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China’s grey zones in the East and South China Seas


China’s grey zones in the East and South China Seas


Chinese naval drills in the South China Sea have drawn fresh attention to Beijing’s activities in the eastern Pacific.


– China’s exploitation of strategic grey zones risks entrenching a new status quo
– Lack of an effective Western response is undermining ASEAN’s confidence in rules-based institutions
– US acquisition of the Subic Bay shipyard may allow Western interdiction of China’s activities in the future


In two separate incidents in June, China’s exploitation of strategic grey zones illustrated the ineffectiveness of strategies to counterbalance Beijing’s growing strength in East and Southeast Asia. On June 12, Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana denounced a collision between Chinese and Filipino fishing vessels, which saw the Chinese vessel abandon 22 Filipino crewmen “to the mercy of the elements” and attract renewed attention to China’s disregard for maritime safety. Further afield, on June 16, Japan’s Foreign Ministry lodged a protest with Beijing after a Chinese maritime research ship was seen dropping a wire-like object into waters off the Japanese-administered Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in an apparent illegal maritime survey. With Philippines President Duterte downplaying the collision as a “little maritime incident”, and Tokyo having only limited capacity under UNCLOS to interdict vessels, these events illustrate Beijing’s success in imposing the Communist Party’s will on regional disputes.

These actions, which threaten but stop short of escalation to conflict, have fuelled speculation by regional claimants that China’s aggressive posturing aims to achieve ‘effective occupation’ of disputed territories. Beijing’s appetite for absorbing strategic risk and deteriorating diplomatic relations further supports the view that Beijing’s efforts are aimed at core objectives that it will not concede until it encounters significant pushback. In a press conference regarding the suspected illegal survey in the East China Sea, China’s new ambassador to Japan, Kong Xuanyou, recognised the dispute but spoke optimistically about the prospects for China-Japan relations, underscoring China’s satisfaction with the current state of present diplomatic efforts.

Policymakers have yet to create an effective mechanism to interdict the diverse array of China’s activities. So far, Japan and the US, backed by several Western allies, have responded by contributing to a build-up of naval forces in an effort to jointly oppose China’s apparent breach of the ‘rules-based order’. Despite this, Beijing’s dismissiveness of Western concerns implies that without targeted interdiction of its activities, it will likely become further emboldened and may look to extend a coercive influence elsewhere in the region. ASEAN’s monitoring of Beijing’s expanding latitude has also affected its strategic calculations; fears that pushing back against Beijing could jeopardise growing trade opportunities have impeded a collective response. For US-led forces, finding a response that can inspire regional states to push back against Beijing while not also triggering a more dangerous confrontation is prove elusive.


A report by the US Department of Defense described China’s grey-zone strategy as “[enforcing] maritime claims and [advancing] its interests in ways that are calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking conflict”. China has been able to take advantage of this by virtue of the plausible deniability inherent in maritime operations on the high seas. In a statement regarding the collision with the Filipino vessel, the Chinese Embassy acknowledged the incident but claimed that the Chinese vessel accidentally hit the Filipino boat as it tried to manoeuvre while being “besieged” by several Filipino fishing boats. Though the details provided by the Chinese Embassy are difficult to reconcile with images of the damage inflicted on the Filipino vessel, the ambiguousness of the narrative helped President Duterte de-escalate the situation, thereby facilitating China’s efforts to avoid serious repercussions.

Where retaliation might be more likely, Chinese vessels are routinely accompanied by naval reinforcements. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Cabbage Strategy’, the tactic involves repeated introduction of multiple layers of increasingly highly ranked vessels around a contested area, from fishing vessels to warships. Regarding the apparent maritime survey, for instance, the research vessels arrived accompanied by China’s Coast Guard as part of operations that lasted at least 60 days within the disputed island’s 24 nautical mile contiguous zone.

Previous encounters between Chinese and Japanese vessels have raised serious concerns of a dangerous escalation that Japan in particular hopes to avoid. China has already shown disregard for UNCLOS’s requirement for consent of maritime surveys. Other conventional efforts to deter China’s vessels have also proven ineffective, fuelling anxiety of a looming confrontation. Long-term, if Japan’s Coast Guard cannot put an end to China’s continuous occupation, analysts worry there may be the potential for China to normalise a state of de facto co-administration. Moreover, such strategic risks have the potential to set a dangerous precedent, setting the stage for further undermining of the strategic balance of territorial disputes elsewhere in the region.

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Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Conor Minto / U.S. Navy

China’s activities are clearly designed to test adversaries’ strategic boundaries. If China observes a lack of direct interdiction in official responses it may presume, accurately or otherwise, that the threshold for confrontation lies further down the road of escalation. China’s subsequent operations have therefore taken provocations further: disrupting navigation equipment with laser beams, harassing attempted drilling projects by regional claimants, and organising large-scale military exercises that effectively cordon off portions of disputed territory for a short period of time.

However, responses by Western nations have continued to contest the growing strength of China’s formal military development. Australia, Canada, Japan, the UK and the US have all planned deployments of numerous naval task groups and freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) that are intended to display a higher degree of strategic commitment via the deployment of real operational capabilities. Yet the lack of deployment to the areas of highest strategic importance has undermined the deterrent capabilities of such task groups, especially in relation to grey zone domains.

Transits through the 12 nautical mile boundary of China’s claims in the South China Sea are symbolically important, but Western FONOPs that ignore China’s adjacent efforts to establish control in territorial disputes may in fact be perceived as an overall lack of strategic commitment, particularly by ASEAN nations that are being directly affected. As such, during the recent ASEAN summit, the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” underscored ASEAN’s lack of confidence in Western support when it again deferred criticism of China by simply taking note of “some concerns” about island-building and other activities in the area. A preliminary draft indicated Thailand had even attempted to remove expressions of concern about South China Sea issues while the Thai Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, later called for self-restraint and pushed for the conclusion of negotiations on the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Confirmation by US Navy public affairs that the viability of a new lease on the Subic Bay shipyard is being explored may build anticipation that a more intensive approach in support of regional claimants is forthcoming. Two unidentified Chinese firms are reported to have already shown interest and as such it may underscore Western nations’ intention to limit China’s influence in the region if they contest China’s acquisition of the port. Furthermore, the harbour’s maintenance facilities could allow recommendations made by the RAND Corporation for the US to escort oil exploration or drilling vessels, or more regularly take part in joint patrols with allies in the South China Sea, to begin to take shape. At this stage, the present lull in US-China naval tensions is the primary obstacle to such developments. But regardless of whether envoys want to avoid upsetting the already precarious trade negotiations, the long-term consequences of ineffective strategies in the South and East China Seas are already becoming clear.

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