News | March 29, 2023

Who blinks first: Can a framework for countering maritime grey-zone operations be devised?

By Pratnashree Basu

Since around 2010, Beijing has steadily undertaken a project of undermining the basis of the global legal system and weakening the international community’s determination to protect it. In the maritime realm, China has been pursuing a long-term effort to strengthen its control over rocks, reefs, and islands that are outside its jurisdiction under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), citing its “historical rights.” In doing so, Beijing has employed various grey-zone tactics to enforce its claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea (SCS).

Grey-zone operations refer to the use of ambiguous tactics by a state to achieve its strategic objectives without engaging in overt military conflict. In recent years, China has increased its use of grey-zone tactics in the South China Sea (SCS) and other areas of the Western Pacific. As is characteristic of China’s maritime provocations, grey-zone operations have steadily increased in frequency and expanded in geographical scope. Beijing uses the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN), the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG), and the Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) in grey-zone operations with the CCG cracking down on fishermen from the Southeast Asian littoral states, while the CMM intimidates these states’ navies and coast guards via swarm tactics. Because grey-zone operations are always just short of an action that can escalate into a conflict, it becomes difficult for countries in the region to respond effectively.

China’s grey-zone operations in the Indo-Pacific

Typically, China’s grey-zone operations involve a range of tactics, including diplomatic pressure, economic coercion, military intimidation, paramilitary activities, information operations, and the manipulation of maritime borders. Diplomatic pressure involves the use of China’s diplomatic influence to isolate Taiwan diplomatically and to promote its territorial claims in the SCS. China has used its economic leverage to pressure countries in the region to comply with its territorial claims and to restrict access to its market for countries that do not comply. Military intimidation involves the use of China’s military assets, including its coast guard and navy, to intimidate other countries and assert its territorial claims. China has built and militarised artificial islands in the SCS, which it uses as forward operating bases to project its military power in the region. China’s coast guard vessels have also been used to harass and intimidate other countries’ fishing vessels and oil rigs in the region.

Another addition to these tactics in recent years is the use of unmanned systems which China claims are aimed at intelligence gathering but which widen the horizons of military operations short of war. Beijing deployed a fleet of underwater drones in 2020 to collect oceanographic data in the Indian Ocean and there are several other instances of China using underwater drone gliders in the Southeast Asian maritime space.

Beijing’s strategic objectives in conducting grey-zone operations comprise securing what it considers as its territorial claims and undoubtedly, expanding its influence across the maritime space of the Indo-Pacific. The SCS is a critical area for China’s economic and strategic interests, given its vast reserves of oil and natural gas, fisheries, and strategic location for maritime trade and therefore the most immediate space for conducting grey-zone operations. Similarly, China’s grey-zone operations in the Taiwan Strait are aimed at undermining Taiwan’s sovereignty with the ultimate goal of the reunification of Taiwan with mainland China. China’s grey-zone operations in the East China Sea are aimed at securing its territorial claims and undermining Japan’s sovereignty over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. China’s grey-zone tactics in the East China Sea include the use of its maritime law enforcement vessels to patrol the disputed waters, harass Japanese fishing vessels, and assert its claims.

China has employed maritime grey-zone operations in the Yellow Sea as well which is also an important maritime trade route and has led to tensions with neighbouring countries, particularly South Korea and Japan. In the Yellow Sea, Beijing’s tactics involve the assertion of its sovereignty and control over disputed areas with the limits of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) between China and South Korea remaining unclear. Beijing has used paramilitary forces, fishing fleets, and civilian vessels to patrol disputed areas and prevent foreign ships from entering. China has also been known to erect oil rigs and other structures, further complicating the situation.

Responding to grey-zone tactics

By themselves, these operations cannot achieve any political or geoeconomic goals. However, they do ensure the vital objective of wearing down the party against which they are directed by generating a situation of perpetual conflict. They also pose the risk of an inadvertent escalation. Repeated grey-zone tactics serve to expand the boundaries of what is considered acceptable. Maritime security cooperation frameworks in the Indo-Pacific, therefore, need to perhaps devise a set of measures that would be instrumental in maintaining and strengthening the rules-based order. These could include capacity-building measures such as “Task Force Pagsasanay (Training)” which was initiated by the Philippine Coast Guard in 2021 in response to 220 Chinese fishing boats in Whitsun Reef, 170 nautical miles from the westernmost island of Palawan operated by the Chinese maritime militia. This was the first instance of the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) conducting a nonmilitary patrol and comprehensive maritime exercises near the Scarborough shoal for law enforcement operations, monitoring, and ensuring the safety of Filipino fishermen and the environment. Vietnam, too, has responded to Beijing’s use of grey-zone tactics over the years with one of the most recent instances being using its coast guard to disrupt the operations of China’s research vessel Vanguard Bank in 2019.

While responses by individual countries in the region are definitely required, there will be an asymmetry between China and others as the former is much stronger militarily and economically. Therefore, regional cooperation mechanisms such as the IORA, QUAD, and other minilateral cooperation platforms, should explore and devise a framework allowing the possibility of joint measures while simultaneously expanding intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance infrastructure that would help to advance the region’s domain awareness, thus, sending send a clear message that countries in the region are not going to blink first no matter how often China may choose to conduct such operations.