬China never showed much‭ ‬interest in developing a strong‭, ‬deep-water navy‭. ‬It was rather the European powers that eventually became big colonial powers in the late Middle Ages‭. ‬When the Chinese communist state started realigning its economy to grow more effectively under the so-called Architect of Modern China‭, ‬Deng Xiaoping‭, ‬from 1978‭ ‬onwards‭, ‬traditional strategic thinking suggests China started to consider a more expansionist and forward-leaning military posture that would fit with its aspirations as a superpower eventually capable of challenging the Soviet Union or the US‭. ‬

In the 1990s‭, ‬following the collapse of the Soviet Union‭, ‬two key factors shaped the situation‭. ‬One was the discovery of new oil‭ ‬and gas deposits in the South China Sea‭. ‬The second reflected the newfound confidence of the United Nations‭, ‬marked in part by‭ ‬the coming into force of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea‭ (‬UNCLOS‭), ‬implemented in 1994‭. ‬Originally drawn up and agreed in 1982‭ ‬amongst UN member states‭, ‬including China‭, ‬one of the key aims of UNCLOS is to provide a neutral arbitration mechanism over the management of natural resources in maritime zones‭. ‬

The big question‭, ‬about which UNCLOS arguably presents some ambiguity‭, ‬concerns China’s infamous‭ ‬“nine dash line”‭. ‬Originally mooted by a nationalist cartographer during the Chinese civil war in the 1940s‭, ‬this line demarcates blue-water territory covering most of the South China sea beyond the immediate littoral margins of the regional states of the Philippines‭, ‬Malaysia‭, ‬Brunei‭, ‬and Vietnam‭. ‬China claims it has sovereignty over the mineral resources of this huge maritime region‭, ‬and has increasingly made this point in the seas‭. ‬Taiwan is also affected‭, ‬exacerbating the threat of potential conflict over the island‭. ‬

In the mid-1990s a crisis over Taiwan saw the US deploy the aircraft carriers‭, ‬the Independence and Nimitz to the region‭, ‬to signify its commitments to military allies‭. ‬In 2009‭, ‬Chinese naval frigates confronted the US ship‭, ‬the Impeccable‭, ‬when it sailed‭ ‬close to the Chinese island of Hainan‭. ‬The same year marked the beginning of a more robust Chinese narrative about its claims to‭ ‬sovereignty over the waters of the South China and East China Seas‭, ‬announcing a new‭ ‬“defensive”‭ ‬maritime strategy spearheaded by the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia‭ (‬PAFMM‭). ‬A number of incidents followed‭, ‬including direct confrontations with Philippine‭, ‬Vietnamese and Japanese vessels‭; ‬the periodic conducting of provocative anti-ship missile tests‭; ‬and the apparent annexation of uninhabited but disputed islands such as the Paracel and Spratly chains‭. ‬On the latter‭, ‬a major land reclamation project between 2013‭ ‬and 2017‭ ‬saw the construction of a significant new airstrip‭, ‬providing Chinese military aircraft with an important footing in the region‭. ‬

The Spratly Islands situation triggered a significant development‭, ‬whereby the Philippines decided to take China formally to the‭ ‬UN tribunal under the provisions of UNCLOS‭. ‬This process ruled against China in July 2016‭. ‬The ruling covered a number of points‭, ‬including a rejection of the principles of the‭ ‬“nine dash line”‭; ‬and that the Spratly and neighbouring islands could not be subject to exclusive economic rights by any single state‭, ‬as they are not technically fit for human habitation‭. ‬Beijing apparently dismissed the ruling as‭ ‬“nothing more than a piece of waste paper”‭. ‬It is also alleged by the Philippine president‭, ‬Rodrigo Duterte‭, ‬that Chinese premier Li Jinping personally threatened military action should the Philippines attempt to exploit gas reserves in an area known as the Reed Bank‭. ‬

The concept of gray zone operations

Many commentators‭, ‬including Erickson and Martinson‭, ‬the editors of the recent US Naval Institute’s volume on China’s gray zone activities‭, ‬see the changes in recent decades as evidence of a classic strategic shift in Beijing towards the core principles of‭ ‬“hybrid warfare”‭. ‬It was‭, ‬after all‭, ‬the fifth-century Chinese military strategist‭, ‬Sun Tzu‭, ‬who wrote that the best way to achieve military victory is to avoid major conflict altogether‭. ‬

