China’s recent actions in the South China Sea (SCS), from the expansion of its military defenses on the disputed Spratlys to the seizure and return of an American unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) off Subic Bay, should not come as a surprise. China’s responses to what it views as checks and threats to its “core interests” are growing in assertiveness, but they are not unpredictable. China has been consistent in its messaging that the South China Sea is of national strategic importance beyond the issue of sovereignty. For China, the SCS is an existential issue that is intimately tied to the legitimacy of Communist Party rule.
Despite its assertive tenor, none of China’s actions in the maritime domain, whether by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) or the maritime militia, have been overt military kinetic actions that have led to armed conflict. This consistent assertiveness, however, can be perceived as aggressive, particularly when viewed against U.S. security interests in the Asia-Pacific region. From an American perspective, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea constitutes a type of “grey zone conflict” that may allow Beijing to assert its preferred interpretation of existing laws, rules of the road, and common practices.
Ultimately, China’s behavior in the SCS is a clear demonstration of what Bilahari Kausikan, Singapore’s ambassador-at-large described as the “fundamental asymmetry of U.S. and China interests in the SCS.” These interests do not always converge, particularly when it comes to military activities in the SCS. The military application of data from surveillance operations undertaken by U.S. naval vessels explains China’s uneasy reaction to such operations. Given the divergence of interests and military capabilities, both the U.S. and China have their own strategic rationale for their differing interpretations of what is kosher behavior in the SCS.
The Pushing of Boundaries in the Maritime Grey Zone
When it comes to military activities in the SCS, both the U.S. and China sometimes inadvertently collide — literally. In 2009, a PLAN submarine collided with a sonar array towed by the USS John McCain in an “inadvertent encounter” off Subic Bay. In the SCS, China is increasingly turning to its maritime militia or “Little Blue Men” rather than the PLAN to take the initiative in maritime grey-zone encounters without resorting to war. The strategic advantage of China’s maritime militia in the maritime grey-zone lies in the ability of such a “civilian” force to conduct surveillance, deny access, and deter opponents whilst denying their adversaries the initiative.
Such a grey-zone approach ostensibly allows China to control the tempo of events and reduces the risk of escalation to conventional military conflict. However, in his recent Proceedings piece, Admiral (retd) James Stavridis painted a stark hypothetical scenario of what future grey-zone encounters might look like in the SCS.
South China Sea, 2019
On a summer’s evening in the sweltering South China Sea, a coastal steamer of nearly 2,000 tons approaches a Vietnamese fishing fleet in the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam, some 150 miles off that nation’s coast. The steamer loiters in the area for an hour or two as night falls. Suddenly from the side of the ship three fast speedboats are deployed, each armed with .50 caliber guns and hand-held rocket launchers. For the next hour, the speedboats attack dozens of fishing craft, spraying them with .50 caliber fire, hitting them with grenades, and shooting at survivors in the water. The surviving fishing boats flee toward the coast, frantically radioing distress calls, which are jammed by small drones operating overhead.
…China insists its armed forces were not involved and says it suspects gangsters running a protection racket, pirates, or domestic Vietnamese terrorists. Using both social networks and official channels, the Chinese immediately offer to provide protection against further attacks, pointing out that Vietnam appears unable to control its claimed waters and asserting the need to do so itself to safeguard Chinese vessels operating nearby. Similar social network campaigns occur throughout the nations around the western rim of the South China Sea. China uses the opportunity to reassert its claims of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.
Admiral Stavridis provides a prescient take on the modalities of future maritime hybrid warfare, but the above hypothetical scenario may not be consistent with Chinese doctrinal concept and intentions. The PLA has not fought a war since 1979 and it has no clear intention of doing so – even a “hybrid warfare”-type scenario that falls below the threshold of a limited war. The Chinese iteration of “hybrid warfare” is rather best explained through the concept of “Three Warfares,” which was officially adopted by the PLA in 2003 at the proposal of then-Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman Jiang Zemin. What distinguishes the “Three Warfares” from other PLA concepts is that all three forms (namely, psychological warfare, media warfare, and legal warfare) are conducted in peacetime as well as wartime. In practice, China’s adoption of the “Three Warfares” has been applied in foreign propaganda, cultural diplomacy, foreign economic policy, and the legal arena to publicize China’s positions on key international issues, garner support and create a favorable international environment.
A Matter of Invidious Choices?
China’s recent actions in the SCS, though assertive, are very much consistent with its practice of furthering its interests in the SCS through all instruments of its national power. More importantly, China’s behavior in the SCS did not scupper the signing of significant economic and even defense deals between Malaysia and China and the Philippines and China. Malaysia’s purchase of littoral mission ships and patrol vessels is part of a larger $34 billion set of deals signed with China. Similarly, the signed agreements and loan pledges inked between the Duterte administration and Beijing are worth an estimated $24 billion.
Rather than being unprecedented, China’s behavior in the SCS and Southeast Asia has been remarkably consistent with its messaging – the SCS remains a “core interest.” On the other hand, the future of post-Obama U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia, particularly the articulation of its vital interests in the region, remains unclear. As both the United States and China continue to push the boundaries of great power competition in maritime Southeast Asia, the small and medium states of Southeast Asia will respond as they have through the centuries – to instinctively bandwagon, hedge, balance, offset, and pivot to a different suitor. Difficult choices will have to be made and they may be invidious, as Bilahari has pointed out.
Ong Weichong is an Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is attached to the Military Studies Program at the school’s constituent unit, the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies (IDSS).