China’s increasing use of grey-zone operations in the South China Sea undermines national sovereignty, international governance, and the US alliance structure in the region. It is essential that US and regional policymakers confront Chinese assertiveness.
The incursions into the Whitsun Reef in early 2021 demonstrate that the US-led strategy in the South China Sea (SCS) has been ineffective against Beijing’s increasingly used grey-zone tactics. The event saw 200 Chinese “fishing” vessels, many belonging to the Chinese Maritime Militia, lay at anchor for weeks in Filipino territory, ignoring demands to leave the area. Operations by the Chinese Maritime Militia, or what the Pentagon designates the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), appear to be on the rise and represent a more assertive China in the maritime domain. This poses a considerable challenge to Australian and US interests, alongside regional states’ territorial sovereignty in the SCS. If the US-led strategy does not effectively acknowledge this rising threat, the result may be the area succumbing to Chinese control and the breakdown of international norms.
The PAFMM has played a major role in asserting Chinese “nine-dash line” claims in the SCS, where China declares sovereignty over 85 percent of the water mass, overlapping the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and features of multiple littoral states. China’s seizure of maritime territory has been well-documented in numerous incidents, such as the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, where the inadequate US-led response allowed China to seize maritime features in the area, denying Filipino sovereignty. China’s strategic use of the PAFMM to assert China’s contested claims against littoral states is challenging the established order in the SCS through grey-zone tactics, a form of conflict that strives to remain under key escalatory or red line thresholds to avoid outright conventional conflict.
There are few viable alternatives to directly confronting the PAFMM. Circumventing confrontation altogether would mean surrendering territory and accepting the dissolution of international law governing the SCS, which would be intolerable to the US and regional powers. Despite this, the US and regional policymakers have real reservations about confronting the PAFMM. These policymakers suggest that it would mark a substantial shift in US tactics and risk appetite. The chance, they argue, that a grey-zone operation spirals out of control is significant, and therefore such an operation is not worth the time, money, and effort, which could otherwise be used to strengthen traditional deterrence measures in the region. However, US inaction only increases the likelihood of a traditional military confrontation, by permitting China to solidify its gains while neutralising US diplomatic and economic leverage. Through this process of elimination, military force becomes the only viable option to resolving hardened disputes, something the US would be reluctant to do, but also making conflict more plausible.
Moreover, failing to confront the PAFMM normalises Beijing’s presence in other nations’ territorial seas. If allowed to continue unchallenged, China could effectively dictate terms to other SCS littoral states on where they can fish, where oil companies can drill, and so forth. Naturally, this would give Beijing significant leverage in the region and open opportunities to forge political agreements—reducing the scope for military cooperation with the US and bringing littoral states into the Chinese orbit.
For Washington, this would risk threatening its credibility with allies and partners in the region, which are already materially suffering from China’s expanding presence. If the US continues to appear unwilling or unable to deal with territorial disputes in the SCS, it will heighten the concern among claimant states, like the Philippines and Vietnam, that the US may not intervene on their behalf in the future. It would also play into China’s narrative that Southeast Asian states would be wise to accept its ascension as a regional hegemon.
One way the US and its regional partners could push back against China’s grey-zone activities is through the build-up of national coast guards, trained to enforce international maritime governance in the SCS. Coast guards can provide first responder capability and law enforcement legitimacy without the negative aspects of military coercion. Naval warships are poorly-suited for maritime policing tasks, and their presence would bolster Chinese claims that the US and its allies are the true aggressors in the region.
Southeast Asian powers are already increasingly using their coast guards to support their territorial claims against the PAFMM. US policymakers should promote this trend. It can do so by building the regional technological capability and providing state-of-the-art training for these coast guards, while also acting multilaterally in upholding maritime governance in the SCS against the destabilising force of the PAFMM.
The United States Coast Guard and other regional coast guard forces should also continue to document and publicise PAFMM harassment, removing the veneer of plausible deniability that the PAFMM, or disguised fishing boats, gives Beijing, who often deny its affiliation with these activities. This places China on the defensive—forcing it to issue weak, unconvincing denials — and limits China’s ability to portray itself as a victim when an incident occurs. This will not be enough to convince Beijing to fully scale back its operation, but it could establish a greater deterrent than that which it currently faces. With this approach, US and regional policymakers could maintain a far stronger hold on the competing narrative over the SCS.
One of the eternal principles of war espoused by Sun Tzu is to seize the initiative. For too long maritime nations in the SCS have simply reacted to Chinese moves, playing into Beijing’s script. By seizing the initiative, the onus is put back onto Beijing, and China is forced to react. This has already happened in a few instances, such as the Philippines lawsuit under UNCLOS in 2016, but it must now become the norm rather than the exception. Building a stronger deterrence in the region not only requires an innovative approach by the US, but also by the regional powers in the Indo-Pacific, including Australia, which collectively need to build capability against China’s grey-zone strategy.
Cameron Smith is the Co-Founder and Chief Operations Officer at the Australia-Pacific Youth Dialogue. Cameron has a strong interest in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in grey-zone operations and regional security. Cameron is currently an intern with AIIA NSW.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished without attribution.