Rather like the disputed‭ ‬“Gerasimov doctrine”‭ ‬allegedly deployed by Moscow in recent years‭, ‬China’s recent maritime activities are seen as a creative strategy to conduct a low-level war of attrition in the South and East China‭ ‬seas‭, ‬in which incremental gains are made without provoking the outbreak of open hostilities‭. ‬The aim is sometimes described as‭ ‬“actions short of war”‭; ‬or‭ ‬“war without gunsmoke”‭. ‬In the contemporary environment‭, ‬a range of strategies can be used to prosecute such a strategy‭, ‬which have the benefit of negating the traditional firepower dominance of Western powers‭. ‬These include the blurring of boundaries between military and civilian militias or other ambiguous actors‭; ‬the use of psychological and media strategies to wage a battle of narratives‭; ‬and the use of cyber capabilities‭, ‬where a host of legal and definitional problems apply to the authorship of attacks and whether they constitute‭ ‬“acts of war”‭. ‬Further dimensions can include‭ ‬“lawfare”‭, ‬which means exploiting legal and regulatory ambiguities and complexities‭, ‬and tying-up opponents in long and ultimately fruitless debates in the courts and UN agencies‭. ‬

In the Chinese maritime context‭, ‬Erickson and Martinson describe a strategy of using littoral coastguard and‭ ‬“paranaval”‭ ‬militia vessels such as those of the PAFMM to provoke confrontations‭, ‬rather than using obvious grey-hulled naval frigates‭. ‬In‭ ‬the information environment‭, ‬it is suggested there is a mismatch between communications in Chinese-language sources‭ ‬–‭ ‬where‭, ‬it is alleged‭, ‬there is openness about Beijing’s strategy to adopt‭ ‬“administrative control”‭ ‬over all regional waters including those within the nine dash line‭ ‬–‭ ‬and those more widely distributed in English-language sources‭, ‬where China is described as a responsible and‭ ‬“peaceful”‭ ‬member of the international community‭. ‬Language such as‭ ‬“maritime rights protection”‭ ‬also creates a fog of uncertainty over the difference between defensive and offensive actions‭, ‬much as was a tendency of the Soviet Union in the early days of the Cold War‭. ‬

On the lawfare front‭, ‬the allegations are that China is playing a complex double-game‭. ‬On the one hand‭, ‬it will see merit in presenting itself as a law-abiding and responsible member of the United Nations‭, ‬complying with its obligations under UNCLOS and other international treaties to which it is a signatory‭. ‬Its principle of non-interference in the sovereignty of other states is also repeatedly stressed‭. ‬In a sense‭, ‬an implicit challenge is offered to smaller and less well-defended states such as Vietnam and the Philippines to take on the regional behemoth of China in the courts‭, ‬in the face of apparent military intimidation‭. ‬At the same time‭, ‬it is hoped that‭, ‬such is the complexity and ambiguity of international law as it applies to maritime sovereignty‭, ‬any legal challenges to its activities will generally take years to come to any sort of resolution‭. ‬During this time‭, ‬de facto gains can be made‭, ‬which are then very difficult to reverse without escalatory military force‭. ‬

The downsides of the‭ ‬“gray”‭ ‬strategy

Despite all of these supposed objectives on China’s part‭, ‬there are potentially significant disadvantages to its strategy in the South and East China seas‭, ‬which may ultimately limit the threat‭. ‬While Beijing airily dismissed the findings against it in the UNCLOS tribunal in 2016‭, ‬symbolic damage will have been done to its reputation as a peaceful and trustworthy member of the international community‭. ‬On the one hand‭, ‬there are signs that such rulings might allow China to dismiss the power of UNCLOS and embolden its resolution to go its own way‭. ‬On the other hand‭, ‬there is evidence that China has been quietly complying with the rulings to a certain extent‭, ‬not least as it is difficult to do otherwise when it is a signatory to the treaty‭. ‬

There is also an economic argument that China cannot afford to alienate regional states too much‭, ‬as it has a reliance on them as customers for its products‭. ‬A deep-seated animosity already exists with Japan‭, ‬but if China pushes the likes of Vietnam‭, ‬the Philippines and Malaysia too far into the US camp economically and politically‭, ‬this could be damaging in the long term‭. ‬

And one of the central problems with hybrid warfare is that it can backfire‭. ‬Vietnam‭, ‬in particular‭, ‬has adopted a strategy of publicising transgressions against its vessels and making sure details find their way into the international press as much as possible‭. ‬This can add to reputational damage suffered by China both regionally and internationally‭, ‬and paint it as the bully in the playground‭. ‬Such incidents highlight the mismatch between peaceful rhetoric and aggressive tactics‭.‬

Meanwhile‭, ‬with a change of administration in Washington DC‭, ‬it is not yet clear whether Biden will change the generally antagonistic stance adopted by Trump towards China and its strategic aspirations‭. ‬The general feeling is that the message towards Beijing will not be softened particularly‭, ‬but that pressure to find solutions around the negotiating table may be preferred over direct military confrontation‭.

‮»‬‭ ‬By‭ : ‬Julian Richards‭,‬
‭(‬University of Buckingham BUCSIS‭)‬

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